Corporate bond spreads and understated pension liabilities

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-160
Journal / PublicationChina Finance Review International
Issue number1
Online published28 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022


Purpose: The question is whether debt market investors see through managers' attempts to hide their pension obligations. The authors establish a robust relation between understated pension liabilities and corporate bond yield spreads after controlling for factors that have been previously identified as having a significant impact on firms' cost of borrowing. The results support the idea that bond market investors are not being misled by the use of high pension liability discount rates by some companies to lower their reported pension obligations. For a small fraction of debt issuers, the reported pension liabilities are larger than the pension liabilities valued at the stipulated interest rate benchmarks. For these issuers with overstated pension liabilities, bond investors adjust their borrowing costs downward. 
Design/methodology/approach: The authors investigate the relation between corporate bond yield spreads and understated pension liabilities relative to long-term Treasury and high-grade corporate bond yields. They aim to answer two questions. First, what are the sizes of over or understated pension liabilities relative to guideline benchmarks? Second, do debt market investors see through the potential management manipulation of pension discount rates? The authors find that firms with large understated pension liabilities face higher marginal borrowing costs after taking into account issue-specific features, firm characteristics, macroeconomic conditions and other pension information such as funded status and mandatory contributions. 
Findings: The average understated projected benefit obligations (PBOs) are understated by $394.3 and $335.6, equivalent to 3.5 and 3.0% of the beginning of the fiscal year market value, respectively. The average understated accumulated benefit obligations (ABOs) are understated by $359.3 and $305.3 million, equivalent to 3.1 and 2.6%, of the beginning of the fiscal year market value, respectively. Relative to AA-grade corporate bond yields, the average difference between firm pension discount rates and benchmark yields becomes much smaller; the percentage of firm pension discount rates higher than benchmark yields is also much smaller. As a result, understated pension liabilities become negligible. The authors establish a robust relation between corporate bond yield spreads and measures of understated pension liabilities after controlling for issue-specific features, firm characteristics, other pension information (funded status and mandatory contributions), macroeconomic conditions, calendar effects and industry effects. 
Originality/value: S&P Rating Services recognizes the issue that there is considerably more variability in discount rate assumptions among companies than in workforce demographics or the interest rate environment in which firms operate (Standard and Poor's, 2006). S&P also indicates that it would be desirable to normalize different discount rate assumptions but acknowledges that it is difficult to do so. In practice, S&P Rating Services conducts periodic surveys to see whether firms' assumed discount rates conform to the normal standard. The paper makes an initial attempt to quantify the size of understated pension liabilities and their impact on corporate bond yield spreads. This approach can be extended to study firms' costs of equity capital, the pricing of seasoned equity offerings and the pricing of merger and acquisition transaction deals, among other questions.

Research Area(s)

  • Corporate bond yield spread, Credit rating, Pension discount rates, Understated pension liabilities