In what most people would call a significant announcement, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis ("BEA") will begin measuring economic growth this summer by taking pension finance into account. According to its March 2013 announcement, BEA will record defined benefit plan transactions on an accrual accounting basis. This entity, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, will now include a pension plan subsector in the national income and product accounts ("NIPAs"). As much as possible, the BEA will "provide estimates of the current receipts, current expenditures, and cash flow for the subsector." The intended changes contrast with the current method of including information about disbursements and earnings of pension plans as participants' personal items and using a cash basis for reporting.
The goal of enhancing transparency about employer-provided defined benefit retirement plans is laudable. However, in reading the fine print, one wonders if the opposite will occur and users of post-implementation data will be more confused. For one thing, the BEA states that it will adopt an accumulated benefit obligation ("ABO") for "both privately sponsored and state and local government sponsored plans" and use a projected benefit obligation ("PBO") for federal government plans. This means that you will never be able to compare all defined benefit plans with a single set of rules. Second, the BEA describes a discount rate assumption that "will be based on the AAA corporate bond rate published by the Federal Reserve Board." Since debt issued by the U.S. is no longer rated AAA and recent regulations allow for temporary funding relief for corporate pension plans, how will BEA numbers compare and contrast with financial accounting numbers over time? Third, since certain data is not available prior to 2000, the BEA will extrapolate to generate "normal costs" for past years. Will their method of extrapolation allow for an accurate "apples to apples" assessment of historical pension earnings and costs? In the plus column, applying the same discount rate for private pension plans versus state and local offerings will help to better assess the economic viability for each sector.
Should the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act move forward, disclosures will be based on the BEA approach. Understanding what BEA numbers do or do not show will therefore be a critical exercise for policy-makers, investors and participants.
For a detailed discussion of these intended changes on the part of the BEA, read "Preview of the 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts: Changes in Definitions and Presentations," BEA, March 2013. Click to read about advantages of passing the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act. Click here to read criticisms of this proposed rule. On April 23, 2013, the U.S. Senate received a version of the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act in the form of S. 779. This proffered legislation cites a staggering $5.170 trillion in pension liabilities of the 50 states combined. It is no wonder that numerous individuals want a true tally of what is owed.