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Courage denies £90m `hole' in pension fund

Courage, the brewer, denied suggestions yesterday that there is a £90m hole in its pension fund, endangering the company's £500m sale to leading bidders Scottish & Newcastle Breweries.

A Courage spokesman said: "This is complete nonsense. I wouldn't take it very seriously."

There was a shortfall in the Courage pension fund, he said, which at the last time of valuation in 1992 was put at £30m. Since then falls in the stockmarket had increased the shortfall. No new figure would be forthcoming until a new valuation was completed in June.

"The shortfall is not causing us problems. Our actuaries have told us there is no need to top up the fund or increase contributions at the moment."

The spokesman also dismissed suggestions that Fosters, Courage's Australian owner, was considering a flotation of the UK brewer. "No final decision has been made, but a float is way down the list of possibilities," he said.

Scottish & Newcastle is heading the pack in the chase for Courage after the latter pulled out of talks with Whitbread last month, according to City sources. There were regulatory problems with Whitbread's link-up with Heineken, the Dutch company that allows Whitbread to brew its lager under licence.

Sources close to Courage say that the company would be a far better geographical and branding fit with S&N than with Whitbread. Courage is strong in the south-east and parts of northern England while S&N is based further north, and has no large lager brand.

The Wyatt company, Courage's own actuaries, are preparing June's valuation. Three other actuaries have been appointed by rival bidders, Bacon & Woodrow, R Watson and William M Mercer. They are producing their own view of the pensions shortfall.

The pension fund is managed by Mercury Asset Management, Newton and Barings.

Fosters's sale of Courage has run into problems since it was mooted last year.

Most seriously, the Office of Fair Trading is investigating wholesale beer pricing.