Pension Funding Relief Passed Into Law

Signed on June 25, 2010 by President Obama, the Preservation of Access to Care for Medicare Beneficiaries and Pension Relief Act (H.R. 3692) allows plan sponsors to amortize funding gaps over a longer period of time than is currently allowed. In addition, this legislation enables funding relief for up to two years.

While the financial markets have not been kind to more than a few defined benefit plans, new rules are going to make it even more difficult for financial statement users to assess the true economic health of any given retirement arrangement. This is not a good thing. Beneficiaries and shareholders alike deserve user-friendly information, especially if a plan is in trouble. The new law will make things even more challenging in terms of deciphering reported numbers and that's saying something.

As I wrote in "The Plan That Didn't Bark" (CFA Magazine, March-April 2008), financial analysts and other interested parties must learn to think like detectives. The current state of pension accounting is far from perfect. Taking into account the likely impact of H.R. 3692, published funding information is going to be clear as mud.

Click here to access the full legislation. Clear to read "The Plan That Didn't Bark" by Dr. Susan Mangiero. (Editor's Note: Pension Governance, LLC is now part of Investment Governance, Inc.)

New Accounting Rules for Public Pension Funds

According to "Government Rule Makers Looking at Pensions," New York Times reporter Mary Walsh (July 11, 2008) describes a new initiative, sure to create headaches for troubled state and city pension plan auditors. Announced at its July 10, 2008 public meeting, the Government Accounting Standards Board plans to "force state and local governments to issue better numbers and reveal the true cost of their pension promises." Walsh describes a GASB report that is frightening at best. (I am trying to get a copy of the report to upload to this blog.) Questionable practices include:

  • Award of retroactive employee benefits without recognizing the incremental costs
  • Use of "skim funds" which diverts some investment income dollars away from the pension plan for other uses
  • Amortization of expenses over 50 or 100 years (versus the customary 30 years)
  • Use of a 30-year amortization period with an annual reset back to Year 1.

Additionally, on June 30, 2008, GASB issued Statement No. 53, Accounting and Financial Reporting for Derivative Instruments in order to promote transparency about the use of derivatives by public entities. In its news release, GASB describes the need to determine "whether a derivative instrument results in an effective hedge." Unclear is whether GASB 53 applies to public pensions that employ derivative instruments for hedging, return enhancement or a variety of other applications. Also unclear is whether embedded derivatives must be accounted for. (I am researching these questions.)

Having been on the front lines of FAS 133 implementation (the corporate equivalent of GASB 53), challenges await auditors and pension finance managers alike. Click to read "FAS 133 Effectiveness Assessment Issues" by Dr. Susan Mangiero (GT News, June 15, 2001) or "Is correlation coefficient the standard for FAS 133 hedge effectiveness?" by Dr. Susan Mangiero and Dr. George Mangiero  (GARP Risk Review, May 2001).

Notably, a survey soon to be released by Pension Governance, LLC and the Society of Actuaries suggests that public and corporate pension plans worry about accounting representation. A large pool of U.S. and Canadian respondents rank compliance with new accounting rules as their number one concern. The survey, entitled "Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process" is tentatively scheduled for release during the week of July 21, 2008.

Editor's Notes:

  • You may have to register in order to read articles online by New York Times reporters.
  • Check out "The $3 Trillion Challenge" by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene (Governing, October 2007) and the related "Q&As With the Experts" - Gary Findlay, Susan Mangiero and Richard Koppes.