Companies could reduce the amount of money they need to pay into gold-plated pension schemes by as much as £30 billion if the government introduces a controversial “safety valve” that would leave pensioners worse off, a new report says.
What’s more, they make a good argument as to why the country should accept the haircut for pensioners — it would boost growth and wages at the expense of some of the best off in the country.
The country is facing a mounting pensions crisis, with the UK’s 350 biggest companies facing a combined funding shortfall for their schemes of £408 billion.
The problem lies with something called a “defined benefit” (DB) pension scheme, also known as a final salary pension scheme. This is where employees are promised a specific monthly payout when they retire, based on their age, tenure, salary, and linked to rates of inflation. It’s the Rolls-Royce of pensions.
For employers, the idea is they make enough money through investing pension contributions to be able to fund these sort of sweet deals. But with interest rates and bond yields collapsing since the financial crisis that’s getting increasingly difficult.
Consultant LCP says in its annual “Accounting for Pensions” report that the government should consider “a safety valve for stressed employers” who are struggling to cope with big pension deficits — in effect, letting them slash the amount they have to pay into the scheme and the real value of what pensioners eventually get paid.
One suggestion is that the inflation gauge that DB schemes are tied to be switched from the retail price index to the generally lower consumer price index. The government allowed this with Tata Steel’s troubled pension scheme and LCP suggests this would reduce liabilities by £30 billion a year for FTSE 100 companies.
LCP also floats the idea of letting companies provide only the legal minimum of pension increases to DB schemes, which would save up to £100 billion.
These are controversial suggestions, especially given the fact that the report also found FTSE 100 companies paid out almost five times as much in dividends to shareholders as they put into their pension plans.
Pension consultant John Ralfe told the Telegraph: “Why should pension scheme members lose out, when shareholders continue to be paid cash dividends? It can only be fair to members if dividends are stopped and they can only start again once the full RPI lost is paid to pension scheme members.”
But LCP’s argument is that, while the deal may be bad for pensioners, it is better for the country overall. Bob Scott, the author of the report and senior partner at LCP, says in a statement (emphasis ours):
“The increasing cost of DB [defined benefit] pension provision has meant that more contributions went towards additional pension accrual than in any year since 2009.
“This is despite the significant number of DB scheme closures, and a material reduction in the number of employees accruing DB pensions. Not only is this a drag on company performance and the wider UK economy, but the relatively small contributions going into DC may be storing up problems for the beneficiaries of those schemes when they come to retire.”
Collapsing interest rates and yields have meant companies have had to put up more and more money to fund these future pension commitments, which means they have less money to invest in expansion and less money to pay employees. That creates a drag on economic growth.
Since 2009, final salary pension contributions as a percentage of total salary costs have risen from 24% to 50% for FTSE 100 companies. That’s huge.
What’s more, as Scott says: “The relatively small contributions going into DC may be storing up problems for the beneficiaries of those schemes when they come to retire.”
DC is defined contribution, the alternative to DB. It’s where you simply set aside a certain amount that is invested with no guarantee on returns. Because companies are investing so much in their DB schemes, it means DC retirees may end up on copper schemes, rather than the silver to DB’s gold.
Despite all the drawbacks to keeping DB schemes going, the government is unlikely to make any serious changes because those on the DB schemes are a much bigger voting block than the young, and it would be political suicide to anger them.
But if the government doesn’t act, companies might instead. LCP says: “We expect to see many more pension scheme closures announced in the coming months and years — unless something is done to make pensions more affordable.”
The final salary scheme is on its last legs and the end is probably a good thing.
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