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October 2020 Pension Finance Update

Stocks slipped again in October, producing modest declines for pensions. Both model plans we track[1] lost less than 1% during the month. For the year, Plan A is down more than 5% and Plan B is down almost 2% through the first ten months of 2020:


Most stock markets moved lower in October, but small cap and emerging markets bucked the trend. A diversified stock portfolio lost 1%-2% last month but remains up 1% for 2020, after being down more than 20% at the end of the first quarter.

Interest rates, especially Treasuries, moved higher in October. As a result, a diversified bond portfolio lost 1% last month but remains up 9%-11% through the first ten months of 2020, with long duration and Treasuries outperforming.

Overall, our traditional 60/40 portfolio lost more than 1% in October but remains up 4% for the year, while the conservative 20/80 portfolio lost 1% last month but remains up 7% through the first ten months of 2020.


Pension liabilities (for funding, accounting, and de-risking purposes) are driven by market interest rates. The first graph below compares our Aa GAAP spot yield curve at December 31, 2019 and October 31, 2020, and it also shows the (tiny) increase in the curve last month. The second graph below shows our estimate of movements in effective GAAP discount rates for pension obligations of various duration during 2020:

Corporate bond yields rose almost 0.1% in October, pushing pension liabilities down 1%. Through the first ten months of 2020, liabilities have increased 8%-12% for most plans, with long-duration plans seeing the largest increases.


After recovering most of the early year losses this summer, pension finances slipped over the past two months. Barring a recovery between now and year end, 2020 is looking like a poor, but not catastrophic, year for pension finance. The graphs below show the movement of assets and liabilities for our two model plans during the first ten months of the year: 

Looking Ahead

Pension funding relief has reduced required plan funding since 2012, but this relief will gradually sunset. Plans that have only made required contributions in the past can expect significant increases in required contributions over the next couple years under current law.

2020 experience, if it persists, will not increase required contributions until 2022, compounding higher funding requirements due to the fading of funding relief. There is some chance we get more relief this year, but at this point it’s too soon to say for certain. 

Discount rates moved higher last month. We expect most pension sponsors will use effective discount rates in the 2.4%-2.9% range to measure pension liabilities right now.

The table below summarizes rates that plan sponsors are required to use for IRS funding purposes for 2020, along with estimates for 2021. Pre-relief, both 24-month averages and December ‘spot’ rates, which are still required for some calculations, such as PBGC premiums, are also included.

[1] Plan A is a traditional plan (duration 12 at 5.5%) with a 60/40 asset allocation, while Plan B is a largely retired plan (duration 9 at 5.5%) with a 20/80 allocation with a greater emphasis on corporate and long-duration bonds. We assume overhead expenses of 1% of plan assets per year, and we assume the plans are 100% funded at the beginning of the year and ignore benefit accruals, contributions, and benefit payments in order to isolate the financial performance of plan assets versus liabilities.

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September 2020 Pension Finance Update

Lower stock prices hit pensions during September. Both model plans we track lost ground last month, with Plan A dropping 2% and Plan B slipping 1% during the month. For the year, Plan A is now down 5% and Plan B is down more than 1% through the first three quarters of 2020.