Con Keating Weighs In About Pension Liability Valuation

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Con Keating a few years ago when I visited London on business. We had been introduced by the then CEO of a UK-based pension consulting firm who knew of our mutual interest in governance. Since that time, Mr. Keating has been consistently generous with his views about real problems faced by retirement plan fiduciaries. This is no small gift given the breadth and depth of his experience as an advisor, investment manager, board member and academic. Click here to read Con Keating's bio.

In response to my August 5 essay entitled "Valuing Public Pension Fund Liabilities" and a request for feedback from industry practitioners, Mr. Keating sent an interesting paper from 2013 that I have finally been able to read. Entitled "Keep your lid on: A financial analyst's view of the cost and valuation of DB pension provision," he joins co-authors Ole Settergren and Andrew Slater in advocating for the use of a pension's Internal Growth Rate ("IGR") as the appropriate discount rate to adopt for purposes of reporting the financial health of a defined benefit ("DB") plan. To do otherwise would "lead to over or under estimates, bias and volatility," in part because exogenous metrics such as a risk-free rate "do not reflect scheme arrangements and dynamics." Instead, this analytical trio offers up the IGR as the only benchmark that adequately considers contributions and the concomitant impact on obligations. As they importantly point out, similar to the message of their U.S. peers, getting an accurate valuation is essential as it drives other key economic outcomes such as potential tax hikes levied to fund government pension plans in deficit. Applied to corporate plans, bad pension valuations can lead to a diminution of enterprise value. This is something I addressed at length in my Journal of Corporate Treasury Management article entitled "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability." (My current affiliation is Fiduciary Leadership, LLC.)

The issue of valuation is far from trivial. According to Pensions & Investments, the Society of Actuaries will soon publish a paper that looks at alternative ways to assess public plan liabilities, "reversing a previous position prohibiting any release of the paper."

Stay tuned for more discussions about how to evaluate funding gaps. As I've long maintained, if you can't measure something, you can't manage it.

Are Pension Performance Numbers Upside Down?

In a recent interview with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review journalist Debra Erdley, I pointed out the folly of relying solely on point in time actuarial numbers. As I state (below), no single metric is a substitute for a robust risk management process.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance, Inc., a group that advises pensions on best practices and risk management, said pension reports can be misleading - even when numbers are quoted accurately. "A one-point-in-time number is not very helpful. It says nothing about the riskiness of the investment portfolio. It says nothing about whether there is good due diligence in place - the vetting of the consultants, asset managers and investment managers. and it says little about the plan's ability to write checks every month," she said, adding that a pension plan with a high funding ratio could be heavily loaded with assets that are hard to convert to cash."

Others in the article (entitled "Onorato's boast about pension fund solvency raises eyebrows" - April 6, 2010) impugn politicians for their knowledge (or lack thereof) of arcane actuarial methodologies. Ouch!

I'm reminded of my finance teaching days when students were asked to rank capital projects by Net Present Value, Internal Rate of Return, Payback Period and so on. Consider Investment A with a calculated IRR of 50% and a NPV of $1,000 versus Investment B with expectations of 25% per annum and a dollar reward of $500,000. I'd rather have the cash than the cold comfort of a number that doesn't mean much.

Cash is king which is why an ongoing holistic risk management process is EVERYTHING!

Will the Real Pension Deficit Please Stand Up?

A flurry of activity is upon us in defined benefit land. The goal? Identify "high risk" plans early on. This, according to certain members of Congress, would be followed with additional funding by plan sponsors and thereby (hopefully) reduce the possibility of a government takeover. Critics counter that such a reform could make things worse, especially for already cash-strapped companies, struggling to stay in business. Moreover, they add that a risk classification based on unrealistic assumptions regarding early retirements at maximum benefit levels makes little sense.

The "Performance and Accountability Report: Fiscal Year 2005" shows a deficit of nearly $23 billion for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation while estimating "future exposure to new probable terminations" at $108 billion, nearly four times the "damage".

In its primer on pension accounting and funding, the American Academy of Actuaries describes at least four types of numbers - service cost, accumulated benefit obligation, projected benefit obligation and present value of future benefits. They add that "Amounts calculated under pension funding rules are completely different than those calculated for pension accounting, and one must be careful not to mix the two topics."

Keep in mind that smoothing and credit balances are other considerations as we try to navigate our way through the maze of pension metrics. New rules that address (a) the treatment of a company's pre-funding of a plan and (b) whether a sponsor can continue to average a plan's value over several years could materially impact reported pension costs. (To the extent that capital market participants react to accounting numbers as inaccurate barometers of economic health, C-level executives could be busy with related financial tasks.)

Okay, we get it. There are lots of ways to measure pension deficits but which one tells us what we really want to know?

What is the truth?

Will the real pension deficit please stand up?