Multi-employer pensions: liability missing, expense unhelpful

Defined benefit pension liabilities arising from participation in multi-employer plans may not be recognised on the balance sheet. Under IFRS, companies can avoid recognition by simply asserting that “information is not available”. Disclosures in the footnotes help, but these may be measured on an ‘actuarial’ basis which is not relevant for investors.

We use retailer Ahold-Delhaize to illustrate the challenge for investors. It participates in several US multi-employer schemes and discloses an unrecognised actuarial liability of €1.1bn as per year end 2018. We estimate the more relevant IAS 19 liability, which we think should be recognised on-balance sheet, to be €2.2bn.

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Beware the IFRS 16 inflation headwind – Tesco

The capitalised lease liability of an inflation-linked lease does not include expected inflation. This results in a lower liability and lower initial expense compared with an equivalent lease with no inflation link. The IFRS 16 figures are updated as the inflation uplift occurs, but these catch-up adjustments create a profit ‘headwind’.

We estimate that Tesco’s inflation-linked leases result in a pre-tax profit headwind of about 2.2 percentage points of growth.  If inflation were included in the measurement of the lease liability instead, we estimate it would increase from the reported £10.3bn to approximately £15.2bn.

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When investors need to restate liabilities – EDF

In measuring its €40bn French nuclear decommissioning liability, EDF applies a 10-year historical ‘sliding average’ discount rate to a current estimate of cash flows. In our view, this leads to an out of date (and at present understated) liability that you should not use in your analysis, even though the approach is deemed to comply with IFRS.

Smoothing out the effects of discount rate changes may reduce apparent volatility, but it does not help investors. Balance sheets should include realistic and fully up to date estimates of the present value of decommissioning and other similar obligations.

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Pension liabilities: Not so ‘prudent’ actuarial values

The valuation of pension obligations can be an important component in determining the value of an equity investment. But should you include in your analysis the pension surplus or deficit based on the accounting liability or, as some argue, the lower actuarial ‘funding’ valuation?

It is all about the discount rate. The problem is that there are very different opinions about the appropriate rate for pension obligations and what measurement approach is most relevant for investors. We examine a view expressed by many, including BAE Systems.

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