New Accounting Rules for Defined Benefit Pension Plans

By Kenneth W. Shaw

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MARCH 2008 - Issued in September 2006, Statement of Financial Accounting Standards (SFAS) 158, Employers’ Accounting for Defined Benefit Pension and Other Postretirement Plans—An Amendment of FASB Statements No. 87, 88, 106, and 132(R), significantly changes the balance-sheet reporting for defined benefit pension plans. Before SFAS 158, the effects of certain events, such as plan amendments or actuarial gains and losses, were granted delayed balance-sheet recognition. As a result, a plan’s funded status (plan assets minus obligations) was rarely reported on the balance sheet. SFAS 158 requires companies to report their plans’ funded status as either an asset or a liability on their balance sheets, which will cause reported pension liabilities to rise significantly. Although SFAS 158 also applies to postretirement benefit plans other than pensions and to not-for-profit entities, the focus below is on for-profit businesses with defined benefit pension plans.

Balance-Sheet Reporting Under SFAS 158

Under SFAS 87, prepaid or accrued pension cost, which is the net of a firm’s pension assets, liabilities, and unrecognized amounts, is reported on the balance sheet. SFAS 158 arguably improves financial reporting by more clearly communicating the funded status of defined benefit pension plans. Previously, this information was reported only in the detailed pension footnotes.

Under SFAS 158, companies with defined benefit pension plans must recognize the difference between the plan’s projected benefit obligation and its fair value of plan assets as either an asset or a liability. The projected benefit obligation is the actuarial present value of the benefits attributed by the pension plan benefit formula for services already provided. As a result, the complex and conceptually unsound “minimum pension liability” rules, which are used when the accumulated benefit obligation is less than the fair value of pension plan assets, has been eliminated. (The accumulated benefit obligation is similar to the projected benefit obligation but does not include expected future salary increases in the calculation of the present value of actuarial benefits.) In addition, the unrecognized prior service costs and actuarial gains and losses that were previously relegated to the footnotes are now recognized on the balance sheet, with an offsetting amount in accumulated other comprehensive income under shareholders’ equity.

Income Reporting Under SFAS 158

SFAS 158 does not change the computation of periodic pension cost, which remains a function of service cost, interest cost, expected return on pension plan assets, and amortization of unrecognized items. It does, however, impact the reporting of comprehensive income. Specifically, actuarial gains or losses and prior service costs that arise during the period are recognized as components of comprehensive income. In addition, the amortization of actuarial gains or losses, prior service costs, and transition amounts recognized before implementing SFAS 158 require a reclassification adjustment to comprehensive income.

Applying SFAS 158

Exhibit 1 presents pension footnote data for three companies: Lockheed Martin, Glatfelter, and AMR Corp. Lockheed Martin represents a classic example of a scenario SFAS 158 is designed to eliminate: namely, reporting a pension asset when the pension plan is actually underfunded. Specifically, Lockheed Martin’s pension obligation ($28,421 million) exceeds its plan assets ($23,432 million), meaning the plan is underfunded by the difference, $4,989 million. Previously, Lockheed Martin’s unrecognized net losses and unrecognized prior service costs (totaling $7,108 million) enabled it to report a pension asset of $2,119 million ($7,108 – $4,989).

The data for Glatfelter and AMR in Exhibit 1 indicate other likely scenarios under SFAS 158. Glatfelter, while overfunded by $155.3 million, would reduce its reported pension asset by $90 million under SFAS 158. Although AMR currently recognizes a pension liability of $882 million, SFAS 158 would require AMR to significantly increase its reported pension liability to $3,225 million.

An Illustration of the Transition to SFAS 158

The following example uses the actual 2005 data from Exhibit 1 to illustrate how each of these companies would record the transition to the new rules. Because SFAS 158 is generally first effective for fiscal years ending after December 15, 2006, the actual numbers these companies record upon transition to SFAS 158 will differ from those in this example. For simplicity, the illustration ignores tax effects.

Exhibit 1 shows that each of the three companies reports additional minimum liabilities and related intangible assets on its balance sheet. These items are eliminated under SFAS 158. In addition, pension assets and liabilities and accumulated other comprehensive income are adjusted so that their ending balances conform to the amounts required under SFAS 158. The necessary journal entries to accomplish the transition, using 2005 data, are presented in Exhibit 2.

Exhibit 3 shows the balance-sheet reporting for each company after posting the entries in Exhibit 2, and exposes several important points. First, each company reports its funded status as either a pension asset or liability. Second, the balance in accumulated other comprehensive income equals the amount of previously unrecognized items. In this example, and likely for many companies with defined benefit plans, the amount of this contra-shareholders’ equity will increase under SFAS 158, even potentially generating negative shareholders’ equity. The transition to SFAS 158 might impose costs on leveraged firms due to the increased likelihood of tightening restrictive debt covenants. Finally, the balance-sheet presentation, and each company’s funded status, should be easier to understand after SFAS 158 is implemented.

Subsequent Application of SFAS 158

SFAS 158 does not impact the amount of periodic pension cost reported on the income statement, but it does impact the reporting of comprehensive income. For example, assume that after implementing SFAS 158 Lockheed Martin were to report the financial results in Exhibit 4. Again, these amounts are for illustrative purposes only.

Exhibit 5 shows the required journal entries. The first entry records the service cost, interest cost, and expected return on plan assets components of periodic pension cost. The second entry reclassifies the amortization items from accumulated other comprehensive income to periodic pension cost, and the third entry adjusts the pension liability and accumulated other comprehensive income for the difference in actual pension returns above expectations during the year.

Tax effects. For the sake of simplicity, the illustrations above ignore the effect of taxes on the financial results. In the real world, however, the application of SFAS 158 requires companies to account for the temporary differences between the book and tax bases of pension liabilities. The balance-sheet liability most businesses will report after SFAS 158 will in turn either lower their deferred tax liabilities or increase their deferred tax assets. Companies will have to consider these effects when assessing the need for and amount of valuation allowances on their deferred tax assets.

Changes to Required Disclosures

SFAS 158 retains many of the required pension disclosures in current GAAP. It eliminates the requirement to reconcile the plan’s funded status and the amount recognized on the balance sheet (as the funded status will now be recognized on the balance sheet). SFAS 158 as also eliminates the need to disclose the plan’s measurement date (as this date now must coincide with the firm’s fiscal year-end).

Prior to SFAS 158, companies could measure their pension assets and benefit obligations at times other than their fiscal year-end. Effective for fiscal years ending after December 15, 2008, companies must measure these items as of the date of their fiscal year-end balance sheet.

Finally, SFAS 158 expands disclosure of the effects of the pension plan in other comprehensive income.

Kenneth W. Shaw, CPA, is an associate professor and the CBIZ/MHM Scholar in the school of accountancy at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.




















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