"Over the past few years, we've seen fewer pension plan sponsors closing their plans to new entrants or freezing the benefits for current participants," said Austin. "However, employers remain under increasing pressure to manage plan volatility and are planning both smaller actions and bolder moves to manage that risk."
As a first step in their broader de-risking efforts, Aon Hewitt's survey showed employers are contemplating what different economic scenarios would mean to their plan. Half are likely or somewhat likely to conduct an asset-liability study in 2013, and 60 percent are somewhat or very likely to have their investments better match the characteristics of the plan's liability through approaches such as liability-driven investing.
"While the economic environment makes it imperative for DB plan sponsors to manage pension risk in some way, it's critical that they approach it in a thoughtful manner," stressed Austin. "The right de-risking strategy for one plan may not be an appropriate approach for another—most importantly, employers need to consider the funded status of their plans. For example, plans that are over funded will likely take measures to lock in this position and erase future volatility through actions such as offering lump-sum windows. An underfunded plan will need to take an approach that attentively addresses volatility such as implementing a glide path investment strategy that will de-risk the plan as the funded position improves."
Aon Hewitt's survey found that while just 18 percent use this glide path strategy today, the percentage is expected to nearly double to more than 30 percent by the end of 2013. This shift comes as more plan sponsors abandon the traditional approach of investing a majority of plan assets in equities. Aon Hewitt's survey found that while 52 percent of plan sponsors favor this majority equity strategy today, just 31 percent will use this approach by the end of the year.