Note 17
Employee benefits

The Company operates defined benefit pension plans, defined contribution pension plans, and termination indemnity plans, in accordance with local regulations and practices. These plans cover a large portion of the Company’s employees and provide benefits to employees in the event of death, disability, retirement, or termination of employment. Certain of these plans are multi-employer plans. The Company also operates other postretirement benefit plans including postretirement health care benefits and other employee-related benefits for active employees including long-service award plans. The measurement date used for the Company’s employee benefit plans is December 31. The funding policies of the Company’s plans are consistent with the local government and tax requirements.

The Company recognizes in its Consolidated Balance Sheets the funded status of its defined benefit pension plans, postretirement plans, and other employee-related benefits measured as the difference between the fair value of the plan assets and the benefit obligation.

Obligations and funded status of the plans

The change in benefit obligation, change in fair value of plan assets, and funded status recognized in the Consolidated Balance Sheets were as follows:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

($ in millions)

2016

2015

2016

2015

Benefit obligations at January 1,

11,224

12,355

178

245

Service cost

249

267

1

1

Interest cost

280

305

6

8

Contributions by plan participants

74

76

Benefit payments

(596)

(614)

(11)

(15)

Benefit obligations of businesses acquired (divested)

(26)

Actuarial (gain) loss

375

(469)

(17)

(31)

Plan amendments and other

(76)

(141)

(10)

(27)

Exchange rate differences

(608)

(555)

(3)

Benefit obligation at December 31,

10,896

11,224

147

178

Fair value of plan assets at January 1,

9,743

10,465

Actual return on plan assets

659

(8)

Contributions by employer

270

243

11

15

Contributions by plan participants

74

76

Benefit payments

(596)

(614)

(11)

(15)

Plan amendments and other

(133)

Exchange rate differences

(524)

(419)

Fair value of plan assets at December 31,

9,493

9,743

Funded status — underfunded

(1,403)

(1,481)

(147)

(178)

The amounts recognized in “Accumulated other comprehensive loss” and “Noncontrolling interests” were:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

December 31, ($ in millions)

2016

2015

2014

2016

2015

2014

(1)

OCI represent “Accumulated other comprehensive loss”.

(2)

NCI represents “Noncontrolling interests”.

(3)

NCI, net of tax, amounted to $0 million, $0 million and $(3) million at December 31, 2016, 2015 and 2014, respectively.

Net actuarial (loss) gain

(2,237)

(2,383)

(2,765)

10

(8)

(39)

Prior service credit

108

127

2

31

33

16

Amount recognized in OCI(1) and NCI(2)

(2,129)

(2,256)

(2,763)

41

25

(23)

Taxes associated with amount recognized in OCI and NCI

487

512

652

Amount recognized in OCI and NCI, net of tax(3)

(1,642)

(1,744)

(2,111)

41

25

(23)

In addition, the following amounts were recognized in the Company’s Consolidated Balance Sheets:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

December 31, ($ in millions)

2016

2015

2016

2015

Overfunded plans

68

42

Underfunded plans — current

(16)

(18)

(13)

(14)

Underfunded plans — non-current

(1,455)

(1,505)

(134)

(164)

Funded status — underfunded

(1,403)

(1,481)

(147)

(178)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 31, ($ in millions)

 

 

2016

2015

Non-current assets

 

 

Overfunded pension plans

68

42

Other employee-related benefits

22

26

Prepaid pension and other employee benefits

90

68

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 31, ($ in millions)

2016

2015

Current liabilities

 

 

Underfunded pension plans

(16)

(18)

Underfunded other postretirement benefit plans

(13)

(14)

Other employee-related benefits

(30)

(34)

Pension and other employee benefits (see Note 13)

(59)

(66)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 31, ($ in millions)

 

 

2016

2015

Non-current liabilities

 

 

Underfunded pension plans

(1,455)

(1,505)

Underfunded other postretirement benefit plans

(134)

(164)

Other employee-related benefits

(245)

(255)

Pension and other employee benefits

(1,834)

(1,924)

The funded status, calculated using the projected benefit obligation (PBO) and fair value of plan assets, for pension plans with a PBO in excess of fair value of plan assets (underfunded) or fair value of plan assets in excess of PBO (overfunded), respectively, was:

 

2016

2015

December 31, ($ in millions)

PBO

Assets

Difference

PBO

Assets

Difference

PBO exceeds assets

9,892

8,420

(1,472)

10,413

8,890

(1,523)

Assets exceed PBO

1,004

1,073

69

811

853

42

Total

10,896

9,493

(1,403)

11,224

9,743

(1,481)

The accumulated benefit obligation (ABO) for all defined benefit pension plans was $10,612 million and $10,924 million at December 31, 2016 and 2015, respectively. The funded status, calculated using the ABO and fair value of plan assets for pension plans with ABO in excess of fair value of plan assets (underfunded) or fair value of plan assets in excess of ABO (overfunded), respectively, was:

 

2016

2015

December 31, ($ in millions)

ABO

Assets

Difference

ABO

Assets

Difference

ABO exceeds assets

9,612

8,406

(1,206)

8,781

7,496

(1,285)

Assets exceed ABO

1,000

1,087

87

2,143

2,247

104

Total

10,612

9,493

(1,119)

10,924

9,743

(1,181)

All of the Company’s other postretirement benefit plans are unfunded.

Components of net periodic benefit cost

Net periodic benefit cost consisted of the following:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

($ in millions)

2016

2015

2014

2016

2015

2014

Service cost

249

267

243

1

1

1

Interest cost

280

305

409

6

8

10

Expected return on plan assets

(402)

(456)

(481)

Amortization of prior service cost (credit)

40

38

27

(12)

(9)

(9)

Amortization of net actuarial loss

85

112

102

1

Curtailments, settlements and special termination benefits

41

20

1

Net periodic benefit cost

293

286

301

(5)

1

2

The net actuarial loss and prior service cost for defined pension benefits estimated to be amortized from “Accumulated other comprehensive loss” into net periodic benefit cost in 2017 is $87 million and $35 million, respectively.

The net prior service credit for other postretirement benefits estimated to be amortized from “Accumulated other comprehensive loss” into net periodic benefit cost in 2017 is $5 million. There is no significant actuarial gain or loss to be amortized in 2017.

Assumptions

The following weighted-average assumptions were used to determine benefit obligations:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

December 31, (in %)

2016

2015

2016

2015

Discount rate

2.3

2.6

3.3

3.6

Rate of compensation increase

1.7

1.5

Rate of pension increase

1.0

0.9

The discount rate assumptions are based upon AA-rated corporate bonds. In those countries with sufficient liquidity in corporate bonds, the Company used the current market long-term corporate bond yields and matched the bond duration with the average duration of the pension liabilities. In those countries where the liquidity of the AA-rated corporate bonds was deemed to be insufficient, the Company determined the discount rate by adding the credit spread derived from an AA corporate bond index in another relevant liquid market, as adjusted for interest rate differentials, to the domestic government bond curve or interest rate swap curve.

The following weighted-average assumptions were used to determine the “Net periodic benefit cost”:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

(in %)

2016

2015

2014

2016

2015

2014

Discount rate

2.6

2.6

3.6

3.6

3.5

4.2

Expected long-term rate of return on plan assets

4.3

4.6

4.6

Rate of compensation increase

1.5

1.7

1.8

The “Expected long-term rate of return on plan assets” is derived for each benefit plan by considering the expected future long-term return assumption for each individual asset class. A single long-term return assumption is then derived for each plan based upon the plan’s target asset allocation.

The Company maintains other postretirement benefit plans, which are generally contributory with participants’ contributions adjusted annually. The assumptions used were:

December 31,

2016

2015

Health care cost trend rate assumed for next year

7.3%

7.7%

Rate to which the trend rate is assumed to decline (the ultimate trend rate)

5.0%

5.0%

Year that the rate reaches the ultimate trend rate

2028

2028

A one-percentage-point change in assumed health care cost trend rates would have the following effects at December 31, 2016:

 

1-percentage-point

($ in millions)

Increase

Decrease

Effect on total of service and interest cost

1

Effect on postretirement benefit obligation

9

(8)

Plan assets

The Company has pension plans in various countries with the majority of the Company’s pension liabilities deriving from a limited number of these countries.

The pension plans are typically funded by regular contributions from employees and the Company. These plans are typically administered by boards of trustees (which include Company representatives) whose primary responsibilities include ensuring that the plans meet their liabilities through contributions and investment returns. The boards of trustees have the responsibility for making key investment strategy decisions within a risk-controlled framework.

The pension plan assets are invested in diversified portfolios that are managed by third-party asset managers, in accordance with local statutory regulations, pension plan rules and the respective plans’ investment guidelines, as approved by the boards of trustees.

Plan assets are generally segregated from those of the Company and invested with the aim of meeting the respective plans’ projected future pension liabilities. Plan assets are measured at fair value at the balance sheet date.

The boards of trustees manage the assets of the pension plans in a risk-controlled manner and assess the risks embedded in the pension plans through asset/liability management studies. Asset/liability management studies typically take place every three years. However, the risks of the plans are monitored on an ongoing basis.

The board of trustees’ investment goal is to maximize the long-term returns of plan assets within specified risk parameters, while considering the future liabilities and liquidity needs of the individual plans. Risk measures taken into account include the funding ratio of the plan, the likelihood of extraordinary cash contributions being required, the risk embedded in each individual asset class, and the plan asset portfolio as a whole.

The Company’s global pension asset allocation is the result of the asset allocations of the individual plans, which are set by the respective boards of trustees. The target asset allocation of the Company’s plans on a weighted-average basis is as follows:

(in %)

Target

Asset class

 

Equity

22

Fixed income

59

Real estate

12

Other

7

 

100

The actual asset allocations of the plans are in line with the target asset allocations.

Equity assets primarily include investments in large-cap and mid-cap publicly-traded companies. Fixed income assets primarily include corporate bonds of companies from diverse industries and government bonds. Both fixed income and equity assets are invested either via funds or directly in segregated investment mandates, and include an allocation to emerging markets. Real estate consists primarily of direct investments in real estate in Switzerland held in the Swiss plans. The “Other” asset class includes investments in private equity, hedge funds, commodities, and cash and reflects a variety of investment strategies.

Based on the above global asset allocation and the fair values of the plan assets, the expected long-term return on assets at December 31, 2016, is 4.2 percent. The Company and the local boards of trustees regularly review the investment performance of the asset classes and individual asset managers. Due to the diversified nature of the investments, the Company is of the opinion that no significant concentration of risks exists in its pension fund assets.

The Company does not expect any plan assets to be returned to the employer during 2017.

At December 31, 2016 and 2015, plan assets include ABB Ltd’s shares (as well as an insignificant amount of the Company’s debt instruments) with a total value of $8 million and $9 million, respectively.

The fair values of the Company’s pension plan assets by asset class are presented below. For further information on the fair value hierarchy and an overview of the Company’s valuation techniques applied, see the “Fair value measures” section of Note 2.

December 31, 2016 ($ in millions)

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Total fair value

Asset class

 

 

 

 

Equity

 

 

 

 

Equity securities

244

244

Mutual funds/commingled funds

1,610

1,610

Emerging market mutual funds/commingled funds

337

337

Fixed income

 

 

 

 

Government and corporate securities

449

909

1,358

Government and corporate — mutual funds/commingled funds

3,446

3,446

Emerging market bonds — mutual funds/commingled funds

692

692

Real estate

33

1,116

1,149

Insurance contracts

99

99

Cash and short-term investments

260

104

364

Private equity

114

114

Hedge funds

13

13

Commodities

67

67

Total

953

7,297

1,243

9,493

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 31, 2015 ($ in millions)

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Total fair value

Asset class

 

 

 

 

Equity

 

 

 

 

Equity securities

364

364

Mutual funds/commingled funds

1,633

1,633

Emerging market mutual funds/commingled funds

328

328

Fixed income

 

 

 

 

Government and corporate securities

587

949

1,536

Government and corporate — mutual funds/commingled funds

3,257

3,257

Emerging market bonds — mutual funds/commingled funds

669

669

Real estate

74

1,106

1,180

Insurance contracts

121

121

Cash and short-term investments

160

219

379

Private equity

123

123

Hedge funds

94

94

Commodities

59

59

Total

1,111

7,309

1,323

9,743

The following table represents the movements of those asset categories whose fair values use significant unobservable inputs (Level 3):

($ in millions)

Private equity

Hedge funds

Real estate

Total Level 3

Balance at January 1, 2015

136

93

842

1,071

Return on plan assets

 

 

 

 

Assets still held at December 31, 2015

(9)

1

54

46

Assets sold during the year

20

(1)

(1)

18

Purchases (sales)

(24)

215

191

Exchange rate differences

1

(4)

(3)

Balance at December 31, 2015

123

94

1,106

1,323

Return on plan assets

 

 

 

 

Assets still held at December 31, 2016

(9)

82

73

Assets sold during the year

15

(4)

11

Purchases (sales)

(13)

(77)

(1)

(91)

Transfers into Level 3

1

(3)

(2)

Exchange rate differences

(3)

(68)

(71)

Balance at December 31, 2016

114

13

1,116

1,243

Real estate properties, which are primarily located in Switzerland, are valued under the income approach using the discounted cash flow method, by which the market value of a property is determined as the total of all projected future earnings discounted to the valuation date. The discount rates are determined for each property individually according to the property’s location and specific use, and by considering initial yields of comparable market transactions.

Private equity investments include investments in partnerships and related funds. Such investments consist of publicly-traded and privately-held securities. Publicly-traded securities that are quoted in inactive markets are valued using available quotes and adjusted for liquidity restrictions. Privately-held securities are valued taking into account various factors, such as the most recent financing involving unrelated new investors, earnings multiple analyses using comparable companies and discounted cash flow analyses.

Hedge funds are not normally exchange-traded and the shares of the funds cannot be redeemed daily. Depending on the fund structure, the fair values are derived through modeling techniques based on the values of the underlying assets adjusted to reflect liquidity and transferability restrictions.

Contributions

Employer contributions were as follows:

 

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

($ in millions)

2016

2015

2016

2015

Total contributions to defined benefit pension and other postretirement benefit plans

270

243

11

15

Of which, discretionary contributions to defined benefit pension plans

15

31

In 2016 and 2015, total contributions included non-cash contributions totaling $52 million and $22 million, respectively, of available-for-sale debt securities to certain of the Company’s pension plans.

The Company expects to contribute approximately $193 million, including $12 million in discretionary contributions, to its defined benefit pension plans in 2017. These discretionary contributions are expected to be non-cash contributions. The Company expects to contribute approximately $13 million to its other postretirement benefit plans in 2017.

The Company also contributes to a number of defined contribution plans. The aggregate expense for these plans was $210 million, $218 million and $236 million in 2016, 2015 and 2014, respectively. Contributions to multi-employer plans were not significant in 2016, 2015 and 2014.

Estimated future benefit payments

The expected future cash flows to be paid by the Company’s plans in respect of pension and other postretirement benefit plans at December 31, 2016, are as follows:

($ in millions)

Defined pension benefits

Other postretirement benefits

2017

593

13

2018

598

13

2019

578

13

2020

585

12

2021

563

12

Years 2022-2026

2,718

51