We worry that pension plans’ de-risking decisions may be delayed, with partial or no action on glide path triggers. Why might there be a delay? Pension funds may be hoping for higher long-term interest rates and have potential misconceptions about their impact on pension plans.
We discuss two ideas that we believe are misconceptions about the future path of long-term interest rates, their impact on pension liabilities and why plan sponsors should generally not hold back from acting on the current funding ratio trigger or from implementing an LDI framework.
In our view, the LDI framework with a strategic glide path provides pension plans with a systematic derisking methodology and, irrespective of the views on interest rates, can be a valuable tool in the quest for optimal asset allocation.
We believe that for plan sponsors focused primarily on reducing the volatility of a plan’s funding ratio, following a systematic liability-driven investing (LDI) framework with a glide path designed to increase allocation to liability-hedging assets (LHA) with an increasing funding ratio may be an appropriate course of action. We also believe that LHA should be designed holistically, taking allocation to risk-seeking assets (RSA) into consideration. (See LDI: Taking A Holistic, Practical Approach).
In this paper, we will look at two ideas that we believe are misconceptions about the future path of long-term interest rates, their impact on pension liabilities and why plan sponsors should generally not hold back from acting on the current funding ratio trigger or from implementing an LDI framework.
The FOMC has increased the fed funds rate by 125 basis points (bps) since the start of the current hiking cycle, and the fed funds rate is projected to rise further by the end of 2018.i We agree that short-term interest rates are on the rise, and an appropriate estimate for short-term rates in the near future would be higher rather than lower.
However, we are not confident about the impact of the FOMC’s hiking cycle on long-term interest rates. If recent history is any indication, a rise in short-term rates tends to compress the term premium, leading to a small or no rise in long-term interest rates. During the last two hiking cycles (July 1999 to July 2000; June 2004 to August 2006), long-term interest rates only went up marginally; so far, the current hiking cycle has followed a similar pattern.
The graph below highlights how the shape of the Treasury yield curve has changed during the current hiking cycle. The flattening of the yield curve is evident, with a marginal decrease in the long-term interest rates.
With 10-year Treasury rates range bound between roughly 2.0–2.5%, the downside risk for a pension plan in adding duration is limited to Treasury interest rates falling to 0%,ii while the upside is unlimited. Historically, 10-year Treasury rates reached their highest level ever back in September 1981, rising to almost 16%.
The risk/reward for adding duration looks asymmetric from a Treasury interest rate perspective. However, carry and the convexity of pension cash flows skew the return distribution. The present value of pension cash flows tends to change at a much faster clip when rates fall than when rates rise.
Below, we have calculated the change in the present value of a hypothetical liability cash flowiii due to parallel shocks in the Citigroup pension-discount curve over various time horizons. For example, in order to calculate the cumulative return of liabilities due to an instantaneous shock, we computed the ratio of present values of liability cash flows using the current curve and the shocked curve.
Similarly, to calculate the cumulative return of liabilities over 36 months, we shocked the curve in equal monthly steps. We then computed the ratio of the present value of liability cash flows using the current curve and the shocked curve each month. This series was cumulated to generate the cumulative liabilities return over 36 months.
Based on this analysis, we can conclude that as a time horizon expands, carry tends to dominate the liability returns.
To further highlight the impact of carry on liability returns, we did an analytical experiment of calculating liability returns assuming the Citigroup pension discount curve has retraced its course. The graph below on the left shows the 10-year yield of the Citigroup pension discount curve from December 1995 to November 2017, and the graph on the right shows the growth in the present value of a hypothetical liability cash flow starting at 100 assuming retracement of the Citigroup pension discount curve.
While it is hard to argue with the fact that interest rates are historically low, we tend to believe that predicting the future path of interest rates, and most importantly long-term interest rates, can be a fruitless endeavor fraught with pitfalls. It is not obvious to us that the next move in long-term interest rates will be up, and we believe arguments can be made to justify scenarios that suggest rates will remain unchanged, or go down further, or go up.
Our belief is that for pension plans with a long-term horizon, a decision-making process firmly grounded in risk management focused on reducing surplus plan volatility provides an appropriate approach. The LDI framework with a strategic glide path can provide pension plans with a systematic de-risking methodology and, irrespective of the views on interest rates, can be a valuable tool in the quest for optimal asset allocation.