Press Release

Funded status of largest U.S. corporate pension plans slipped in 2018, Willis Towers Watson analysis finds

Fourth quarter decline in stock market derailed improved funding trend for year

January 2, 2019
| United States

ARLINGTON, VA, January 2, 2019 — The funded status of the nation’s largest corporate pension plans slipped at the end of 2018 as a sharp decline in the stock market during the fourth quarter offset what looked to be a second consecutive year of improved funding, according to an analysis by Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW), a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company.

Willis Towers Watson examined pension plan data for 389 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 84% at the end of 2018, compared with 85% at the end of 2017. After the first nine months of 2018, the aggregate pension funded status stood at 90%. The analysis also found the pension deficit is projected to be $255 billion at the end of 2018, slightly lower than the $260 billion deficit at the end of 2017.

Fortune 1000 aggregate pension plan funding levels

Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018*
Aggregate level 106% 77% 81% 84% 78% 77% 89% 81% 81% 81% 85% 84%

“Pension plans had been on track for another year of improved funding through the third quarter of 2018 as a result of higher interest rates, relatively stable equity markets and solid contributions,” said Jennifer DeMeo, senior director, Willis Towers Watson. “However, the steep decline in the equities market during the fourth quarter, particularly in December, negated what had been a very positive year.”

According to the analysis, pension plan assets declined in 2018 from $1.48 trillion at the end of 2017 to an estimated $1.33 trillion at the end of 2018. Overall investment returns are estimated to have averaged a negative 4.7% in 2018, although returns varied significantly by asset class. Domestic large capitalization equities lost 4% while domestic small/mid-capitalization equities realized losses of 10%. Aggregate bonds provided no return (0%); long corporate and long government bonds, typically used in liability-driven investing strategies, realized losses of 7% and 2%, respectively.

The Willis Towers Watson analysis estimates these companies contributed $47 billion to their pension plans in 2018, as many plan sponsors took advantage of deductions at the older, higher tax rates which existed before the tax law changes. Total pension obligations declined from $1.74 trillion in 2017 to an estimated $1.59 trillion in 2018.

“The seesaw year in funded status we experienced in 2018 is a perfect example of why plan sponsors need to review their overall pension management strategy as they move into 2019,” said Royce Kosoff, managing director, Willis Towers Watson. “The volatility in the fourth quarter, and especially in December, which was one of the worst months since the Great Recession, demonstrates how quickly conditions change. We expect sponsors will continue to express interest in risk management strategies, such as revisiting their investment approach or transferring obligations via an annuity purchase or through lump sum buyouts.”

About the analysis

Willis Towers Watson analyzed 389 Fortune 1000 companies with December fiscal-year-end dates for which complete data were available. The 2018 figures are estimates of U.S. plan assets and liabilities. The earlier figures are actual. Actual year-end 2018 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 more than 40,000 employees serving more than 140 countries. 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