Actuarial Valuation: A Pension Fund Appraisal

What Is Actuarial Valuation?

An actuarial valuation is a type of appraisal of a pension fund's assets versus liabilities, using investment, economic, and demographic assumptions for the model to determine the funded status of a pension plan. The assumptions are based on a mix of statistical studies and experienced judgment. Since assumptions are often derived from long-term data, unusual short-term conditions or unanticipated trends can occasionally cause deviations from forecasts.

Key Takeaways

  • Actuarial valuations are used to assess the funded status of a defined-benefit pension fund.
  • Unlike market values, actuarial values rely on statistical inference and assumptions that are plugged into a model.
  • Actuarial models rely on long-term projections that include interest rates, demographic changes, and inflation.

Understanding Actuarial Valuation

Many variables go into an actuarial valuation model. On the asset side, the actuary must make an assumption about employer contribution rates and the investment growth rate for the portfolio of stocks and bonds (Level 1- and 2-type assets) and other assets (illiquid Level 3-type). The calculation of payment liabilities is much more complex.

The actuary must make assumptions regarding, but not limited to, the discount rate, employee contribution rates, wage growth rates, inflation rates, mortality rates, service retirement ages, disabled retirement ages and interest on member accounts. If all the long-term assumptions are reasonable, then a realistic funding (or funded) ratio can be derived. The funding ratio equals assets over liabilities, with a ratio of over 1.00, or 100%, indicating that pension assets are sufficient to cover liabilities.

Implications of Actuarial Valuation

Actuarial valuations are conducted in both the private and public sectors. U.S. Steel disclosed in its 2019 annual filing that its funding ration as of Dec. 31, 2019, was 0.93, or 93% (plan assets of $5.4 billion divided by obligations of $5.8 billion). The company did not have enough plan assets to meet those obligations. However, as of December 2021, the funding ratio had improves to 1.04. Plan assets of $5.6 billion were enough to cover plan obligations of $5.4 billion.

Some states are in tough shape due in most part to sharply higher liabilities for worker pay (past negotiations with state employees resulted in greater pension payment guarantees). A 2019 study by the The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the 20 lowest-funded pension states have just 56% of their pensions funded as of 2017. Overall, U.S. states have funded 69% of their obligations, said the study. States that have funded over 100% of their pension obligations include South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. However, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Illinois have funded less than 40% of their obligations.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “Note 16: Retirement Benefit Plans - U.S. Pension Plan Assets.”

  2. Governmental Accounting Standards Board. "Financial Reporting for Pension Plans - An Amendment of GASB Statement No. 25 (Issued 06/12)."

  3. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “State and Local Government Pension Funding Ratios, 2002 - 2017.”

  4. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "United States Steel Corporation, Form 10-K, 2019," Page F-42.

  5. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "United States Steel Corporation, Form 10-K 2021," Page 98.

  6. The Pew Charitable Trusts. "The State Pension Funding Gap: 2017."

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