Peanuts and Pensions

In case you missed it, Kraft Foods Group Inc. ("Kraft") reported a fourth quarter 2013 increase in profit and a $1.11 per share accounting gain, due in part to its pension plan. Higher discount rates and bigger returns on its portfolio were cited factors, with a nod to the company's use of "some of the cost savings to boost marketing behind brands like Jello-O dessert and Planters peanuts." See "Kraft Net Soars on Pension-Related Gain" by John Kell (Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2014). Other news, straight from its earnings call, describes the use of roughly $600 million of the company's free cash flow to add contributions to the pension plans in 2013. The result is a rise in the funded ratio to 96 percent at calendar year-end, up from 77 percent one year earlier. Expected contributions for 2014 will run around $200 million, with $60 million of that number representing required cash to fund Kraft's Canadian pension plans. See "Q4 2013 Earnings Call Transcript," February 13, 2014 and "Kraft Foods Group Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Results," February 13, 2014. Noteworthy is that Kraft commenced a liability-driven investment ("LDI") strategy, to be phased in over multiple years, (and I am paraphrasing here) as a way to more appropriately line up "pension assets with the projected benefit obligation to reduce volatility" by moving towards an 80% fixed income, 20% equity securities mix. See page 62 of the latest Kraft 10-K filing.

This alert from Kraft is yet another example of the link between pension management and corporate finance. There are lots of other companies that have made similar declarations about the relationship between employee benefit plan economics and company operations. As I wrote in "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management, 2012), private sector plan sponsors are acutely aware of the economic and legal aspects of offering ERISA plans to their respective work force. A dollar paid by shareholders for benefits could be seen as a cost that takes away from growing the enterprise or an investment in happy workers who add to the bottom line. Either way, the Treasury and Investor Relations teams are increasingly involved in discussions and related action steps to address the management of retirement plans. This is no coincidence. Liquidity, enterprise risk management, valuation, shareholder relations, talent retention and capital adequacy are a few of the numerous touch points that bring together the worlds of Human Resources ("HR"), the board and C-level officers such as the CEO and the Chief Financial Officer. This trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. To the contrary, expect more interactions across company functions and around the world.

To read a related blog post, see "Pension Risk, Governance and CFO Liability," PensionRiskMatters.com, March 4, 2012.

De-Risking, HR Strategy and the Bottom Line

In case you missed our December 10, 2013 presentation about pension de-risking, sponsored by Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") provider, Strafford Publications, click to download slides for "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors." It was a lively and informative discussion about the reasons to consider some type of pension risk management, considerations for doing a deal and the role of the independent fiduciary. The transaction and governance commentary was then followed with a detailed look at ERISA litigation that involves questions about Liability Driven Investing ("LDI"), lump sum distributions and annuity purchases.

Some of the issues I mentioned that are encouraging sponsors to quit their defined benefit plans in some way include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Equity performance "catch up" from the credit crisis years and the related impact on funding levels, leading some plans to report a deficit;
  • Need for cash to make required contributions;
  • Low interest rates which, for some firms, has ballooned their IOUs;
  • Increased regulation;
  • Higher PBGC premiums;
  • Rise in ERISA fiduciary breach lawsuits;
  • Desire to avoid a failed merger, acquisition, spin-off, carve-out, security issuance or other type of corporate finance deal that, if not achieved, could lessen available cash that is needed to finance growth; and
  • Difficulty in fully managing longevity risk that is pushing benefit costs upward as people live longer.

While true that numerous executives have fiduciary fatigue and want to spend their time and energies on something other than benefits management, it is not always a given that restructuring or extinguishing a defined benefit plan is the right way to go. Indeed, some sponsors have reinstated their pension offerings in order to retain and attract talented individuals who select employers on the basis of what benefits are offered.

Given what some predict as a worrisome shortage of talented and skilled workers, the links among HR strategy, employee satisfaction and the bottom line cannot be ignored. For those companies that depend on highly trained employees to design, produce, market and distribute products, the potential costs of losing clients to better staffed competitors is a real problem. According to the "2013 Talent Shortage Survey," conducted by the Manpower Group, "Business performance is most likely to be impacted by talent shortages in terms of reduced client service capability and reduced competitiveness..." A report about the findings states that "Of the 38,618 employers who participated in the 2013 survey, more than one in three reported difficulty filling positions as a result of a lack of suitable candidates; the 35% who report shortages represents the highest proportion since 2007, just prior to the global recession."

As relates to the well-documented shift by companies and governments to a defined contribution plan(s), I recently spoke to a senior ERISA attorney who suggested a possible re-thinking of the DB-DC array, based on discussions with his clients. The conclusion is that a 401(k) plan is sometimes much more expensive to offer than anticipated. For employees who lost money in 2008 and beyond and cannot afford to retire, they will keep working. The longer they stay with their respective employer, the more money that employer has to pay in the form of administration, matching contributions, etc.

A plan sponsor has a lot to consider when deciding what benefits to offer, keep, substitute or augment. Dollars spent on benefits could reap rewards in the form of a productive and complete labor force. With full attribution to the seven fellas in Disney Studio's Snow White, will your employees be singing "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go" or will they instead bemoan their stingy boss and search for a new work home, with better economic lollipops, thereby leaving a business deprived of precious human capital?

Private Equity Performance and Underfunded Pensions

Adopting a "half glass full" attitude, my co-author and I wrote about the business opportunities for private equity fund general partners ("GPs") with portfolio company problems. In "GPs Eye New Ruling" (Mergers & Acquisitions, December 2013 Issue) by ERISA attorney David Levine and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, Dr. Susan Mangiero, we talk about the aftermath of a recent legal decision that has the private equity world on high alert.

By way of background, in Sun Capital Partners v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a private equity fund can be held liable for the pension obligations of a portfolio company. If left unchecked, private equity funds (and their limited partners such as pension plan investors) could see a diminution of performance for any number of reasons. For one thing, a GP may be unable to exit a position within a reasonable period of time if potential buyers get scared of being saddled with an expensive, underfunded retirement plan. In addition, cash that was otherwise earmarked to finance new growth projects may be used instead to comply with statutory contribution rules. Indeed, I have carried out financial analyses for prospective buyers on the basis of how much "extra" a pension problem is likely to cost.

While the downside possibilities are real, Attorney Levine and I point out that "lessons learned" from the Sun Capital decision enable a GP to take action preemptively as a way to potentially "maximize value from portfolio companies while also mitigating future risk." Savvy asset managers can adapt their due diligence process to help avoid any issues that could preclude an exit within the typical three to seven year time period from an initial funding round. Some of the many steps that a GP can take include, but are not limited, to the following:

  • To the extent that a private equity fund is relying on the position that it is not a “trade of business” and is therefore not subject to liability for a portfolio company’s pension underfunding, it is wise to review the potential economic, fiduciary and legal risks should this position be challenged in court.
  • Review its holdings that are at least 80 percent owned by the private equity fund. Total equity exposure should include common stock, preferred stock and possibly economic rights associated with warrants and/or equity derivatives such as swaps. Although a core focus of any such review should be with respect to holdings subject to jurisdiction in the First Circuit (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island), a broader review of holdings elsewhere might also be considered.
  • Review underfunded pension plans before and after each acquisition of a portfolio company in order to develop strategies for addressing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s aggressive litigation positions that it has been taking lately. Failure to do so could result in unnecessary delays in connection with corporation transactions, including the sale of portfolio companies. Examine the collective bargaining agreements for any or all portfolio companies. Although the Sun Capital Partners case was about liability for pension funding obligations under a multiemployer pension plan (i.e., a pension plan maintained independent of an employer pursuant to collective bargaining), there is some concern that the logic of Sun Capital Partners might be extended to conclude that a private equity fund is conducting a “trade of business” under the Internal Revenue Code through its management and oversight of portfolio companies. A decision concluding that a fund is a trade or business for Internal Revenue Code purposes could impact a fund’s representations of its attempts to minimize its unrelated business income tax liability and/or its acceptance, pursuant to the Internal Revenue Code, as a trade or business.
  • Assess the economic, fiduciary and legal attractiveness of all employee benefit plans that are offered by private equity portfolio companies. This includes traditional defined benefit pension plan, 401(k) plans, and health and welfare arrangement. Individually and collectively, ERISA plans can carry significant liabilities that have the potential to (a) materially reduce overall business profitability (b) increase insurance premiums (c) lead to expensive litigation and/or regulatory enforcement (d) impede liquidity and (e) hamper capital raising. As a result, a general partner may never be able to realize the growth targets that motivated a particular investment in the first place. Just as significant, a private equity fund may find itself limited in its ability to exit a particular investment.
  • Meet with retirement-focused advisers, actuaries and counsel before investing in a new portfolio company. The due diligence analysis should be comprehensive. This means that a private equity fund will want to assess both the current and projected pension plan liabilities for a portfolio company as well as the riskiness of its investments in its pension and 401(k) plan. If a pension plan’s assets are illiquid or overly conservative, a deficit may occur or grow bigger. It is likewise important to understand whether the assumptions underlying actuarial calculations are overly optimistic. The objective is to understand the seriousness of a given situation in terms of economic, fiduciary and legal vulnerability.
  • Assess the accounting impact for any and all retirement plans. Be prepared to explain performance volatility to LPs as the result of an ERISA problem.
  • As the family of “de-risking” products continues to expand, consider restructuring a portfolio company’s ERISA plan if, by doing so, a private equity fund owner can improve the likelihood of an exit within its target time horizon. However, because ERISA’s fiduciary rules impose a duty of loyalty to participants and beneficiaries, decisions on de-risking should be evaluated under these standards.
  • Determine, in conjunction with ERISA counsel, whether to engage an “independent fiduciary” for purposes of evaluating an array of possible restructuring solutions. Buying annuities to settle pension liabilities or investing in employer securities or other “hard to value” assets are examples.
  • Recognize that the Sun Capital Partners decision could encourage further litigation and regulatory activities. Private equity funds might be well served to consider whether minor tweaks to their structure merit use, including the creation of additional services entities that are commonly used in operating company structures. Clarification of offering documents, careful monitoring of activities and/or comprehensive documentation of its involvement with portfolio companies can go a long way to help insulate a private equity fund from a finding that it is engaged in an Internal Revenue Code trade or business.

For further reading about this important legal decision and the economic and compliance imperatives, you can read earlier blog posts and link to various law firm memos on this topic. See "Pension Liability Price Tag For Private Equity Funds and Their Investors". Also see "More About Private Equity Funds and Pension IOUs."

Pensions Going Postal

Pension issues are hard to miss these days. What is notable is that pension plans influence corporate finance activity in several ways. First, they are collectively and, in some cases, individually, large and hard-to-ignore investors. Second, benefit economics can sometimes mean the difference between a deal such as a restructuring or merger or acquisition moving forward or getting stalled.

The over subscribed Initial Public Offering ("IPO") of the venerable postal system organization known as the Royal Mail Group, Ltd. ("Royal Mail") is a good example of pension plan sway.

Listed on the London Stock Exchange and trading under the ticker of RMG.L, Bloomberg reports that Royal Mail equity climbed nearly forty percent on its first day of trading with active volume early on. (See "Royal Mail Stock Jumps 38% on First Trading Day After IPO" by Kari Lundgren and Thomas Penny, Bloomberg, October 11, 2013). As a result of what most market participants call a successful launch, critics reiterated their plaint that Royal Mail should have gone for much more. Certainly the topic of pricing surfaced only to be met with concern about whether institutional investors would support the equity issue at a higher price. (See "Government tried to raise Royal Mail IPO price" by Himanshu Singh, CityWire Money, October 12, 2013). As it turned out, interest was strong and fears about a weak debut were ill-founded. According to Chief Business Correspondent for The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead, only 300 out of 800 pension fund and life insurance companies were able to get shares in Royal Mail with "the institutional offer [being] 20 times oversubscribed." (See "Royal Mail: 500 institutions miss out on shares amid record demand," October 10, 2013).

A few days later, those buyside squeaky wheels must be happy indeed. According to "Landsdowne grabs huge stake in Royal Mail sell-off" (October 11, 2013) by CNBC business editor, Helia Ebrahimi, sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds were each allocated about 50 million GBP and "that not enough stock was given to U.K. pension fund managers." Moreover, union workers continue to have questions about the economics of a proposal to limit Royal Mail employee benefits. In "Unite members vote against Royal Mail pensions cap," Professional Pensions reporter Taha Lokhandwala writes that the "announcement outraged unions as the scheme was in surplus at the time." Keep in mind that, the Royal Mail pension assets of 27 billion GBP and liabilities of 37.5 billion GBP were transferred to the U.K. treasury in 2012 in order allow Royal Mail a chance to better compete. See "Government to take over Royal Mail pension scheme deficit from next month," Out-Law.com, Pinsent Masons, March 23, 2012.

In contrast to the appearance of a financial home run for the Royal Mail deal, with respect to excess demand for stock and a clean-up of the nearly 10 billion GBP unfunded pension deficit, The Deal reports a third missed contribution to the U.S. federal mail system's pension plan as it falls "behind by another $5.6 billion." In "U.S. Postal Service skips third pension payment" (October 6, 2013), author Lisa Allen quotes union representative Sally Davidow as blaming the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act for "an onerous requirement that the service prefund 75 years' worth of retiree health benefits in 10 years, without allowing the agency to increase postage rates above inflation or offer new services to offset the added costs." With the price of a first class stamp soon to rise to 46 cents, and another hike for three cents more in the works, one wonders if the American mail service should look to its English counterpart and consider a pension transfer and privatization that might, if well structured, advantage employees and taxpayers alike.

Financial Executives Address De-Risking and ERISA Benefit Programs

According to "Balancing Costs, Risks, and Rewards: The Retirement and Employee Benefits Landscape in 2013" (CFO Research and Prudential Financial, Inc. - July 2013), numerous changes are underway. The opinions of senior financial executive survey takers validate the continued twin interest in expanding defined contribution plan offerings and managing the liability risk of existing defined benefit ("DB") plans. The strategic import of benefits as a way to attract and retain talent is recognized by "nearly all respondents in this year's survey." Regarding the restructuring of traditional pension plans, this report states that nearly four out of every ten leaders have frozen one or more DB plans yet recognize the need to manage risk for those plans as well as for active plans. Liability-driven investing ("LDI") programs are being adopted by "many companies". Transfer solutions are being "seriously" considered by roughly forty percent of companies represented in the survey. Almost one half of respondents agree that a return to managing its core business could be enhanced by doing something to address pension risk.

None of these results are particularly surprising but it always helpful to take the pulse of corporate America with respect to ERISA and employee benefit programs. I have long maintained that the role of treasury staff will accelerate. There are numerous corporate finance implications associated with the offering of non-wage compensation. As I have added in various speeches and articles echoing what numerous ERISA attorneys cite (and I am not an attorney), plan sponsors must carefully weigh their fiduciary responsibilities to participants against those of shareholders in arriving at a particular decision.

For a copy of the study, click here.

Interested readers may also want to check out the reference items listed below:

If you have further comments or questions, click to email Dr. Susan Mangiero.

Pension Plan Economics and Corporate Finance

Just published is an article I wrote about the urgent need for appraisers and deal-makers to make sure that they have adequately assessed the economics associated with defined benefit plan funding. Entitled "Pension Plans: The $20 Trillion Elephant in the (Valuation) Room" by Susan Mangiero (Business Valuation Update, July 2013), the objectives of this article are threefold: (1) shed light on the magnitude of the pension underfunding problem and the possible dire impact on enterprise value; (2) remind appraisers of the need to thoroughly understand and evaluate pension plan economics or engage someone to assist them; and (3) explain the adverse consequences on deal-making and corporate strategy when pension plan funding gaps are given short shrift. CEOs, Chief Financial Officers, private equity, venture capital, merger and acquisition and bank lending professionals will want to read this article as it showcases this timely and urgent topic.

Click to read my article about pension plan valuation.

In a related post, ERISA attorney Stephen D. Rosenberg wrote a commentary on his "Boston ERISA & Insurance Litigation Blog" (June 17, 2013) about why he believes that appraisers should not be designed as ERISA fiduciaries. He expresses doubt about whether imposing a fiduciary standard on appraisers will "improve the analysis provided to plan fiduciaries." He suggests that such a move by regulators could create a reluctance for valuation professionals to assume the liability associating with appraising a company with an ERISA plan.

For those who missed our program about appraiser liability, visit the Business Valuation Resources website to obtain a copy of "Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser." The program took place on May 14, 2013. Speakers included myself (Dr. Susan Mangiero), ERISA attorney James Cole with Groom Law Group and Mr. Robert Schlegel with the Houlihan Valuation Advisors.

Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser

An esteemed panel of experts will speak on May 14, 2013 from 1:00 PM EST to 2:40 PM EST as part of a webinar that is sponsored by Business Valuation Resources. Entitled "Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser," Dr. Susan Mangiero, CFA, FRM and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, will be joined by Mr. Robert Schlegel, ASA, MCBA and ERISA attorney James V. Cole II. Dr. Mangiero is a Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC. Mr. Schlegel is a principal with Houlihan Valuation Advisors. Attorney Cole is a principal with Groom Law Group.

Why You Should Attend

As retirement, healthcare, and other employee benefits continue to grow, they are placing new stresses on firms of all sizes, whose commitments to these funds are beginning to outpace their revenues. Regulations and lawsuits are now challenging the defined responsibilities and liabilities of the financial professionals who create, manage, and even analyze these entities. This means that every appraiser now needs to assess risk, and the extent to which employee benefit plans impact enterprise value.

In this webinar, Dr. Susan Mangiero, Mr. Rob Schlegel, and ERISA attorney James Cole discuss existing, emerging, and proposed disclosure rules, an understanding of which are imperative to navigate the maze of actuarial, accounting, and regulatory numbers. Learn why estimating future expected cash requirements to service a plan(s) is imperative if an appraiser wants to opine whether a firm can realize its growth targets, and how benefit plan economics, such as withdrawal liabilities, change when derivatives or annuity transactions are in place. Appraisers need to understand emerging discussions now taking place at FASB and other regulatory agencies that will affect market participant activity relating to exchange value. Markets are waking up to this emerging area, and appraisers can no longer afford to remain asleep of these issues.

According to Mr. Blake Lyman, Professional Program Manager with Business Valuation Resources, LLC, "BVR is thrilled to be offering this program with Susan, Rob, and Jim. As the go-to resource for all professionals involved with business valuation, we always seek to present the most in-depth content on the most pressing issues for the many experts who rely on us. With Susan, Rob, and Jim's experience and expertise, this program is sure to surpass the high standards we set for ourselves and that our customers have come to expect."

To register, visit the Business Valuation Resources website.

Pensions and Corporate Finance: How to Avoid Buyer's Remorse

Ever since the PBGC’s 2007 opinion that a private equity fund with a controlling interest can be liable for a portfolio company’s pension problems, there is increased evidence that corporate transactions can go seriously awry if ERISA benefit plans are not properly addressed. Legal issues are not the only risk factor that could cause a merger, acquisition, spin-off or carve-out to fail to materialize. Low interest rates, investment lock-ups, participant longevity and complex vendor contracts are a few of the challenges that must be confronted by the legal and finance team in charge of due diligence. And with virtually every defined benefit plan facing funding issues in light of these circumstances, the PBGC is extremely proactive in seeking concessions to not interfere with corporate transactions yet hold parties who may have responsibility for unfunded liabilities accountable. Headlines are replete with articles about deals that were stalled or failed because ERISA due diligence was given short shrift. In 2010, the acquisition of a major chemical company took less than six months but coordinating the relationships with defined contribution managers took nearly two years to wrap up. Talks between a large manufacturing company and a potential target company are currently focused on how best to tackle the acquiree’s multi-billion dollar pension fund gap. In the aftermath of the settlement of a recent case, private equity firms and limited partners continue to be jittery about joint and several liability for pension plan funding gaps, making it harder to take a portfolio company public or sell. Taken together, the most important thing that a potential corporate buyer and its counsel can do is to acknowledge the importance of proper due diligence. These problems are not going away and arguably could get much worse.

Join Dr. Susan Mangiero, CFA, certified Financial Risk Manager and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst and senior ERISA attorney Lawrence K. Cagney to talk about ways to keep a deal from derailing and to avoid buyer’s remorse due to an incomplete assessment of pension plan economics on enterprise value.

Join us to hear speakers talk about critical steps and lessons learned from their experience, to include the following:

  • How to revise investment and/or hedging strategy and policy statement(s) when organizations merge;
  • Elements of an ERISA service provider due diligence analysis when plans are combined;
  • Red flags for an institutional investor to consider when seeking to allocate to private equity portfolios with “pension-heavy” companies that may be hard to exit without costly restructuring;
  • Assuring that participant communication is comprehensive;
  • Role of the corporate finance attorney versus ERISA counsel; and
  • Installing knowledgeable fiduciaries for the new and/or merged employee benefit arrangements

Click to register for "Pensions and Corporate Finance: How to Avoid Buyer's Remorse," sponsored by the Practising Law Institute on November 15, 2012 from 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm EDT.