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How our new friend CECL affects bank and branch acquisitions

10.24.16

By now, pretty much everyone in the banking industry has heard plenty of talk about CECL – the forthcoming “Current Expected Credit Loss” model of accounting for an institution’s allowance for loan losses (ALL). While the previous “Incurred Loss” model has been problematic to implement conceptually, and most of us thought CECL would improve ALL accounting and make it more comparable to how banks account for other debt instruments, it’s beginning to feel a bit like the dog who caught the car – now that we have this model, how the heck do we implement it?

The good news: We have a number of years before CECL’s effective date, and thus have some time to better understand the new rules and how to adapt an institution’s ALL model to reflect them. The bad news – the banking regulators recently announced they want banks to get cracking on this, and will expect to see some progress when they visit during upcoming exams – maybe not immediately, but likely at some point during the 2017 exam cycle.

This is the third in a series of articles addressing various aspects of this complex pronouncement. We hope that they provide you with practical advice that can help you get started on the nuts and bolts of CECL implementation.

Our previous article offered pointers on building the CECL team, brainstorming the process, and starting the data gathering conversation. In this article, we look at how to implement CECL when acquiring another bank, one or more branches of another bank, or simply a loan portfolio, such as a group of auto or credit card loans.

First, let’s remember the basics

The basic premise of CECL is that lifetime expected losses are to be booked at origination (or, in the case of an acquisition, at the acquisition date). You’ve likely heard some gnashing of teeth over the fact that this means losses are recorded “on Day One”, which many of us have some degree of conceptual difficulty with: For example, a higher risk loan will likely carry a higher yield at origination, so booking a higher level of expected losses on Day One (through the ALL) and the offsetting higher yield over the loan term (through interest income) feels like a mismatch between income and expense.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) was sympathetic to this point, and spent a lot of time pondering it. Its international equivalent, the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), which establishes – you guessed it – international accounting standards, actually tackled this issue by precluding Day One losses, unless they were expected to materialize within one year of origination (Day 365 losses?).

This approach, however, has led to a fairly convoluted – and challenging – model, which is already drawing a fair amount of criticism in the international community. In the end, although they had hoped to have a “converged” standard that would result in the same approach for U.S. and international institutions, FASB and the IASB decided to part company and use different models.

The short answer? We have to accept the notion of Day One losses as the price to pay for a less convoluted (but still complex to implement) model. This becomes important to remember as we look at accounting for acquisitions.

Accounting for acquisitions

Whether you’re acquiring a pool of loans, a branch, or an entire institution, the basic accounting under CECL is the same, and it’s the same (with a twist) as the accounting for originated loans: an ALL should be established for the purchase price allocated to the loans, and that ALL should reflect management’s estimate of the lifetime losses in the acquired portfolio.

Before we get into the details of how to do this, let’s take a moment to celebrate. Prior to CECL, it was not permissible to establish an initial ALL for acquired loans. Many bankers – and investors – complained that this made it difficult to compare one bank to another on metrics such as ALL coverage ratios. If one bank had a strategy that included acquisitions, and another didn’t, their ALLs would likely be quite different even if their loan portfolios and estimated incurred losses were similar. Now, with the CECL model, these two banks’ financial statements are much easier to compare.

As noted above, an ALL should be established for these loans under CECL, using the same methodology you would use for originated loans. The twist relates to what to do with the other side of the entry. The solution:

  • For loans with a more-than-insignificant amount of credit deterioration since origination, the offset is to add this amount to the amount originally recorded for the purchase price allocated to the loans.
  • For the rest of the acquired portfolio, the offset is to loan loss expense. That’s right, your provision is increased by the amount of ALL recorded in the transaction, except as noted in the previous bullet.

Why is this so? FASB is apparently assuming that:

  • Buyers adjust the purchase price for the first item above. These loans, which we used to call “purchased – credit impaired (PCI)”, and now will call “purchased – credit deteriorated (PCD)” under CECL, are the loans with hair on them. They probably got some extra scrutiny during due diligence, thus theoretically depressing the purchase price a bit. Therefore, the amount of the purchase price allocated to loans is a lower number, and offsetting the establishment of the ALL by adding that amount to the purchase price assigned to the loans properly “grosses up” the recorded loan balance.
  • Buyers don’t adjust the purchase price for other loans. This is probably true, as the lifetime losses on loans that aren’t PCD are just the cost of doing business for financial institutions. Therefore, as it is with originated loans, a big Day One provision is booked at closing.

It should be noted that the extent to which the definition of PCD loans differs from the previous definition of PCI loans depends on your interpretation of the old PCI definition. It appears clear that the new definition of PCD loans refers to loans that have specific indicators of significant credit deterioration since origination.

Let’s look at an example:

A bank buys three branches from another bank, which have total loans with a principal balance of $20 million and a fair value of $20,100,000. The portfolio includes loans with a principal balance of $1 million, and a fair value of $910,000, that are PCD.

The buyer bank determines the ALL under CECL would be $100,000 for the PCD loans and $475,000 for the rest of the acquired portfolio. Thus, the buyer bank records an ALL of $575,000. What’s the offset? As noted above:

  • For the PCD loans, the offsetting $100,000 will be added to the $910,000 of purchase price allocated to those loans. As a result, these loans will have a gross amount allocated of $910,000 plus $100,000, or $1,010,000, which will then be reduced by an ALL of $100,000 on the balance sheet, for a net reported amount of $910,000 (their fair value). The difference between the gross amount assigned ($1,010,000) and the principal balance ($1 million), or $10,000, represents an implied adjustment to reflect current market interest rates, and is therefore amortized over the expected loan term through interest income.
  • For the rest, the offsetting $475,000 will be an increase to the provision for loan losses, and will thus reduce income.

The last number could be a big one for institutions that do large or frequent acquisitions; thus, their balance sheets may be more comparable to other banks, but their income statements in the year of acquisition won’t be! The good news – like other acquisition costs such as legal fees and conversion expenses, this amount will be separately disclosed, so a reader can adjust for it if they believe it’s appropriate to do so.

Next time, we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of CECL’s concept of “reasonable and supportable” by considering proper documentation and controls over the ALL.

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On June 16th the FASB issued the final standard for credit losses. We’ve analyzed the new standard and pulled together some key items you’ll need to know:

It looks like you should be able to implement CECL without purchasing expensive third-party models, if your institution is able to get adequate historical data from your core system and has the personnel available to crunch the numbers. Following is one approach that should pass muster with regulators (and, hopefully, the PCAOB):

  1. Determine loans for which specific reserves are appropriate, much as you are currently doing. The notion of “impaired” loans goes away; a loan should be evaluated specifically if the institution becomes aware of loan-specific information indicating it has an exposure to loss that differs from other loans it would otherwise be pooled with. In practice, we think that’ll be largely the same loans that are currently being identified as impaired.
  2. For the rest of the portfolio: Group loans by common characteristics – same as you’re doing now.
    1. For each group, create subgroups for each origination year. It looks like current year and previous four years are the critical ones to focus on; anything older than five years could probably be lumped together.
    2. For each subgroup, establish economic and other relevant conditions for the average term of loans in the subgroup. This includes actual conditions from year of origination to the present, forecasted conditions for the near future, and long-term historical conditions for the remaining average loan term
      • Select an historical loss period that best approximates the conditions established in (b) above.
      • Determine average lifetime chargeoffs for that historical loss period for each loan type
      • Adjust that average for any current or expected conditions that you believe are different from this historical data.  Such adjustments should be based on the institution’s chargeoff experience when similar conditions occurred in the past.  An example might be an actual or expected decline in real estate values that you believe is more pronounced than in the historical loss period chosen.

While not specifically mentioned in the guidance, we believe a modest unallocated allowance is still supportable, especially since imprecision is certainly higher when factoring in expected losses in addition to incurred losses.
 

Other points that caught our eye:

  1. The guidance applies to purchased loans with credit deterioration, as well as originated loans. That will create more comparability in terms of the allowance as a % of loans for institutions that have done acquisitions vs. those who haven’t. An interesting twist, though – for acquired loans that have experienced a more-than-insignificant deterioration in credit quality since origination, the allowance established is simply an adjustment to (ultimately) the premium or discount, while for other loans acquired in the transaction, an allowance is established with an offset to loan loss expense at acquisition
  2. The guidance applies to held-to-maturity debt securities, and there’s specific guidance that affects the accounting for available-for-sale debt securities as well. These will likely only come into play for institutions with private-label mortgage-backed securities and/or corporate bonds. However, some of the CECL disclosure requirements apply to securities as well; in particular, the one that caught our eye was the requirement in ASC 326-20-50-5 to disclose credit quality indicators (e.g., S&P ratings) for securities as well as loans.
  3. Surprisingly, you continue to assume no change in future interest rates for purposes of establishing expected credit losses for specific variable rate loans. We think FASB may have missed the boat on this one, as resetting ARMs were one of the factors that led to the 2008 crisis that CECL is intended to be responsive to.
  4. There will obviously be much, much more dialogue about these new rules, and we’ll need to begin the process of helping you understand them and prepare for implementation sooner rather than later.

Please call us if you have any questions.

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Current Expected Credit Loss (CECL) final standard: Update

When last we blogged about the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s (FASB) new “current expected credit losses” (CECL) model for estimating an allowance for loan and lease losses (ALLL), we reviewed the process for developing reasonable and supportable forecasts for use in establishing the ALLL. Once you develop those forecasts, how does that information translate into amounts to set aside for loan losses?

A portion of the ALLL will continue to be based on specifically identified loans you’re concerned about. For those loans, you will continue to establish a specific component of the ALLL based on your estimate of the loss ultimately expected on the loans.

The tricky part, of course, is estimating an ALLL for the other 99% of the loan portfolio. This is where the forecasts come in. The new rules do not prescribe a particular methodology, and banking regulators have indicated community banks will likely be able to continue with their current approach, adjusted to use appropriate inputs in a manner that complies with the CECL model. One of the biggest challenges is the expectation in CECL that the ALLL will be estimated using the institution’s historical information, to the extent available and relevant.

Following is just one of many ways  you can approach it. I’ve also included a link at the end of this article to an example illustrating this approach.

Step One: Historical Loss Factors

  1. First, for a given subset of the loan portfolio (e.g., the residential loan pool), you might first break down the portfolio by the number of years remaining until expected payoff (via maturity or refinancing). This is important because, on average, a loan with seven years remaining until expected payoff will have a higher level of remaining lifetime losses than a loan with one year remaining. It therefore generally wouldn’t be appropriate to use the same loss factor for both loans.
     
  2. Next, decide on a set of drivers that tend to correlate with loan losses over time. FASB has indicated it doesn’t expect highly mathematical correlation models will be necessary, especially for community banks. Instead, select factors in your bank’s experience indicative of future losses. These may include:
    • External factors, such as GDP growth, unemployment rates, and housing prices
    • Internal factors such as delinquency rates, classified asset ratios, and the percentage of loans in the portfolio for which certain policy exceptions (e.g., loan-to-value ratio or minimum credit score) were granted
       
  3. Once you select this set of drivers, find an historical loss period — a period of years corresponding to the estimated remaining life of the portfolio in question — where the historical drivers best approximate those you’re expecting in the future, based on your forecasts. For that historical loss period, determine the lifetime remaining loss rates of the loans outstanding at the beginning of that period, broken down by the number of years remaining until payoff. (This may require significant data mining, especially if that historical loss period was quite a few years ago.
     
  4. Apply those loss rates to the breakdown derived in (a) above, by years remaining until maturity.

    Step Two: Adjustments to Historical Loss Rates

    The CECL model requires we adjust historical loss factors for conditions that may not be adequately captured by the historical loss period analysis we’ve just described. Let’s say a particular geographical subset of your market area is significantly affected by the economic fortunes of a large employer in that area.  Based on economic trends or recent developments, you might expect that employer to have a particularly bright – or dim – future over the forecast period; accordingly, you forecast loans to borrowers in that area will have losses that differ significantly from the rest of the portfolio.

    The approach for these loans is the same as in the previous step. However:

    These loans would be segregated from the remainder of the portfolio, which would be subject to the general approach in step one. As you think through this approach, there are myriad variations and many decisions to make, such as:

    Our intent in describing this methodology is to help your CECL implementation team start the dialogue in terms of converting theoretical concepts in the CECL model to actual loans and historical experience.

    To facilitate that discussion, we’ve included a very simple example here that illustrates the steps described above. Analyzing an entire loan portfolio under the CECL model is an exponentially more complex process, but the concepts are the same — forecasting future conditions, and establishing an ALLL based on the bank’s (or, when necessary, peers’) lifetime loan loss experience under similar historical conditions.

    Given the amount of number crunching and analysis necessary, and the potentially significant increase in the ALLL that may result from a lifetime-of-loan loss model, it’s safe to say the time to start is now! If you have any questions about CECL implementation, please contact Tracy Harding or Rob Smalley.

    Other resources
    For more information on CECL, check out our other blogs:

    CECL: Where to Start
    CECL: Bank and Branch Acquisitions
    CECL: Reasonable and Supportable

    To sign up to receive notification of our next CECL update, click here.

    • In substep (c), you would focus on forecasted conditions (such as unemployment rate and changes in real estate values) in the geographical area in which the significant employer is located.
    • You would then select an historical loss period that had actual conditions for that area that best correspond to those you’ve just forecasted.
    • In substep (d), you would determine the lifetime remaining loss rates of loans outstanding at the beginning of that period.
    • In substep (e), you would apply those rates to loans in that geographic area.
    • How to break down the portfolio
    • Which conditions to analyze
    • How to analyze the conditions for correlation with historical loss periods
    • Which resulting loss factors to apply to which loans
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CECL implementation: So, you've developed reasonable and supportable forecasts — now what?

The Ramifications of Fraud and How You Can Prevent it

Welcome to part two of our article on nonprofit fraud. If you missed our first installment, you can read it here.

You’ve just become aware of a fraud that has occurred at a nonprofit in your community. As someone who cares about the community and the nonprofit sector, you start to wonder, “What is going to happen to that organization”?

While the ramifications can differ in each case, they probably will include some, if not all, of the following:

  • The board and management will want to understand how the fraud happened, and what management is doing to prevent it from ever happening again.
  • The community is going to look to the board for answers, and wonder why the organization didn’t have controls in place to prevent the fraud.
  • Management will be expected to explain to the board where the breakdown in controls occurred that allowed the employee to steal from the organization.
  • The board knows it has a fiduciary duty to oversee the organization and its internal controls and assets. They aren’t sure what they should have done differently, given that they’re volunteers doing this community service in addition to their “day jobs.”
  • The board and management will want to reach out to donors to assure them that their contributions to the organization are going to be recovered if possible, and that controls are being improved to help safeguard future gifts.

This organization could potentially lose major donors if they believe there are not enough controls in place to ensure their dollars are being spent according to their wishes. If enough donors are negatively affected by this event and choose not to support the organization, its very survival may be at stake, thus impacting those in the community the entity serves.

Management will now have to divert time and other resources not only to implement stronger internal controls to help ensure this does not happen again, but also to reassure the board and the public that the organization is well protected to prevent future fraud.

Fraud can be extremely costly to an organization, not only from a financial perspective, as often the organization will not recover the stolen funds, but also from the loss of an organization’s reputation as a trusted charity. This can be even more devastating. The organization may never recover in the public’s eye, risking their relationships with not only their long-time donors but also new and future donors.

What can you do?

So, what can you do to help prevent fraud from recurring, or to detect it quickly if it does? Here is a simple, yet effective three-step process:

  1. Consider the risks of fraud and determine where it is more likely to occur.
  2. Look closely at the internal controls the organization currently has in place and determine whether they address these risks sufficiently.
  3. Identify gaps where controls are inadequate, and identify controls to be put in place where they are most needed.

Organizations can also consult their auditors to seek advice and guidance on how to implement these very important internal controls. It may be prudent to review previous audits to see if auditors have brought risks to management’s and the board’s attention, and if they provided recommendations on how to improve their current control structure.

The silver lining? The board and management now have a keener sense of the risks of fraud in the nonprofit environment, which should contribute to an engaged dialogue among the board, management and the auditors about how to develop and implement cost-effective controls that protect the organization’s assets.

As part of the audit, the auditors may point out one or more shortcomings in controls that they believe constitute a “material weakness.” While that may sound ominous, it merely means (in auditing jargon) a situation involving a reasonable possibility of a material misstatement of the financial statements. Auditors tend to set the bar low when it comes to classifying deficiencies that create fraud risks as material weaknesses, for the simple fact that users of the financial statements (donors, lenders, other funders) tend to have a lower materiality threshold with respect to misstatements caused by theft.

It is also important to remember that control deficiencies noted in previous audits that may not have been considered material weaknesses in the past may be considered that way today, as expectations of management’s actions regarding fraud prevention and detection go up every time a nonprofit fraud incident hits the media.

Every organization that has more than one person (including board members) associated with it has the opportunity to segregate incompatible duties at some level to help protect assets. At times, organizations don’t have such segregation in place, but instead have implemented compensating controls, such as detailed review of monthly financial statements by the appropriate level of management and/or the board. If this is the case, the organization should ask itself the following questions in order to avoid over-relying on this compensating control:

  • How does this compensating control work? Who reviews the financials, what is their experience level, and how do they document their review to confirm that it’s being done?
  • How often do you question expenditures, and are these questions and their answers evaluated and documented? It is important to remember here that a fraudster would be working hard to escape detection by this compensating control.
  • If the compensating control is a detailed review compared to budget:
    • Who is involved in building the budget?
    • What are the controls that would protect against a fraudster building their theft into budgeted expense line items?

Take a proactive fraud risk assessment and response like the one described here to give you reasonable comfort proper controls are in place to prevent and/or detect fraud. This isn’t about being paranoid – it’s simply a matter of prudently carrying out your fiduciary and management responsibilities to protect the organization you feel so strongly about.

Remember, the one characteristic that every financial theft in history shares—someone was trusted at some point.

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The ramifications of fraud and how you can prevent it

It’s Monday morning. You grab a cup of coffee and flip on the local morning news before you get ready for work. The lead story catches your attention “Local Accounts Payable Manager Steals Thousands.” Based on your experience as a board member of a nonprofit organization and the prior fraud you’ve heard about in the community, three things come into your mind:

  1. The fraud involves either a nonprofit organization or local government.
  2. The Board will come out and say how shocked they are – Fred has been here forever, and we trusted him!
  3. The Board will state they have now put in place proper controls to ensure this will never happen again.

And you may be close to the mark. Nonprofits and governmental organizations often have a higher risk of fraudulent behavior and theft due to their limited resources and ability to implement strict fraud prevention controls. What makes these organizations so susceptible?

  • They frequently run on tight or breakeven budgets, which means they have difficulty hiring enough people to implement strict internal controls.
  • They often have a salary structure that is lower than that of for-profit companies, creating incentive for employees to commit theft in order to make ends meet.
  • They are sometimes targeted by unscrupulous individuals who know that they likely lack the resources available to stop them.

In addition, nonprofits often seek to hire people who believe in the mission. While this can lead to tireless, dedicated employees, certain side effects of this approach may come into play and increase the risk of theft. For example:

  • The passion for, and shared commitment to, the mission at many nonprofits give rise to a culture of trust. This culture of trust may cause the organization to be less likely to implement checks and balances critical to sound internal controls.
  • New employees are sometimes drawn to a specific nonprofit organization because they have experienced some of the challenges which the organization was formed to address. Working for the organization may help them in some ways, but it may also create more financial strain for them or family members, increasing the chances of them committing illegal acts.

There are three elements that must be present for fraud to occur. These are the three sides of what is collectively called the fraud triangle: opportunity, incentive, and rationalization.

  • Opportunity: an employee working at a nonprofit may have opportunity if they are a trusted employee and resources are limited, causing the internal controls to be less robust than they should be.
  • Incentive: the incentive is in place when an employee, as mentioned above, has unexpected events happen in their life that may pressure them into committing fraud.
  • Rationalization: the employee rationalizes that they need the money for their family to survive. This often starts as “I’ll just borrow the money until payday”. Unfortunately, payday arrives and the funds aren’t available to be repaid; in fact, they need to “borrow” just a little more.

Let’s be clear, though – many nonprofits, regardless of size, have appropriately designed and implemented controls that properly protect the organization from the risks of fraud.

Soon we’ll look further at the ramifications frauds can have for nonprofits and how any organization—even small nonprofits, can put certain internal controls in place, to reduce the chances they’ll be the next organization in the headline story of the morning news.

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Fraud – why it can happen to you and what to know when It does

I have to say, accountants have really been taking some uncalled-for heat for causing the 2008 financial crisis. I understand the need to identify scapegoats, but when people hire mortgage brokers to originate bad loans, sell interests in those bad loans to investors, and insure it all through AIG, is it really the accountants’ fault when those loans go bad? And if the federal bank examiners missed the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were engaged in such shenanigans, what hope do we have of being able to adequately apprise investors of such details via financial statement disclosures?

Undaunted, FASB has taken a shot at developing new requirements for banks to report information in their financial statement footnotes about their exposure to liquidity and interest rate risk. I understand the pressure FASB is under, I really do. There’s something called the Group of Twenty, consisting of the top finance officials from the 20 largest industrialized countries, that’s been pressuring FASB to improve accounting rules in a manner that will somehow prevent future financial meltdowns. To me, the Group of Twenty sounds uncomfortably similar to the Gang of Four, which ran China with an iron fist back in the Sixties and Seventies, so, if I were FASB, this group would make me nervous, too.

On the surface, it seems reasonable to expect that more information about liquidity and interest rate risk experienced by banks would be a good thing, as these are probably the two risks you hear about most when banks fail. Dig deeper, though, and two points about these new proposed disclosures become apparent:

  1. Most of this information is already available to users, through SEC and bank regulatory filings.
  2. To the extent it isn’t, that’s because no one uses the information, not even management of the banks!

It would be interesting to look back at some of the banks that failed during the recent recession, identify which of the proposed disclosures weren’t already available to investors and regulators, and decide whether anyone would have reacted differently if they were. Or was it simply the case that bad business decisions were made, and, when that happens, companies go under? And when recessions hit, sometimes banks fail?

I remember a TV interview during the height of the 2008 crisis, in which the focus was on blaming stock analysts (they hadn’t gotten around to accountants yet). The interviewer asked, “How many stock analysts do we have to hang on Wall Street before they all get the message?” The expert he was interviewing said, “Probably just one.” I’m guessing that holds true for accountants, too. There are already rules in place to disclose significant risks, concentrations, obligations of the institution, and the like. If Lehman Brothers and AIG don’t follow them, appropriate sanctions (I’m not advocating hanging, mind you) should follow; we can pass more rules, but if they didn’t comply with the existing rules, what makes us think they’ll follow the new ones?

If you have questions, please reach out to Tyler Butler or Tracy Harding.

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The silver bullet for future financial crises–More footnotes!

Read this if you are an employer with a defined contribution plan.

This article is the fourth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here.

One of the most common errors we identify during an audit of defined contribution plans is the definition of compensation outlined in the adoption agreement or plan document is not consistently or accurately applied by the plan sponsor. This can be a serious problem, as operational failures will require correction and those errors can become costly for plan sponsors. 

Calculation challenges and other common errors

It is important plan sponsors understand the options selected for the calculation of employee elective deferrals and employer non-elective and matching contributions into the plan. While calculating compensation sounds straightforward, it is often complicated by the fact that your adoption agreement or plan document may use different definitions of compensation for different purposes.

For example, the definition of compensation used to calculate deferrals could differ from the definition used for nondiscrimination testing and allocation purposes. Therefore, determining the correct amount of compensation requires a strong understanding of both your entity’s payroll structure and adoption agreement or plan document. Plan sponsors should work with both in-house personnel and plan administrators to ensure definitions of compensation are appropriately applied, and that any changes are quickly communicated to all involved.  

During an audit, we commonly identify pay types excluded from the definition of compensation in the adoption agreement or plan document that are incorrectly included in the compensation used in the calculation of employee deferrals and employer contributions. Taxable group term life insurance is a common example of compensation that is improperly included in the definition of compensation. Alternatively, we also identify codes for certain types of pay excluded from the calculation of employee deferrals and employer contributions that should be included based on the applicable definition of compensation. For example, retro pay, bonus payments, and manual checks are often incorrectly excluded in the definition of compensation.

Corrective actions

If errors are identified, we recommend that corrective actions including contributions, reallocation, or distributions are made in accordance with the Department of Labor regulations in a timely fashion.

If appropriate, the plan sponsor should consider amending the plan to align with the definition of plan compensation currently used in practice. We also recommend plan sponsors perform annual reviews of plan operations to ensure compliance and avoid the costs that can accompany non-compliance.

If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact our Employee Benefits consulting team. We’re here to help.

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Plan compensation and contributions: Common errors and solutions to fix them

Read this if you are an employer with employees on COBRA. There are tax credits available to you. 

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) creates a requirement that employers treat the total payment for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) continuation coverage due from certain eligible individuals as being “paid in full” for April 1 through September 30, 2021 (Subsidy Period). The eligible individuals with COBRA coverage will not receive the subsidy directly from the government; rather, they will have a premium holiday during which time the employer pays 100% of the applicable COBRA premium. The employer will be reimbursed in full through refundable payroll tax credits.

The ARP provisions do not apply to all COBRA-eligible individuals; eligibility is limited to employees who lost health care benefits due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours. While the loss of coverage event can be linked to COVID-19, it is not required to be. A loss of coverage event could have occurred as far back as November 1, 2019, since the law requires an employer to offer a continuation of COBRA coverage for 18 months after an involuntary termination (18 months from November 1, 2019 is April 30, 2021). Eligible individuals who opted not to pay for COBRA coverage will be given another opportunity to elect the free coverage.

Employers and COBRA administrators should prepare to distribute new COBRA election and subsidy notices and to make operational changes soon after further guidance is released. Eligible individuals not already on COBRA will need to act quickly after receiving the notice to elect subsidized COBRA coverage. Failing to timely elect COBRA coverage could result in forfeiting this valuable benefit.

It is expected many people will rush to take advantage of this opportunity, which can provide up to six months of health insurance at no cost. However, employers should keep in mind that the subsidy is available only for certain limited situations.

Which employers are eligible for the new subsidy?

Employers subject to federal COBRA provisions or to a state program that provides comparable group health care continuation coverage are not allowed to charge eligible individuals for COBRA coverage during the Subsidy Period. The subsidy applies to workers in every industry, most tax-exempt employers (except churches who are exempt from COBRA) and union, governmental, and Indian tribal government workers. The federal COBRA provisions generally apply to all private-sector group health plans maintained by employers that had at least 20 employees on more than 50% of its typical business days in the previous calendar year. Both full- and part-time employees are counted to determine whether a plan is subject to federal COBRA coverage. Many states have “mini-COBRA” laws that apply to employers who have fewer than 20 employees. The subsidy is mandatory for all employer-sponsored group health plans (i.e., all employers must offer the subsidy, regardless of whether the plan is fully or partially insured, or self-insured).

During the Subsidy Period, generally, the federal government will reimburse COBRA costs to employers by allowing credits against employers' Medicare (not Social Security or income) taxes (but for union plans, the plan would receive the subsidy and for insured, state “mini-COBRA” plans, the insurer would receive the subsidy). Guidance is needed to clarify how the flow of funds for the subsidy would work. The full cost of COBRA continuation coverage (including up to a 2% administrative fee) at any coverage level (e.g., single, “single-plus-one”, or family coverage) for employees and former employees and their spouses and dependents is eligible for the subsidy via the payroll tax credit. The subsidy applies to health, prescription drug, dental and vision plans, but does not apply to health flexible spending accounts (FSAs), health savings accounts (HSAs), or long-term care plans (further guidance is needed to clarify the scope of the subsidy).  

Due to the fact that most individuals who elect COBRA group health care continuation coverage usually pay 100% of those premiums (and in many cases they must also pay up to a 2% administrative fee), the new subsidy via the employment tax credit keeps the free COBRA coverage at zero cost to the employer. While the employment tax credit is taxable income, it will be offset by the employer’s deductible payment of the healthcare premiums.

Impact on eligible individuals

An eligible individual with an existing or new COBRA election will be provided tax-free health care coverage (both the premium and any administrative charge) at no charge for their remaining COBRA period that overlaps with the Subsidy Period.   

The free COBRA provided during the Subsidy Period would be “affordable” coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But it is not clear how this “affordable” coverage affects an individual who has purchased coverage on the exchange before they had an offer of affordable coverage.

A recipient of the free health care coverage must notify the employer or plan administrator when they become eligible for Medicare or another group health plan—other than coverage under an excepted benefit, an FSA or a qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement (QSEHRA). Individuals who fail to promptly give this notice could be subject to a $250 fine and other penalties.

Who is eligible?

Generally, individuals are eligible for free COBRA coverage if (1) they are involuntarily terminated or have a reduction in hours that qualifies them for federal or state COBRA coverage and (2) the Subsidy Period overlaps with their COBRA coverage period.

The new COBRA premium assistance is not available to the following individuals:

  • Employees who are terminated for gross misconduct.
  • Employees who voluntarily terminated their employment or who retired.
  • Individuals who are eligible for COBRA due to other reasons, like divorce, death, or loss of dependency status.
  • Individuals who are eligible for other group health care coverage (such as from a new employer) or Medicare.
  • Individuals who are beyond their normal COBRA coverage period connected to the original qualifying event (i.e., the employee’s involuntary termination or reduction in hours that caused a loss of group health plan coverage).
  • Domestic partners who are not federal income tax dependents of the employee.

What’s the coverage?

Generally, the COBRA coverage will be the same as the coverage elected just prior to the involuntary termination or reduction in hours. However, employers can (but are not required to) allow individuals who are eligible for premium assistance to change their coverage provided it does not result in an increased premium cost. Further guidance is needed regarding the scope of who can change to a lower cost health plan as a result of the new law.

Eligible individuals who lost health care coverage after October 31, 2019 but do not have COBRA coverage on April 1, 2021 due to nonelection or lapse of payment will have a new, 60-day opportunity to elect COBRA coverage. If timely elected, the COBRA covered period will begin on the date of the individual’s qualifying event, but it appears that no payment is due for months prior to April 2021 and no claims can be filed prior to April 1, 2021. For the months remaining in the COBRA period that coincide with April 1 through September 30, 2021, the employee makes no payment but will have claims paid in accordance with the plan’s provisions. To have continued coverage after September 30, 2021, the employee must make the payments required under the plan. If the individual finds this unaffordable, they can simply drop the coverage.

What notices are needed?

The federal government is expected to issue model required notices addressing the existence of the subsidy, the availability of the 60-day election period and advance notice of when the Subsidy Period will be ending. In the meantime, employers should prepare for the following new notice requirements.

  • Group health plans must modify their COBRA election notices for individuals who become eligible for federal or state COBRA during the Subsidy Period to notify them of the premium assistance (and, if applicable, the option to enroll in a lower priced plan).
  • By May 31, 2021, individuals who previously rejected (or terminated) COBRA coverage and to whom a new election period must be offered, must be notified of their new election period and the availability of the premium assistance. This essentially creates a special COBRA enrollment period for such individuals.
  • Between August 17 and September 15, 2021, group health plans must provide a notice to individuals receiving the premium assistance stating that the subsidy will expire on September 30, 2021, and that they may be eligible for COBRA coverage without the subsidy. But if the subsidy would end earlier for any individual, the plan must provide a notice that the subsidy is expiring no earlier than 45 days and no later than 15 days before the subsidy expiration date.

It is not clear how these required notices must be delivered (sending paper mail to former employees may be needed).

How does the subsidy work?

Individuals who are eligible for COBRA premium assistance do not receive a payment from the federal government, group health plan, employer, or insurer. Rather, their COBRA costs are waived during the Subsidy Period.

Employers that sponsor a fully insured plan would continue paying the full premium to the insurer for the assistance eligible participants. Employers that sponsor a self-insured plan would pay the claims incurred by the assistance eligible participants. In both cases, the employer would receive no payment from the eligible individual during the Subsidy Period but would instead recover its COBRA costs (102% of the COBRA premium) for the assistance-eligible individuals by claiming a refundable federal tax credit against the employer’s Medicare taxes.

The COBRA subsidy is prospective only and cannot begin before April 1, 2021.

Although the law does not require employers to pay for any COBRA coverage, some employers pay for some or all of COBRA coverage (for example, as part of a severance package). Such employers can cease those contributions during the Subsidy Period and the federal government will provide the subsidy for 6 months. And although the subsidy is tax-free to employees, employers who take the COBRA premium tax credit must increase their gross income by the amount of such credit for the taxable year which includes the last day of any calendar quarter with respect to which such credit is allowed.
 
Also, under a “no double dipping” rule, employers cannot take the COBRA premium tax credit for any amount which is taken into account as qualified wages for the employee retention credit (ERC) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), or as qualified health plan expenses for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), as amended by CAA and ARP. Likewise, amounts attributable to the COBRA premium tax credit would not be eligible payroll costs under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Guidance from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is needed to clarify how exactly employers would claim the tax credit, but it appears that employers would claim the credit on their quarterly IRS Form 941 or in advance on IRS Form 7200 if the actual or estimated amount of the credit exceeds the employer's Medicare taxes for any calendar quarter. Further guidance is also needed regarding the mechanics of the subsidy for employers that have insured state COBRA coverage, since under Section 9501(b) of the ARP the tax credits reimbursements would go to the insurer, not the employer.

Other considerations

For past COVID-19 relief tax credits, such as the ERC and FFCRA, IRS guidance allowed employers to dip into withheld income and Social Security taxes as a source of claiming those refundable tax credits. But the IRS has not yet authorized such actions for the ARP COBRA subsidy tax credit. Social Security taxes may not be available as a source for the new COBRA tax credits, since the ARP was enacted under budget reconciliation rules which prohibit any changes to Social Security.

Employers are not allowed to voluntarily expand the group of people who are eligible for the special COBRA premium subsidy, because the federal government is paying the full COBRA premium for the designated class of assistance-eligible individuals.

We expect the IRS to issue FAQs on the new COBRA Medicare tax credits, similar to the FAQs that the IRS issued on the ERC and FFCRA payroll tax credits.

This new COBRA subsidy may be economically more valuable than using qualified health care expenses for the ERC, because ERC nets 70% on the dollar whereas the COBRA subsidy is 102% (premium plus administrative charge).

What should employers do now?

Employers should immediately identify all employees who lost group health plan coverage after October 31, 2019 due to an involuntary termination or reduction in hours, without regard to their COBRA elections, because such event would have entitled the individual to 18 months of COBRA coverage (i.e., through April 30, 2021). Guidance is needed on whether notices must be given to individuals in this group that declined COBRA due to eligibility in another employer’s plan or Medicare. Employers will need to notify individuals who have an unexpired COBRA period that premium assistance is available, and they have a right to reconsider their original COBRA election.  

Employers will also need to review and perhaps modify any existing, automatic processes that might otherwise terminate COBRA coverage when premiums are not received during the Subsidy Period.

Year-end reporting on health benefits should also be reviewed to ensure these increased COBRA participants receive the appropriate Form 1095-B or C for 2021.

Employers should develop a procedure to identify COBRA recipients who are eligible for the premium assistance and those who do not qualify (for example, employers will need to distinguish a voluntary quit from an involuntary termination of employment and whether the employee was fired for gross misconduct). For premium-assistance eligible individuals, employers must refund within 60 days any premiums paid during the Subsidy Period. Not all COBRA participants will qualify for the subsidy, so the plan administrator will still need to handle some premium payments from non-eligible individuals.

Vendor outreach

Many employers use outside service providers for their COBRA administration, so employers should reach out to their vendors as soon as possible to coordinate their response to the ARP changes to current COBRA rules, especially the special election period for certain assistance-eligible individuals.

Keep in mind that, separate from the ARP COBRA subsidy, many employees (and their family members) may currently have extended COBRA election rights due to COVID-19 deadline extensions. For example, ERISA Disaster Relief Notice 2021-1 issued on February 26, 2021, announced an individualized one-year deadline extension for COBRA elections, which begins on the date the clock for the particular deadline would have started running (i.e., the one-year extension is applied on a rolling basis to each deadline for each affected individual). But individuals electing retroactive COBRA coverage under those extended deadlines will generally have to pay the full COBRA premiums for such periods. Guidance is needed on how the deadline extension coordinates with the new COBRA subsidy.

Employers may recall that in February 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the federal government subsidized 65% of COBRA premiums for certain individuals who were terminated or laid off between September 1, 2008 and March 31, 2010 due to the financial crisis linked to the bursting of the home mortgage lending bubble. The ARRA subsidy was extended through May 31, 2010, so perhaps with Democrats currently controlling both Congress and the White House, the ARP COBRA subsidy may be extended beyond September 30, 2021. Also, the ARRA may be a model for how the flow of funds will work for the ARP premium tax credits for insured state COBRA coverage.

If you have specific questions about your situation, please contact our Employee Benefits consulting team. We’re here to help. 

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"Free" COBRA for some employees: Employers may benefit, too

Read this if you are an employer with basic knowledge of benefit plans and want to learn more. 

This article is the third in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. Our first article covers the background of ERISA, while our second article covers the definitions and rules of parties-in-interest and prohibited transactions.

Form 5500 is an informational return filed annually with the US Department of Labor (DOL). The purpose of Form 5500 is to report information concerning the operation, funding, assets, and investments of pension and other employee benefit plans to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and DOL. All pension benefit plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and, generally, health and welfare plans covering 100 or more participants are subject to filing Form 5500. Any retirement plan covering less than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year may be able to file Form 5500-SF, Short Form Annual Return/Report of Small Employee Benefit Plan. Read on for important filing requirements, as noncompliance can result in substantial penalties assessed by both the DOL and IRS. 

Who has to file, and which Form 5500 is required?

Pension plans

The most common types of pension benefit plan filers include:

  • Retirement plans qualified under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) § 401(a)
  • Tax sheltered annuity plans under IRC § 403(b)(1) and 403(b)(7)
  • SIMPLE 401(k) Plan under IRC § 401(k)(11)
  • Direct Filing Entity (DFE)

Which Form 5500 you should file depends on the type of plan. Small plans covering less than 100 participants as of the beginning of the plan year will normally file a Form 5500-SF. Conversely, large plans, mainly those plans covering 100 or more participants as of the beginning of the plan year, will file Form 5500 as a general rule. 

Participants include all current employees eligible for the plan, former employees still covered, and deceased employees who have one or more beneficiaries eligible for or receiving benefits under the plan.

Welfare plans

Generally, all welfare benefit plans covered by ERISA are required to file a Form 5500. Common types of welfare benefit plans include but are not limited to medical, dental, life insurance, severance pay, disability, and scholarship funds.

Similar to pension plans, the required Form 5500 to be filed typically depends on whether the plan is a small plan with less than 100 participants at the beginning of the year, or a large plan with 100 or more participants at the beginning of the plan year. However, certain welfare benefit plans are not required to file an annual Form 5500, including, but not limited to:

  • Plans with fewer than 100 participants at the beginning of the plan year and that are unfunded, fully insured, or a combination of the two
  • Governmental plans 
  • Employee benefit plans maintained only to comply with workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, or disability insurance laws

Participants for welfare benefit plans include current employees covered by the plan, former employees still covered, and deceased employees who have one or more beneficiaries receiving or entitled to receive benefits under the plan (e.g., COBRA). 

Required financial schedules for Form 5500

Small plans that do not file Form 5500-SF require the following schedules to be filed along with the Form 5500:

  • Schedule A—Insurance information
  • Schedule D—DFE/Participating plan information
  • Schedule I—Financial information for a small plan

Large plans require the following schedules in addition to small plan schedules:

  • Plan Audit (Accountant’s Opinion)
  • Schedule C—Service provider information
  • Schedule G—Financial transaction schedules
  • Schedule H—Financial information (instead of Schedule I)

Welfare plans with 100 or more participants that are unfunded, fully insured or a combination of the two are not required to attach Schedule H or an Accountant’s Opinion. Also, pension plans will attach Schedule SB or MB reporting actuarial information, if required, along with Schedule R reporting retirement plan information.

When to File

Form 5500 must be filed electronically by the last day of the seventh calendar month after the end of the plan year. However, a two and one-half months’ extension of time to file can be requested. Penalties may be assessed by both the IRS and the DOL for failure to file an annual Form 5500-series return. For 2020, the IRS penalty for late filing is $250 per day, up to a maximum of $150,000 (applies only to retirement plans), and the DOL penalty can run up to $2,233 per day, with no maximum. Therefore, it is very important to track participant counts and ensure compliance with filing deadlines.

If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact our employee benefit consulting team. We’re here to help.

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Form 5500: An overview

Read this if you are a community bank.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) recently issued its fourth quarter 2020 Quarterly Banking Profile. The report provides financial information based on call reports filed by 5,001 FDIC-insured commercial banks and savings institutions. The report also contains a section specific to community bank performance. In fourth quarter 2020, this includes the financial information of 4,559 FDIC-insured community banks. Here are our key takeaways from the community bank section of the report:

  • There was a $1.3 billion increase in quarterly net income from a year prior despite a 38.1% increase in provision expense and continued net interest margin (NIM) compression. This increase was mainly due to loan sales, which were up 159.2% from 2019. Year-over-year, net income is up 3.6%. However, the percentage of unprofitable community banks rose from 3.7% in 2019 to 4.4% in 2020.
  • Provision expense for the year increased $4.1 billion (a 141.6% increase) from 2019.
  • Year-over-year NIM declined 27 basis points to 3.39%. The average yield on earning assets fell 61 basis points to 4.00%.
  • Net operating revenue increased by $3.4 billion from fourth quarter 2019, a 14.5% increase. This increase is attributable to higher revenue from loan sales (increased $1.8 billion, or 159.2%) and an increase in net interest income.
  • Non-interest expenses increased 10.4% from fourth quarter 2019. This increase was mainly attributable to salary and benefit expenses, which saw an increase of $1.1 billion (12.6%). That being said, average assets per employee increased 16% from fourth quarter 2019.
  • Trends in loans and leases showed a moderate contraction from third quarter 2020, decreasing by 1.6%. This contraction was mainly seen in the C&I loan category, which was driven by a reduction in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan balances. However, total loans and leases increased by 10.3% from fourth quarter 2019. Although all major loan categories expanded in 2020, the majority of growth was seen in C&I loans, which accounted for approximately two-thirds of the year-over-year increase in loans and leases. However, keep in mind, C&I loans include PPP loans that were originated in the first half of 2020.
  • Nearly all community banks reported an increase in deposit volume during the year. Growth in deposits above the insurance limit drove the annual increase while alternative funding sources, such as brokered deposits, declined.
  • Average funding costs fell 33 basis points to 61 basis points for 2020.
  • Noncurrent loans (loans 90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) increased $1.5 billion (12.8%) from fourth quarter 2019 as noncurrent balances in all major loan categories grew. However, the noncurrent rate remained relatively stable compared to fourth quarter 2019 at 77 basis points, partly due to strong year-over-year loan growth.
  • Net charge-offs decreased 4 basis points from fourth quarter 2019 to 15 basis points. The net charge-off rate for C&I loans declined most among major loan categories having decreased 24 basis points.
  • The average community bank leverage ratio (CBLR) for the 1,844 banks that elected to use the CBLR framework was 11.2%.
  • The number of community banks declined by 31 to 4,559 from third quarter 2020. This change includes two new community banks, four banks transitioning from non-community to community banks, three banks transitioning from community to non-community banks, 30 community bank mergers or consolidations, two community bank self-liquidations, and two community bank failures.

2020 was a strong year for community banks, as evidenced by the increase in year-over-year net income of 3.6%. However, tightening NIMs will force community banks to either find creative ways to increase their NIM, grow their earning asset bases, or find ways to continue to increase non-interest income to maintain current net income levels. Some community banks have already started dedicating more time to non-traditional income streams, as evidenced by the 40.1% year-over-year increase in non-interest income.

Furthermore, much uncertainty still exists. For instance, although significant charge-offs have not yet materialized, the financial picture for many borrowers remains uncertain. And payment deferrals have made some credit quality indicators, such as past due status, less reliable. The ability of community banks to maintain relationships with their borrowers and remain apprised of the results of their borrowers’ operations has never been more important.

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to BerryDunn’s Financial Services team if you have any questions. We're here to help.
 

Article
FDIC issues its fourth quarter 2020 Quarterly Banking Profile