Funding Fun House

Detractors say current accounting lets companies distort the picture they present of pension plan performance.

The news that many corporate pension plans are in trouble, at least on paper, comes as no surprise. After three years of declining stock markets, many large plans cannot help but find themselves underfunded. That such shortfalls have appeared for the first time since the early 1990s and to a degree not seen in a couple of decades merely reflects the longevity and extent of the dearly departed bull market.

After years of getting a bottom-line boost from pension gains, companies are now experiencing pension losses, which show up in a variety of forms, including hits to earnings, cash flow, and equity, depending on the particulars of the plan and complex accounting rules. And though most companies’ shortfalls will not pose immediate liquidity concerns, they are often too large for investors to ignore. For instance, Ford Motor Corp. will spend $1 billion in the next two years to make up a pension shortfall that doubled last year to more than $6 billion. Honeywell may need to contribute $900 million to its plan after assets deteriorated over the past year. And AMR Corp. could face a charge against shareholder equity of more than $1 billion this year to cover its minimum liability.

Isolated cases? Hardly. A recent report by Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) estimates that the aggregate effect on earnings from pension plans for the S&P 500 swung from a gain of $7 billion in 2001 to a negative $1 billion in 2002. The investment bank expects the S&P 500 to report net pension expenses of $15 billion in 2003. Another firm, Watson Wyatt Worldwide, says the real pain isn’t going to be felt until 2004 (barring a full market recovery), since many companies are able to defer cash contributions for a year.

Much Leeway

The real question is, why are the negative effects of pension plans just now starting to make their way onto the corporate radar screen, even though the plans have performed miserably for the past three years? Part of the answer lies in the fact that gains in the late 1990s were so large that many plans became overfunded, and the positive effect this produced only recently, albeit abruptly, disappeared.

But the real reason dismal performance is just now starting to be reflected in corporate financial results is that pension funding and accounting rules allow companies considerable leeway in making contributions and reporting results. For starters, contributions may be delayed for more than a year and a half after plans cease to be fully funded, and, depending on circumstances, the contribution holiday may be extended even longer. What’s more, the accounting — mostly contained in FAS 87 — allows companies to use investment-return and interest-rate assumptions that bear little relation to actual investment results. And since pension details are disclosed only once a year in footnotes, plan performance often escapes notice.

To be sure, headlines proclaiming a pension crisis may be overblown. In fact, underfunding needn’t create immediate problems, since federal law allows those companies whose plans are 80 to 90 percent funded to avoid the accelerated contribution requirements if the plans were 90 percent or more funded for two consecutive years out of the past three. Furthermore, plans that were 100 percent funded in the previous year are permitted to delay the current-year contribution up to 81/2 months after the year ends. In addition, companies that contributed more than the minimum in prior years may have developed a credit against current required contributions. “Many companies will be able to delay cash contributions until 2004,” says Ethan Kra, chief actuary of Mercer HR Consulting.

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