Volume 14, No. 13

 

Ugly OPEBs Of The S&P 500:  Searching For Sense In The Figures  Pensions have been front-burner issues this year as airlines, automakers and auto parts suppliers struggle with the obligations birthed in headier days for the sponsoring firms. First cousin to pension plans are other postemployment benefit plans or OPEBs, for short. They've been part of union negotiations for years, but accounting for such promises didn't get underway until 1992 with Statement 106 Employers' Accounting for Postretirement Benefits Other Than Pensions. Investors run hot and cold on firms' exposure to OPEB plans. Some investors discount them because, unlike pension plans, they lack enforceability under ERISA. Others view them as dangerous earnings-eaters, given that health care costs (the usual OPEB benefit) expand at supersonic speeds. Still others view them warily as earnings management tools because of the highly elastic assumptions rooted in the accounting and the lack of disclosures available to overcome skepticism. This report looks at the OPEB accounting of S&P 500 companies. The overall finding: the accounting for OPEBs fails to deliver clearly meaningful information to investors and analysts. Although there is plenty of information provided, investors and analysts have to do much recasting to the information to get useful insights.

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