Private Pensions:

Revision of Defined Benefit Pension Plan Funding Rules Is an Essential Component of Comprehensive Pension Reform

GAO-05-794T: Published: Jun 7, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 7, 2005.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
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This testimony discusses our recent report on the rules that govern the funding of defined benefit (DB) plans and the implications of those rules for the problems facing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) and the DB pension system generally. In recent years, the PBGC has encountered serious financial difficulties. Prominent companies, such as Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Airways, and United Airlines, have terminated their pension plans with severe gaps between the assets these plans held and the pension promises these plan sponsors made to their employees and retirees. These terminations, and other unfavorable market conditions, have created large losses for PBGC's single-employer insurance program--the federal program that insures certain benefits of the more than 34 million participants in over 29,000 plans. The single-employer program has gone from a $9.7 billion accumulated surplus at the end of fiscal year 2000 to a $23.3 billion accumulated deficit as of September 2004, including a $12.1 billion loss for fiscal year 2004. In addition, financially weak companies sponsored DB plans with a combined $96 billion of underfunding as of September 2004, up from $35 billion as of 2 years earlier. Because PBGC guarantees participant benefits, there is concern that the expected continued termination of large plans by bankrupt sponsors will push the program more quickly into insolvency, generating pressure on the Congress, and ultimately the taxpayers, to provide financial assistance to PBGC and pension participants. Given these concerns, we placed the PBGC's single-employer program on GAO's high-risk list of agencies and programs that need broad-based transformations to address major challenges. In past reports, we identified several categories of reform that the Congress might consider to strengthen the program over the long term. We concluded that the Congress should consider comprehensive reform measures to reduce the risks to the program's long-term financial viability and thus enhance the retirement income security of American workers and retirees. More broadly, pension reform represents a real opportunity to address part of our long-term fiscal problems and reconfigure our retirement security systems to bring them into the 21st century. This opportunity has many related pieces: addressing our nation's large and growing long-term fiscal gap; deciding on the appropriate role and size of the federal government--and how to finance that government--and bringing the wide array of federal activities into line with today's world. Continuing on our current unsustainable fiscal path will gradually erode, if not suddenly damage, our economy, our standard of living, and ultimately our national security. We therefore must fundamentally reexamine major spending and tax policies and priorities in an effort to recapture our fiscal flexibility and ensure that our government can respond to a range of current and emerging security, social, economic, and environmental changes and challenges. The PBGC's situation is an excellent example of the need for the Congress to reconsider the role of government organizations, programs, and policies in light of changes that have occurred since PBGC's establishment in 1974.

Our recent work on DB pension funding rules provides important insights in understanding the problems facing PBGC and the DB system. To summarize our findings, while pension funding rules are intended to ensure that plans have sufficient assets to pay promised benefit to plan participants, significant vulnerabilities exist. Although from 1995 to 2002 most of the 100 largest DB plans annually had assets that exceeded their current liabilities, by 2002 over half of the 100 largest plans were underfunded, and almost one-fourth of plans were less than 90 percent funded. Further, because of leeway in the actuarial methodology and assumptions that sponsors may use to measure plan assets and liabilities, underfunding may actually have been more severe and widespread than reported. Additionally, on average over 60 percent of sponsors of these plans made no annual cash contributions to their plans. One key reason for this is that the funding rules allow a sponsor to satisfy minimum funding requirements without necessarily making a cash contribution each year, even though the plan may be underfunded. Further, very few sponsors of underfunded plans were required to pay an additional funding charge (AFC), a funding mechanism designed to reduce severe plan underfunding. Finally, our analysis confirms the notion that plans sponsored by financially weak firms pose a particular risk to PBGC, as these plans were generally more likely to be underfunded, to be subject to an additional funding charge, and to use assumptions to minimize or avoid cash contributions than plans sponsored by stronger firms.

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