Using a sample of firms over the period of 1991 through 2005, we examine the opportunity that exists for firms to inflate earnings through the expected rate of return (ERR) assumption associated with defined benefit pension plans. The evidence suggests that, on average, the ERR is not overstated relative to several benchmarks, including contemporaneous actual returns, historical cumulative actual returns, and expected future returns based on asset allocation within the pension. We also find that actual changes in the ERR are infrequent and typically have less than a 1 percent impact on annual operating income. We also estimate that a 0.5 percent change (50 bps) in the ERR will result in a cumulative effect on operating income over a five-year period of approximately 0.5 percent or less for the majority of firms. When we examine firms with the highest ERRs or with the greatest opportunity to inflate earnings, again, we find that the ERR is not overstated relative to several benchmarks. Although we do not observe pervasive inflating of reported income through the ERR during our sample period, we do find that for some firms, small increases in ERR can have a material impact on reported earnings. Our results provide evidence related to the pervasiveness, materiality, and impact of overstated earnings through the ERR, which helps regulators assess the costs and benefits of eliminating this discretion in financial reporting.

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