Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Truth About Actuarial Valuations of Pension Plans

I've heard the same comments for years. I've heard that a company loves its actuary, but they can't give you one reason why. I've heard that actuarial work is a commodity and that everyone produces the same numbers, so you might as well go with the lowest bidder. There's more; there's lots more.

I'm here to tell you that it's all wrong and it's wrong now more than ever.

Let's revisit history a little bit. In the beginning (well, not quite the beginning), there was ERISA. And, Congress saw that it was good ... for a while.

ERISA brought us rules and choices. The rules said that plan sponsors had to fund the sum of the annual cost of benefits that were accruing (normal cost) plus a portion of the amount by which the plan was underfunded using some fairly complex formulas. But, those calculations were pretty malleable. In fact, there were many methods by which to calculate those numbers and if you couldn't find the methods to get you the answers you wanted, you could likely talk your actuary into selecting assumptions to get you to those numbers. That's the way the game was played from the mid-70s through the mid-80s.

Then, the rules began to change. Congress saw that corporate tax deductions for funding pensions were a significant drag on the federal budget. So, Congress sought to limit those deductions by bringing in multiple funding regimes. So, was passed the Pension Protection Act of 1987 as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987. And, Congress saw that is was good ... for a while.

Multiple funding regimes theoretically brought multiple choices, but with the 90s came the era of full funding. With the use of high discount rates tied to assumed rates of returns on plan assets, those assets exceeded the calculated liabilities of the plan. More plans than not had no required contributions. Pensions were cheap.

And, then came the perfect storm. Interest rates fell, asset values fell, and Congress had to do something. In 2006, Congress passed another Pension Protection Act (PPA). And, Congress saw that it was good.

But, there was something different about PPA. It severely limited flexibility in calculating the actuarial liabilities of a pension plan. In fact, with very limited exceptions, without any knowledge of the actuarial assumptions being selected, another actuary could fairly well reproduce that calculation of actuarial liabilities (at least within in a few percent).

But, what we have now is a tangled web. There are so many liabilities and percentages. Every single one of them affects the cost of your plan. There is the funding target, the plan termination liability, the liability for purposes of calculating PBGC premiums. There's the FTAP, the AFTAP, and various other funding percentages.

While each individual calculation is simple, getting to the correct answer is not.

And, that's why your choice of actuary for your plan is actually far more important today than it used to be.

Suppose I told you that your actuary's lack of attention to your plan as compared to the rules was costing you more money annually than you pay in actuarial fees.

Suppose I told you that your actuary's not focusing on your business's cash flow needs was forcing you to borrow unnecessarily.

Suppose I told you that that renegotiation of a loan covenant that you just went through because your pension plan had too low a funded percentage could have been avoided.

The scary thing is that I have told companies all of those things. We're in an era now where calculation is easy, but strategy is difficult. In fact, more plans than not are using a suboptimal strategy. Don't you need to know if you are spending more money than you need to or if you are spending it inefficiently?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Multiemployer Law Fails to Work for the Plan it was Most Likely Developed For

In mid-2014, Congress enacted and the President signed into law the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) sometimes known as the Kline-Miller Act (for its original sponsors). MPRA was unique in modern political circles as it was sponsored by John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota and George Miller, a Democrat from California. It was also unique in that it had support from unions, from companies that employ union workers, from affected government agencies and from industry groups specializing in multiemployer plans.

All that makes it sound like a law that was practically perfect.

Some background for those who don't spend their days in the multiemployer plan world is useful. Generally, multiemployer plans exist in industries where an individual working in that industry may provide services to many different employers. In the Teamsters Unions (primarily truck drivers), for example, drivers may drive on behalf of many different employers. Each employer agrees to contribute an amount to the plan based on the amount of service provided to it by each worker under the agreement. So, for example, in the case of a Teamsters Union, contributions could be set at some number of dollars per thousand miles driven. Retirement benefits are set based on the levels that the trust can support.

Benefits under multiemployer plans are insured (to some extent) by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). One of the reasons for the passage of MPRA was to protect the PBGC. This was to be accomplished by allowing plans that met a set of requirements (more later) to reduce benefits that had already accrued. As many of the industries often covered by multiemployer plans dwindle, the plans themselves are unable to support the levels of benefits that had been promised. There are just not enough dollars coming into the plans.

Based on data published initially by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the single plan that was viewed as potentially most problematic was the Central States, Southeast, and Southwest Areas Pension Plan. With more than 400,000 member, a funded ratio just barely above 50%, and nearly 5 times as many inactives as actives (all as of 2012), the plan was estimated to become insolvent in 12 years. Many plans were projected to become insolvent sooner, but not represented nearly the liability of the Central States Plan.

As MPRA should have, it placed a strict set of conditions (see Code Section 432(e)(9)) on such suspensions. Cutting back retirement benefits had essentially never been permitted in an ERISA plan. Such a cutback needed to be in everyone's best interests.

The process for determining that was generally to be that the Trustees of a Plan would apply to the Treasury Department for such a suspension (the technical term for such a reduction). The application would need to demonstrate that the suspension met all of the conditions referenced above.

In the case of the Central States application, Special Master Ken Feinberg determined that some of those conditions were not met.


  • The suspension must be reasonably estimated to avoid insolvency
    • In making its projections, the Trustees or the outside consultants used by the Trustees assumed a rate of return on plan assets that for every asset class in the plan exceeded the 75th percentile (according to survey data) for that class
    • The entry age for new participants under the plan was assumed to be 32. While data shows that 32 is the average age, that is misleading because a group of new entrants at age 32 would have no new retirees in the next 20 years. On the other hand, a group with average age 32, including some who are much older, would have new retirees representing cash outflow from the plan far sooner than that.
  • The suspension of benefits must be equitably distributed meaning that a particular class of participants is not adversely affected more than other classes
    • The Trustees sought to make use of participants who are or were UPS employees under the plan. UPS had completely withdrawn from the plan and made withdrawal liability payments under the plan. In doing so, UPS had fulfilled its obligations with respect to the plan.
    • But, UPS made those participants whole under a different plan. In its application, the Trustees considered only the portion of UPS benefits attributable to the make-whole agreement. This was judged not to be an equitable distribution.
  • Upon application for suspension of benefits, notices must be distributed to participants explaining the suspension and the reasons for it
    • The notices must be understandable by the typical participant, but in fact contained lots of technical jargon.
    • In the notice's worst blemish, it contains a 98-word sentence with 4 technical terms not defined anywhere in the notice.
For all these reasons, the application was denied.

What does this do?

It leaves the Central States Plan in a position where it is likely within roughly 7 or 8 years of becoming insolvent. This means that the PBGC will become responsible for an extremely large liability for which its multiemployer fund does not have sufficient assets.

Who wins? Nobody.

Who loses? The PBGC, the plan participants, and the multiemployer system.

We might as well say that Americans are the losers.