Funded Status

What Is Funded Status?

Funded status compares the assets to the liabilities in a pension plan. This data point is useful in understanding how many employees are truly covered in a worst-case scenario if the company or other organization is forced to pay all of its retirement benefits at once.

Key Takeaways

  • Funded status is the financial status of a pension plan.
  • Funded status is measured by subtracting pension fund obligations from assets.
  • If the funded status of the plan falls below a certain level, the employer may be required to make additional contributions to the plan to bring the funding level back in line.

Understanding Funded Status

The equation to determine a plan’s funded status is:

Funded status = plan assets - projected benefit obligation (PBO)

Future liabilities, or benefit obligations, are what the plan owes employees for service. Plan assets, which are usually managed by an investment team, are used to pay for retiree benefits. Funded statuses can range from fully funded to unfunded. Many industry experts consider a fund that is at least 80% funded to be healthy, though pension plans are regulated and may be required to contribute to the plan if funding falls below a certain level as calculated by the plan's outside actuaries each year.

Companies typically choose not to have a pension fund be 100% funded. This is because a rise in interest rates will push the funded status over 100%. It is very difficult to take money out of a pension fund legally, so money that could be used for other purposes is essentially trapped, a situation that makes analysts and shareholders unhappy.

An analyst can calculate a company's funded status using figures in the pension footnote. This is in the company's financial statements. Some have proposed that companies move their pension deficits or surpluses onto the balance sheet rather than just show them in the footnotes. Moving the funded status of pension plans, as well as other retirement benefit obligations like healthcare plans, onto the balance sheet could force many companies to recognize this potentially large liability.

Defined-Benefit Plan vs. Defined-Contribution Plan

There are two main types of pension plans: a defined-benefit plan (DB) and a defined-contribution plan (DC). As of March 31, 2019, U.S. corporate DB assets totaled $3.2 trillion, according to Investment Company Institute data. At the same time, U.S. corporate DC plan assets totaled $8.2 trillion. Corporations are increasingly closing pension plans to new employees, or shutting them down, and moving employees to DC plans.

In a DB plan, the employer guarantees that the employee receives a definite amount of benefit upon retirement, regardless of the performance of the underlying investment pool. The employer is liable for a specific flow of pension payments to the retiree (the dollar amount is determined by a formula, usually based on earnings and years of service).

In a DC plan, the employer makes specific plan contributions for the worker, usually matching to varying degrees the contributions that employees make. The final benefit that the employee receives depends on the plan's investment performance. A DC plan is less expensive for a company than a traditional pension because the company is on the hook for whatever the fund can't generate.

The best-known defined-contribution plans are the 401(k) and its equivalent for non-profit workers, the 403(b).

Article Sources
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  1. Pew Center on the States. "The Trillion Dollar Gap: Underfunded State Retirement Systems and the Roads to Reform," Page 3. Accessed Feb. 14, 2020.

  2. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Beginners' Guide to Financial Statement." Accessed Feb. 14, 2020.

  3. Federal Reserve Board. "Footnotes Aren't Enough: The Impact of Pension Accounting on Stock Values," Page 1. Accessed Feb. 14, 2020.

  4. Investment Company Institute. "Defined Contribution Plan Participants’ Activities, First Quarter 2019," Page 3. Accessed Feb. 14, 2020.

  5. Internal Revenue Service Accessed. "Choosing a Retirement Plan: Defined Benefit Plan." Accessed Feb. 14, 2020. 

  6. Internal Revenue Service Accessed. "Retirement Plans: Definitions." Accessed Feb. 14, 2020.

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