Pension Funding Up Sharply in 2013

January 2, 2014 ( – The pension funded status of the U.S.’s largest corporations jumped by 16 percentage points in 2013, year-end analysis shows.

By John Manganaro | January 02, 2014
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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 December.

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.

Towers 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.