The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) has tentatively signalled plans to launch a research project to investigate the chances of developing a fix for the ‘accounting mismatch’ problem produced by so-called hybrid pension plans.

This effort will fall far short of a wholesale reconsideration of its employee benefits standard, International Accounting Standard, IAS 19.

Instead, IASB members said they would prefer to put their efforts into developing an accounting model to address plans where the benefit promise varies with the level of returns on specified assets.

Eric Steedman from consultants Willis Towers Watson welcomed the move.

“This workstream makes no pretence of being a complete fix to problems the IASB first took up 12 years ago but has potential to mitigate one of the most troubling inconsistencies that can arise,” he said. 

Aon Hewitt consultant actuary Simon Robinson added: “Previous attempts such as IFRIC D9 have failed because they highlight that a fundamental review of IAS 19 would be required.

“My initial take on this announcement is that it makes a certain amount of sense to make it quite a narrow scope change in this area. It seems like a pragmatic way to deal with a very specific issue.

“I would guess it is aimed at countries like Switzerland rather than the UK, and might well just clarify that the typical Swiss approach used currently is a reasonable interpretation of the standard.”

A total of nine board members supported the proposal to mount a limited scope research effort into pensions.

A poll of board members showed no support for a broader look at pensions accounting issues.

Staff will now approach the IASB’s IFRS Advisory Council for comments ahead of finalising their work plan.

If the project goes ahead, the work could start in 2017, staff said.

The staff recommended against any further research on other aspects of accounting for post-employment benefits.

The decision comes in the wake of the board’s formal agenda consultation exercise.

Driving the demand for action among constituents is the concern that numbers produced under IAS 19 are unreliable.

Staff explained that actuaries have been qualifying their IAS 19 valuation reports on the basis that they believe the resultant values are grossly misleading.

For example, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants argued that IAS 19 produces bigger deficits than economically exist.

IOSCO is concerned “recent developments in employee benefit promises do not fit well within the existing accounting requirements”.

Board members, however, were muted in their support for the move.

Mary Tokar said: “We should do nothing rather than pursue the alternative you identified. We have tried several times to have a surgical approach on only hybrid plans. We have not succeeded. We should just cut our losses.

“As soon as we start talking about the accounting mismatch between [the] obligation and [the] discount rate, we’ll get people who are not in hybrid plans saying, ‘Well, we have an accounting mismatch, too’.”

Her colleague Stephen Cooper added: “It would be completely unacceptable for us to do nothing on this. This has been a problem for so many years. [For] the jurisdictions it does affect, this really annoys them. It is a problem with IAS 19.

“It is illogical to compound at one rate and discount at a different rate, and you get a stupid answer. I don’t think we can defend IAS 19 and say it is the right answer.”

Cooper added: “I didn’t like this capped-return model when it was first suggested because it ignores the time value of the options. I accept it solves one problem, which is to get the cashflows consistent with the discount rate.

“And it solves the problem of the liability’s being overstated at the moment as a result of that incorrect discount rate.”

Separately, it emerged that staff have no plan to carry out a post-implementation review of the 2011 changes to IAS 19.

Meanwhile, as to the board’s likely work on discount efforts, IASB director Peter Clark said: “A further question is whether we would do either a general project or … any targeted project.

“Our general assumption is the board is unlikely to want to take on standard-setting projects at this stage solely on discount rates.”