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The funding status of Canadian defined benefit (DB) plans dropped sharply in the fourth quarter as a result of declines in equities markets, which hit investment returns, and long-term interest rates, which boosted pension liabilities, Mercer Canada reports.

The Mercer pension health index, which represents the solvency ratio of a hypothetical plan, dropped to 102% in Q4 from 112% in the third quarter, the firm says. Further, Mercer Canada reports that less than 30% of Canadian pension plans were fully funded at the end of the year, down from 60% at the end of Q3.

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The S&P/TSX composite index dropped by 10.1% in Q4 to finish the year down by 8.9%. At the same time, U.S. equities declined by 8.6% (in Canadian dollar terms) during the quarter, and global equities were down by a similar amount. Canadian fixed income markets rose in Q4, with long-term bonds gaining by 1.9%.

As a result, a typical balanced pension portfolio would have declined by 3.8% in Q4, Mercer Canada says: “After defying headwinds for the first three quarters, financial markets finally succumbed to the pressure of rising short-term interest rates, trade wars and turmoil in certain emerging market economies.”

Nevertheless, Mercer Canada points out that Canadian DB plans started the quarter in relatively good shape, funding-wise, which cushioned the impact of market turmoil.

“Canadian pension plans took a significant hit in the fourth quarter, but thankfully they were starting from a very strong position,” said Manuel Monteiro, leader of Mercer Canada’s financial strategy group, in a statement.

Looking ahead, financial markets may continue to experience heightened volatility in the new year, added Todd Nelson, principal at Mercer Canada, in a statement: “The global economy will face a challenging 2019 with the expectation of central banks continuing on their tightening path and the unsettling political backdrop.”