Top firms failing to fund pensions adequately

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The Independent Online
MANY OF Britain's top companies are failing to provide enough to cover their pensions liabilities and may face "considerable solvency pressure" over the coming years, a report by Lane Clark & Peacock, the actuarial consultancy, said yesterday.

The worst offenders were AstraZeneca and Vodaphone, whose schemes may require substantial top-ups within the next few years.

The report,which is based on information provided in company accounts, found the vast majority of FTSE 100 companies have failed to increase pension contributions to reflect the abolition of the 20 per cent Advance Corporation Tax dividend credit in the 1997 Budget. They are instead trying to "magic away" the pounds 3bn shortfall by taking more optimistic assumptions about investment returns.

Richard Abramson, the report's author, said: "In general, large company schemes are more thinly funded than they were before the Government changed the rules. What they have done is change the assumptions about the future so that they are more optimistic than they used to be. That has the magical effect of allowing companies to say that although we are going to get 20 per cent less return from equities, we are just as well funded as before."

The risk "is that it leaves them more susceptible to shocks in the future".

Eight companies in the FTSE 100 have funding levels that are less than 100 per cent of liabilities. By far the weakest is AstraZeneca, the drugs giant, whose pension obligations are 88 per cent funded. Vodaphone is 93 per cent funded.

At the other extreme are Lloyds-TSB and BG, which show pension fund credits of over 3 per cent of total profits.

Mr Abramson believes a big cause of the problem is the SSAP 24 accounting standard, which has failed to achieve its objective of forcing companies to come clean on their pension funds.

Seven FTSE 100 companies fell short of these disclosure requirements - BAT, BOC, BT, Carlton, Glaxo-Wellcome, Siebe and United News & Media.