A new accounting rule taking effect on the presentation of pension costs will serve as yet another nail in the coffin of defined benefit pension plans as a form of employment compensation.
That’s the conclusion of the asset management group at Goldman Sachs, which reports the rule change will give defined benefit plan sponsors a new reason to de-risk any plans they still offer or carry on their books.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board adopted Accounting Standards Update No. 2017-01 in early 2017 to take effect for plan years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017. That means calendar year-end companies will begin applying the new accounting on Jan. 1, 2018.
The rule requires companies to change the way they present net periodic costs associated with pensions and other post-retirement benefit offerings so investors and other users of financial statements can more readily understand the costs. The standard requires companies to separate a sponsor’s pension service cost component from other components of the net benefit costs, and it allows capitalization of only the service cost component.
The new reporting means companies will include the service cost portion of their pension expense in the same line item of the income statement as other compensation costs arising for employee services during a given period. Pension service cost represents the amount companies contribute to pension plans as a result of employees’ service to the company, so investors regard it as an operating cost akin to payroll that should be reflected in operating income, says Goldman Sachs.
The accounting rule change does not change the way companies measure pension obligations or pension expense, nor does it change the underlying of pension economics, Goldman Sachs says. Yet companies may regard the new presentation as a reason to move toward further de-risking of pension plans, the firm says.
Companies have already been moving in that direction for several years, closing or freezing plans and in some cases even annuitizing them as a result of a number of factors. Aging demographics, market volatility, changing regulatory and reporting requirements, higher insurance premiums, and attractive risk-transfer pricing have all combined over the past decade and more to steer companies away from defined benefit plans.
Had the latest new accounting rules been in place in 2016, Goldman Sachs says, a little more than half of S&P 500 companies would have reported higher operating income, but 46 percent would have reported lower operating income. That could influence the way plan sponsors consider the effect of a pension plan’s asset allocation and investment strategy, the firm says.
The new presentation means expected return income will no longer be reflected in operating income. That might give plan sponsors who were already considering de-risking by shifting their asset allocation to more fixed income investments away from equity investments a further incentive to do so, Goldman Sachs says.