The country’s largest corporate pensions had combinedliabilities of $902 billion at the end of 2016, according toresearch from Russell Investments.

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Related: CFPB barred, for now, from naming pension advancecompany under investigation

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The 19 members of the so-called $20 billion club, a term coinedby Bob Collie, a chief research strategist for institutionalinvesting at Russell, saw both pension assets and liabilitiesslightly increase in 2016, a year that essentially mirrored pensionperformance in 2015.

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Liabilities increased $21 billion in 2016 for the group. Almost$50 billion in pension benefits were paid out.

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Assets increased $9 billion, to total $713 billion by the end ofthe year. Investments returned $53.4 billion in the funds.

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The total funding deficit in the 19 plans was almost $189billion by the end of 2016, an increase of $12 billion.

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As has been the case for most of the past decade, interest rateshad the greatest impact on pension performance.

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The median discount rate used to value future pensionobligations fell nearly 25 basis points, from 4.4 percent to 4.1percent. That resulted in about $39 billion in added costs tovaluing future pension obligations.

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Related: Stress tests for pensions

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Employers contributed $18.2 billion in required anddiscretionary contributions to their pension plans in 2016.

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About half of the club made discretionary contributions topension plans last year, meaning they contributed cash infusionsgreater than what is statutorily required by the Pension BenefitGuaranty Corp., the federal agency that insures private pensionplans.

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Related: Can pension plans help theeconomy?

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The practice of contributing more than the required minimum maybecome more common for large pension plans, according to Russell’sanalysis, in light of increases to PBGC’s variable contributionrate assessments, which index required payments to the degree apension underfunded.

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“Sponsors will increasingly choose to make discretionarycontributions above the required minimum, in order to reduce theirfunding shortfalls,” writes Collie in Russell’s report.

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Congress sets the rates applied on premiums to insure corporatepensions, not the PBGC.

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In the 2016 general federal budget, the per-participant amountfor the flat-rate premium was raised to $64, up from $57 in 2015.The variable rate was raised to $30 per $1,000 of unfundedliabilities, up from $24 in 2015.

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For plans beginning in 2017, the per-participant flat rate jumpsto $68. Next year it increases to $73, and for plans beginning in2019 it increases to $78. The variable rate will be incrementallyincreased to $38 per $1,000 of unfunded liabilities by 2019.

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Rates have nearly doubled for single-employer corporate pensionsover the past six years.

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In December, Federal Express said it would pitch in $1 billionin discretionary contributions, which will be financed by issuingnew bonds specifically to fund the pension. General Motors issued$2 billion in new debt in order finance discretionary pensionfunding in 2015.

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Investment returns in 2016 were between 4.7 percent and 12percent for the pensions, depending on how individual planportfolios were allocated.

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Total pension liabilities of the $20 billion club peaked in 2014at $933 billion, as most plans applied upward adjustments inmortality assumptions.

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Nick Thornton

Nick Thornton is a financial writer covering retirement and health care issues for BenefitsPRO and ALM Media. He greatly enjoys learning from the vast minds in the legal, academic, advisory and money management communities when covering the retirement space. He's also written on international marketing trends, financial institution risk management, defense and energy issues, the restaurant industry in New York City, surfing, cigars, rum, travel, and fishing. When not writing, he's pushing into some land or water.