€1bn swing to surplus estimated in Irish defined benefit pension schemes – Mercer

  • Mercer estimates that the cumulative DB balance sheet position for ISEQ listed companies could be a surplus of over €1Bn at the end of June 2022.
  • Corporate bond yields increased by c. 2% over 2022 to date, resulting in company balance sheet liabilities decreasing by c. 25-30%.
  • Global equity markets are down by c. 20% over the first 6 months of 2022.
  • After a long period of positive returns, most defined contribution pension schemes will have fallen in last 6 months.

Dublin 27 July 2022

Defined benefit (DB) pension schemes at ISEQ listed companies have fared well during the first half of 2022 despite significant falls in global equity markets, according to analysis by Mercer. A significant increase in bond yields has reduced the value of scheme liabilities, more than offsetting the recent fall in “growth” assets such as equities, which are down c.20% in the first half of the year.


DB pension scheme liabilities are measured with respect to bond yields. As a result of the 2% rise in bond yields year to date, DB pension scheme liabilities have decreased by 25-30%.  While inflation expectations have also increased during 2022, most pension scheme liabilities are typically less sensitive to inflation than they are to changes in bond yields.

Overall, the fall in liabilities has outweighed the negative returns on pension scheme assets, with schemes also benefitting from risk management strategies adopted over previous years, such as implementing structured de-risking of their asset portfolios.


Mercer estimates that the cumulative DB balance sheet position for ISEQ listed companies could be a surplus of over €1Bn at the end of June 2022 compared to a small surplus at the beginning of the year, and very significant multi-billion euro deficits at times over the last decade, peaking at a deficit of c.€4.5bn in December 2016.


Christopher Delaney, Corporate Pensions Accounting Leader with Mercer, commented, “If the current conditions persist to year-end, the position of DB pension schemes on company balance sheets will have moved into a meaningful surplus for the first time in many years. The fall in liability values brought about by large increases in bond yields has more than offset the rise in inflation expectations and the significant negative returns from equities and other higher volatility growth assets. For the minority of companies with an open DB scheme, the annual P&L cost of providing a DB pension to employees may reduce significantly.


However, the cash contributions that companies are required to pay into their schemes will not automatically reflect the improvements in funding levels, as these contribution rates are typically calculated every three years. Contribution rates agreed during the last 12-18 months are unlikely to take account of the recent improvement in funding levels, and companies impacted by this may wish to engage with the trustees of their pension schemes to explore whether their contribution rates can be revised to take account of recent changes.”


Pension fund trustees should also have seen improvements in their statutory funding levels which are generally also an important consideration. While improving funding levels will be welcomed by trustees responsible for the management of scheme assets and investment strategy, they will be conscious of the potential volatility in funding levels going forward, given the uncertain economic outlook.


Mr. Delaney noted: “Many schemes that have already put robust structures in place to move their investments from equities and other growth assets into government and corporate bonds will have already benefited from a de-risking of their asset portfolio as funding levels improved. However, other schemes should review their investment strategy and could look to use the recent improvement in funding positions to remove some risk by implementing a more matched investment strategy or consider settlement options such as bulk annuity contracts with insurers.”


Members of defined contribution schemes will inevitably have seen the value of their retirement funds fall, with diversified funds generally down between 5% to 15% year to date.  However, this is coming on the back of a long period of positive investment returns and most diversified investment funds will still have overall positive returns over recent years. Whilst members who have self-selected their fund options may be considering switching investment strategy, we would caution against any knee jerk reactions, especially when the market is so volatile, as it may ultimately only serve to lock in losses.  We would strongly encourage members to seek advice before making any decisions.


Notes for the Editor

The value of pension scheme liabilities is calculated in different ways depending on the purpose of the calculation. The data included in the Mercer analysis is based on publicly disclosed information using the approach that ISEQ listed companies must adopt for their corporate accounts. The data underlying the analysis is refreshed as companies report their year-end accounts. Other measures are also relevant for trustees and employers considering their risk exposure.


About Mercer (as at March 2022)

Mercer believes in building brighter futures by redefining the world of work, reshaping retirement and investment outcomes, and unlocking real health and well-being. Mercer’s approximately 25,000 employees are based in 43 countries and the firm operates in 130 countries. Mercer is a business of Marsh McLennan (NYSE: MMC), the world’s leading professional services firm in the areas of risk, strategy and people, with 83,000 colleagues and annual revenue of approximately $20 billion. Through its market-leading businesses including Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Oliver Wyman, Marsh McLennan helps clients navigate an increasingly dynamic and complex environment. For more information, visit www.mercer.com. Follow Mercer on Twitter @Mercer.