The US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) recently adopted new rules to require that companies reflect the value of their pension funds on the balance sheet. Critics almost immediately began complaining that the change would cause investors to rethink the value estimates of a wide swath of companies. Those with significant pension liabilities, the critics argued, would face lower valuations as they moved off-balance-sheet assets and liabilities onto the balance sheet.
Yet we are certain that knowledgeable investors won’t pay much mind. After all, they’ve seen such rule changes before. Remember the rules that govern accounting for M&A and for expensing stock options? In both of those high-profile cases, none of the changes made the slightest bit of difference to the valuation that knowledgeable investors placed on stocks.
The greater risk, however, is that the new accounting rules could lead managers to make strategic mistakes that might actually destroy value. The new accounting rules merely move data from one page of an annual report to another. Yet we’ve already heard executives pondering plans to change capital structure policies, dividend payouts, or buyback programs to accommodate greater volatility in shareholder equity as expenses and liabilities appear on balance sheets.
With few exceptions, these managers would be ill advised to use financial-accounting changes to guide strategic decisions. Investors already know the level of pension liabilities from the ample disclosures in the footnotes to financial statements. With no new information, they will value businesses just as they did before. In short, managers should not change their behavior merely because accounting rules have changed—and they must learn to ignore the pundits and to focus on investing in projects with a positive net present value (NPV), even if next quarter’s accounting earnings drop.