As mentioned before, the fourth quarter of 2006 may be the beginning of a new Ice Age for defined benefit pension plans. IBM may have gotten it started, but other firms have jumped on the bandwagon - Tenneco (NYSE:TEN) last week, DuPont (NYSE:DD) yesterday.
Troll through EDGAR, and you can find a couple other freezes occurring in an otherwise sultry summer: outdoor equipment manufacturer Blount International (NYSE:BLT), and uniform services provider G&K Services (GKSR) both moved to freeze benefits. Tire retreader Bandag (NYSEARCA:BDG) is another one, along with AK Steel Holdings (NYSE:AKS), insulation maker Lydall, Inc. (NYSE:LDL), and pen maker A.T. Cross (NASDAQ:ATX).
What do they all have in common? Besides having pension plans that are turning chilly, they’re all pretty small outfits - the largest market cap belongs to AK Steel, at about $1.4 billion. The rest are all comfortably under $1 billion. It’s not an exhaustive sample, admittedly - but it is one of those things that strikes you pretty quickly from a casual examination of the data. And it makes sense that small companies should be among the first to freeze plans: they often complain that they face many handicaps because of their size, and it would be logical for them to take advantage of any reasonable cost-cutting exercise. (I can hear it now: “We froze our pension plans to offset the increased costs of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404.”)
It also makes sense that the small firm freezing activity is pretty much unnoticed by the press. When a company the size of DuPont freezes its plans, it’s big news. When a company with a $400 million market cap freezes its pension plan, it’s a space-filler on the back page. Yet you might wonder: will the small “freezing” firms will see a bigger improvement in their results than the bigger ones? Might be an interesting study in a year or so. Or sooner.