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Pensions funding shortfall stabilises

The funding shortfall faced by the UK's 200 biggest defined benefit pension schemes stabilised during February, figures showed today.

But consultancy firm Aon Consulting warned another round of quantitative easing by the Bank of England could push pension schemes deeper into the red.

The group found the 200 biggest defined benefit schemes, including final salary pensions, collectively faced a funding shortfall of £94 billion at the end of last month, down from £97 billion in January.

The deficit faced by schemes has remained broadly stable for the past four months, although it is still more than double the level it was at in February last year of £44.8 billion.

Marcus Hurd, head of corporate solutions at Aon Consulting, said: "While we are seeing levels of volatility for pension schemes beginning to decrease, there are certainly still dark clouds on the horizon.

"Quantitative easing tends to increase the price of Government bonds and so reduce their yield. This in turn forces up pension scheme liabilities and increases deficits.

"The perverse impact of quantitative easing is that while it should help the economy as a whole to recover, it also increases final salary pension scheme deficits, thereby putting additional pressure on the very companies it is trying to help."

He said many pension schemes that were valued in April last year, just after the initial phase of quantitative easing began, were still struggling to agree contribution levels with their sponsoring company in the light of the inflated deficits they faced at the time.

The group estimates that a 0.5% decrease in the gilt yield, which has been widely quoted as the impact of quantitative easing, adds around £50 billion to the collective funding shortfall faced by the UK's 200 biggest schemes, and around £100 billion to the deficit for all defined benefit schemes.

There is a growing trend for companies to close their defined benefit pension schemes, as they become increasingly expensive to offer due to investment volatility and increased life expectancy.

Recent research from the Association of Consulting Actuaries found nine out of 10 defined benefit schemes had been closed to new members, while 18% had been closed to existing ones as well.

Workers are instead being offered less generous defined contribution schemes, under which their employer only guarantees the amount they will pay into the pension, leaving individuals to shoulder all of the risk.

Meanwhile, the Association of Consulting Actuaries became the latest group to criticise the Government's plans to reduce tax-relief on pensions for people earning more than £130,000, saying it was "seriously flawed".

ACA chairman Keith Barton said: "We understand the desire to raise additional revenues in the current climate and that those on higher incomes must accept they will bear a higher proportion of the tax take.

But, he added: "It seems almost to have been designed to do maximum damage to ongoing pension provision - in direct opposition to the Government's stated policy of encouraging the retention of 'quality' schemes."