After several years of strong financial gains, many multiemployer pension plans are increasingly underfunded now, due to the financial-market impacts of Covid-19 in the first months of the year. A downturn in business activity related to the pandemic is also to blame, according to a study by international actuarial and consulting firm Milliman.
The multiemployer pension system’s aggregate funding level is estimated to have declined from 85 percent to 74 percent between January 1 and April 7, the firm found, undoing much of the last decade’s improvement. That is equivalent to an additional $21,000 of underfunding per active plan participant, unless the return on assets improves over current assumptions.
The funding shortfall has increased by about $80 billion since December 31, according to the company’s Multiemployer Review update.
“We’ve had three massive market events in 20 years, and it will bankrupt many of our plans without government intervention,” said Kelly Coffing, principal and consulting actuary at Milliman, based in Seattle. “The notion that we can fix this by demanding higher PBGC [Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation] premiums from the so-called ‘healthy plans’ won’t work because many are already strained and having them fund the fallen plans is going to further stress the system.”
Mature pension plans, with more benefit payouts and expenses than contributors, are particularly at risk from deteriorating conditions. Without a rapid recovery in financial markets, or Congressional intervention, a wave of pension-plan failures could eventually result, the report said.
More than 10 million Americans rely on the multiemployer defined-benefit retirement pension system, the study said.
How We Got Here
According to a Dec. 2019 Milliman survey, 130 pension plans were in declining status or insolvent and receiving aid from the PBGC at the end of last year. Without a strong recovery from the current pandemic, that number could grow quickly, the consultants said. Entering 2020, 60 percent of plans—742 out of 1,249 plans—were at least 90 percent funded.
A Milliman survey on corporate pensions released this week found that the corporate pension funding ratio in 2019 was about 87.5 percent, despite the best asset performance in more than 16 years.
The authors noted that pension plans have already suffered two so-called “once in a lifetime” events in the past 20 years—after the collapse of the dot-com bubble from 2000 to 2002, and following the mortgage meltdown and housing crisis of 2008. A third could bring down some pension plans that are still standing, they said.
Following the 2008 crisis, fewer participants elected to take voluntary retirements in the following years, as they tried to rebuild their savings. It’s not clear if that would, or could, happen this time. It’s also not clear whether mortality would increase from the Covid-19 crisis enough to reduce pension liabilities. Pensions may commonly have 10 percent to 15 percent of liability from participants who are 75 and older, the report said.
Multiemployer pensions have already shot most of the arrows in their quiver during past crises to help keep plans solvent. These changes have included reducing benefits, increasing employer contributions, reducing early-retirement options, and reducing accrued benefits for all participants. As a result, each dollar contributed to plans now yields about half the benefit it provided in 2008, researchers said. Therefore, using the same strategies to improve plan funding this time may not be successful or even feasible, as the reduced benefits may make participation less attractive to employees, they said.
The PBGC also would not likely be able to handle a new batch of struggling underfunded pension plans, they said, as its multiemployer insurance program was slated to run out of funds in fiscal year 2025, even before the pandemic hit.
The report concludes that many plans may not be able to survive the Covid-19 crisis and a global economic recession, and that it may be time to look at different types of benefit plan designs, including variable plans or modified variable plans that can withstand market volatility.
“They wouldn’t fix our current underfunding, but they provide a viable path forward,” said Coffing. “What I like about variable plans is that, essentially, each cohort pays for their benefits, and the benefits they get from contributions made on their behalf retain longevity pooling without burdening the future cohorts to fund losses,” she said.