Pension liabilities in '$20 billion club' saw marginal improvement in 2015News added by Benefits Pro on March 4, 2016

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By Nick Thornton

The 20 sponsors of defined benefit plans with the largest global liabilities together carry almost $914 billion in future obligations, according to Russell Investments.

The “$20 Billion Club,” first coined by Russell in 2011, is comprised of U.S. corporations with at least $20 billion in pension liabilities.

There were 16 members at the club’s inception. Now there are 20, each carrying at least $22 billion in pension liabilities.

The total funding deficit improved last year. By the end of 2015, it was $182 billion, down from $194 billion at the start of the year.

The club’s total liabilities were reduced by $54 billion in 2015, aided in part by a rise in interest rates. The average discount rate, which is used to assess the cost of future pension payments, rose from 4 percent to 4.4 percent.

The club held about $732 billion in assets at the end of 2015, down from $774 billion at the start of the year.

Investment returns were a paltry $8.3 billion, or about 1 percent, well below the interest rate liability sponsors paid on future obligations.

Sponsors’ contributions to plans were also low last year compared to recent years, according to Russell’s report, likely explained by pension smoothing relief offered in recent legislation.

Total contributions were $13.4 billion, less than new benefit accruals, which were $16.4 billion, meaning sponsors didn’t contribute enough to cover to cost of new obligations, Russell’s report said.

The report did note the recent announcement by General Motors to issue $2 billion in debt in 2016 in order to fund its pension, which ranks number nine in the list of 20.

For some sponsors, it will be cheaper to borrow money to address pension deficits than it will be to pay mounting premiums to Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and other costs to service pensions, the report notes.

While improved, the $182 billion aggregate deficit of club members is a far cry from 2007, when sponsors realized a funding surplus.

The deficit’s nadir was suffered in 2012, when the $20 billion club’s funding deficit grew to $200 billion.

Last year, the club paid out about $49 billion in retirement benefits, according to the report.

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