David Prosser: The watchdog with the fiercest bark?


Outlook Wallop. Another warning shot from the Pensions Regulator arrives, urging the trustees of occupational pension schemes to ensure they have contingency plans that could be implemented very quickly should the finances of their companies take a sudden turn for the worse.

It is sensible advice – of course trustees should be thinking about what they would do if their sponsoring employers' futures began to look financially unviable – and given the failures of the past, where employers have gone under leaving their pension schemes underfunded, the watchdog is quite right to give it.

Even so, this is just the latest example of how the relationship between the Pensions Regulator and companies providing final salary pension benefits has become so fraught. The watchdog wants such companies to ensure these promises are well-funded at all times. Companies, particularly during these difficult economic times, resent being told to pump ever more cash into their struggling pension plans.

There have already been collisions. Reader's Digest UK went into administration after the Pension Regulator vetoed the plans of its parent company. Mohamed al-Fayed says he sold Harrods because his pension trustees, spurred on by the watchdog, were giving him such a hard time.

In the end, there can only be one outcome. More and more employers will attempt to limit their exposure to final salary risk. Almost all schemes are now closed to new entrants, but many more will now be shut entirely, with existing members' accrued benefits preserved but all future pension rights switched into non-guaranteed schemes.

However, in the meantime, there may also be collateral damage. If the regulator takes too hard a line, there will be more cases such as Reader's Digest, where people's jobs are put at risk because their employer can't come to an agreement with the Pension Regulator and puts the company into administration. It's a tricky balancing act for the watchdog. Protecting pension benefits is crucial. But so too is preserving employment.

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