What Goes Around Comes Around

The changing scope of defined benefit outsourcing.

by Curtis S. Morgan

Once upon a time, the defined benefit (DB) pension plan system in the United States included a large number of plans fully cared for within the insurance marketplace. Insurance companies managed the investment of assets, provided draft or model plans, annuitized benefits upon retirement, and even took on mortality and investment risks post-retirement. Reporting and filing requirements, required communications to employees and retirees, and actuarial valuations were all included in the scope of the services.

However, several factors drove significant portions of the market away from these fully bundled approaches:

ERISA and subsequent regulations made design and operation of the plans more complicated and firmly ensconced the pension consultant as a plan sponsors trusted advisor.

The impact of asset growth and trust investment performance on plan and corporate bottom lines led many sponsors to pull away from insurance companies conservative investments, general funds, and investment and mortality charges. Companies also came to expect their own trusts to perform better than insurance company investment pools.

Declining purchase of defined contribution (DC) plans, growing scale of DB plans, and proliferation of lump-sum options in these plans eliminated the perceived need for insurance companies to assume the mortality risk (and to provide annuity products for DC plans).

The number of plans in the small and mid-sized market decreased dramatically, eliminating much of the insurance industrys market.

In the 15 to 20 years after the introduction of ERISA, most DB plan sponsors built their own infrastructures to support their growing plans. Internal staff typically used rudimentary programs to perform pension calculations for employees leaving or considering retirement. External actuaries provided plan design, compliance guidance, funding results, and certified annual government filings. Separate trustees and investment managers supported the growing trusts and ongoing benefits disbursements. This period was, perhaps, the high point of non-integrated administrative servicing. However, the DB plan was about to begin a migration back out of the halls of the plan sponsor and into integrated outsourced solutions.

Participant service technologycall centers, voice response, Web applications, and robust calculation engines and databaseschanged the pension system from one used to support former employees to an integral element in recruiting, retention, and retirement planning. Plan participants growing expectations of instant access to information, online transactions, and better support led to outsourcing.

Next came the financial reporting nightmares. In the late 1980s, DB plan sponsors became subject to separate financial accounting requirements. During the 1990s, plan assets generally performed well and plan sponsors enjoyed latitude with respect to financial assumptions. This allowed many plans to produce pension income for their sponsors and to continue to improve their funding levels. As long as these trends continued and participant service improved, the benefits department was often the hero. However, the heros welcome came to a dramatic end when the bad investment markets of 2001 to 2002 combined with low interest rates to produce higher reported liabilities on DB plan sponsors books.

Moving into 2005, we see a reversal of the disintermediation trend in the DB marketplace. Plan sponsors at all market levels are looking for providers to assume much of the plans management and devise strategies to minimize associated risks. But there are key differences between now and the days when insurance companies provided fully bundled services. For instance:

The number and type of providers have grown beyond the insurance companies. Other large financial players can offer the investment options and low investment costs that large employers may want along with continual monitoring of the investment mix versus investment policy.

Actuarial services, financial reporting support, audit support, government filings, and other plan management services are being reintegrated as added regulation and focus on financial reporting decreases plan sponsors discretion regarding assumptions and funding levels.

Outsourced administration has removed the plan sponsor from most interactions with plan participants. Communication requirements are integrated into the providers overall administrative solutions. Fully automated electronic solutions continue to replace costly paper and labor-intensive processes.

For many of the remaining (and declining number of) DB plan sponsors, outsourcing many of these interactions to as few providers as necessary is increasingly compelling. In the future, more plan sponsors will retain only the true basicsplan design decisions, plan funding responsibility, and vendor management.

Posted December 10, 2004 in Engaged Workforce

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