Monday, August 31, 2009

Discounting pensions

The IASB proposes to modify the discount rate applicable to the valuation of pension liabilities in IAS19. The proposal would eliminate the requirement to apply government bond yields instead of high quality corporate bond yields where there is no deep and liquid market for such securities. The proposed modification is triggered of course by the massive expansion of the spread between corporate and government bonds in the wake of the crisis, which serves as an excuse for yet another instance of accelerated due process...

While I agree that applying government bond yields to discount pension liabilities makes sense in only a very limited set of circumstances, and definitely not as a generic fall-back position in the absence of a deep corporate bond market, the proposed discount rate suffers one important flaw. The Board argues (BC4) that comparability is served by reducing the range of rates used. Yet, the motive for not just fixing a single rate (maximum comparability in that sense) is probably that this would not reflect economic reality in any sense. But this purpose is not served by choosing high quality corporate bonds, either. What if the reporting entity is not of high quality (which is the rule rather than the exception nowadays)? The liability is overstated.

The economically correct discount rate to apply to the valuation of pension liabilities in my opinion is WACC. Cost of capital is calculated for each entity separately and thus cannot be compared uniformly, but it reflects the economic reality of financing decision making. As an analyst knowing about the many arcane ways in which pension liabilities are valued, I don't take the nominal amount of pension liabilities at face value anyway, so that comparison is of little interest.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

No return on closing DB plans

The July/August issue of FAJ has an intriguing article looking at empirical evidence of whether freezing DB pension plans would increase company value. Since cost and volatility impact on earnings are the justifications most often referred to for closing DB plans, the default expectation should be that it would. Yet, the authors cannot find any significant evidence of that.

They have been looking at the price reaction in four different event windows of 82 US announcements of frozen / closed DB plans between 2003 to 2007 in various industries. Interestingly, there seems to be a correlation between closure events and the generic business cyclicality of the firm's industry sector. Event firms exhibited stock market underperformance compared to their peers in the years leading up to the event.

Results indicate no systematic empirical evidence for positive abnormal returns associated with DB plan freezes / closes. Separating freezes and plan closures exhibits a small, yet unexpected diversion: Plan freezes generated a negative abnormal return, whereas the (small) sample of closures (for new employees) produced a more pronounced positive return.

In sum, it seems that DB pension plan closures / freezes tend to be short-term, ineffective measure adopted by managements to counter performance pressure.