Time to stop flogging the dead parrot

Alan Collins

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‘Ello, I wish to register a complaint.  Much like Monty Python’s famous Norwegian Blue parrot, private sector defined benefit pension schemes are dead.  They are not resting, stunned or even pining for the fjords – they’re stone dead.

I therefore believe the calls by the UK pensions industry to shield defined benefit pension schemes from the effects of Solvency II are somewhat misplaced.  If the only reason for not adopting Solvency II is to prevent the further closures of such schemes, then these calls do not stand up to scrutiny.  Schemes have been closing rapidly under the existing regime and will continue to do so irrespective of European legislation.

Many employers overburdened by regulation and the dawning realisation of the real cost of pension guarantees have called time on defined benefit provision. The adoption of Solvency II may well further hasten this inevitable demise. For a large number of schemes, accepting this now will be a good thing in the long run.

The closure of schemes leaves two main issues: (1) should defined benefits constitute a cast-iron promise to beneficiaries and (2) how do we best close the funding gaps to ensure all liabilities are met?

The magnitude of UK defined benefit obligations have grown over time, often beyond the sponsors’ control. Layer upon layer of legislation, primarily relating to guaranteed indexation, has left employers to fund obligations which were not present or intended when schemes were first set up.  In effect, this has hindered the private sector from delivering pensions which can be guaranteed.

Beneficiaries certainly believe a promise is a promise and fully expect employers to stand behind their obligations irrespective of the above problems.  This feeling is heightened by the fact that fewer and fewer beneficiaries have an ongoing mutual interest in the prospects of the sponsor. However, by allowing measures which rely so heavily on employers, it is also clear that the UK funding regime has never been set up in a way to match the understanding of the beneficiaries.  It is a structure based on hope rather than expectation.

As integration across member states continues and the workforce in the EU becomes increasingly mobile, I would expect that benefit promises made by companies in all EU states will face harmonised regulation and enforcement. UK residents who end up working in other EU states would fully expect benefit promises to be honoured just as our European counterparts would surely expect the same protection working in the UK.

The expectation of benefit promises being honoured seems to make it inevitable that there will be levelling up of pension legislation across the EU, whether by Solvency II or other means.

The National Association of Pension Funds claims that the UK system already provides a strong level of protection for its members through the employer covenant, The Pensions Regulator (tPR) and the Pension Protection Fund. While the current regime is undoubtedly more robust, any inference that the existence of the PPF is a justification for a lower funding target should be discounted.

In support of this view, the Association of Consulting Actuaries believes that the current directive with its requirement for the prudent funding of technical provisions is providing ‘an appropriate balance between protecting members’ benefits and keeping the cost to employers at an affordable level’.  While balance is appropriate, I believe it would be a mistake to retain a lower funding target because it is all that can be afforded in the short-medium term.  It is much better to aim for the right target, even if it is going to take longer to get there.

As well as possible directives on Solvency II, there are a number of additional factors which support stronger funding targets such as the views of the Accounting Standards Board; the ultimate legal obligation on employers is already set at buyout; and the dominance of solvency levels in pension related discussions during mergers & acquisitions, where FRS and technical provisions are cast aside.

For all but the very largest of schemes, the only realistic end game is to buy out all of the remaining benefits with an insurance company as soon as it is affordable and efficient to do so.  In the meantime, the need for employer flexibility and the reluctance of tPR to accept very long-term recovery plans have lead to the adoption of weaker funding targets which rely on the ethereal employer covenant.  However this is the system we must work within at the moment.

Whichever way we end up reserving for and funding schemes, the UK pensions industry needs to face up to the fact that its biggest task is dealing with legacy deficits and not propagating the virtues of future benefit accrual.  The private sector defined benefit experiment has failed and the best that can be done is to ensure that current obligations to members are met. It is time to admit that the parrot is truly dead.

Alan Collins

Post by Alan Collins

Head of Trustee Advisory Services at Spence he provides actuarial, funding and investment advice to trustees and sponsors of ongoing defined benefit schemes.