Earth with a coronavirus virion (Credit: NIH; NASA)

The Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury Department have managed to buffer the U.S. stock market and the U.S. bond market against most of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Portfolio managers at life insurers and pension funds have generally done what was necessary to keep the sky from falling, today.

But Olivia Mitchell, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says in a new working paper that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has done serious damage to defined benefit pension plans all around the world.

Resources

  • A copy of Olivia Mitchell’s new working paper is available here.
  • An article about another retirement protection paper, which lists Mitchell as a co-author, is available here.

Mitchell, who is an economist and executive director of the Pension Research Council as well as a Wharton professor, has rushed the working paper out onto the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research. A working paper is a research paper that has not gone through a full academic peer process.

Her paper focuses on employers’ defined benefit pension plans, and on Social Security and similar programs around the world.

If she’s right, her analyses and predictions could help annuity advisors understand what’s happening to clients’ pension plans.

Her analysis of what’s happening to pension plans’ investments could reflect some of the forces also hitting life insurance companies’ investment managers.

And her work could have a direct effect on what the Fed, the Treasury Department and Congress do about Americans’ retirement security. She’ll be one of the first people they call when they’re looking for thoughts about what to do now.

Here are five ideas in the paper.

1. Many pension plans’ funded status has plummeted.

In the United States, for example, average plan funding at state and local public employee pension plans had fallen to 37% of what’s needed, from 52%.

At Dutch plans, which are highly regarded, funding has fallen below 70%, from 105%, Mitchell writes.

2. Some efforts to help employers may hurt the pension plans.

The new Secure Act of 2020 lets employers with defined benefit pension plans conserve cash, by making their 2020 pension plan contributions in 2021.

“This will not improve DB plan funding levels, to say the least,” Mitchell writes.

3. Death is probably not riding to the rescue.

In theory, COVID-19 could help the finances of pension plans, by killing many participants.

Mitchell cites research suggesting in the United Kingdom, for example, the effects of COVID-19 on mortality rates of the surviving population “will likely to be modest, in that survivors’ life expectancies are unlikely to differ much from prior to the pandemic.,” Mitchell writes. “In other words, the two century-long trend toward population aging is likely to continue and maybe even rise more, insofar as the older population in some countries has apparently attained a ‘mortality plateau.’”

4. Some of Mitchell’s proposed solutions could help individual retirement advisors.

Some of Mitchell’s ideas include the creation of new and better of streams of data that could be useful to life insurers, retirement advisors and retirement savers as well as to pension plan managers, and pension researchers.

Mitchell suggests, for example, that policymakers should consider generating and making available better quality and more granular data about mortality and morbidity, and a consistent and economically coherent set of rules for measuring and forecasting government retirement program and pension assets and liabilities.

She also supports the idea of de-linking retirement benefits from employment.

“Instead of pensions, healthcare, and insurance programs being offered though the workplace, these could be made available by associations or multiple-employer programs, or indeed workplace platform,” Mitchell writes.

5. At least one of Mitchell’s ideas could involve you.

“Widespread financial education programs could also be extremely beneficial both for older workers and their younger counterparts,” Mitchell writes. “With more information, people do a better job planning, saving, and decumulating during retirement, and they could also do better handling complex financial products such as mortgages, loans, and annuities. Indeed, recent research has demonstrated a strong positive effect of financial literacy and financial education on financial behaviors and retirement preparedness.”

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