S&P 500 Benefit Plans, 2006: Will Pension Panic Resurface? A few years ago, pensions were foremost in the minds of most investors as the oft-cited "perfect storm" of low interest rates and miserable asset performance swelled the unfunded obligations of pension plans. Other postemployment benefit (OPEB) plans didn’t generate nearly the same level of investor concern, despite the fact that they were also negatively affected by lower interest rates. Because OPEB plans are rarely funded, there was little cause for concern from the falling stock markets - and because OPEB plans put more discretion in the hands of the employer/sponsor than pension plans, investors shrugged. If things got bad enough, managers could always take a hard line on the plans and terminate them.
Since those dark days for benefit plans, the accounting for them has changed - neatly slicing $152 billion from the stockholders’ equity of 309 S&P 500 companies, and mostly increasing their stated leverage. The new accounting - Statement 158 - did nothing to change the way a benefit plan’s funded status would be counted; it merely put that funded status on the sponsor’s balance sheet, whether overfunded or underfunded. That funded status improved again at year end 2006 - despite declining contributions to the plans. As share buybacks increased in popularity, benefit plan contributions decreased. What might give investors pause right now: many plans have significant asset allocations to alternative investments, which might be getting rocked in the current market tumult, prompting the question of renewed contribution increases later.