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German discount rate disparity seen as ‘unconstitutional’

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Eighty percent of German companies surveyed by Mercer want the treatment of pension liabilities for tax purposes and statutory accounting to be aligned, with some experts declaring the gap unconstitutional.

The consultancy surveyed a random selection of 80 of its corporate clients in December 2016. It said 94% thought the difference between the discount rates was unfair and 83% thought a harmonisation of the two rates was either “important” or “very important”. The vast majority (87%) also supportedaddressing the gap within the next five years.

In addition, 80% said the discount rate used for calculating liabilities under Germany’s main accounting standards (HGB) should be adopted as the rate used for calculating liabilities for tax purposes.

The discount rate for tax purposes (“steuerlicher Rechnungszins”) affects companies offering on-book-pension promises (or direct promises, “Direktzusagen”), which represent a large portion of German pension liabilities – around €285bn in 2014.

The rate has been 6% for decades, while the HGB discount rate has been steadily declining: as at the end of 2016 the HGB rate was 4.01%. 

Mercer said the different rates effectively penalised companies choosing to pay pensions directly from their balance sheets, as they have to report higher profits in their tax accounts than in their statutory accounts. This put them at a disadvantage over companies implementing a different pension model, or offering no occupational pensions at all, according to Mercer.

Thomas Hagemann, chief actuary at Mercer in Germany, said pension liabilities were “artificially understated” as a result.

The disparity has been a source of disgruntlement for those companies affected for some time, but Hagemann told IPE that the issue has become more important as the difference between the discount rates has grown.

“Now, because of the sustained interest rate development – the HGB rate is steadily falling and will go even lower – the differences are so large that the principle of parity between the rates isn’t satisfied anymore,” Hagemann said.

Asked about the prospects for change, Hagemann said there were some signs that the government may eventually be prepared to make some adjustments, but this was really only a faint light at the end of the tunnel.

Arguably more notable, according to Hagemann, was that some experts viewed the disparity as unconstitutional.

He pointed in particular to comments made by Johanna Hey, a prominent tax lawyer, who Hagemann said has looked at the issue in the most depth and made this argument most explicitly.

The Mercer survey showed that although there is dissatisfaction among companies about the different discount rates, on-the-book pension promises are not being written off as a model of pension provision.

More than a third of respondents believe that the different treatment of pension liabilities for tax purposes does not make the Direktzusage route for occupational pensions less attractive. Almost a quarter (24%) were prepared to expand or introduce this type of pension provision if the discount rate for tax accounting is aligned with the HGB rate.

In a statement Hagemann said that these results do not square with recurrent talk about on-book pension promises being on their way out.

However, “the tax discrimination” was a barrier to the expansion of this type of pension provision and the government, whose reform proposal is aimed at boosting occupational pension coverage, should act on this soon, he added.

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