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Ford reduces pension risk with innovative approach

Ford reduces pension risk with innovative approach

DEARBORN, Mich.—Ford Motor Co. said Friday it will offer 90,000 U.S. salaried retirees and former employees the option to take their monthly pension benefit as a lump-sum payment, a move that may the first of its kind.

The magnitude of the program, which is part of Ford's long-term strategy to “de-risk” its pension plan, is the largest ever offered “by a U.S. company for ongoing pension plans,” the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker said in a statement last week announcing its first-quarter results.

Typically, lump-sum payments are offered as an option only when an employee terminates employment and is eligible for a pension benefit.

The move probably is the first of its kind, said Jeremy Gold, president of Jeremy Gold Pensions, a New York-based consulting firm.

“I'm not aware of anyone who has done this without terminating or annuitizing their plan,” Mr. Gold said.

“Historically, lump-sum distributions, which allow plan participants to exchange receiving periodic annuity payments for a single lump-sum payout, have been offered to participants only upon separation from active employment,” benefit consultant Towers Watson & Co. said in a statement.

When individuals take a lump-sum payment rather than monthly payments, Ford would no longer face risks such as paying more if individuals live longer than expected. In addition, Ford no longer would have to pay additional unexpected contributions to its plans in the future if investment returns slump.

“Providing the option of a lump-sum payment to current salaried U.S. retirees and former employees will reduce our pension obligations and balance sheet volatility,” Ford Executive Vp and Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said in a statement.


Still, there could be a downside to the “de-risking” strategy, pension experts say. By pulling funds out of the plan to pay the lump-sum benefits, Ford would lose potential future investment gains it may have achieved on those assets.

“You eliminate some risk, but employers will forgo opportunity for investment returns on the assets they will have to liquidate to pay lump sums. There is a definite tradeoff,” said Larry Sher, a partner with benefit consultant October Three L.L.C. in Morristown, N.J.

Employers will evaluate those trade-offs as they evaluate Ford's move, pension experts say. “What companies do will depend on individual company circumstances,” Mr. Sher said.

“It could stimulate copycats (among other corporate pension plans) so I would think we might see a fair amount of this particularly from companies whose pension plans are liquid enough or whose capability to fund their plan is not under great stress so you might see a lot of this,” Mr. Gold said.

At year-end 2011, Ford's U.S. pension plans—including plans covering salaried and union employees and retirees—had a funded ratio of 80.7%, with $39.41 billion in assets and $48.82 billion in liabilities. That compares with a funded ratio of 85.8% at year-end 2010, when the U.S. plans had $39.96 billion in assets and $46.65 in billion in liabilities.

Ford said the lump-sum payouts will start this year and will be funded from existing pension plan assets.

Rob Kozlowski, a reporter for Pensions & Investments, a sister publication of Business Insurance, contributed to this story.