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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 22:37 GMT 23:37 UK
Pensions 'black hole' doubles

By Andrew Verity
BBC personal finance reporter

Piggy bank
Pension savings have been hit hard

The black hole in the pension schemes of Britain's top 100 companies has doubled over the past year to 55bn.

The annual survey of pensions by the actuaries Lane Clark & Peacock shows the pension deficits shown on company accounts now add up to more than 55bn.

For the finance directors of Britain's biggest companies this latest survey makes uncomfortable reading.

Groups such as ICI or BAE Systems have pension schemes worth two or three times as much as the company.

In the case of Rolls Royce, just the latest deficit in its fund, of nearly 2bn, was more than the company was worth on the stock market.

Latest news, background and analysis from BBC News Online's pensions in-depth section

Lane Clark identified seven companies where the pension scheme's financial problems could threaten the finances of the company that sponsored it.

Most at risk were companies with a large pension scheme relative to their size, where their schemes put most of their investment in shares.

As well as Rolls Royce, BAE and ICI, the seven include British Airways, BT Group, Invensys and Royal & SunAlliance.

Market warning

Martin Slack, senior partner at Lane Clark & Peacock, said: "Some of the companies are starting to look like giant investment trusts which just happens to make a few engines on the side - or own aircraft or whatever the business is."

Groups such as BP and Smiths Industries have now started trying to fill the holes in their pension schemes by boosting their contributions.

The underlying reason for the problem is that the pensions industry has to support a greater number of pensioners for longer periods

But the total amount of money going into schemes is still 600m short of what'll be needed to meet promises to staff.

And there's a warning for those who hope a recovery on the stock market will solve the problem.

Future returns

The FTSE 100 index of leading shares would have to climb 40% by the end of the year, soaring above 6,000, to wipe the deficits out.

Lane Clark & Peacock also pointed out that some finance directors were taking an "optimistic view" of what their pension schemes could expect to make from their investments.

Of 66 finance directors agreeing to answer the question, 32 increased their expected future rate of return on share investments.

If finance directors assume pension schemes will make more money from their investments, they need not contribute as much in the present in order for those schemes to have sufficient funds in the future.

Under the accounting standard for pensions FRS17, adjusting that rate of return in the right direction can boost company profits.

FRS17 is not fully in force until 2005. If it were, then by saying it now expected returns of 8.5% this year - compared to 7.5% last year - BAE Systems would reduce its pension contribution - and therefore boosted reported profits - by 50m.

Alex Waite, Lane Clark and Peacock Actuaries
"The big news here is that the shortfall has doubled over the last 12 months"

The BBC's John Moylan
"This pensions black hole touches us all"

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