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

  • Li Jin
  • Robert Merton
  • Zvi Bobie

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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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w10650.pdf
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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
Note: AP
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  1. Pontiff, Jeffrey, 1996. "Costly Arbitrage: Evidence from Closed-End Funds," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 111(4), pages 1135-51, November.
  2. 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.
  3. Feldstein, Martin & Seligman, Stephanie, 1981. "Pension Funding, Share Prices, and National Savings," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 36(4), pages 801-24, September.
  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. Ross, Stephen A., 1976. "The arbitrage theory of capital asset pricing," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 13(3), pages 341-360, December.
  6. Miller, Merton H, 1977. "Debt and Taxes," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 32(2), pages 261-75, May.
  7. Jeremy I. Bulow & Randall Morck & Lawrence H. Summers, 1985. "How Does the Market Value Unfunded Pension Liabilities?," NBER Working Papers 1602, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Gregor Andrade & Steven N. Kaplan, 1997. "How Costly is Financial (not Economic) Distress? Evidence from Highly Leveraged Transactions that Became Distressed," NBER Working Papers 6145, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Leslie E. Papke, 1999. "Are 401(k) Plans Replacing Other Employer-Provided Pensions? Evidence from Panel Data," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 34(2), pages 346-368.
  10. Irwin Tepper, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," NBER Working Papers 0661, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Zvi Bodie & John B. Shoven & David A. Wise, 1988. "Pensions in the U.S. Economy," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bodi88-1, May.
  15. Dimson, Elroy, 1979. "Risk measurement when shares are subject to infrequent trading," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(2), pages 197-226, June.
  16. Tepper, Irwin, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 36(1), pages 1-13, March.
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