Canadian DB Plan Sponsors Addressing Challenges

November 11, 2013 ( – Canadian plan sponsors are taking steps to address challenges facing their defined benefit (DB) retirement plans.

Aon Hewitt, a provider of human resource solutions, has released the Canadian findings of its 2013 Global Pension Risk Survey, which found a majority of Canadian plan sponsors are:

  • Managing risk in their DB plans with strategies increasingly grounded in long-term planning;
  • Establishing clear, long-term goals that are monitored and measured as standard practice;
  • Paying closer attention to plan funding and viewing performance as critical; and
  • Actively managing investment strategies with a focus on liabilities and are paying increased attention to diversification and alternative investments such as real estate.

“For most plan sponsors, the pain of the last few years has led to a greater awareness of the risks faced by their DB pension plans. There is heightened interest in how these risks should be managed and possibly de-risked regardless of an organization’s long term commitment to a DB plan,” said Will da Silva, senior partner, Canadian Retirement Consulting at Aon Hewitt, Toronto. “Simply following the herd in setting investment and funding policy is no longer the standard. To survive, pension plans must be affordable for their sponsors, and appropriate risk management is one way to manage this goal.”

Managing Benefits and Liabilities

Plans in different sectors are using different approaches when they see a need to change benefits.

The private sector plans are more likely to make fundamental changes to participant benefits. Many Canadian plan sponsors have already closed or intend to close plans to new participants, freeze accruals for existing participants and/or switch to a pension structure where more of the risks are borne by plan participants. Seventy-five percent of plans where the plan sponsor is publicly traded have already closed at least one plan to new participants, and 15% are looking to freeze their plan in the near future.

On the other hand, there is a strong commitment to DB plans in the public sector. Plan sponsors are more likely to look for adjustments to benefits or cost structures that maintain the form of the benefit, but at a level that is more manageable for plan sponsors. Many plan sponsors are looking at ways to make the underlying benefit less costly and the vast majority are contemplating further cost sharing with participants. Specifically, 71% of public sector plans are considering additional participant contributions, while about one-third are looking to reducing ancillary/discretionary benefits or reduce/eliminate indexing.

The survey results indicate there is considerable interest by plan sponsors (43%) in finding out more about the “target benefit plan” concept, although it is a relatively new way to manage many of the risks inherent in traditional DB plans and defined contribution plans and legislation is still outstanding in most jurisdictions.

Solvency and Funding

Survey results show most DB plan sponsors are employing a cautious combination of passive and active measures to meet funding obligations. There is an encouraging trend toward investment diversification and de-risking practice, though many continue to rely on passive measures such as interest rate increases to boost their funding position.

Letters of credit continue to be underutilized, despite being useful in some cases for managing short-term contribution volatility. Letters of credit can be used to satisfy solvency funding requirements by securing funding obligations rather than making cash contributions. Specifically, 19% have already posted a letter of credit, and 22% intend to do so in the future.

Annuities and Longevity

As well as having choices in managing benefits, survey results indicate plan sponsors have an increasing array of tools that can be used to manage plan liabilities. Annuity options are increasingly marketed by insurance providers and are popular in other parts of the world. The popularity of annuities in Canada can be expected to grow given the private sector trend toward plan closures and freezes. Annuity purchases can reduce pension liability by transferring some or all of a plan's benefit obligations to an insurance carrier. They can be used by plan sponsors wanting to exit the DB business, and also by those wanting to de-leverage an ongoing plan.

Similarly, insuring the “longevity risk” of a plan is becoming of interest to sponsors in Canada. Sixteen percent of plan sponsors are very or somewhat likely to consider a buy-in, and another 11% are considering a buy-out. Sixty-five percent of organizations are now concerned with longevity risk in their plans, and 28% are open to exploring ways to hedge longevity risk.

De-Risking and Alternative Investments

The survey results reveal a growing awareness of the risk pension plans face and the steps that are required by plan sponsors to mitigate that risk. Specifically, 37% of plan sponsors say low-risk targets are part of their long-term strategy, while 40% are interested in hedging risk related to interest rates, and 22% are planning to increase allocation to long bonds to better match their plan’s liabilities.

Investment strategy continues to be targeted towards greater diversification of portfolios. Diversifying out of Canadian equities and into alternative asset categories and foreign equities has been a trend for several years now, according to the survey results.

Last year, 33% of plan sponsors reduced Canadian equity holdings and 30% will continue this trend into next year. Also, more than 30% of plans are already increasing or planning to increase allocations to alternatives.

Monitoring Risk and Thinking Long Term

The growing focus on risk may well be the catalyst for the dramatic growth in monitoring practices as years of discussion are finally transformed into actionable strategy, according to the survey results. Recognition of the need for pension plan sustainability, supported by long-term goals and strategic planning to support robust, reduced-risk plans, is gaining momentum. Plan sponsors are not only mindful of the need for long-term planning, but that plans are also focused on achieving established and measurable goals.

To that end, 78% of DB plan sponsors are monitoring pension plan assets and liabilities on a regular basis, and 84% of plan sponsors say they have a long-term plan in place.

“Successful plan management can no longer be considered a passive exercise. It requires careful attention to long-term funding and investment strategy and a disciplined focus on adapting the strategy to take advantage of opportunities that may arise,” da Silva said. “Active pension plan management, with a focus on how the assets and liabilities interact, is key with individualized strategies, including de-risking practices, becoming ‘the new normal’ for Canadian plan sponsors.”

One hundred and thirty-nine Canadian pension plans participated in the 2013 Aon Hewitt Global Pension Risk Survey - Canada, representing more than $250 billion of assets and two million participants, from a broad cross-section of organizations.

Copies of survey can be found here.