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Market Turmoil and Flight to Quality Jolt US Pension Plans

Source: Mercer

Posted on 10 Aug 2011

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According to the latest figures by Mercer, market volatility in the first six trading days of August has dealt a severe blow to pension plans sponsored by S&P 1500 companies, with the aggregate funded status decreasing by $191 billion to a funding deficit of $496 billion and an aggregate funded ratio of 73% as of the market close on August 8. 
This deficit corresponds to a 10% reduction in just six days from Mercer’s calculation of an 83% funded ratio as of July 31, and a 15% reduction from the peak funded status measured in April of 88%.
Pension plans are affected not only by changes in the assets they hold but also by the market value of their pension commitments – effectively a debt sponsors hold on their balance sheets.  The recent flight to quality is bad for pension plans on two counts – reducing the value of their risky assets while increasing the market value of their pension debt.
The decline in funded status was driven by a 13% drop in equities, combined with a fall in yields on high quality corporate bonds during the first six trading days of the month. Discount rates for the typical US pension plan decreased approximately 42 basis points over this period.
“What we are seeing is yet another “perfect storm” of equity losses combined with a drop in interest rates, similar to what we saw in 2000/2001 and 2008.” said Jonathan Barry, a partner in Mercer’s Retirement Risk and Finance group.   “The 73% funded ratio we saw at the end of the day on Monday is the lowest level since August, 2010.   While the drop in equity markets is getting most of the attention, it is important to realize that the 42 point drop in discount rates over the past 6 days is playing a major role in the decline.”
There is, however a bright side for some plan sponsors, said Barry.   “There are some sponsors out there who have made major moves to derisk their pension plans over the past few years.   Often times, these strategies were employed to move to lower risk positions as their funded status improved.   These sponsors were able to take some of their chips off the table over the past year or so, and were not as exposed to the extreme market volatility that we are seeing today” said Mr. Barry.
Mercer estimates the aggregate combined funded status position of plans operated by S&P 1500 companies on a monthly basis, based on projections of their reported financial statements  adjusted from each company’s financial year end to August 8 in line with financial indices. This includes US domestic qualified and non-qualified plans and all non-domestic plans.