Corporate Plan Sponsors Can Reduce Treasury Rate Risk with Completion Overlays

Corporate Plan Sponsors Can Reduce Treasury Rate Risk with Completion Overlays

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David Phillips, CFA, ASA, EA

Director, Liability-Driven Investment Strategies

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Richard Fong, CFA

Director, Investment Strategy

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As defined-benefit plan sponsors consider reconstructing their portfolios in response to COVID-19, they shouldn’t ignore the impact of Treasury rates.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced pension managers to come to terms with vulnerabilities in their portfolios. The combination of falling asset prices and interest rates has had a damaging impact to a key measure of corporate defined-benefit pension health: funded status. Funded status is determined by both portfolio assets and pension liabilities, with liabilities valued using corporate bond yields. This interplay at times makes it difficult to assess a particular market environment’s effect on funded status.

At the beginning of the current crisis, US Treasury yields fell dramatically, culminating with the Fed’s unprecedented two-step rate cut to 0% in the first half of March. But credit may have hidden some pension liability volatility throughout that month. The below chart compares the portions of liability returns attributed to changes in the US Treasury rate curve, changes in credit spread, and other residual factors such as cash flows.

Liability return attribution

Corporate Plan Sponsors Can Reduce Treasury Rate Risk with Completion Overlays

Source: Parametric, FTSE, ICE, 6/30/2020. For illustrative purposes only. The data provided herein is derived from the FTSE Pension Liability Index. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Indexes are unmanaged. Not a recommendation to buy or sell any security. Past performance is not indicative of future returns.

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The rapid widening of credit spreads led to higher pension discount rates, which actually decreased pension liabilities. Credit spreads have narrowed since the extremes of mid-March, increasing pension liabilities. However, US Treasury rates remain near all-time lows, keeping liabilities elevated and limiting improvements to funded status.

It’s clear that plan sponsors must pay close attention to these factors as they consider portfolio construction. Many pensions have migrated in recent years toward larger allocations of long-duration fixed income in an effort to offset liability risk. While credit risk remains an important consideration, exposure to Treasury rates has plainly had the largest impact year to date. Plans that were underhedged on the interest rate side likely experienced declines in funded status and pension surplus—and more volatile paths along the way.

A completion overlay can help mitigate some of this risk by adding interest exposure, such as through US Treasury futures, to complement the holdings of other fixed income managers. This is a way for plan sponsors to increase and monitor their interest rate hedge ratio in a capital-efficient manner while maintaining allocations to other parts of the portfolio designed to generate growth and improve funded status over time. 

For corporate pensions considering liability-driven investing (LDI), the risk mitigation of a completion overlay is hard to ignore. It may be easy to dismiss LDI in the current environment given record-low Treasury yields. But plan sponsors should nonetheless consider making plans now so they’ll be ready to use these tools to reduce pension risk going forward.

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The views expressed in these posts are those of the authors and are current only through the date stated. These views are subject to change at any time based upon market or other conditions, and Parametric and its affiliates disclaim any responsibility to update such views. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice and, because investment decisions for Parametric are based on many factors, may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of any Parametric strategy. The discussion herein is general in nature and is provided for informational purposes only. There is no guarantee as to its accuracy or completeness. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. All investments are subject to the risk of loss. Prospective investors should consult with a tax or legal advisor before making any investment decision. Please refer to the Disclosure page on our website for important information about investments and risks.