Warning – your actuary could be overstating your FRS 17 liabilities by up to 10% or possibly even more!!
The maturity or ‘term’ of your pension scheme is becoming increasingly important in setting assumptions for actuarial valuations and hence determining the value of the liabilities. In particular, FRS 17 states that scheme liabilities should be discounted at “the current rate of return on a high quality corporate bond (generally accepted to be AA rated bonds) of equivalent currency (£) and term to the scheme liabilities”.
So what about the term? This is the interesting, though unfortunately slightly technical bit!! Until a few years ago bond discount rates were generally unadjusted for term in FRS 17 calculations. The liabilities were therefore wrongly assumed to be of the same term as the maturity of the bond index (usually 12-13 years). Pension schemes are normally of a much longer term nature, from around 20 to 30 years on average. Between 2006 and 2008 where long term interest rates were unusually lower than short term rates, there was a significant push by audit firms for schemes to discount the liabilities using these lower rates – this significantly pushed up the magnitude of FRS 17 liabilities.
Recent movements in the shape of the interest rate yield curve mean that medium to long-term interest rates are now significantly higher than the rates implied by the AA index. For those firms already using a “yield curve” approach to assumption setting, the discount rate appropriate for FRS 17 will now be higher than the index yield and so FRS 17 liabilities will reduce, all else being equal (assuming the auditor agrees of course!!). It may no longer be appropriate to continue using the unadjusted bond index value as the discount rate, as this would currently overstate the pension scheme liabilities. All very easy for me to say you might think but what does this mean?
I estimate that for an average scheme, adopting a yield curve approach now could increase the FRS 17 discount rate by up to 0.5% per annum (or even more at very long terms), which would reduce FRS 17 liabilities by around 10%. So, if you receive FRS 17 assumptions advice or disclosures which stick rigidly to the AA bond index for setting the FRS 17 discount rate, you may wish to ask your advisor to reconsider, or seek separate actuarial advice.
For further information on FRS 17 assumption setting or other matters surrounding your scheme, please contact myself or any other member of the actuarial team at Spence & Partners.