The group that writes U.S. accounting rules voted yesterday to consider changing how pensions are treated on companies' ledgers, including a requirement that pension-fund surpluses and deficits be recognized on balance sheets.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board said in a written statement that a review is needed to make information in companies' financial statements "more useful and transparent for investors, creditors, employees, retirees, and other users."
That is not always the case today. Under generally accepted accounting principles, "important information about the financial status of a company's plan is reported in the footnotes, but not in the basic financial statements," the board said.
The board said it hopes to have in place by the end of next year a rule "requiring that the funded or unfunded status of defined benefit and other post-retirement benefit plans" be included in companies' balance sheets.
In the case of a company like General Motors Corp., with a giant pension plan, the impact on shareholder equity could be large, depending on what the FASB does.
In a filing this year with the Securities and Exchange Commission, GM showed in a footnote unrecognized pension liabilities of more than $36 billion. Under the FASB proposal such liabilities apparently would move to the balance sheet and be recorded as a reduction in shareholder equity, more than wiping out the equity reported, according to an expert at a private consulting firm, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment.
FASB officials conceded that the issues surrounding pensions are complex and involve competing interests. "While the accounting and reporting issues do not appear to lend themselves to a simple fix, the board believes that immediate improvements are necessary and will look for areas that can be improved quickly," board Chairman Robert H. Herz said in a written statement.
Such revisions could be far-reaching. An FASB decree 15 years ago that companies put the cost of retiree health insurance on their balance sheets was a key factor in decisions by many employers to curb or eliminate such benefits.
More recently, an FASB proposal to require companies to treat grants of stock options to employees as expenses touched off a huge protest. That rule took effect this summer.
There are nearly 30,000 traditional pension plans in the United States, covering about 44 million workers and their dependents. Those "defined benefit" plans are funded by employers and promise retirement benefits based on formulas typically involving workers' pay and years of service. They are insured by the federal government.
However, the number of such plans has declined drastically -- from about 120,000 in 1985 -- and many of the remaining plans are badly underfunded. According to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government's pension insurance agency, 1,100 plans are underfunded by a total of $353.7 billion.
A plan is considered underfunded when the value of its assets is less than the present value of the benefits workers have been promised. Bills are pending in both houses of Congress to tighten funding requirements and impose higher insurance premiums to shore up the PBGC.
The pension expert said that under current accounting rules, companies carry pension assets on their balance sheets, but only a portion of their pension liabilities. It appears, he said, that under FASB's proposal, instead of simply listing their net pension deficits -- assets minus liabilities -- they would have to bring the entire amount of liabilities, now listed as unrecognized losses, to their balance sheets as reductions in shareholder equity.
A second phase of FASB's revisions would address how best to measure pension obligations, how to deal with pension income in profit-and-loss statements, and other issues.
Alan Glickstein, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Dallas, worried about the collective effect the revisions might have on other pension changes being considered by Congress.
"You could have a cumulative effect where it becomes more onerous" to offer traditional pensions, Glickstein said. "In the bigger picture, that's not the best policy for an aging population."