The Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp. is expressing concerns about use of annuities in efforts to shut down defined benefit pension plans.

The PBGC discusses its worries about irrevocable commitments in a request for comments on “Purchase of Irrevocable Commitments Prior To Standard Termination.

The request for comments deals with pension plan sponsors that use deferred annuities or other products from entities such as insurers when terminating plans through the standard termination process.

The “PBGC has concerns about whether such purposes could circumvent the statutory and regulatory protections afforded participants and beneficiaries under the standard termination process,” officials write in the request for comments.

The PBGC, the entity that insures pension benefits, audits standard terminations of plans with 300 or more participants.

In many cases, the PBGC has a hard time determining whether a sponsor has bought an irrevocable commitment to pay benefits, especially if the commitment covers only some participants.

The PBGC worries whether procedures will be followed, whether participants will have time to correct records errors, and whether the insurers providing the irrevocable commitments will really have enough assets to back up the pension obligations assumed.

The PBGC asks commenters to discuss the following:

(1) Factors PBGC should take into account in determining whether a purchase of irrevocable commitments before the initiation of a standard termination is related to 11 (i.e., in preparation of) the standard termination (e.g., plan annuitizes plan benefits of all retirees or terminated vested participants with no connection to any other plan transaction, such as a merger).

(2) Whether there should be a rebuttable presumption that a purchase of irrevocable commitments made within a specific time period (e.g., a year) before the first day a NOIT is issued in a standard termination is related to a standard termination and if so, what time period.

(3) Whether there should be a safe harbor for a purchase of irrevocable commitments under specified circumstances before the first day a NOIT is issued in a standard termination. If so, what time period should apply (e.g., one year, two years, or three years before a NOIT is issued)? Whether a safe harbor should be conditioned on the purpose of the purchase (e.g., to lock in rates with an insurer in order to ensure plan sufficiency). Whether a safe harbor should be limited to plans in which the plan assets exceed plan benefits by a certain margin. If so, by what margin and as of what date? What reporting and disclosure requirements should be required with a safe harbor?

(4) How PBGC can better identify plans that purchase irrevocable commitments for some or all participants shortly before initiating a standard termination.

(5) Appropriate enforcement actions in the case of a purchase of irrevocable commitments before the initiation of a related standard termination.

(6) Appropriate information penalties for failures to provide notices and disclosures required as part of the termination process, including guideline information penalty amounts, and aggravating and mitigating factors (e.g., before purchasing irrevocable commitments, the plan administrator provided participants with the information required in the NOIT and NOPB, or the plan reported information to PBGC about irrevocable commitments purchased).

(7) In the case of a permissible purchase of irrevocable commitments in accordance with ? 4041.22(b) made after a NOIT is issued, what information should the plan be required to provide to participants? To PBGC?

(8) What are employers’ experiences with “locking in” rates for purchases of irrevocable commitments? What are the costs of locking in rates and how long do locked-in rates remain in effect? In the case of annuity contracts that are purchased as an investment vehicle, can plans lock in rates for the conversion of these contracts to irrevocable commitments at a future date and if so, at what costs and for how long?