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Underfunded Pension Plan


An underfunded pension plan is a retirement plan wherein the value of the plan’s assets is insufficient to meet its present and future liabilities or payout obligations to retirees. This deficit can result from various factors, such as poor investment performance, inadequate contributions, or changing demographics in the workforce. It can pose serious risks for current and future pensioners, as well as for the company or organization responsible for the pension plan.


The phonetic pronunciation of the keyword “Underfunded Pension Plan” is: ʌndərˌfəndɪd ˈpɛnʃən plæn

Key Takeaways

  1. Underfunded Pension Plans represent a risk for employees and pensioners as the plan lacks the necessary funds to cover future benefits
  2. Causes for underfunded pension plans may include poor investment performance, insufficient contributions, or changes in actuarial assumptions
  3. Addressing an underfunded pension plan typically requires joint efforts from the plan sponsors, government, and participants to increase contributions, adjust benefits, or manage investments more effectively


The term “Underfunded Pension Plan” is important in business and finance because it signifies a situation where a pension plan does not have enough assets to meet its current and future liabilities. This can result from inadequate contributions, poor investment returns, or rising benefit costs. An underfunded pension plan poses significant risks for employees relying on these funds for their retirement, as they may not receive the full benefits they were promised. Additionally, companies with underfunded pension plans may face legal and financial consequences, as they are obligated to address any deficits and ensure the financial health of the plan. Therefore, understanding and addressing an underfunded pension plan is crucial for the long-term financial stability of both the employees and the company.


An underfunded pension plan is a scenario where an organization’s pension plan has more liabilities than assets, implying it may not have sufficient funds to pay out future retirement benefits that its employees are entitled to receive. This situation commonly arises in defined benefit plans, where employees are promised a specific monthly income during their retirement years, based on factors such as their years of service and final average salary. Companies and their employees typically make regular contributions to the pension fund, which is then invested in various assets like stocks, bonds, and other securities. The purpose of these pension plans is to provide a secure and predictable source of income for retired workers, while also offering incentives for employees to build long-term careers within the organization.

Despite the well-intended purpose of providing financial security for retirees, an underfunded pension plan can pose significant risks to both the company and its employees. When a company’s assets do not meet their pension-related obligations, they may be required to allocate additional resources to bridge the funding gap, which can inhibit the company’s ability to invest in growth initiatives. For employees, the future solvency of their retirement benefits becomes uncertain, and in worst-case scenarios, workers may not receive the full benefits that they were promised. To mitigate the risks associated with underfunded pension plans, organizations must regularly assess their pension funding status, evaluate their investment strategies, and adjust their contributions as needed to ensure they can fulfill their commitments to retirees.


1. General Motors (GM): General Motors, an American multinational corporation, had one of the largest underfunded pension plans in corporate history. In 2012, it was reported that GM’s pension plan had a shortfall of around $25.4 billion. This underfunding occurred due to a combination of factors, such as poor investment returns, declining interest rates, and a large number of retirees to support. GM executed a plan to manage this underfunding issue by offering lump-sum pension buyouts to thousands of retirees, purchasing annuities for others, and freezing the pension plan for salaried employees.

2. U.S. State and Local Government Pension Plans: Numerous U.S. state and local government pension plans have been underfunded for many years. According to a 2020 study by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the total unfunded public pension liabilities across the U.S. amount to around $6 trillion. A notable example is the Illinois State Pension Plan, which had an estimated unfunded liability of $137 billion in 2020. This underfunding is often attributed to inadequate contributions from the government, lower-than-expected investment returns, and difficulty predicting pension obligations in the long run.

3. British Airways (BA): British Airways, a major UK airline, faced significant pension funding issues in the late 2000s and early 2010s. In 2010, BA reported a pension deficit of £3.7 billion, attributed to reduced bond yields, weak equity returns, and increased life expectancy of retirees. To tackle this underfunding, BA agreed to a recovery plan that included several methods such as higher contributions from the company, employee salary reductions, and changes to the pension scheme.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is an Underfunded Pension Plan?

An underfunded pension plan refers to a company’s pension plan that does not have enough accumulated assets to meet its future obligations towards its employees. In simpler terms, it means that the amount of money set aside for pensions is not enough to cover all of the current and future pension commitments.

What causes an Underfunded Pension Plan?

The main causes of underfunded pension plans include poor investment returns, inadequate company contributions, low-interest rates, increased life expectancy of retirees, and changes in government regulations and accounting standards.

How is the funding status of pension plans determined?

The funding status of a pension plan is typically measured by comparing the plan’s assets to its pension obligations, also known as pension liabilities. If the plan has more assets than liabilities, it is considered to be “overfunded.” Conversely, if the plan has fewer assets than liabilities, it’s deemed “underfunded.”

What are the risks associated with an Underfunded Pension Plan?

Risks associated with underfunded pension plans include the potential inability to pay out future pension benefits, increased financial burden on the company, and potential legal repercussions. Additionally, an underfunded pension plan can negatively impact a company’s credit rating and attractiveness to investors.

How can an Underfunded Pension Plan be addressed?

An underfunded pension plan can be addressed through methods such as increasing employer contributions, adjusting investment strategies, reducing pension benefits for future employees or retirees, and seeking government assistance or insurance protection.

Does an Underfunded Pension Plan affect employees and retirees?

Yes, it may affect employees and retirees. In severe cases, an underfunded pension plan may lead to reduced pension benefits or pension freezing for employees. In the worst-case scenario, a company might go bankrupt, leaving retirees and current employees without any pension benefits.

Are there any regulatory requirements for funding pension plans?

Yes, governments have introduced regulations to ensure that companies maintain the financial health of their pension plans. For example, in the United States, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires pension funds to meet certain funding standards to protect employees’ retirement benefits.

How can I find out if my pension plan is underfunded?

Companies are required to disclose information about their pension plans in their annual financial statements. Additionally, employees can contact their human resources department or pension fund administrator to inquire about the funded status of their pension plan.

Related Finance Terms

  • Unfunded Pension Liability
  • Pension Funding Gap
  • Actuarial Assumptions
  • Pension Plan Contributions
  • Defined Benefit Plan

Sources for More Information

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