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Congress approves sharp hike in Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. premiums

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Employers will be hit with sharply — and business groups say unjustifiably — higher Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insurance premiums under budget legislation that received final congressional approval early Friday morning.

Tucked into H.R. 1314, which the Senate passed on a 64-35 vote following earlier House approval, are provisions that will increase the flat-rate PBGC premium that all defined benefit plan sponsors pay, as well as the variable-rate premium that employers with underfunded plans pay.

Under the measure, which President Barack Obama said he will sign, the flat-rate premium will rise to $69 per plan participant in 2017, $74 in 2018 and $80 in 2019.

That compares with the $57 per plan participant rate this year and $64 next year, rates that already have been set under current law.

In addition, the legislation will increase the variable-rate premium to $33 per $1,000 of plan underfunding in 2017, $37 in 2018 and $41 in 2019. That compares with $24 this year and $30 next year under existing law.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis of an earlier version of the legislation, which called for slightly lower premium increases, projected the measure would result in employers paying an additional $4 billion in PBGC premiums from 2016 through 2025. Last year, employers paid the PBGC just over $3.8 billion in premiums.

The proposal has outraged benefit lobbying groups and others, who said earlier that it was driven by budget gimmickry, with the additional funds to be used to offset the federal budget deficit rather than the PBGC’s need for additional revenue.

“Raising premiums every time Congress needs several billion more dollars must stop — and stop now,” James Klein president of the American Benefits Council in Washington, said in a statement.

“We are very disappointed as a PBGC premium increase is unnecessary and counterproductive to improving retirement savings,” said Annette Guarisco Fildes, president and CEO of the ERISA Industry Committee in Washington.

In a recent report, the PBGC projected that the deficit in its single-employer insurance program will shrink to $4.9 billion by 2024, down from last year’s actual deficit of $19.3 billion, due to improved pension plan solvency and premium increases already put into effect.

Benefit experts warn that raising the premiums will lead even more employers to slim down their pension plans through such risk-transfer approaches as offering cash lump sums to participants and purchasing group annuities, and erode the PBGC’s premium base.

“Premium policies should be designed to protect PBGC’s premium base — not drive healthy sponsors out of the system,” said Deborah Forbes, executive director of the Bethesda, Maryland-based Committee on Investment of Employee Benefit Assets, which represents large pension sponsors.

“The more premiums increase, the more fuel it gives to pension risk transfers and buyouts,” said Matt McDaniel, a partner with Mercer L.L.C. in Philadelphia.

Earlier, though, the Obama administration had defended raising PBGC premium rates.

“The proposed premium increases are necessary to ensure that PBGC will be able to pay retiree benefits when pension plans fail. Even with these changes, premiums would likely remain a relatively small percentage of a company’s annual pension contribution and a tiny fraction of total compensation costs,” an administration official said.