Summary of Statement No. 87

Employers' Accounting for Pensions (Issued 12/85)

Summary

This Statement supersedes previous standards for employers' accounting for pensions. The most significant changes to past practice affect an employer's accounting for a single-employer defined benefit pension plan, although some provisions also apply to an employer that participates in a multiemployer plan or sponsors a defined contribution plan.

Measuring cost and reporting liabilities resulting from defined benefit pension plans have been sources of accounting controversy for many years. Both the Committee on Accounting Procedure, in 1956, and the Accounting Principles Board (APB), in 1966, concluded that improvements in pension accounting were necessary beyond what was considered practical at those times.

After 1966, the importance of information about pensions grew with increases in the number of plans and amounts of pension assets and obligations. There were significant changes in both the legal environment (for example, the enactment of ERISA) and the economic environment (for example, higher inflation and interest rates). Critics of prior accounting requirements, including users of financial statements, became aware that reported pension cost was not comparable from one company to another and often was not consistent from period to period for the same company. They also became aware that significant pension-related obligations and assets were not recognized in financial statements.

Funding and Accrual Accounting

This Statement reaffirms the usefulness of information based on accrual accounting. Accrual accounting goes beyond cash transactions to provide information about assets, liabilities, and earnings. The Board has concluded, as did the APB in 1966, that net pension cost for a period is not necessarily determined by the amount the employer decides to contribute to the plan for that period. Many factors (including tax considerations and availability of both cash and alternative investment opportunities) that affect funding decisions should not be allowed to dictate accounting results if the accounting is to provide the most useful information.

The conclusion that accounting information on an accrual basis is needed does not mean that accounting information and funding decisions are unrelated. In pensions, as in other areas, managers may use accounting information along with other factors in making financial decisions. Some employers may decide to change their pension funding policies based in part on the new accounting information. Financial statements should provide information that is useful to those who make economic decisions, and the decision to fund a pension plan to a greater or lesser extent is an economic decision. The Board, however, does not have as an objective either an increase or a decrease in the funding level of any particular plan or plans. Neither does the Board believe that the information required by this Statement is the only information needed to make a funding decision or that net periodic pension cost, as defined, is necessarily the appropriate amount for any particular employer's periodic contribution.

Fundamentals of Pension Accounting

In applying accrual accounting to pensions, this Statement retains three fundamental aspects of past pension accounting: delaying recognition of certain events, reporting net cost, and offsetting liabilities and assets. Those three features of practice have shaped financial reporting for pensions for many years, although they have been neither explicitly addressed nor widely understood, and they conflict in some respects with accounting principles applied elsewhere.

The delayed recognition feature means that changes in the pension obligation (including those resulting from plan amendments) and changes in the value of assets set aside to meet those obligations are not recognized as they occur but are recognized systematically and gradually over subsequent periods. All changes are ultimately recognized except to the extent they may be offset by subsequent changes, but at any point changes that have been identified and quantified await subsequent accounting recognition as net cost components and as liabilities or assets.

The net cost feature means that the recognized consequences of events and transactions affecting a pension plan are reported as a single net amount in the employer's financial statements. That approach aggregates at least three items that might be reported separately for any other part of an employer's operations: the compensation cost of benefits promised, interest cost resulting from deferred payment of those benefits, and the results of investing what are often significant amounts of assets.

The offsetting feature means that recognized values of assets contributed to a plan and liabilities for pensions recognized as net pension cost of past periods are shown net in the employer's statement of financial position, even though the liability has not been settled, the assets may be still largely controlled, and substantial risks and rewards associated with both of those amounts are clearly borne by the employer.

Within those three features of practice that are retained by this Statement, the Board has sought to achieve more useful financial reporting through three changes:

  1. This Statement requires a standardized method for measuring net periodic pension cost that is intended to improve comparability and understandability by recognizing the compensation cost of an employee's pension over that employee's approximate service period and by relating that cost more directly to the terms of the plan.
  2. This Statement requires immediate recognition of a liability (the minimum liability) when the accumulated benefit obligation exceeds the fair value of plan assets, although it continues to delay recognition of the offsetting amount as an increase in net periodic pension cost.
  3. This Statement requires expanded disclosures intended to provide more complete and more current information than can be practically incorporated in financial statements at the present time.

Cost Recognition and Measurement

A fundamental objective of this Statement is to recognize the compensation cost of an employee's pension benefits (including prior service cost) over that employee's approximate service period. Many respondents to Preliminary Views and the Exposure Draft on employers' accounting for pensions agreed with that objective, which conflicts with some aspects of past practice under APB Opinion No. 8, Accounting for the Cost of Pension Plans.

The Board believes that the understandability, comparability, and usefulness of pension information will be improved by narrowing the past range of methods for allocating or attributing the cost of an employee's pension to individual periods of service. The Board was unable to identify differences in circumstances that would make it appropriate for different employers to use fundamentally different accounting methods or for a single employer to use different methods for different plans.

The Board believes that the terms of the plan that define the benefits an employee will receive (the plan's benefit formula) provide the most relevant and reliable indication of how pension cost and pension obligations are incurred. In the absence of convincing evidence that the substance of an exchange is different from that indicated by the agreement between the parties, accounting has traditionally looked to the terms of the agreement as a basis for recording the exchange. Unlike some other methods previously used for pension accounting, the method required by this Statement focuses more directly on the plan's benefit formula as the basis for determining the benefit earned, and therefore the cost incurred, in each individual period.

Statement of Financial Position

The Board believes that this Statement represents an improvement in past practices for the reporting of financial position in two ways. First, recognition of the cost of pensions over employees' service periods will result in earlier (but still gradual) recognition of significant liabilities that were reflected more slowly in the past financial statements of some employers. Second, the requirement to recognize a minimum liability limits the extent to which the delayed recognition of plan amendments and losses in net periodic pension cost can result in omission of certain liabilities from statements of financial position.

Recognition of a measure of at least the minimum pension obligation as a liability is not a new idea. Accounting Research Bulletin No. 47, Accounting for Costs of Pension Plans, published in 1956, stated that "as a minimum, the accounts and financial statements should reflect accruals which equal the present worth, actuarially calculated, of pension commitments to employees to the extent that pension rights have vested in the employees, reduced, in the case of the balance sheet, by any accumulated trusteed funds or annuity contracts purchased." Opinion 8 required that "if the company has a legal obligation for pension cost in excess of amounts paid or accrued, the excess should be shown in the balance sheet as both a liability and a deferred charge."

The Board believes that an employer with an unfunded pension obligation has a liability and an employer with an overfunded pension obligation has an asset. The most relevant and reliable information available about that liability or asset is based on the fair value of plan assets and a measure of the present value of the obligation using current, explicit assumptions. The Board concluded, however, that recognition in financial statements of those amounts in their entirety would be too great a change from past practice. Some Board members were also influenced by concerns about the reliability of measures of the obligation.

The delayed recognition included in this Statement results in excluding the most current and most relevant information from the statement of financial position. That information, however, is included in the required disclosures.

Information Needed

The Board believes that users of financial reports need information beyond that previously disclosed to be able to assess the status of an employer's pension arrangements and their effects on the employer's financial position and results of operations. Most respondents agreed, and this Statement requires certain disclosures not previously required.

This Statement requires disclosure of the components of net pension cost and of the projected benefit obligation. One of the factors that has made pension information difficult to understand is that past practice and terminology combined elements that are different in substance and effect into net amounts. Although the Board agreed to retain from past pension accounting practice the basic features of reporting net cost and offsetting liabilities and assets, the Board believes that disclosure of the components will significantly assist users in understanding the economic events that have occurred. Those disclosures also make it easier to understand why reported amounts change from period to period, especially when a large cost or asset is offset by a large revenue or liability to produce a relatively small net reported amount.

* * * * *

After considering the range of comments on Preliminary Views and the Exposure Draft, the Board concluded that this Statement represents a worthwhile improvement in financial reporting. Opinion 8 noted in 1966 that "accounting for pension cost is in a transitional stage." The Board believes that is still true in 1985. FASB Concepts Statement No. 5, Recognition and Measurement in Financial Statements of Business Enterprises, paragraph 2, indicates that "the Board intends future change [in practice] to occur in the gradual, evolutionary way that has characterized past change."