It is easy to see why the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) is in no hurry to broadcast meetings of its employee benefits working group. The bombshell that landed at the 28 April gathering, which journalists were banned from recording, was that Belgium is the latest victim of the board's effort to ‘improve' IAS19.
It was, claimed Régis Renard, a consulting actuary with Aon, nothing short of a "major catastrophe" for Belgians and their pension provision. The story runs something like this.
In June 2006, the IASB began a targeted project to revamp IAS19. Clearly in the board's sights were those "troublesome" plans that sit awkwardly between the twin IAS19 poles of defined benefit and defined contribution. In case the board was unaware of the Belgian plans, board members received an education session on the issue from Deloitte consulting actuary Gerd de Ridder. Then the board set about developing an accounting methodology - contribution-based promises - to address the measurement challenges thrown up by applying projected unit credit accounting to hybrid-risk plans.
The definition failed as constituents lined up to point out that it captured non-troublesome plans, failed to snare Dutch and Belgian plans, and was probably impossible to apply in Switzerland. Having failed to address measurement, the board decided to leave matters alone and simply required entities to put the questionable IAS19 measurement directly into income by scrapping its OCI or SORIE approach.
Belgium's problems were compounded on 18 March when staff brought a sweep issue paper to the board for its approval. They wanted clearance - and got it - to amend paragraph 67 of IAS19 in a bid to clarify that where a benefit promise is back-end loaded, entities must account for that promise on a straight-line basis.
The staff noted in their meeting paper that IAS19 is "silent on the question of expected future salaries in relation to allocation (ie recognition)". They continued: "However, to combine an approach that reflects future salaries in the measurement of the obligation that exists at the balance sheet date with an approach that does not reflect future salaries in the determination of what obligation should be recognised at the end of the period leads to problems."
And so staff broke the supposedly unbreakable rule of the Phase 1 project: they tackled measurement. IASB member Jim Leisenring was alone in raising the issue. "This has nothing to do with presentation either... What's the deciding factor... why is measurement out of bounds but attribution is in?" he asked.
Well, explained IASB director Peter Clark, the guidance from the board was: "If there are things that can be picked up easily along the way, let's see if we can do it." Less convincingly IASB project team member Manuel Kapsis noted: "One of the criteria for picking these issues was the timeframe." Some principle.
Key to understanding the problem confronting the Belgians is paragraph 19 of the meeting paper: "The staff believes that the constructive obligation that arises from unvested benefits arises from the past event of the employees' service during the period."
In his analysis, Renard argues that there is no link with Belgian pension plans and past service. To prove his point, Renard notes that identical benefits can arise on identical salaries between two employees: one with a decade's past service, and one with no past service.
The board's decision in March - and the reaction - should not be a surprise. During a 26 June 2007 discussion on the recognition of plan amendments and future vesting, board member Mary Barth hinted at the board's likely thinking in relation to past service and future vesting. Asked if entities should account for a plan amendment for which vesting is "still required", she replied: "If it relates to past service."
But in addition to concerns already raised, the executive chairman of Germany's national standard setter, Heinz-Joachim Neubürger, asked: "I wonder if we can always ignore the effect of a decision? ... If we were to have people from unions in this SAC group, do you think they would feel the same we as we do?"
As the Belgian government plots its next move, it might consider documents obtained by IPE using the UK's Freedom of Information Act. The papers detail conversations between the head of the UK Treasury's accounting unit and the IASB's press officer in relation to a EU threat to carve out sections of IAS39. The documents reveal precious little support for the IASB in Europe.