November 13, 2013
By Jerry Geisel

The overwhelming majority of employers with defined benefit pension plans either already have, are planning to or are considering ways to de-risk the plans, according to a survey of plan sponsors released Tuesday.

The Towers Watson & Co./Institutional Investor Forums survey of 180 employers—of which just over two-thirds have at least 10,000 employees — found that 75 percent either have implemented, intend to implement, or are considering a “journey” plan to de-risk their pension plans. A journey plan refers to the various de-risking strategies an employer will take once certain trigger points, such as level of plan funding, are hit. [EXPAND Read more]

De-risking refers to a broad range of actions, such as changing pension plans’ investment mix, offering former plan participants the opportunity to take their accrued benefit as a cash lump-sum or purchasing group annuities from insurers, who will assume the liability of paying benefits to affected participants. That last course of action was undertaken in 2012 on a huge scale by General Motors Co. and Verizon Communications Inc.

The move to de-risk their pension plans comes as employers have recognized that the “risks they take in managing their pension plans are not consistent with their core business,” said Mike Archer, a senior retirement consultant in the Philadelphia office of Towers Watson.

Lump sum conversions popular

Offering former employees the option to convert their monthly annuity to a cash lump benefit has been and continues to be a popular de-risking strategy, according to the survey.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they either are planning to offer annuity-to-lump-sum benefit conversions to former employees in 2014 or are considering doing so in 2015. Through that approach, employers no longer have to worry about how risks, such as investment results, will affect how much they will have to contribute to their pension plans to pay monthly annuities to beneficiaries.

Still, a core group of employers intend to hold on to their pension plans. Among the 30 percent of employers whose pension plans still are open to new employees, 70 percent still expect to offer a defined benefit plan five years from now.

Employers in certain industries, such as pharmaceuticals, energy and utilities, whose income flows are not as significantly affected by economic downturns as other employers, can better withstand the risks — fluctuating contribution requirements driven by ups and downs in plan investment results and interest rates—than employers in other industries, Mr. Archer said.

In addition, some employers see their pension plans as a valuable benefit to aid them in the retention of current employees.

“They don’t want to undo the deal they have with employees,” Mr. Archer said. [/EXPAND]