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Do a Firm's Equity Returns Reflect the Risk of Its Pension Plan?

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  • Li Jin
  • Robert Merton
  • Zvi Bobie

Abstract

This paper examines the empirical question of whether systematic equity risk of U.S. firms as measured by beta from the Capital Asset Pricing Model reflects the risk of their pension plans. There are a number of reasons to suspect that it might not. Chief among them is the opaque set of accounting rules used to report pension assets, liabilities, and expenses. Pension plan assets and liabilities are off-balance sheet, and are often viewed as segregated from the rest of the firm, with its own trustees. Pension accounting rules are complicated. Furthermore, the role of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation further clouds the real relation between pension plan risk and firm equity risk. The empirical findings in this paper are consistent with the hypothesis that equity risk does reflect the risk of the firm's pension plan despite arcane accounting rules for pensions. This finding is consistent with informational efficiency of the capital markets. It also has implications for corporate finance practice in the determination of the cost of capital for capital budgeting. Standard procedure uses de-leveraged equity return betas to infer the cost of capital for operating assets. But the de-leveraged betas are not adjusted for the risk of the pension assets and liabilities. Failure to make this adjustment will typically bias upwards estimates of the discount rate for capital budgeting. The magnitude of the bias is shown here to be large for a number of well-known U.S. companies. This bias can result in positive net-present-value projects being rejected.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 10650.

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Date of creation: Jul 2004
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Publication status: published as Jin, Li & Merton, Robert C. & Bodie, Zvi, 2006. "Do a firm's equity returns reflect the risk of its pension plan?," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 81(1), pages 1-26, July.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10650

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  1. Jeremy I. Bulow & Randall Morck & Lawrence H. Summers, 1987. "How Does the Market Value Unfunded Pension Liabilities?," NBER Working Papers 1602, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Dimson, Elroy, 1979. "Risk measurement when shares are subject to infrequent trading," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(2), pages 197-226, June.
  3. Miller, Merton H, 1977. "Debt and Taxes," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 32(2), pages 261-75, May.
  4. Zvi Bodie & Jay O. Light & Randall Morck & Robert A. Taggart, Jr., 1986. "Funding and Asset Allocation in Corporate Pension Plans: An Empirical Investigation," NBER Working Papers 1315, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Fama, Eugene F & French, Kenneth R, 1992. " The Cross-Section of Expected Stock Returns," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 47(2), pages 427-65, June.
  6. Martin Feldstein & Stephanie Seligman, 1981. "Pension Funding, Share Prices, and National Saving," NBER Working Papers 0509, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Pontiff, Jeffrey, 1996. "Costly Arbitrage: Evidence from Closed-End Funds," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 111(4), pages 1135-51, November.
  8. Gregor Andrade & Steven N. Kaplan, 1998. "How Costly is Financial (Not Economic) Distress? Evidence from Highly Leveraged Transactions that Became Distressed," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 53(5), pages 1443-1493, October.
  9. Ross, Stephen A., 1976. "The arbitrage theory of capital asset pricing," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 13(3), pages 341-360, December.
  10. Zvi Bodie & John B. Shoven & David A. Wise, 1987. "Issues in Pension Economics," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bodi87-1, May.
  11. Irwin Tepper, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," NBER Working Papers 0661, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Zvi Bodie & John B. Shoven, 1983. "Financial Aspects of the United States Pension System," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bodi83-1, May.
  13. Leslie E. Papke, 1996. "Are 401(k) Plans Replacing Other Employer-Provided Pensions? Evidence from Panel Data," NBER Working Papers 5736, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Tepper, Irwin, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 36(1), pages 1-13, March.
  15. Oldfield, George S, Jr, 1977. "Financial Aspects of the Private Pension System," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 9(1), pages 48-54, February.
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Cited by:
  1. Mohan, Nancy & Zhang, Ting, 2014. "An analysis of risk-taking behavior for public defined benefit pension plans," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 40(C), pages 403-419.
  2. Mirko Cardinale & Mike Orszag, 2005. "Severance Pay and Corporate Finance: Empirical Evidence from a Panel of Austrian and Italian Firms," Empirica, Springer, vol. 32(3), pages 309-343, 09.
  3. Aggarwal, Raj & Goodell, John W., 2013. "Political-economy of pension plans: Impact of institutions, gender, and culture," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 37(6), pages 1860-1879.
  4. Atanasova, Christina & Hrazdil, Karel, 2010. "Why do healthy firms freeze their defined-benefit pension plans?," Global Finance Journal, Elsevier, vol. 21(3), pages 293-303.
  5. An, Heng & Huang, Zhaodan & Zhang, Ting, 2013. "What determines corporate pension fund risk-taking strategy?," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 37(2), pages 597-613.

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