This morning's lead article in the Wall Street Journal's CFO Journal says that CFOs are concerned about benefit costs. This was not at all surprising to me. What is surprising though is how much they are leaving on the table relative to defined benefit pension plans, often frozen legacy plans.
Let's start out with some background. 40 years ago, most large companies in the US provided defined benefit (DB) pensions for large parts of their workforce. This was, of course, before the 401(k) gave us the perhaps misguided self-sufficiency explosion. Over time, many of those employers froze those DB plans (meaning no new participants and those in the plan get no further accruals) and some terminated them. But, there remain a lot of frozen DB plans that remain in what some call hibernation. I call it lingering death.
That lingering death seems to go on interminably. And, there are reasons that happens. Freeze the plan and it becomes out of sight, out of mind. Not to overdo the cliches, but they go into a set it and forget it mode.
But, set it and forget it with a legacy pension may not work so well. Research by October Three has shown that many of these plans have what might be termed overhead or frictional costs exceeding 1% of plan assets. That means that for a not atypical frozen plan that the long-term cost of that plan -- unless the sponsor is willing to fund it sufficiently to terminate it may be 10-15% higher than if those frictional costs were entirely eliminated. (Understand that it is impossible to eliminate all of those frictional costs, but most can often be eliminated.)
How does this happen? Nobody is paying attention. There's nobody on staff focused on efficiency in that frozen plan. The last person doing that went away a few months after the plan was frozen. So, now, a typical company with a, for example, $50 million frozen plan may be spending more than half a million dollars per year on that plan unnecessarily.
Suppose the company assigned one professional to that plan. Suppose they made that plan half of that person's responsibility, at least until the plan is terminated. And, suppose they pay that person $200,000 per year. Let's add in another 25% for additional employment costs and we're up to $250,000. Then, this company is eliminating more costs than it is incurring and in doing so, they are getting rid of perhaps an unnecessary headache.
The last obstacle is figuring out what this person should focus on. And, since they probably have not been focused on pensions, they may not know. However, there is a good chance that they are paying a lot of money for consulting that is not focused on their needs. Or, the consulting might be excellent, but the company's lack of focus causes them to ignore it.
Either way, this is something to consider and if they're not sure, I know someone who can guide them down the right path.