There was no change in the pension funded status of the largest U.S. corporate plan sponsors at the end of 2015 as a rise in interest rates was mostly offset by weak global stock markets, according to a new survey.
The professional services company Towers Watson estimated the aggregate pension funded status to be 82% at the end of 2015, unchanged from the end of 2014. The pension deficit narrowed modestly by $28 billion to $291 billion at the end of 2015, compared with a $319 billion shortfall at the end of 2014.
The preceding two years had been more volatile, with funded status rising from 77% to 89% in 2013 and then falling to 82% in 2014.
“An increase in corporate bond rates in advance of the Fed’s recent interest rate decision, combined with a flat global stock market, contributed to keeping pension plans in roughly the same financial shape as the previous year,” Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement consultant at Towers Watson, said in a news release.
“While pension obligations declined last year, so did assets,” he added. “There was a lot of movement in the funded status throughout the year, but at the end of the year, essentially nothing changed overall.”
Moody’s Investors Service previously estimated the aggregate funded status of U.S. corporate pension plans will be at 78% at the end of 2015, unchanged from 2014. It predicted plans could reach full funding in 2018 if interest rates increase as expected.
According to Towers Watson, pension plan assets fell by an estimated 6% in 2015, from $1.41 trillion at the end of 2014 to an estimated $1.33 trillion at the end of last year, reflecting increases of roughly 2% due to investment returns and employer contributions offset by a decline of 8% from benefit payments and settlement transactions.
“If the Fed’s decision to raise short-term interest rates last month is the first move in a pattern of rising rates, generally we could see improved pension funded status in the coming year, depending of course on how the stock market responds,” Glickstein said.