We have heard about the difficulty folks who are retired are having with low interest rates. But low interest rates are having a huge impact on corporations that still have defined-benefit pensions.
Across America's business landscape, the gap between the amount that companies expect to owe retirees and what they have on hand to pay them was an estimated $347 billion at the end of 2012. That is better than the $386 billion gap recorded at the end of 2011, but the two years represent the worst deficits ever, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
The firm estimates that companies now hold only $81 of every $100 promised to pensioners.
In general, everything happening on the liability side of the pension equation is working against companies. A big source of the problem: persistently low interest rates, set largely by the Federal Reserve....
Pension liabilities change over time as employees enter and leave a pension plan. For financial-reporting purposes, companies use a so-called discount rate to calculate the present value of payments they expect to make over the life of their plan.
The discount rate serves as a proxy for the hypothetical interest rate that an insurance company would expect on a bond today to fund a company's future pension payments. The lower the discount rate, the greater the company's pension liabilities.
Boeing's discount rate, for example, fell to 3.8% last year from 6.2% in 2007. The aircraft manufacturer said in a securities filing that a 0.25-percentage-point decrease in its discount rate would add $3.1 billion to its projected pension obligations.
Boeing reported a net pension deficit of $19.7 billion at the end of 2012.
The discount rate is based on the yields of highly rated corporate bonds—double-A or higher—with maturities equal to the expected schedule of pension-benefit payouts.
Moody's decision last summer to lower the credit rating of big banks hurt UPS and other companies by booting those banks out of the calculation. And because bonds issued by some of those banks carried higher yields than other bonds used in the calculation, UPS's discount rate fell 1.20 percentage points.
This is obviously not a wildly productive use of corporate funds, to divert ever-increasing amounts of money to pay people who are no longer producing. But at least corporations are acknowledged the problem (I will give credit where it is due -- thanks to accounting rules and government regulations that force a fair amount of transparency here).
It is interesting to note the Boeing example, where their expected rate of return on pension funds fell from 6.2% to 3.8%. Compare that to corrupt government entities like Calpers, which bravely faced this new reality by cutting its discount rate from an absurd 7.75% to a still absurd 7.5%. This despite returns last year around 1%. By keeping the number artificially high, Calpers is hiding its underfunding problem. An interesting reform would be to force Calpers to use a discount rate equal to the average of that used by the 10 largest private pension funds.