The words "black hole" and "pensions" are becoming worryingly synonymous. Last week BT announced a £6.3bn deficit in its pension fund, while Royal Mail said it faced a £4.6bn gap. The figures are calculated under a new method, known as FRS17, which is not yet law but starkly illustrates the effect of a three-year bear market on investments.
At least those in final-salary schemes should get a proportion of their final salary on retirement, even if their employer will have to make higher contributions than it originally envisaged. But others aren't so lucky, as more than 40 per cent of companies have closed final-salary schemes in the past 12 months, according to the National Association of Pension Funds. Last year, 19 per cent of companies closed their scheme, a rise from the previous year's 10 per cent. Fewer than one in five employers now offer a final- salary scheme to new staff, so providing for our own retirement is more important than ever. Yet take-up of stakeholder-pension schemes has been disappointing.
Despite all this, the Government has still not appointed a pensions minister more than six weeks after Ian McCartney left the post to become party chairman. Even though the end of the Green Paper consultation process has passed, any new legislation, already long overdue, could well be delayed further. And with the Inland Revenue computer blunder resulting in millions of people finding that they won't get a full state pension when they retire, the need for someone to kick the pensions regime into touch is desperate. One has to ask why it is taking so long to find a new minister. Has the job become a poisoned chalice?
It might be a cynical thought but it seems as though tackling the crisis is going to be such a painful task - and possibly damaging to the Government, particularly if it insists on some form of compulsion - that it is being delayed as long as possible. But as we all know, the longer you put pensions off, whether you are contributing to one or developing legislation to ensure that the next generation is able to retire comfortably, the worse things will get.
While pensions continue to cause concern, one group that will be happy this weekend are those who are in the process of buying a new property or thinking about remortgaging. With swap rates (the rate at which banks lend money to each other) falling again last week, mortgage rates fell accordingly. The result is excellent deals such as Newcastle Building Society's cheap-as-chips five-year fix at 3.95 per cent.
When rates were this low a couple of months ago, they were snapped up in days and lenders increased them within the week. If you want to take advantage of one of these cheap deals - and you'd be mad not to - you'll have to move quickly.Reuse content