Mitigating funding risks to safeguard your employees’ pension benefits.
The COVID-19 outbreak created significant turmoil on financial markets. Combined with the current uncertain economic climate, pension plan funding is under severe pressure. Yet, employees are relying upon their employers that their pension plans will continue as normal. And despite trying times, employers are still obliged to continue making contributions in line with pension plan terms.
For the past fifteen years the Belgian government has encouraged companies to invest in the second pillar pension coverage for employees. It’s the employer who is responsible for financing these pension benefits. A pension plan is typically financed through a corporate pension fund or a group insurance contract according to which the employer pays contributions to build up a pension reserve that later will be paid to the affiliated employee. Due to the decline in interest rates over the past years, many corporations revised their investment strategies to seek a higher return on investment for their pension plan assets. But a higher return, usually comes with increased investment risks.
Decrease in value of pension plan assets
The BEL20, as many financial markets around the globe, was hit hard by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020 its index registered a sharp fall of 35%. And it’s only now that we are seeing a slow recovery. As a result, companies with pension plan assets invested in the market, saw the value of their assets decline, while their pension plan liabilities continued to build up, impacting their overall liquidity.
Combined with the overall business impact on economic activity due to the lockdown and the need for short-term liquidity, some organisations may now struggle to secure their (short-term) pension contributions.
Defined benefit versus defined contribution pension plans
To determine as an employer the financial impact on your company’s pension plan it’s important to keep two things in mind.
- Are you investing in a defined benefit or defined contribution pension plan?
The financial impact mainly affects defined benefit plans, because these plans guarantee a specified payment amount when the employee retires. This means the employer is responsible for bridging the gap, if necessary, between the returns realised on the investment and the fixed pension commitments made to the employee.
With defined contribution plans, on the other hand, employees and employers can contribute and invest funds to build up savings for retirement. The employer has no obligation toward the account’s performance beyond the 1.75% legal return. Consequently, there’s less impact on this type of pension plan.
- How are the pension commitments financed?
The financial impact on the value of pension assets will be higher for pension plans that invest in equities, bonds, real estate and other high-risk financial instruments. Think about pension commitments based on a branch 23 insurance contract or corporate pension funds. These types of contracts create additional liquidity needs, because employers need cash to meet the near-term pension benefit commitments and have to comply with regulatory requirements as well.