- Discount rates continued to inch higher with Treasury yields making the biggest moves.
- Equity returns were once again up, despite concerns from the Omicron variant.
- Most plan sponsors should see positive funded status improvements during December and meaningful increases since the beginning of the year.
December 2021 summary
Discount rates and equity returns both moved in the right direction for pension plan sponsors to end 2021 which should result in improved funded status over the month. For many plan sponsors there should be a noticeable improvement to their year-end funded status compared with the beginning of the year.
Two major things happened during December. First the Federal Reserve signaled a quicker rise to the Fed Funds Rate due to inflation concerns. Not only did the Fed indicate that a rate hike would take place sooner than expected (originally expectations were for mid-2022), but they also indicated that 2022 could see three rate hikes as opposed to the two that were expected. Second, despite the growing presence of the Omicron variant, markets continued to be bullish and unemployment continues to head in the right direction.
Where does this leave us going into 2022? Assuming that the economy continues to move forward despite the ongoing pandemic and that supply chains and unemployment rates continue to improve, pension plan sponsors may be in for a pleasant year with increasing discount rates and positive equity returns. There is a lot that could throw a wrench into the optimistic forecast, but for pension plan sponsor we’re currently looking at what could very well indeed play out to be another decent year.
Discount rates & asset returns
FTSE pension discount rate index last 12 months
Source: FTSE Pension Liability Index
Volatility in discount rates decreased in December, as rates were consistently, higher throughout the month and finished up about 0.08% from the end of November and up about 0.33% from the end of 2020. Treasury rates ended the month up all along the curve, but especially at the short end, at the same time credit spreads tightened. The FTSE pension discount index finished December at 2.83%.
December returns (%)
Global equities bounced back on the strength of corporate earnings and US equities finished the month with a gain of nearly 4%, despite an increase in COVID-19 cases in the latter half of December. Negotiations over Build Back Better have now spilled over into 2022 without a noticeable impact on markets. In fixed income, the yield curve continued to flatten out even as yields moved higher across the curve as the Fed took on a more hawkish posture towards inflation. With those moves, bonds, and especially long Treasuries, posted negative returns. Credit spreads tightened, most notably in High Yield, which posted a healthy gain for the month. Gold prices increased while the US dollar eased, primarily due to year-end buying support for gold and concerns around the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.