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Did pension plan accounting contribute to a stock market bubble?

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  • Julia Lynn Coronado
  • Steven A. Sharpe

Abstract

During the 1990s, the asset portfolios of defined-benefit (DB) pension plans ballooned with the booming stock market. Due to current accounting guidelines, the robust growth in pension assets resulted in a stealthy but substantial boost to the profits of sponsoring corporations. This study assesses the extent to which equity investors were fooled by pension accounting. First, we test whether stock prices reflected the fair market value of sponsoring firms' net pension assets reported in footnotes to the 10-K or, instead, some capitalization rate on the pension cost accruals embedded in the income statement. The results strongly favor the latter view. Additional tests indicate that the market does not value a firm's "pension earnings" differently from its "core earnings", suggesting that pension earnings are often overvalued. Simulations show that a failure to differentiate between core and pension earnings induces large valuation errors for many firms, although this pension effect did not materially contribute to aggregate in overvaluation 2000. However, overvaluation from pension earnings reached 5 percent in the aggregate in 2001, when the steep stock price decline and the drop in interest rates had slashed pension net asset values but not pension earnings.

Suggested Citation

  • Julia Lynn Coronado & Steven A. Sharpe, 2003. "Did pension plan accounting contribute to a stock market bubble?," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2003-38, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  • Handle: RePEc:fip:fedgfe:2003-38
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Coronado, Julia & Mitchell, Olivia S. & Sharpe, Steven A. & Blake Nesbitt, S., 2008. "Footnotes aren't enough: the impact of pension accounting on stock values," Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, Cambridge University Press, vol. 7(03), pages 257-276, November.
    2. Jeffrey R. Brown, 2008. "Guaranteed Trouble: The Economic Effects of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(1), pages 177-198, Winter.
    3. Edward M. Werner, 2011. "The value relevance of pension accounting information: evidence fromFortune 200 firms," Review of Accounting and Finance, Emerald Group Publishing, vol. 10(4), pages 427-458, November.
    4. Chen, Xuanjuan & Yao, Tong & Yu, Tong & Zhang, Ting, 2014. "Learning and incentive: A study on analyst response to pension underfunding," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 45(C), pages 26-42.
    5. Daniel Bergstresser & Mihir A. Desai & Joshua Rauh, 2004. "Earnings Manipulation and Managerial Investment Decisions: Evidence from Sponsored Pension Plans," NBER Working Papers 10543, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Tao, Qizhi & Chen, Carl & Lu, Rui & Zhang, Ting, 2017. "Underfunding or distress? An analysis of corporate pension underfunding and the cross-section of expected stock returns," International Review of Economics & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 48(C), pages 116-133.
    7. Simon H. Kwan, 2003. "Pension accounting and reported earnings," FRBSF Economic Letter, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issue jul4.
    8. Love, David & Smith, Paul A. & Wilcox, David, 2007. "Why Do Firms Offer Risky Defined–Benefit Pension Plans?," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 60(3), pages 507-519, September.
    9. Ana Isabel Morais, 2012. "Value relevance of alternative methods of accounting for actuarial gains and losses," International Journal of Accounting, Auditing and Performance Evaluation, Inderscience Enterprises Ltd, vol. 8(1), pages 69-90.
    10. David A. Love & Paul A. Smith & David W. Wilcox, 2009. "Should risky firms offer risk-free DB pensions?," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2009-20, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    11. Franzoni, Francesco, 2009. "Underinvestment vs. overinvestment: Evidence from price reactions to pension contributions," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(3), pages 491-518, June.
    12. Enrica Detragiache, 2003. "Company Pension Plans, Stock Market Returns, and Labor Demand," IMF Working Papers 03/222, International Monetary Fund.
    13. Antonio Torrero Mañas, 2005. "The increasing relevance of the stock market in the world: A new scenario," Working Papers 01/05, Instituto Universitario de Análisis Económico y Social.
    14. Love, David A. & Smith, Paul A. & Wilcox, David W., 2011. "The effect of regulation on optimal corporate pension risk," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 101(1), pages 18-35, July.
    15. Kamakshya Trivedi & Garry Young, 2006. "Defined benefit company pensions and corporate valuations: simulation and empirical evidence from the United Kingdom," Bank of England working papers 289, Bank of England.
    16. David W. Wilcox, 2006. "Reforming the Defined-Benefit Pension System," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 37(1), pages 235-304.

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    Keywords

    Stock market ; Pensions;

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