PBGC Raises Pension Premium Rates for 2020

Reducing plan head count could lessen the bite of higher premiums

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS October 23, 2019

The federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), which insures defined benefit pension plans against the inability to meet their obligations to vested participants, announced Oct. 11 that pension sponsors will pay higher premium rates in 2020 for single-employer and multiemployer defined benefit plans.

For single-employer plans, the per-participant flat-rate premium will be $83, up from $80 in 2019. The variable-rate premium per $1,000 in unfunded vested benefits will be $45, up from $43, with a per participant cap of $561, up from $541.

For multiemployer plans, the per-participant flat-rate premium will be $30, up from $29 in 2019. 

Single-employer plan rates

Year Per-participant flat rate Variable rate per $1,000 in unfunded vested benefits Variable rate per-participant cap


Multiemployer plan rates

Year Per-participant flat rate

Source: Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

PBGC premium rates are indexed based on changes in the national average wage index, and the 2020 increases reflect a 3.6 percent rise in the national average wage during 2018.

Lowering Head Count to Reduce Premiums

Minimizing PBGC variable-rate premiums often depends on maximizing the use of grace-period contributions—amounts contributed to a plan after the end of the plan year but still attributable to that plan year, said John Lowell, an Atlanta-based partner and actuary with October Three, a pension advisory firm. However, "absent the ability to make really significant funding contributions, the only premium-reduction strategy for most will be reducing head count," Lowell said. "That can be done via lump-sum windows or annuity purchases."

The announcement of higher rates "reinforces the importance of optimizing the selection of the PBGC interest rate methodology," whether flat rates or variable, according to Joe Anzalone, director and consulting actuary in the New York City office of retirement plan and actuarial consulting firm River and Mercantile Group. Like Lowell, he noted that "many sponsors have already implemented relatively simple risk-transfer projects, such as lump-sum windows for former employees with deferred vested benefits and retiree annuity purchases."

A participant who elects a lump sum would receive a single payment at retirement instead of monthly pension checks. "Offering lump sums to nonretired, terminated participants has become a popular strategy among pension plan sponsors the last couple years as a way to reduce head count without paying a premium to an insurance company to off-load the obligations," noted HR consultancy Findley.

Anzalone added that in light of the premium increase, "sponsors should also consider less-common head count reduction strategies, such as lump-sum windows for retirees [who are already receiving pension payments] or a more complex transaction that would allow employees to access their benefits while working."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Administering Defined Benefit Retirement Plans]

Disappearing Pensions

Traditional defined benefit pension plans, once common among large and midsize U.S. companies, are offered by only 21 percent of Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members. Ten percent maintain a pension plan frozen for current employees not open to new hires.

General Electric announced Oct. 7 that it is freezing new vesting in its defined benefit pension plan for about 20,000 current U.S. employees with salaried benefits, effective Jan. 1, 2020, as part of its effort to reduce its pension deficit by up to $8 billion.

In deciding whether to keep plans open to all employees, PBGC premiums "are certainly a factor," Lowell said. However, pension plan sponsors shouldn't be shortsighted, he advised.

"Most companies with open defined benefit plans view them as a competitive advantage and a strategic decision, and they view PBGC premiums as part of the cost of doing that."

Related SHRM Articles:

GE Freezes Pension Plan for 20,000 Employees, SHRM Online, October 2019

House Passes Multiemployer Pension Bill with Dim Senate Prospects, SHRM Online, July 2019

Study: Pension Plans Overpay PBGC Premiums by Millions, SHRM Online, April 2017

Other 2020 Inflation-Adjusted Limits/Thresholds

401(k) Contribution Limit Rises to $19,500 in 2020, SHRM Online, November 2019

2020 FSA Contribution Cap Rises to $2,750, SHRM Online, November 2019

2020 Payroll Taxes Will Hit Higher Incomes, SHRM Online, October 2019

2020 HSA Limits Rise Modestly, IRS Says, SHRM Online, May 2019

IRS Lowers Employer Health Plans' 2020 Affordability Threshold, SHRM Online, July 2019



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