Recently issued rules by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will notably change the way state and local governments account for and report the results of their defined benefit pension plans. Some plans may see their reported funded percentages fall under the new requirements. A plan’s funded status will now be reflected on the balance sheet, increasing transparency as well as the focus on measures that plan sponsors are taking to address these shortfalls. Funded status and pension expense measures are also likely to be more volatile under the revised reporting standards.
While the new GASB rules change some important aspects of public DB plan reporting, they do not change others. In particular, they neither mandate use of a lower discount rate for calculating liabilities nor higher contribution requirements. These are changes to accounting and financial reporting, not economics. Nonetheless, they do represent a notable change to the calculation and reporting of various pension-related metrics.
Some public DB plan sponsors are already facing significant challenges, such as relatively low funded levels. In addition, given budgetary challenges, some state and local governments do not have the flexibility to increase contributions at this time. All of this is occurring in an environment where long-term expected returns across a wide variety of asset classes have been falling. The GASB changes may add yet another layer of stress, if not complexity, for some public plan sponsors.
This paper reviews the following aspects of the GASB changes: