The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) has proposed new rules to govern the merger of troubled multi-employer pension plans. The PBGC has authority under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA),
to support mergers if it benefits the failing plan without harming the stronger plan. In addition, PBGC can provide funding to promote a merger if it is needed to help plans avoid insolvency. Mergers help reduce administrative costs and increase pension security.
The MPRA was an attempt by Congress to provide PBGC better tools to deal with the growing issue of pension insolvency. The proposed rule is a logical interpretation of the MPRA giving reasonable options to troubled multiemployer pension plans.
The proposed rule provides guidance for requesting help in a merger. PBGC can provide financial assistance, technical assistance, and mediation. Also, the rule provides an informal avenue for multiemployer plan sponsors to explore merger discussions with the PBGC before filing a formal request. Finally, the proposed rule allows plan sponsors to apply for both benefit suspensions under the MPRA and a merger under the statute. The PBGC realizes that pension insolvency is not a zero-sum endeavor stating, “some plans may need both benefit suspensions and a financial assistance merger to become or remain solvent.”
The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on June 6. The deadline for submitting comments is Aug. 5.
Although the proposed rule is a commonsense step to facilitate pension mergers, many are still in precarious positions. The most prominent in the Central States fund whose emergency rescue plan was denied by the Department of the Treasury on May 6, 2016.
The Treasury Department found several issues with the methods Central States used in notifications to participants and in their proposal to cut benefits and reestablish financial stability. Central States has announced that it will run out of money by 2025. As of the end of last year, the fund showed $16.8 billion in assets and $35 billion in retiree obligations. This is a 48% funding ratio. That’s bad news because the average funding ratio for PBGC multiemployer plans in the construction industry was 44%.
Most experts believe that government action is the only way Central States will avoid bankruptcy. However, given the national political scene this is unlikely, instead they are getting creative to cover the costs. For example, many employers have been exiting the plan due to its predicament. Central States has increase the amount collected in withdrawal liability, the fee an employer pays to exit the plan. Also Central States offers a Hybrid method where employers pay the withdrawal fee and remain in the plan, but are free from incurring any additional liability.