Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Recommended Pension Contribution

For years, I have seen in many pension plan actuarial reports a line item that the actuary or the actuary's firm refers to as the "recommended contribution." When reviewing these reports, that item has always been an anomaly to me.

Sometimes, what it represents is spelled out in the report; sometimes, it's not. But, when it is seemingly well-defined, where does it come from? Many times, it is equally to the minimum required contribution under ERISA. Other times, it looks like the actuary through a dart at a sequence of numbers between that minimum required amount and the maximum amount that the plan sponsor can deduct on its corporate tax return.

I'm not saying that an actuary should not recommend a particular level of contributions. But, what I am saying is that it's not so simple. It's certainly not based on the same formula for every plan. In fact, there are lots of elements that should go into that recommendation.

This is where we might see a difference between an Enrolled Actuary who happens to label himself or herself as a consultant and an excellent consultant who is also an excellent actuary. The consultant will focus on the client's business needs in working with the client to develop a recommendation. Some very key questions to which the consultant needs to understand the answers might include these:

  • Where will the money come from to make any contributions? Will they come out of free cash flow? Will the sponsor need to borrow. If so, at what rate? Will that borrowing cut into the company's borrowing limits to the point that it may encumber their ability to run their business?
  • Do the potential tax deductions with respect to these contributions have value to the company? Is the company paying income taxes currently? There are a variety of reasons that it may not be. The company may not currently have positive net income. It may already have sufficient deductions to offset all of its income. Does the company have what are often referred to as NOLs or Net Operating Loss carryforwards?
  • Will the company be better positioned to make contributions in excess of the minimum required amount in some future year than it is this year? Perhaps this year, the cash would be better used elsewhere, but the company's forecasts indicate that it will have free cash flow to make up its funding deficit in 2016. 
  • How will any of this affect the company's risk management strategy? What sorts of risks are in that strategy?
  • How will various stakeholders react to a large, but not legally required contribution?
  • Will the effects on financial accounting expense (ASC 715 for those who care) matter? Sometimes, the decrease or increase in pension expense attributable to making or not making additional pension contributions (actually the return on those assets) looks like a big number. However, when we look at that change divided by the number of shares of company stock outstanding, the effect does not move the needle enough to change the company's reported earnings by share by even a penny. In other words, it goes away in the rounding.
  • How about loan covenants? Oh, Ms. or Mr. Actuary, do you know about those? Does the company have any? (I'm pretty sure they do.) Do any of them relate to the pension plan? Maybe they do; maybe they don't. 
And, finally, the plan sponsor needs to act in the best interests of plan participants. While it doesn't seem likely that making any contribution to the plan at least equal to the ERISA minimum required amount would fail to meet that requirement, those interests need always be top of mind for the individual or committee making such decisions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the issues that the plan's actuary should consider, but it's a start. When your actuary "recommends" a contribution amount, have they made sure that they understand the answers to questions like this?

If not, perhaps we need to talk. If not me, then contact one of my colleagues.

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