Unexplored Obligations: Other Postretirement Benefits
Defined benefit pension plans take center stage in the pantheon of investors’ fears when it comes to worrying about liquidity effects or earnings distortions. Yet they rarely consider the cash demands and earnings distortions resulting from other postretirement benefit plans.
Since they’ve been required to measure - and display - a figure expressing the value of the promises made for providing employee health care benefits, managers have dealt vigorously with the obligations. Their growth has been held in check while pension obligations have grown ever higher. Yet even as they’ve become more controlled, other postretirement benefit plans are worth investor attention. As the benefit plans become less fearsome, the accounting principles involved have helped an increasing number of companies recognize phantom earnings - negative benefit costs - even while they’re putting cash into benefit payments under these plans. It’s better to be alert to such a trend early: firms may not always bring it to the attention of investors.
A recent edition of The Analyst’s Accounting Observer looks at the problematic reporting, with an eye focused on the "phantom income" results shown by 42 companies having negative OPEB costs. While the report is available only to paid subscribers, a condensed version is available for free upon request. To receive it, send an e-mail to Brenda Rappold at email@example.com, with “OPEB Costs” in the subject line.
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