Courtesy of the 2012 FRMO Letter to Shareholders [PDF]:
If one were to look at the 100 US public companies with the largest defined benefit pension plans, one would find the likes of Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Pepsi, Verizon and UPS. As of the end of 2011, using these largest 100 as a proxy, American companies recorded perhaps the largest underfunded status ever, certainly within the past dozen years, both in dollar and percentage terms. And this follows a helpful three years of double-digit annualized returns on their plan assets.
Moreover, there is much reason to expect this position to worsen. The discount rates they use to determine the present value of all their future estimated pension obligations is about 3 times higher, at an average 4.8%, than it should be, since we know the average investment grade bond yield today to be about 1.3%. This means that the obligations are actually far larger than currently presented in these companies’ financial statements. Moreover, these pension plans, on average, still presume to earn almost 8% on their plan assets. Yet, over 40% of the plan assets are invested in bonds. Assuming, as one must, that 40% of these pension plan assets will earn 1.3% at best, then those bond portfolios, all else equal, can contribute only 0.5% to the return of the entire plan assets. This leaves the remaining 60%, most of which is invested in equities, to produce the balance of the 8% expected return, which means the balance must produce about a 13% return every year.
First, one is hard pressed to suggest that this reality will come to pass, so that one should expect much larger funding deficits in the coming years and, it follows, much larger contributions to those pension plans, which in turn must detract from shareholder earnings and earnings growth. That pending reality, though, is less interesting than this one: that these companies, by dint of their investment philosophy and practice, place the major portion of their equity assets in the S&P 500 (and other indices representing essentially the same, largest companies in the US), in order to attempt to earn the highest risk-adjusted expected returns. Yet the S&P 500 to a significant degree is composed of the set of companies with the largest pension plans, which are problematic as described above– these companies are investing in themselves for future returns to restore their pension plans, even as they themselves are problematic because of these pension plans. But this is their formulaic process, and the tools by which this process is measured and implemented are these self-same indices.
This is Free Lunch-thinking.
By the way, value investor Geoff Gannon (much beloved on this site) has written a lot about Dun & Bradstreet, a company with an underfunded pension liability sword hanging over its neck. He makes the case for why this is not something to worry about with DNB but I have to say it’s the one thing making me hesitate about jumping in to an otherwise compelling franchise opportunity.
In general, I try to avoid companies with employee pension plans, at least the defined benefit variety. They may be “private” and “voluntary” but to me they smack of socialism-lite. They’re uneconomic and based upon absurd assumptions and unrealistic expectations. They are, like Social Security, promises that can’t be kept and must eventually be broken.
The trouble is, shareholders will almost always be sacrificed first because we exist in a culture today that penalizes capital and sees the equity holder as a villain and cheat.