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IASB urged to look again at DB surplus accounting rules

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The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) should carry out further analysis of proposed amendments to rules governing defined benefit (DB) pension surpluses, the accounting regulator’s own staff have said.

In a paper prepared for this week’s board meeting, staff said the IASB should “perform further work to assess whether it can establish a more principles-based approach” towards the rules, known as IFRIC 14.

Two leading pensions advisers have told IPE they would welcome a pause in the project to carry out further research.

Lane Clark Peacock partner Tim Marklew said: “I welcome the IASB’s staff recommendation but I think they will struggle to come up with a principles-based approach.

“Finding a solution to the IFRIC 14 will require going right back to the roots of the interpretation, which goes right back to the basics of how pensions accounting works.

“For that reason, I think a sticking-plaster approach is unlikely to be helpful.”

Willis Towers Watson consultant Andrew Mandley added: “I didn’t expect the board to change course this late in the day, although the development is not unwelcome.

“However, I think the staff are going to find it difficult to develop those principles and they might well conclude that it is not worth changing IFRIC 14.”

The IASB and its interpretations committee launched the project in late 2014 to clarify the circumstances in which a DB scheme can recognise a surplus, when third parties, such as trustees, can take investment decisions.

The proposals have proved controversial in the UK. In particular, critics have said they could lead to sponsors recognising huge additional liabilities. This is particularly true where a sponsor agrees to a major funding commitment.

Tim Marklew also warned companies not to think that the issue was going to go away.

“My advice would be to continue to take this IFRIC 14 project very seriously and to establish how changes to IFRIC14 may interact with their scheme rules,” he said. “Any changes to scheme rules take time to negotiate, so companies should review their position sooner rather than later.”

He added: “I don’t think that these issues are going to go away, and it is unlikely that the IASB will drop the whole thing.”

Other Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia could also be affected by the changes to IFRIC 14.

Those fears were underlined in January 2016 when the Royal Bank of Scotland announced it would take an additional £4.3bn hit as a result of the proposals. The decision was driven by the UK Financial Reporting Council (FRC) saying that it wanted companies to apply the IASB’s November 2015 exposure draft proposals early.

The FRC told IPE that its approach was consistent with the requirements of IAS 1.

Willis Towers Watson’s Mandley said: “I don’t think many companies have made much disclosure about the IFRIC 14 impact so far. In a way, this is good news for companies because it buys them time. If they want to amend the scheme rules, they now have more time to make those changes and that puts them in a stronger negotiating position.”

The staff also plan to ask the board to finalise a separate amendment to IAS 19 dealing with DB plan amendments, settlements and curtailments.

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