Monday, August 21, 2017

When Pensions Met Vintage TV

Many of my readers are pretty familiar with pension plans. Those of you who have been around for a while may remember a time on the TV show 60 Minutes before the closing segment was occupied by Andy Rooney. Back in the late 70s, it was Shana Alexander on the left versus James J. Kilpatrick on the right on the Point-Counterpoint segment. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, this also led to the Jane Curtin-Dan Aykroyd segments famous among other things for their tag lines, "Jane, you ignorant slut," and "Dan, you pompous ass."

What does all this have to do with pensions? Not a thing, but today I'm going to tie them together anyway.

In any event, late last week, I read an article highlighting a Prudential study on the uptick in pension risk transfer (PRT). I thought that bringing back Shana and Jim (or Jane and Dan if you prefer) might be a good way to discuss it.

Point: 31% of respondents to the survey said that desire to reduce their pension plan's asset volatility was a key reason to engage in PRT.

Counterpoint: Jane, you ignorant slut, that means that 69% of plan sponsors didn't think that reducing asset volatility was a big deal. And, as I'll explain to you later, asset volatility can be dealt with.

Point: Dan, you pompous ass, another 25% said they wanted to focus on their core business rather than deal with a pension plan.

Counterpoint: But, Jane, you ignorant slut, a pension plan is part of their core business and 25% isn't very many anyway.

Point: Dan, you pompous ass, 25% said that they were tired of having to deal with small benefit amounts.

Counterpoint: Jane, you ignorant slut, if they didn't freeze their pensions, those companies wouldn't have to deal with small benefit amounts. Everyone would have wonderful pensions benefits.

We'll return to Point-Counterpoint after a short commercial break, but while that's airing, let's consider what each of our erudite commentators is pointing toward. Shana/Jane (actually likely taking the more conservative Jim/Dan role) are taking the position that managing pensions has just gotten out of hand in the US. With rising PBGC premiums and wild asset fluctuations, they want out of the pension business, at least to the extent possible.

At the same time, the other side is espousing that pensions can help with workforce engagement and management and that asset fluctuations need not cause angst for plan sponsors.

After hearing "Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is" and "Mr. Whipple, please don't squeeze the Charmin," we return to our regular programming.

Switching to our more traditional commentators ...

Point: Jim, so you are trying to tell me that companies should still maintain these blasted pensions and that the problems that a group of CFOs are worried about just don't matter?

Counterpoint: No, Shana, they matter. But, they are solvable. You've never had a creative mind, Shana.

Point: Jim, you're getting curmudgeony now. If you don't watch it, they'll replace you with that Rooney guy with the bushy eyebrows.

Counterpoint: Shana, I've heard you talk about LDI (liability driven investments), but how come you never talk about IDL.

Point: Jim, now you've lost it. Are you telling me that Interactive Data Language should be part of a pension discussion. Or, are you telling me that I should die laughing at your ignorance of real financial issues.

Counterpoint: Shana, IDL is investment driven liabilities. Since you clearly know nothing about this concept, you could choose to learn. Perhaps it doesn't resonate with you that if liabilities track to assets in a defined benefit plan, then all of these CFO issues would go away and companies would be able to keep their workers while keeping costs stable.

And, returning to our other cast of characters ...

Point: Dan, you pompous ass, that makes no sense at all. Everyone knows that assets don't drive liabilities.

Counterpoint: Jane, you ignorant slut, suppose they did.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

HR Practices and Their Funding Similar Within Industries

This shouldn't come as a revelation, but HR practices, particularly benefits and compensation tend to be similar within industries. It makes sense. They tend to be competing for the same talent and, therefore, they benchmark against each other.

What may be a little bit less obvious is that allocations of capital to benefits and compensation also tend to follow patterns within industries. Reasons for this may not be quire as clear, but in a lot of cases, if what you are providing is the same, the way you pay for it and the amount that you pay for it may also be pretty similar.

Again, it makes sense. If Company A pays me $50,000 per year or Company B pays me $50,000 per year, the cost of my cash compensation during that year will be $50,000 (ignoring taxes). If each company further offers me a 401(k) plan that matches 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of pay and very similar health plans, their costs for the year for me remain pretty similar. There aren't a whole lot of choices there.

So, now you may be asking why I am writing this. I haven't told you anything useful yet and you may be thinking I won't. But, wait, there's more!

Certain rewards elements can be paid for differently. Primarily, those are incentive compensation (can be paid relatively immediately or deferred) and defined benefit (including cash balance) pension plans. There you as an employer have options.

Let's consider briefly some of what those might be. You can fund the minimum required contribution (MRC) exactly on the statutory schedule. It's easy. You follow the rules. You do no more and you do no less. You can fund to the greater of the MRC or to 80% on whatever is the current funding basis. You can fund to the greater of the MRC or to 90% on that same current funding basis. Or 100%. Or, you can fund to the point at which you eliminate PBGC variable rate premiums.

Sure, there are other levels to which you can fund, but that's enough to illustrate. The point here is that behaviors within industries tend to be pretty similar.

Why does that matter?

Let's consider the health care industry. Not insurers, but hospitals, clinics, and other similar organizations. Lots of them have pension plans of one flavor or another (many are frozen cash balance plans) and most of them fund those at the minimum on the statutory schedule. That is following the law, so from a compliance standpoint, it's fine.

Where it's not as fine is from a financial sense standpoint.

Suppose you looked at all of the companies that sponsor defined benefit plans and then among that group, you considered only those who are paying more in PBGC variable rate premiums than they need to (this is important because for a typical company like this, those variable rate premiums may represent a 1% or more "drag" on plan assets).

What industry would predominate in that group?

You guessed it -- health care.

If you've made it this far and you are in the health care industry and you still have a pension plan, you probably want to see if you are facing that drag on assets. You probably are.

I would encourage you to check and when you find out that you are experiencing that drag, there are strategies that can be employed that will save you on that drag without depleting valuable cash from other needs.