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Pension trustees feel the heat

I do not know about you but I have been on the receiving end of more grumbles from clients since the introduction of the new disclosure regime and the veritable forest of paperwork which accomp-anies each suitability letter.

My clients fortunately understand the information I am conveying to them and are resilient to the bureau-cracy. Put to the test, despite explaining the purpose of the various components, most of the documentation is ignored although they focus on the solutions. The present regime is not conducive to encouraging savings, as recent statistics so worryingly portray.

If the majority have no savings back-up, surely the pension will be okay but there are problems here, too. It is the issue of bureaucracy and its impact on pension schemes that I now turn to. Having recently attended a trustees’ meeting at a small manufacturing company, I am sure the discussions were representative of similar meetings taking place up and down the country.

The parlous state of pension scheme finances is, of course, well publicised and before the recent stock-market advance in the year to June, liabilities just from the FTSE 100 companies had risen to 67bn. One of the companies managing a deficit is British Airways which, having made up some lost ground, will find the recent problems at Heathrow deeply damaging and whether it is 30m or 40m that the dispute costs, this is revenue lost forever and an element that would have perhaps found its way into the pension scheme coffers.

It is the big companies making all the headlines and many have the financial wherewithal to remedy the situation over time but this is not the case with the very many smaller companies faced with liabilities that are unmanageable and indeed threaten the very survival of the operation.

These same organisations form a solid core for UK employment and many find themselves with defined-benefit pension schemes as a legacy of all that used to be the hallmark of a good employer. Talk to any finance director working for such an organisation and you will find, particularly in the manufacturing sector, a worried man who is having to juggle cashflow to ensure the company’s very survival and perhaps it will be tomorrow when some event or other occurs and the battle is lost. The pressure is intolerable but, at this level in the organisation, at least there is a grasp of the issues.

This cannot be said for the many who act as pension scheme trustees who, as member trustees, are there mostly as trusted colleagues recognised by the workforce as having the right attitude or communication skills to fulfil that role.

What I do not think we have seen yet in many cases is a full understanding of just how onerous a task they now perform although the scheme’s administrators will have alerted them to the legislative changes they are now subject to. Rather like the difficulties experienced by the FD, the member trus-tee will, in one form or another, be involved with the day to day life of the organisation and will have at the back of their mind their career prospects, let alone those of their colleagues.

For companies in this pension-induced financial situation, there is an unbel-ievable conflict of interest for the trustee brought upon by legislative default and their effective elevation to the role of quasi non-executive direc-tor will heighten these con-flicts. Often, these companies are in the Catch 22 position of being unable to wind up the pension scheme due to costs and at the same time cannot afford to make up the deficit through ongoing additional contributions even though this is the less expensive method. All this is, of course, before the pension scheme levy has been calculated and costs of additional trustee training factored into the budget.

Difficult times are loom-ing for these organisations and they will need every bit of guidance that we and other professions can provide but I suspect that for many, we will see an increase in the unemployment statistics and significant liabilities fall to the PPF. Bureaucracy will have a lot to answer for.

The real triumph for bur-eaucracy must be the “profit” that BT has had to demon-strate under FRS 17 rules from notional returns on the pension deficit and the sub-sequent inflating of the share price. This result is bizarre and, on top of everything else, is not going to encour-age savings one iota.

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