Recommendations for Executive ActionWe recommend that the Board of Directors ensure that TVA take the following two actions:
- better document and communicate its goals to reduce its debt and unfunded pension liabilities in its performance plans and reports, including detailed strategies for achieving these goals.
- propose, and work with the TVARS board to adopt, funding rules designed to ensure the plan’s full funding.
Click here to read the full GAO report publicly released on April 24, 2017.
Additional ExcerptsTVA agreed with the first recommendation and neither agreed nor disagreed with the second. GAO believes that action is needed as discussed in the report.
TVA officials told us that the agency does not plan to contribute more than the TVARS Rules require and that it plans to continue to treat its unfunded pension liabilities as regulatory assets, deferring pension costs for recovery through rates in the future. However, the TVARS Rules do not provide for fully funding pension benefits over the service of TVA employees covered by the plan, which would align the cost of services provided by covered employees with the rates paid by customers who benefit from the services of covered employees. The deferral of contributions necessary to close the funding shortfall reduces future financial flexibility and may result in the need for rate increases during a period of declining demand for electricity. If TVA needs to use revenue originally targeted for debt reduction to pay for greater than estimated pension expenses, this could interfere with TVA’s debt reduction goal and additional rate increases may be required which could interfere with TVA’s ability to keep rates low. Alternatively, less flexibility could lead to pressure to reduce the pay or benefits of future TVA employees.
For TVA’s unfunded pension liabilities, TVA officials have stated a goal to eliminate the pension funding shortfall (about $6 billion at the end of fiscal year 2016) by 2036, but TVA has not identified such a goal or milestones in its performance plan or report. As of September 30, 2016, TVA’s pension plan was about 54 percent funded with a funding shortfall of about $6 billion (plan assets totaled $7.1 billion and liabilities $13.1 billion). While TVA’s debt has remained relatively flat, its unfunded pension liabilities have steadily increased over the past 10 years.
TVA plans to make annual contributions of $300 million to the pension plan, or more if required by the TVARS Rules, for up to 20 years. According to TVA’s analysis, there is a 50 percent chance that annual contributions of $300 million could eliminate the $6 billion funding shortfall at the end of 20 years and a 50 percent chance that a funding shortfall would remain.
The TVARS Rules require that for a period of 20 years, or until the plan is deemed fully funded, TVA’s annual contribution equal the greater of (1) a formula-based contribution or (2) $300 million. To the extent that a $300 million contribution proves inadequate because of plan experience, the formula-based contribution would determine the amount TVA must contribute each year. The formula uses a 30-year “open amortization method,” meaning that the amortization period is reset to 30 years each fiscal year, so the end of the amortization period (i.e., paying off the unfunded liability) may never be achieved. A Blue Ribbon Panel commissioned by the Society of Actuaries believes that plans’ risk management practices and their ability to respond to changing economic and market conditions would be enhanced through the use of amortization periods shorter than the 30-year period commonly used today. The panel recommended amortization periods of no more than 15 to 20 years for gains and losses. According to the panel’s 2014 report, the panel believes that fully funding pension benefits of public employees over their average future service reasonably aligns the cost of today’s public services with the taxpayers who benefit from those services. In addition, according to the American Academy of Actuaries, funding rules should include targets based on accumulating the present value of benefits for employees by the time they retire, and a plan to make up for any variations in actual assets from the funding target within a defined and reasonable time period. In the private sector, ERISA generally requires a 7-year amortization of shortfalls for private sector single-employer pension plans.
Unlike an open amortization period, a closed, or fixed, amortization period is generally maintained until the original unfunded liability amount is fully repaid. Thus, a closed amortization period would be a better practice if the goal is to fully fund pension liabilities. Table 2 compares the amortization of $6 billion in unfunded liabilities using open and closed amortization methods, assuming assets return 7 percent, as TVA expects. The closed amortization method would extinguish the unfunded liability in 30 years, whereas more than $4 billion in unfunded liability would remain under the open amortization method (see table 2).
As we mentioned earlier, TVA assumes an annual return of 7 percent on pension plan assets, but depending on market conditions, assets could yield higher or lower than expected returns. If the return on investment was lower than expected, the unfunded liabilities would be greater, and TVA would need to contribute more than $300 million per year to make up the difference. The open amortization period utilized by the TVARS formula-based contribution requirement does not ensure TVA’s contributions will adequately adjust for plan experience and does not ensure full funding of the pension liabilities. Without a mechanism that ensures TVA’s contributions will adequately adjust for actual plan experience, unfunded liabilities could remain, and future ratepayers may have to fund the pension plan even further to pay for services provided to prior generations of ratepayers.