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Time to derisk? Funded status up, but potential volatility ahead

Amy Trainor, FSA, Multi-Asset Strategist
3 min read
2024-11-15
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Archived pieces remain available on the site. Please consider the publish date while reading these older pieces.
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The views expressed are those of the author at the time of writing. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. The value of your investment may become worth more or less than at the time of original investment. While any third-party data used is considered reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed. For professional, institutional, or accredited investors only.

Today, many US corporate defined benefit (DB) plans may have the best opportunity to derisk in the last two-plus years — and we think they might want to consider taking advantage of it given the macro and market uncertainties that loom for the second half of 2024. 

We estimate funded ratios have risen a hefty five percentage points year to date to 102% — the highest level of the post-GFC era.1 In contrast, funded positions rose a meager two percentage points in aggregate in 2022 and 2023, from 95% to 97%, leaving many plans’ derisking aspirations on hold.

Meanwhile, open questions related to the policy paths of the Fed and other central banks and the outcome of the US election (read up on our election insights here) may increase the impetus for taking action now. In short, we see a case for higher volatility in both equities and rates, translating into a wider range of potential funded-ratio outcomes. Plan sponsors may want to consider the potential benefits of locking in and protecting some of the year’s hard-fought gains ahead of the back half of the year.

Suggested action steps

  • Run a real-time funded-ratio estimate, compare it to the plan’s glidepath triggers (formal or informal), and evaluate whether and how to derisk.
  • Evaluate potential derisking strategies:

    Credit (long or intermediate) — The focus here is on matching spread exposure in the liability. We think fundamentals and technicals are solid, and therefore spreads may stay tight and rangebound for longer. Corporations have pulled forward new issues year to date ahead of potential election volatility, while all-in yields remain attractive, which has kept demand strong. And while it’s a bit of a circular argument for an Alert suggesting that plans consider taking risk off the table, we think that with funded ratios hovering just above 100%, corporate DB plan derisking and demand from other liability-relative investors could keep long-end spreads tight.

    Treasuries and STRIPS — This may help plans manage to hedge-ratio targets and maintain a healthy liquidity buffer for benefit payments, rebalancing, and any capital call needs.

    Defensive equities — This may appeal to plans that want to reduce risk but have higher return objectives or that are looking to diversify their return-seeking allocation. In addition, we think valuations are attractive. (Read our recent article on defensive equities.)

    Liquid infrastructure — This asset class provides an opportunity to 1) derisk via exposure to companies that may have steadier, more bond-like cash flows and 2) invest in potential growth themes, such as AI-driven demand for data centers and power generation.
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1As of 26 April 2024. Based on estimated changes in yields and asset returns since reported funded ratios and discount rates at year-end 2023. Year-end data based on year-end 10-K filings of Russell 3000 companies in each given year with a December fiscal year end. 2023 estimate based on funded-ratio and discount rates estimated by Wellington Management based on change in high-quality corporate bond yields (Bloomberg US Long Credit Aa) since 31 December 2022 and performance of equities (MSCI World), bonds (blend of Bloomberg US Long Government/Credit and Bloomberg US Aggregate), other investments (blend of HFRI Fund Weighted Composite Index, MSCI December All Country World, and Russell 2000), and real estate (NCREIF Property Index). Actual results may differ significantly from estimates. Results presented at the aggregate Russell 3000 Index level. Sources: FactSet, Wellington Management. 

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