Government pensions have received significant scrutiny over the past few years, and several studies indicate that the state and local government pension plans are severely underfunded, with cumulative estimates ranging from $1 trillion to $4 trillion in the U.S. New Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) reporting standards will make the problem more apparent by making the shortfalls prominent on financial statements of the government employer. This transparency likely will drive increased scrutiny by legislatures, taxpayers, rating agencies and other stakeholders.
Instead of recognizing pension costs on balance sheets as annual expenditures based on a funding approach, government entities will need to address net pension liability — the difference between present value of projected benefit payments and investments set aside to cover those obligations.
“In some instances, reporting agencies could be required to show millions of dollars in new liabilities on their balance sheets and make sizeable adjustments to their income and expense statements as well,” says Kevin W. Smith, CPA, partner at Crowe Horwath.
Smart Business spoke with Smith about the new standards and how they will affect state and local governments.
How will the new standards take effect?
GASB Statement No. 67, ‘Financial Reporting for Pension Plans,’ and Statement No. 68, ‘Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions,’ take effect in fiscal years starting after June 15, 2013, and June 15, 2014, respectively. They replace requirements in GASB Statements Nos. 25, 27 and 50.
The fundamental change is that the previous standards did not require pension benefits to retired employees to be reported as a liability; employers disclosed an estimated amount of unfunded pension liability only in notes to the financial statements and in required supplementary information, but the net pension liability itself was not reflected on the balance sheet.
New standards require government entities to report the net underfunded pension obligations on financial statements prepared under the accrual basis — a statement of net position, for example.
Government entities also will have to adjust their estimate value of assets set aside to meet pension promises. Governments had been allowed to use an assumed long-term rate of return, with current rates of 7 percent or more as expected return on invested assets. If certain conditions are met, that will change to a blend between long-term rate of return and municipal bond rates, currently about 4 percent, which will have a significant impact on the projected liability.
How will local and state governments be affected by the change?
For many governments this ‘new’ liability will completely offset all of an entity’s net assets — similar to equity in a private entity.
Some cities, counties, school districts or special purpose governments might be affected by both new standards. As local government employers, these institutions must comply with GASB 68. If they administer pension plans for police, firefighters or others, they must adhere to GASB 67 plan administrator requirements.
The new standards spell out requirements for disclosing related information in the notes with the financial statements, which includes descriptions of plan and benefits provided, assumptions used to determine net pension liability and descriptions of benefit changes. Preparing these disclosures will take a significant effort.
What should be done now in anticipation?
The purpose of the new standards is to provide a clearer picture of financial obligations to current and former employees and to treat net pension liability like other long-term obligations. However, the standards might make government entities appear to be financially weaker, even though their financial reality is unchanged. Financial officers should be prepared to explain the situation to taxpayers, employees and other stakeholders. Management should take a proactive approach and begin now to explain anticipated changes to all stakeholders.
Local agencies also need to be ready to take on the extra workload that will be associated with the transition. The GASB is expected to release implementation guidance this summer that will clarify the next steps for state and local governments.
Kevin W. Smith, CPA, is a partner at Crowe Horwath. Reach him at (214) 777-5208 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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