Researchers at Towers Watson ascribe the growth mainly to
higher stock market returns and rising interest rates. In developing the
analysis, researchers examined pension plan data for the 418 Fortune 1000 companies that sponsor
qualified defined benefit (DB) pension plans and have a fiscal year ending in
Results indicate that the aggregate pension funded status for
the companies is about 93%, a substantial jump from 77% at the end of 2012 but
still well below the 106% pre-recession funded status observed in 2007.
“The strong stock market and higher interest rates last year
gave plan sponsors the one-two punch they needed to cut the funding deficit of their
corporate pension plans by nearly 75%,” explains Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement
consultant for Towers Watson. He also points out that, despite strong gains
last year, the funded status of the largest U.S. corporate pensions still
hovers well below 100%—a level reached only three times since 2000.
In dollar terms, pension plan funding improved by $285
billion last year, leaving a deficit of $99 billion at the end of 2013. Other
figures show total pension plan assets increased by an estimated 9% during the
year, to $1.409 trillion.
Dave Suchsland, a senior retirement consultant at Towers
Watson, tells PLANSPONSOR that the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st
Century Act (MAP-21) gave plan sponsors significant relief last year on
contributions made to pension funds on behalf of plan participants.
MAP-21, in part, changed funding rules for corporate
pensions to allow the use of higher interest rates in determining cash contribution
requirements. The law was a primary driver in bringing contribution requirements down, Suchsland explains.
Watson estimates that companies contributed $48.8 billion to their pension
plans in 2013—a 23% decrease from 2012.
Lower contributions are good news for both sponsors and participants, Suchsland adds, as companies should see better balance sheet results and improved plan security for 2014.