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Verizon to Change to Mark-to-Market Pension Accounting

January 23, 2011

Verizon said Friday it would change its method of accounting for pensions and other post-employment benefits, using something akin to mark-to-market accounting, the same type of accounting that has been criticized for the financial crisis and the implosion of Enron.

The telecom giant characterized the change as an improvement and said, as a result of the change, it would take a $600 million charge for the full-year 2010 results it will report on Tuesday.

“The improved policy recognizes gains and losses in the year they are incurred, rather than amortizing them over time,” said the company. “Under the new method, annual adjustments will be made to reflect actual return on pension plan assets, changes in discount rates and differences from other actuarial assumptions.”

The company added that there would be no impact on cash flow or pension funding requirements as a result of this change, as well as no change to Verizon’s liability for its pension or other post-employment benefits.  In addition, Verizon Wireless is not expected to be affected by the change.

“Our decision to adopt this new accounting policy will make our financial reporting easier to understand and more transparent,” said Verizon executive vice president and chief financial officer Fran Shammo in a statement. “We’ve been considering this for some time. For us, it was a question of when, not if, we would make this change.”

However, that change may have also been inspired by a similar move announced the previous week by Verizon’s rival, AT&T. As Reuters pointed out, AT&T elected to take a $2.7 billion noncash charge for its fourth quarter as a result of a similar change to the way it’s going to account for its pension obligations. The two telecom companies are following in the footsteps of tech contractor Honeywell International, which announced a similar pension accounting turnabout last November.

While some would argue that mark-to-market accounting, and the similar concept of fair value measurement, only reflect reality, it does seem interesting that the telecom and tech companies are jumping onboard the trend as the stock market continues its rebound.

Not long after the financial crisis, banks were arguing that they should not be forced to adopt mark-to-market and fair value measurement to value their nonperforming assets. If we start to see them following the lead of Verizon, AT&T and Honeywell, we can be sure that they too have an eye on the ever-climbing Dow and Nasdaq indexes and hopefully rising pension assets as well.

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