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MAN GING LIABILITIES:

THE TRUE PENSIO OBJEC lYE



Thomas M. White and Geraldine Michalik, Ph.D,

The objective of a pension fund is: 1) to payor fund the pension liability; 2) at the lowest cost to the plan sponsor; 3) subject to sensible risk. Historically, pension plans have traditionally focused on the performance of assets with slight or no regard for the performance of a plan's liabilities. Plan sponsors, their advisors, and other stakeholders are now beginning to recognize that significant attention must also be given to the characteristics and performance of plan liabilities, Such an economic analysis will reduce cost and risk and therefore increase the likelihood that pension plans will satisfy their objective of being able to fulfill their benefit obligations as they become due. Moreover, asset/Iia-

Thomas [Ij/I,ile is (I pMtner in the Employee Beneftts and Executive Compensation group at]! nandai services In II! filln Chapman and Cutler LLP ill Chicago, He 1'01.1- tinelv advises corporate and public sector clients 0/'1 bCl'llfil administration issues. Geraldine N/idtalik, Ph.D., serves tiS Chief OperalhlS Officer and Director cif Credit Research at Ryan Labs, where she oversees corporate and agency credit review process aud sector analysis.

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bility management, or Liability Driven Investment (LDI), is an appropriate tool whether a pension plan IS over- or under-funded and can be utilized by both private sector and governmental plans.

Several factors have resulted in this increased interest in LDT. The Financial Accounting Standards Board's (FASB) new standards for reporting liabilities (FAS 158) will require public companies to recogI1Jze the funded status of their pension and other postretirement benefit plans on their balance sheets. PAS 158 represents the first phase of FASB's two-phase postretirement benefit accounting reassessment.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) , signed into law by President Bush in August, reformed the rules for measuring pension liabilities and established new minimum funding standards for defined benefit plans, There will be consequences if employers fail to achieve funding benchmarks. This new regime will require plan sponsors to better assess the impact of potential balance sheet changes and consider the appropnateness of mitigating funding volatility.

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In addition, litigation risk may be mitigated through utilization of an LDI strategy. urrently, some plan sponsors seek to maximize their plan's Investment returns by allocating funds to those asset classes with the highest anticipated returns while others allocate assets based 011 generic investment targets, for example investing 60% in equities, 35% in bonds, and 5% in cash, In both cases, there has been little analysis of when the benefit payments that have accrued will be paid. For example, if a large percentage of plan assets will be paid ill the near term, a large investment in 1110re volatile asset classes lllay leave a plan with insufficient assets to pay accrued claims if those asset classes have diminished 111 value at the time large distributions have to be made. This situation may result in litigation by plan participants whose benefits may be reduced or by the PBGC or Department of Labor, which may find fault with the plan's investment management. This litigation risk may be mitigated If plan investments were coordinated with the particular plan's liability/benefit schedule. In that case, short-term li-

MANAGING liABILITIES. THE TRUE PEN;;ION OBJECTIVE

abilities would be matched with short-term assets, mid-term liabilities would be matched with midterm assets, and so on. Thus the valuc of both assets and liabilities would move in tandem, and volatility and the risk that benefits could not be paid-the major cause of litigation-would be diminished. Moreover, plan investment fiduciaries would be able to defend their course of action by specific reference to their plan's unique characteristics and to the investment approach which was taken into account with regard to the pJ<U1'S anticipated distribution requirements.

The new FAsn requirement to mark-to-market pen. ion assets could result in huge swings on financial statements. Increased recognition of funding volatility has become, for some, an additional l·eaS011 to terminate pension plans. Volatility and resulting contribution increases may be minimized when anticipated benefit distributions drive asset allocation decisions. Consequently, the new legal and accounting environments are sparking a renewed interest in Ll l for pension plans, with pension obligations driving the asset allocation decision.

An LDI strategy may pass muster under ERISA's fiduciary standards. The Department of Labor (DOL) recently ruled in Advisory Opinion 2006-08A that a plan fiduciary may consider the volatility of plan liabiLity obligations when creating 41-1 investment strategy for a pension plan, notwithstanding the fact that the plan sponsor would also benefit by a reduction in the volatility of the plan's contribution level. The DOL decided that it would not violate ERlSA's fiduciary standards to develop all investment strategy that attempts

to prevent an increase in underfunding levels. The agency noted that plan. fiduciaries have broad discretion in defining ill vestment strategies appropriate for their plans. In this regard. the DOL sta ted that there is l' oth mg In ERISA or the regulations that would limit a plan fiduciary's ability to take into account the risks associated with benefit liabilities or how those risks relate to the portfolio management in designin g an investment strategy. For these reasons, the DOL fa 1.1 nd that a fiduciary would not viola te its fiduciary du ties under EIUSA solely because the fiduciary implements an in vestment strategy for a plan that takes into account the liability obligations of the plan and the risks associated with such liabilities and results in reduced volatili ty in the plan's fu n di ng reg uirernen ts.

J deally, investment returns on pension assets should be the primary santee to fund liabilities, rather than pension contributions coming from either the employer, the employees, or in the case of public funds, current or future taxpayers.

POl' III.<my plan sponsors, pension liabilities are one of their largest liabilities. Traditionally, most pension asset mamlgers are given a generic 'index as their benchmark, which may have 110 similarity to the behavior pattern of their unique stream of liabilities. Furthennore, actuaries often price liabilities differently than ei rher the market does or the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) would confirm as proper. Indeed, it has become C011111"1011 practice for actuaries to price all liabilities at the same interest race regardless of their maturity or payment due date. Too often, this discount rate is much higher than the rate that

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might be obtained .in the market for obligations with identical maturities, causing a reduced valuation of liabilities. Moreover, liabilities are analyzed annually, with the data only available after a lag in time. Given all this confusion, it IS difficult, if not impossible, for the asset side to "understand" the Lability side. By losing sight of the true pension objective, several problems may develop.

FIRST DILEMMA.: GENERIC OR IDENTICAL ASSET ALLOCATION

The goal of traditional asset allocation is to create the optimal absolute return. As a result, stocks are favored and plan sponsors are avidly exploring the introduction of additional asset classes with anticipated higher returns, However, the true objective of asset allocation should be to create the optimal relative return versus liabilities. Each plan has a unique liability term structure based on the plan's demographics, economic aSS lllllp tlOJ1S, and design. Similar to snowflakes, 110 two pension liability schedules, are identical. rASE 87, Paragraph -199, recognizes this difference: I

A plan covering only retired employees would be expected to have significantly different discount rates from one covering a work force of30-yea_r-olds.

Logically, therefore, the liability term structure .should dictate the shape of the asset allocation. Unfortunately; most asset allocation models have no input for a plan's liability characteristics. They only analyze historical generic market Indices. Without an application of a plan's liability structure to its asset mix, all plans could be invested i11 a nearly identical manner.

MAN AGI N G lIAB I L I II EST H E TRU E PE N SI 0 N 0 BJE CliVE

EXHIBIT 1

Plan A: Liability Duration = 9.6 years

2 .. 5 ,---------------rI--;.";i'A;;:Cthl'V;;;:"pp;;e":;::;<r.:;ia;:;-[lTllr;;-~b;biiTint~1e;:;.--r-.~_ 2.0t-1r~~~--------L-~D~Re~t~II~~d~P~e~n5~1.~~n~l~la~b~il~itl~e~.~.~

~ I.~ ~~~I~~~~------------------~

o i ••

I.U +I-jI-l---I-I -II-I-I- ....... r. •• =-.-=-- •• -.--..------------1

"- 0.$ +1-J~+IH--- -Ir-IlI_HnHnl-lnl-t-m·. ~ . .-. nn-ll~iI_ ~n.~n. ~..--;.,,;;-=-I'I-=- ~_- ~n-n-.n-n- .. n---jn

0.0 ~~~~LU~L4~~~~~~~~~~LLLU~~~~~~~

5

Let's take, for example Plan A and Plan B:

Plan A: Liability Duration - 9.6 year5

Plan. A IS a mature company which has a complement of relatively old active employees and retirees, with pension ] ia bili ti es heavily skewed to current retirees. Thus Plan A has a duration/ of only 9.6 years with 58% of Its liabilities corning due in the near to intermediate term. These shorter liabilities should be rrivested in Treasury bills or bonds with a duration similar to those of the maturing liabilities so that the funds are readily available to meet payouts and the plan does not have to liquidate assets at a loss to cover known distributions. Only 42 percent of its liabilities are long liabilities, suggesting <Ill allocation of 42 percent to long assets, unless there 15 an unusual defici r/s urplus situa ti on.

PlanB: Liability Durat:ion = 14.5 yea.rs

Plan n has a very young participant group with few retirees. Its liability duration IS J 4.5 years. Over 57 percent of Plan B's liabilicies are greater than I 0 years, suggesting an allocation of 57 percent to long assets, unless there is an unusual deficit/surplus situation. Again, the 43% of its liabilities that are due m the near to interrnediate term should be invested in Treasury bills

13

1.7

21

25

29

(Years}

or bonds with a duration similar to those of the maturing liabilities.

The assets of these rwo plans should not be invested in the same way. Rather, In order to prevent a runding mismatch of assets versus the liabilities, the term structure of each pension liability payout schedule should become the base fa r asset allocation, or LD 1. Asset allocation should be tailored to each plan's umque liability situation and not based 011 genenc models which may indiscriminately aSSIgn the same percentage of asset classes to plans with entirely different liability schedules.

SECONDDILEMMA= INAP·PRDPRIArE PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT

Historically, asset perf o rman ce has been measured against generic indices (e.g., S&P 500). Performance is measured by comparing the total retu rn of an asset class (e. g., stocks, bonds) to the generic market index for that asset class. Money managen are hired and fired based on their performance versus an asSIgned generic asset index.

AH important reason why this situation persists is that pension liabilities are traditionally calculated annually and reported months after the face, Significantly, the present value pricing of liabilities is done in a way that the asset side does not understand (assuming the LISe. of non-market rates) how

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the liabilities are moving. It is extrernelv difficult, if not impOSSIble, for an asset manger to manage against such an objective.

WhOlt is needed is a liability index system that correctly prIces plan liabilities (in conformity with the FASB) as a tangible, frequent (i.e., daily) system for investment man agement. The asset side 111 LIst know the liability growth rate and the liability term structure. Performance measurement can then be properly assessed ;IS the growth rate of assets versus the growth rate of liabil; ties tha t each asset class 1S funding (i .e. short assets vs, short 'liabilities, long assets vs. long Iiabilities, etc.).

Frequently, plan sponsors and their actuarres and investment advisors do not recog1l1ze that their plans may be losing ground despite experiencing good investment returns in excess of those assumed in their actuary's projections. The following exhibit is based. 011 a hypothetical plan's asset allocation and assumes the plan was fully funded in the base year 1. 997. The table illustrates how, over time, a plan's assets could lose ground to the liabilities became of the 1111Smatch of assets to the duration of the liabilities. Over the ten-year period illustrated, the funding level de creased from rno re than 100% to only 88.6% with significant flu ernations in the interim ..

Note that 111 2004 this hypothetical plan earned 8.93% 011 its assets. Most plans aSS1.m1e that plan investments will earn between 7% and 8% per year. In 2004, a typical plan sponsor would have focused a n the mvestment re tu tns and have been satisfied because the investment return exceeded the plan's ROA assumption. However, liabilities increased by 10.25% that year and the plan was less well

I MANAGING LIABILITIES THE TRUE PENSION OBJECTIVE

EXHIBIT 2

I ncorre ct Single Discount Rate

Correct

LI ability Ra te (Average Ra (0)

Vi eld 01 fferellce Average Llablll ty DuralJon (Year·s)

Present Value DI fference

2.50".'0

15

7.50%

5.00%

Note: Present Val,ue Difference = Yleld Difference x Duratlon

37.50%

funded at the end of tbe yenr. This would have COUle as a shock to most plan sponsors which disregard the performance of the 11· pia 11' S liabilities.

THIRD DILEMMA: PRI:CING ALL LIABIUTIES IDENTICALLY

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASE) specifies the financial vsraternent reporting of pension liabilities for prrvate sector businesses and has become the model that all pension funds should. follow. fASB requires that the market value of assets be compared to the present value of liabilities marked to current market rates, III addition, the. FASB reg urres that the present value of liabilities be calculated (pnced) using individual discount rates for each liability payment date rather than 011 some "blended" basis.

FAS13 87, par~graph 44 reads:

Assumed discount rates ,hall rcfleer the rates M which the pension benefits could be dfc(tivel)' settled I n making those esriII w ses, cmp loyers 111<1)' look to l"3tCS or tcturns on high qual i [y fixed incon r~' i n vestments currently available and expected to be available during the period to maturity 0 r rJ1e pension benefits,

FASB 87, paragraph 199 continues:

In terest rares va ry depending on du nit; all or in vestments; for example. Treasury Bills, 7-ycar bonds and 30-year bonds have different interest rates. The diselm ures l"e(] uired by this Statemen t regard i ng Co mpon e nrs 0 f"

the pension obligation will be mort: represen ra tionally .Ii}; th ful i r Individual d iSCQUll t rates applicab I e to various ben ef t deferra I periods are sel ected,

According to FASE] 06, Paragraph 186·

Tile obligation would equal the current market valu e or a portfolio of high-qual i t)' zero COli pen bonds whose- Ill" ru rrry dates a nd ai nounrs wo u ld be the same ns tile timing mel amounts or the expeered future bene-tit payments

Under FASB rules, pension liabilities should be priced like a high-quality zero-coupon. bond portfolio whose par values match the liability payment amount and whose maturities match the liability payment dates.

However, most plans use a Si11- gle discount rate to price all liabilities. TIm siugle discount rate is normally around 100 baSIS points or more higher than the market rare. To convert this yield difference to <1 present value difference ($), multiply the yield difference by the average duration of the pla u's I ia bili ties:

EXAMPU OF CONVERSION OF DISCOUNT RATE DIFFERENC.E INTO PRES.NT VALUE DIFFER,ENCE

According ro the above exhibit, If liabilities were priced 250 basis points above the market (yield), this wo Lila transla te into a 37.50% lower valuation, i.e., mispricing, of the liabilities, Shorter duration

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pension plans (skewed to retirees or "new" cash balance plans) may experience even higher disparities, as the weighted average discount rate could be lower in a "norma)" upwardly-sloped yield curve environment. This undervaluation IS critical if It results in lower plan contributions in the short term, which win consequently require: higher future contributions; higher investment returns than historical data suggest; and I or diminution of future benefit accruals.

FOURTH DILEMMA: .NAPPROPRIATE BE.NCHMARKS

The appropriate benchmark for pension assets is a custom liability index that properly represents the present value growth of the plan sponsor's Lll1lque liability schedule. Generic indices that measureasset classes (e.g., S&P 500) are inappropria te m easurern en ts 0 r li a bi li ry growth .. Only a liability index that matches the plan sponsor's unique benefit payment schedule on accurate] y reflect the plan's fu t1..1 re obligations. Particular attention should be paid to the liability schedule, and appropriate, rimely changes should be made to it ifthe plan sponsor's circumstances deteriorate or if actuarial assumptions are out-or-date. For example, a significant reduction i IT the workforce might result in larger distributions in the near term than had been previously anticipated. Similarly an increase in longevity may necessitate an Increase in liabilities. In these cases, the distribution schedule should be updated and the investment nux reevaluated to reflect the new circumstances. Moreover, future contributions might prove to be lower than had been a ntici pa ted ill tha t situa ti 011. I t IS important for the assumptions

y

MANAGING LIABILITIES THE TRUE rEl~SION OBJECTIVE

EXHIBITS

Ryan Labs, Inc.

Asset I Liability Return Difference and Tracking Error rwonly Y •• r Po,loll Ending 10/3 \/06

--, .

2 ~ ii f

-----,_-""'--1- 0)1. "

~

,_ t ,

: T, le,

,

10 12 14 16 1$

oJtl~ (rl Ill! ~ Iflf li.'A"'" ~"'I

20

22

o

used to fund the plan to be examined periodically and more frequently as circumstances warrant, and. the results should be transmitted to the plan's sponsor and those responsible for making investment decisions,

Liability indices should COJlform to F ASB standards. As the Asset/Lia bility Watch ill ustrates (see Exhibit 3), using generic market indices for asset objectives, instead of a liability index, results in significant asser/Iiabili ty volatili ty. In that example, the hypothetical plan was significantly overfunded in 1999 and significantly underfunded in 2002. In one of the greatest bull markets in American history, assets lost ground to liabilities in five of the last 10 calendar years-50% of the time: And through the end of December 2006 assets have underperformed Liabilities by about -10.8% (reference page 8). The great absolute investment returns of the last several years turned out to be poor relative returns versus liabilities . .By not having a correct measure of a plan's liabilities and investing ac-

cordingly, the plan sponsor has lost the opportunity to maintain £1111 funding levels in the plan and benefit from the tax deductibility of pension contributions and the taxfi'ee growth of assets in the pension plan, ultimately increasing the cost of paying plan liabilities. J n the example, the plan could have taken all risk for funding accrued liabilities "off the table" when the hypothetical plan was fully funded. 13y adhering to genetic investment guidelines, the sponsor unnecessarily increased its cost of maintaining its plan. Traditional market indices are poor prm .. ries for liabilities and should not be the objective of the assets.

SOLUTIONS: LDIIN CONJUNCTION WITH CUSTOM LIABILITY INDICES

Solution I: Create a Custom Liability Index

It is critical that each plan's distribution requirements be properly measured and its mvestment methodology correlated to those streams of benefit distributions A custom liability index should be tailored to accurately calculate liability present

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value, present value growth, and term structure so that the plan sponsor can have an accurate measurement of plan liabiliti s. A custom Jiability index is a table sbowing month by month anticipated distributions. An appropriate asset allocation (including stocks, bonds, and other investments) is dependent on the liability term structure. Different asset classes have difierent characteristics and different time horizons.

Solution II: Measure Each Asset Class Against the Liability Segment They Are Meant to Fund

he chcnt3 011 the next page illustrates the risk and return characteristics of various asset classes versus the liabilities. As with traditional risk/reward graphs, return is measured on the Y axis and risk is measured on the X axis, and movement toward the Northwest represents higher return wi th lower risk. However, unlike traditional measurement', this graph defines return as return above that of liabilities and risk as tracking error versus liability returns. The solid, curved line represents the excess return and tracking error of~l- to 25-year Treasury STRIPS. Non-correlated assets, such as domestic and international equities, represent a substantial amount of relative risk (toward the right of the graph), which has gone largely uncompensated over the past 20 years (or virtually any ther time period). Of particular not , t11 graph illustrates that, over the past 20 years, the S&P 500 offered a mere 0.5% excess return (reward) over lia bilities This 0.5% return was achieved at the cost of significant volatility (risk), with 18 degrees of tracking error.

Performance measurement is dependent on such a liability index. to accurately assess asset growth

MANAGING LIABILITIES. THE TRUE PENSION OBJECTIVE

EXHIBIT 4

Asset / liability Watch Total Returns

1,,,[<" w.rghl '91 '~o '99 '00 '01 'O? '0'.1 '\I f '05 r:~:

RL caSh ~1t, 5,'2 S.4!l -t24 6.4g .. " I,}S l.()' 1<2 3.17 q.~
U~ 1199<0901 e ;)% 9,'5 e ss .. 1163 8;44 102S 4.1Q jl3~ 2A~ 4.33
6&1> 500 ~'i'l' 333-1 .l8,SS lL03 ~ ZlH9 10.57 4.89 15 • .,1
MSCI fME lnl'l ".0 2,08 29.24 27,ll ·U.'Y1 II II .1( 31,17 lO.10 14.02 ;;Ht]
A'5s'~ls f(.l'N 22.99 .ll.J9 13.72 20,(6 8,~3 •. 60 11...,
ilL Uoblll,V 10/'1" IHI 1642 ~ ~, . ~ '. Z,!;,S6 3,W ISJa 1,iS 102S IQ.~ 1."6
11 ... 1, • L1"1l;IIU.~ l.42 ~97 ~S 74 1,00 ·1 '_ . 10.00
S\i~lu'jL,o(!ndt, 100.00 102.06 107.25 130,62 IO~.OO 97.90 73,03 05.701 94,71 00.00 OB.60
"'1"'WI"lllou~; JI(!Il .. h!ln",lM ,IS1uliy "II,jl~1 [)II IMIII1f'f I, 199"1'
1h .. "i' VI ~ toft ~ - Mfli r61 COOl ri!loIl"''I1f'''i
:\'0 hlfilollt flHII'I)IIVl'11~'lh
I\~)nl" PDritDlio r ... h<il"'l~t 1110I.1hl" versus the liability growth these assets are funding, Thus, the performance of each asset class should be measured against the segrnent of liabilities it is meant to fund.

Solution III: Fund Liabilities by Matchillg the Asset Class to the Liabilities

Short assets, such as cash, should be matched against short liabilities with a S1111ilat duration. Treasury and corporate bonds are more suitable for intermediate liabilities. For investors willing to tolerate the additional volatility risk, investments in equities, internstiona I assets, real estate, and other alternatives may be included in the portfolio as a hedge against long and very long liabilities.

For asset managers and plan consultants to function effectively, a liability index should be updated fiequently, The index should conform to F ASB pricing requirements. As~ set allocation and performance measurement can best be understood once the weight and growth rate of each liability maturity sector

(term structure) is calculated, Term structure precision is a critical calculation. Without accurate liability term structure definitions and measurements, plan sponsors face ambiguous asset allocation and perforrnance measurements,

Pension plans do not have infinite duration, as the large number of recent plan terminations demonstrate. Plan sponsors, particularly those in declining businesses, should therefore seek to analyze their plans' funding statuses based on valid economic assumptions and data rather than on conventional factors which have small relationship to their plans.

If asset managers can better understand the risk/ reward behavior pattern of the liability opponent, they can better strategize how to outperform such an opponent. If consultants can understand the term structure of liabilities, they can build proper assets allocations for each term structure area (e.g. long assets versus long liabilities).

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CONCLUSION

Without accurate liability term structure measurements, plan sponsors face the greatest risk there is: i.e., having insufficient assets to fund liabilities when the sponsor does not have the capacity to continue the plan. The S&L crisis is too vivid an example of what can happen with mismatched term structure exposure.

In conclusion, different asset classes are correlated with different risk and reward characteristics. Without accurate liability term measurements, plan sponsors and their advisors are limited in their ability to properly match their assets to their pension and other posternployment liabilities. This, in turn, prevents them from satisfying their objective of funding benefit obligations when they come due at reasonable expense and minimal risk.



NOTES:

Til e ci to ri ons to FAS]3 s t~ 11 da rds ha ve not been amended by the new FA S 158 which explains how emplo '<:1-'; are required to account for pension and other posrernployment benefits.

2 Ti ie dwrnc.ion of "'.1)' security or series of sccuri iles provides" measure of the risk wiih which the sensitivity of bonds Or bond porrfolios to interest rate chaJ1gcs can be estimated. The calculation is based on the weighted average present values for ,-U G"" flows i 11 the portfolio. It repre,ents the weigh ted average length of rime that a plan will pay benefits to an average participant. A 1% increase (or decrease) in the inrercsr rate accordingly produces ~ percentage ti,l! (or rise) in the price in proportion to the duration. In the above example, if the duration (discounted present value] of Plan A's liabilities is 9.6 years and the interest rate drops by 1%, the price of Plan A's liabiliries will incre as e by approxirnnccly <).6%.

:3 Graphics supplied by Crandall and Pier,.