How Underfunded Are US Corporate Pension Plans?

To be sure, we’ve written quite a bit about both public and private pension plans this year. Most notably, we’ve chronicled the deplorable state of the pension system in Illinois, where a State Supreme Court ruling in May set a de facto precedent for pension reform bids across the country. 

But while the focus - here and elsewhere thanks to America’s growing state and local government fiscal crisis - has been on the public sector, seven years of ZIRP has taken its toll on private sector pension plans. 

We touched on this briefly in March when we noted that ECB QE could end up widening pension deficits dramatically and as FT reported last month, “UK companies are paying less towards meeting their pension shortfalls than at any point since 2009, even as aggregate pension deficits reach their highest level in five years.” 

For those wondering about the extent to which falling discount rates have served to create a giant, multi-hundred billion dollar underfunded liability for S&P companies, look no further than the following graphic from Citi’s Matt King which should come with a caption that reads: “You’re welcome pensioners -- The Fed.” 

More color, from Mercer:

The estimated aggregate funding level of pension plans sponsored by S&P 1500 companies dropped by 2% to 81% as of August 31st, 2015, rising interest rates mitigated losses in equity markets. As of August 31st, 2015, the estimated aggregate deficit of $423 billion USD increased by $44 billion as compared to the end of July. Funded status is now up by $81 billion USD from the $504 billion USD deficit measured at the end of 2014, according to Mercer,[1] a global consulting leader in advancing health, wealth and careers.