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US Pension Fund Fitness Tracker: Still no improvement in funding ration in second quarter of 2014

Chicago | | Media Releases Americas

The UBS Global Asset Management US Pension Fund Fitness Tracker saw the funding ratio of the typical corporate US pension plan drop by approximately one percentage point to 90% in the second quarter of 2014.

"Continuing the downward trend seen in the first quarter of 2014, funding ratios have decreased on average about five percentage points year-to-date" said Robert Guzman, Head of Pension Risk Management at UBS Global Asset Management. "With many equities at all-time highs, we believe it may be prudent for plan sponsors to consider implementing downside protection in their equity portfolios."

Liability values increased 4.6% over the quarter, outpacing the positive investment returns of 3.5%. As a result, funding ratios decreased for the second consecutive quarter. These estimates are based on the average corporate plan’s reported asset allocation weightings from the UBS Global Asset Management Pension 500 Database and publicly available benchmark information. 

Exhibit 1: Despite strong asset returns, funding ratios continue on their downtrend trend in the second quarter of 2014

US Pension Fund Fitness Tracker of the typical US corporate plan’s funding ratio

Source: UBS Global Asset Management, Barclays, Markit.

Building on generally positive economic data in the US over the quarter, the total return of the S&P 500 Index was up 5.23%. Inflation came in slightly higher than forecasted in the US, but this has not yet been viewed as a headwind by the US Federal Reserve (Fed). In the eurozone, deflationary risks led the European Central bank (ECB) to ease monetary policy, using a set of measures that included cutting the deposit rate to -0.10% and extending the Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO). The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England (BoE) voted unanimously to maintain the existing benchmark interest rate, as well as the size of its asset purchase program. It is worth noting the comment made by the BoE Governor, Mark Carney, that rate hikes could happen "sooner than markets currently expect." Geopolitical risks still include instability in Ukraine (although to a lesser extent) and the political violence unfolding in Iraq. In US dollar (USD) terms, the Euro Stoxx Total Return Index was up 2.36% over the quarter. The MSCI Emerging Markets Total Return Index ended the quarter up 6.71% in USD terms.

Continuing its downward trend, the yield on 10-year US Treasury bonds decreased by 19 basis points (bps), ending at 2.53%. The yield on 30-year US Treasury bonds decreased 20 bps, ending at 3.36%. High-quality corporate bond credit spreads, as measured by the Barclays Long Credit A+ option-adjusted spread, ended the quarter two bps tighter. As a result, pension discount rates (which are based on the yield of high-quality investment grade corporate bonds) decreased over the quarter. The passage of time caused liabilities for a typical pension plan to increase by about one percentage point over the quarter. Together, these effects caused liabilities to increase 4.6% for the quarter. (Please see disclosures for assumptions and methodology.)

Disclosures and methodology

Funding ratio
Funding ratios measure a pension fund’s ability to meet future payout obligations to plan participants. The main factors impacting the funding ratio of a typical US defined benefit plan are equity market returns, which grow (or shrink) the asset pool from which plan participants’ benefits are paid, and liability returns, which move inversely to interest rates.

Liability indices: Methodology
Pension Protection Act (PPA) liability returns are approximated by the Barclays Capital US Long Credit A-AAA Index. This index broadly reflects the duration and credit characteristics of the PPA discount curve that is used to discount expected pension benefit payments for US defined benefit pension plans.

Asset index: Methodology
UBS Global Asset Management approximates the return for the ”typical” US defined benefit plan using the reported asset allocation of the UBS Global Asset Management Pension 500 Database. The series is constructed using the aggregate asset allocation weightings and publicly available benchmark information, with geometrically linked monthly total returns.

Pension Fund Fitness Tracker: Methodology
The US Pension Fund Fitness Tracker is the ratio of the asset index over the liability index. Assuming all other factors remain constant, it combines asset and liability returns and measures the impact of a “typical” investment strategy on the funding ratio of a model defined benefit plan in the US due to interest rollup, change in interest rates and typical asset performance, but excludes unique plan factors, such as service cost and benefit payments.

The UBS Global Asset Management Pension 500 Database
The UBS Global Asset Management Pension 500 Database is a proprietary database that is based on the analysis of 500 public companies sponsoring large defined benefit plans. The information was extracted from the companies’ 10-K statements. The study may include figures for companies’ nonqualified and foreign plans, both of which are not subject to ERISA.

The aggregate asset allocation is based on an equally weighted average of the 500 companies included in the database. The aggregate asset allocation includes equities, fixed income, hedge funds, private equity, real estate and cash.

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