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IASB discount-rate research shines spotlight on IAS 19 'anomalies'

The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) on discount rates has identified the extent to which the so-called fulfilment value measure in International Accounting Standard 19, Employee (IAS 19), is discounted on a basis with little or no underlying principle.

Project manager Aida Vatrenjak said: “There is really no measurement objective as such. We have a set of rules … this is evidenced by the number of submissions [the interpretation committee] has had to deal with relation to IAS 19 discount rate.”

Her comments came during a 21 January discussion of the board’s draft research paper on discounting across the whole of International Financial Reporting Standards.

Pensions accounting and discounting both ranked as priorities during the IASB’s 2011 agenda consultation process, as well as its latest one.

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IASB director Peter Clark told the board meeting: “Reading through the letters we’ve had on the agenda consultation, we are still getting a fair number of people who are saying it should be a higher priority.”

But, he warned, those commentators had provided an incomplete analysis of discounting under IFRS.

“The impression I have is that a lot of people who said that didn’t focus on the fact different standards have different measurement objectives, and so the discount rates may or may not be appropriate to those measurement objectives,” he said. 

“What [this project] is trying to do is identify which parts of that inconsistency are caused by differences in measurement objective and which parts are caused by other factors.”

Until now, the IASB’s research effort on discount rates has operated at a low level. The board’s last agenda consultation revealed moderate support for the board to examine the issue.

Commenting on the board’s discussion, Aon Hewitt consultant actuary Martin Lowes told IPE the issue of discounting was linked to the wider issue of measuring pension liabilities.

“If they let themselves re-work DB accounting, they could come up with a single accounting model,” he said.

“If you want to allow for credit risk, you need to do it on an entity-specific bond rate rather than using an arbitrary rate.

“DC has no credit risk, and DB assumes the risk from a fairly arbitrary point using a AA corporate bond rate. If you look at the discount-rate research paper, it is not trying to come up with the ‘right’ answer but rather look at how different IFRSs approach discounting.”

The draft research paper has also singled out the option to use a government bond rate for discounting purposes in the absence of a deep AA-corporate bond market as a further anomaly.

“You can see there is only one place where you have a AA corporate bond rate, and that is pensions accounting,” Lowes said. “That is both an anomaly and food for thought.”

According to research by consultants Towers Watson, more than 99% of pension liabilities are currently accounted for using corporate bond rates around the world.

Staff said that, even though there are two possible rates available for discounting, it was possible to conclude on those numbers that this is “not really a big issue”.

This picture could change, however, were the market for high-quality corporate bonds to become less deep in the future.

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