Pension plan solvency and extreme market movements: a regime switching approach

We develop and test a new approach to assess defined benefit (DB) pension plan solvency risk in the presence of extreme market movements. Our method captures both the ‘fat-tailed’ nature of asset returns and their correlation with discount rate changes. We show that the standard assumption of constant discount rates leads to dramatic underestimation of future projections of pension plan solvency risk. Failing to incorporate leptokurtosis into asset returns also leads to downward biased estimates of risk, but this is less pronounced than the time-varying discount rate effect. Further modifying the model to capture the correlation between asset returns and the discount rate provides additional improvements in the projection of future pension plan solvency. This reduces the perceived future risk of underfunding because of the negative correlation between interest rate changes and asset returns. These results have important implications for those with responsibility for balancing risk against expected return when seeking to improve the current poor funding positions of DB pension schemes.