Mercer US pension buyout index 

December 31, 2023

The Mercer US Pension Buyout Index (the “Index”) is designed to track the relationship between the accounting liability for retirees of a hypothetical defined benefit pension plan and two cost measures: the estimated cost of transferring the pension liabilities to an insurance company (i.e., a buyout) and the approximate total economic cost of retaining the pension obligations on the balance sheet. The difference between these measures represents the potential cost savings that plan sponsors can achieve through a retiree buyout.

To discuss your plan’s unique circumstances, you can contact the Mercer team at AnnuityMailbox@mercer.com.

Key takeaways

At the end of December, a hypothetical retiree buyout could cost 5.3% less than the economic cost of maintaining the liability for this sample plan.
Charts are as of December 31, 2023, and are shown for illustrative purposes only. There is no guarantee that this objective will be achieved. 

Commentary on the Mercer US pension buyout index results for Q4 2023

  • The hypothetical cost of purchasing annuities from an insurer was 99.2% of the buyout index accounting liability, while the economic cost of maintaining the plan was 104.5% of the accounting liability. The economic cost reflects increasing future Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) premiums, administrative costs, and investment expenses, which increase the economic cost of maintaining the liability.
  • Transactions can be structured to focus on small benefit retirees to help generate even larger potential economic savings. Fixed per person maintenance costs are a larger proportion of their liability. In addition, insurers prefer these participants and often price them more aggressively.
  • A plan sponsor's PBO basis, including accounting standard, mortality assumption, and discount rate methodology may impact the attractiveness of insurer pricing compared to plan's ongoing PBO.

Market update

  • Buyout index liability discount rate decreased by 86 basis points over the quarter.
  • Buyout index annuity discount rate decreased by 76 basis points, causing the hypothetical annuity price to increase by slightly less than the accounting liability increased over the quarter.
  • Q4 2023 continued high levels of activity with premiums likely to be over $10B, pushing year to date market volume near $45B.
  • Continued high levels of market transaction volume have driven ongoing expansion of the insurer market with six new entrants in the past few years.
  • Mercer continues to monitor the PRT market impact of economic volatility, changing interest rates, and resource capacity of insurers in an expanding market to determine the best approach to help ensure a successful transaction.  
  • Additionally, Mercer is closely following discussions related to SECURE 2.0 and the ongoing review of Interpretive Bulletin (IB) 95-1. If you would like to discuss any aspects of a PRT transaction, please contact a member of Mercer’s PRT team.

About the Mercer US pension buyout index

Published quarterly, the Index allows plan sponsors to see at a glance the relative cost of a buyout by an insurer of retiree liabilities of a defined benefit plan, and how that cost changes over time. It is based on a hypothetical retiree population with duration of 9 years and accounting liability of $100 million, using the Mercer Yield Curve to value the accounting liability. In addition, the Index shows the approximate long-term economic cost of retaining the retiree liabilities on a plan sponsor’s balance sheet. This economic cost includes an allowance for future retention costs (administrative, PBGC premiums and investment expenses). These additional costs are not included in the accounting liabilities held by plan sponsors, but do represent future costs that should be reflected in any risk transfer comparison and evaluation. These costs will vary depending on the specifics of each plan. Based on this evaluation, sponsors can compare the approximate current cost of risk transfer through an annuity purchase with the total cost of retaining obligations on the balance sheet. The Index also illustrates the variability of the buyout cost compared to the balance sheet liability over time. The ability to frequently monitor insurer pricing against pre-determined thresholds, and to be prepared for nimble execution, can help capitalize on varying market and insurer conditions.

Annuity pricing data from a number of leading US life insurance companies are used to compile the Index. These insurers include American General Life Insurance Co., Athene Annuity & Life Co., American United Life Insurance Company, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual), Metropolitan Tower Life Insurance Co., Minnesota Life Insurance Co., Principal Life Insurance Co., Pacific Life Insurance Co., and Prudential Insurance Co. of America. (Mercer is not associated with any of the aforementioned insurers.) On a given quarter the Index may be compiled from pricing data from some or all of these insurers. Actual annuity pricing can vary significantly from these sample prices.

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