James Moore: Will Mercer still be crowing in 20 years?


Outlook Mercer, the pension consultant, was positively crowing yesterday. The pension buyout market has sparked into life over the last 12 months and guess who's done terribly well out of it?

Yesterday Alliance Unichem (part of Alliance Boots) was apparently insuring its defined benefit obligations with something called the Pension Insurance Corporation Limited with the aid of something called a "pension buy-in deal" brokered by Mercer. That looks suspiciously like the incomprehensible pension-speak favoured by actuaries who love to cloak their work in a veil of mystery so nobody really understands what a bad job they've been doing.

What it actually means is that the company has, theoretically, sought protection from the uncertainties of investment markets and the risks of increasing longevity by buying an insurance policy.

According to Mercer, this is the 19th such deal in the previous 12 months. Mercer has played a major role in most of them.

Each of these transactions are variations on a theme. One thing that unites all of these deals is that they are extraordinarily complex and it is very difficult to assess what sort of benefits they actually provide to pension schemes and their sponsoring companies.

But what is clear is that there are an awful lot of City types involved in offering these "insurance" contracts, the sort of people who tend to be on the winning side of whatever deals they are involved in. The crucial question about the deals that Mercer is crowing about is this: will it still be boasting about its involvement in twenty or thirty years' time?

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