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Despite strong investment gains, financial health of largest U.S. corporate pension plans showed little improvement in 2019

Funded status of largest plans edged up slightly, Willis Towers Watson analysis finds

Retirement
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January 2, 2020

ARLINGTON, VA, January 2, 2020 — The funded status of the nation’s largest corporate pension plans edged up slightly in 2019 as historically low interest rate levels mostly offset the strongest investments gains witnessed by plan sponsors since 2003, according to an analysis by Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW), a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company. The analysis also found employer contributions to pension plans plunged in 2019.

Willis Towers Watson examined pension plan data for 376 Fortune 1000 companies that sponsor U.S. defined benefit pension plans and have a December fiscal-year-end date. Results indicate that the aggregate pension funded status is estimated to be 87% at the end of 2019, compared with 86% at the end of 2018. The analysis also found the pension deficit is projected to be $216 billion at the end of 2019, slightly lower than the $222 billion deficit at the end of 2018. Pension obligations increased 9% from $1.58 trillion in 2018 to an estimated $1.72 trillion in 2019.

Fortune 1000 aggregate pension plan funding levels
Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019*
Aggregate level 106% 77% 81% 84% 78% 77% 89% 81% 81% 81% 85% 86% 87%

*Estimated

“Significant gains experienced in both the stock and bond markets should have bolstered the financial health of corporate pension plans in 2019,” said Joseph Gamzon, senior director, Retirement, Willis Towers Watson. “However, interest rates were at historically low levels and experienced the largest one-year drop in two decades, resulting in a huge increase in plan obligations and little overall change in the plans’ funded status.”

According to the analysis, pension plan assets increased in 2019 from $1.36 trillion at the end of 2018 to an estimated $1.50 trillion at the end of 2019. Overall investment returns are estimated to have averaged 19.8% in 2019, although returns varied significantly by asset class. Domestic large capitalization equities grew 32%, while domestic small/mid-capitalization equities realized gains of 28%. Aggregate bonds recognized gains of 9%, while long corporate and long government bonds, typically used in liability-driven investing strategies, realized gains of 23% and 15%, respectively.

The analysis estimates these companies contributed $26.3 billion to their plans in 2019 — roughly half of what they contributed in 2018, when many plan sponsors took advantage of the higher tax deductions for pension contributions that existed before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The larger deduction is no longer available to plan sponsors.

“2019 was a year of extremes, with historically low interest rates and high investment returns,” said Jennifer Lewis, senior director, Retirement, Willis Towers Watson. “As we move into 2020, these conditions will cause employers to face growing pressure on their plans’ expected rate of return assumptions at the same time as they prepare for higher required cash contributions due to the upcoming expiration of pension funding relief. Sponsors will want to keep an eye on interest rates as increases from their current low levels could create opportunities to reevaluate their investment strategies and consider a range of risk reduction options.”

About the analysis

Willis Towers Watson analyzed 376 Fortune 1000 companies with December fiscal-year-end dates for which complete data were available. The 2019 figures are estimates of U.S. plan assets and liabilities. The earlier figures are actual. Actual year-end 2019 results will be publicly available in a few months.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential. Learn more at willistowerswatson.com.

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