Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Pension fund deficits at new high

There is a nasty surprise in store for many employers

The deficit of final-salary pension schemes in the private sector hit a record £219bn at the end of February, the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) said.

The collective deficit of the almost 7,800 funds rose from £191bn a month earlier, and was up from a £67bn deficit recorded a year ago.

Only 9% of schemes still have a surplus with 91% now suffering a shortfall.

The PPF said the value of scheme assets dropped by nearly 5% in February due to falling share prices.

"Over the past year, the falling equity markets and bond yields have led to an overall worsening of the funding position," said the PPF.

Horror show

The finances of pension schemes have become steadily worse since the middle of last year.

Companies... may still be shocked by the scale of the problem
Rash Bhabra, Watson Wyatt

The actuarial firm Watson Wyatt warned that the growth of the deficits was an unfolding "horror" show, as things would be even worse if the size of the deficit was being estimated now.

"Thirty-first of March is a common date for measuring the assets and liabilities in a pension scheme," said Rash Bhabra of Watson Wyatt.

"Companies know their plans for repairing pension deficits have been blown off course, but may still be shocked by the scale of the problem.

"The choice is going to be between paying much higher contributions, remaining in deficit for much longer, or a combination of the two."

Last month, the Pensions Regulator warned companies not to keep on paying dividends to their shareholders if they thought they were having trouble affording the required level of pension contributions.

Safety net

The PPF exists to provide a safety net for scheme members if their employer goes bust and leave the company pension scheme underfunded.

That problem has become sharply worse as the recession has gripped the UK economy.

The number of large schemes that have been left stranded by their employer's insolvency, such as Woolworths, is going to place considerable extra strain on the PPF's own fund.

This is financed by a levy on solvent schemes, and by absorbing the assets of those funds that are rescued.

The PPF has fully taken on 71 schemes so far, covering more than 21,000 current and future pensioners, but there are many more in the pipeline.

A further 295 schemes are currently being assessed by the PPF to see if they are sufficiently insolvent to be bailed out.

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