Saturday, July 18, 2009

So I'm studying for the PRM4 Exam

One of the case studies concerns WorldCom. When I finished reading it, I was left wondering if this was a WorldCom that operated in some other country with which I am not familiar. The case study is by Dennis Moberg of Santa Clara University and Edward Romar of University of Massachusetts at Boston (yes, I'm calling them out; willful blindness this blatant goes beyond the pale and needs to be exposed publicly). Here are some of the highlights...

WorldCom is just another case of failed corporate governance, accounting abuses, and outright greed. But none of these other companies had senior executives as colorful and likable as Bernie Ebbers.

No palace in a gated community, no stable of racehorses or multi-million dollar yacht to show for the telecommunications giant he created; only debts and red ink - results some consider inevitable given his unflagging enthusiasm and entrepreneurial flair.

Personally, Bernie is a hard guy not to like.

All this would be just another story of a successful growth strategy if it weren't for one significant business reality - mergers and acquisitions, especially large ones, present significant managerial challenges.

All this was put in jeopardy when, in 2000, the government refused to allow WorldCom's acquisition of Sprint.

I'm sorry. I'm really confused. According to wikipedia, the story of WorldCom and Bernie Ebbers includes the following facts, not one of which is mentioned in the PRM case study.

Beginning in 1999 and continuing through May 2002, the company used fraudulent accounting methods to mask its declining earnings by painting a false picture of financial growth and profitability to prop up the price of WorldCom’s stock.

It was estimated that the company's total assets had been inflated by around $11 billion.

Bernie Ebbers was found guilty of all charges and convicted of fraud, conspiracy and filing false documents with regulators.

Shame on PRMIA. This case study is a disgrace and should be pulled from their syllabus.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Pensions Cook the Books (Andrew Biggs, WSJ)

Here's a dilemma: You manage a public employee pension plan and your actuary tells you it is significantly underfunded. You don't want to raise contributions. Cutting benefits is out of the question. To be honest, you'd really rather not even admit there's a problem, lest taxpayers get upset.

What to do? For the administrators of two Montana pension plans, the answer is obvious: Get a new actuary. Or at least that's the essence of the managers' recent solicitations for actuarial services, which warn that actuaries who favor reporting the full market value of pension liabilities probably shouldn't bother applying.

Public employee pension plans are plagued by overgenerous benefits, chronic underfunding, and now trillion dollar stock-market losses. Based on their preferred accounting methods -- which discount future liabilities based on high but uncertain returns projected for investments -- these plans are underfunded nationally by around $310 billion.

The numbers are worse using market valuation methods (the methods private-sector plans must use), which discount benefit liabilities at lower interest rates to reflect the chance that the expected returns won't be realized. Using that method, University of Chicago economists Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh calculate that, even prior to the market collapse, public pensions were actually short by nearly $2 trillion. That's nearly $87,000 per plan participant. With employee benefits guaranteed by law and sometimes even by state constitutions, it's likely these gargantuan shortfalls will have to be borne by unsuspecting taxpayers.

Some public pension administrators have a strategy, though: Keep taxpayers unsuspecting. The Montana Public Employees' Retirement Board and the Montana Teachers' Retirement System declare in a recent solicitation for actuarial services that "If the Primary Actuary or the Actuarial Firm supports [market valuation] for public pension plans, their proposal may be disqualified from further consideration."