Savers in their forties and fifties are being “misled” over the safety of their final salary pensions and could suffer a 10 per cent cut to their retirement incomes, a senior official has warned.
In a stark warning, the head of the government’s pensions lifeboat said five in six final salary schemes had fallen into the red and faced a struggle to pay savers a full pension.
Alan Rubenstein, chief executive of the Pensions Protection Fund (PPF), said that many of the 11 million people with a supposedly guaranteed, inflation-linked pension were being led to believe their pension was safe, when “for many that isn’t the case”.
Savers who tried to cash in their final salary pots early, by using the new pension freedoms due in April, face losing up to 40 per cent of the value of the pension they’ve built up, he said.
The comments, in an interview with The Telegraph, represented the most overt warning from a government-backed organsiation since the crisis in the early 2000s when thousands of workers faced the loss of their pensions as companies collapsed with deficits in their schemes.
Mr Rubenstein, whose organisation was set up in the wake of that scandal to rescue final salary plans when they fail, said: “It is misleading to allow people to expect promised pensions when in fact there is only money enough to pay about 60 per cent of those pensions [should they be cashed in today] and where nothing is being done about the shortfall.”
Final salary pensions are typically worth a maximum two-thirds of a worker’s wages on retirement depending on their years of service, with payouts rising with inflation and half going to a spouse on death.
The pensions are more generous than schemes where the size of the pot is linked to the stock market.
George Osborne’s pension freedoms will arrive as the health of final salary pensions is deteriorating dramatically. Around 5,000 pension schemes face a funding shortfall of at least £300 billion, the largest since 2012, figures show. Low interest rates and the fears over Greece’s exit from the eurozone have conspired to increase funding costs for firms that offer final salary pensions.
A customer seeking to transfer their entitlements out so they can cash in the pension would typically get just £6 for every £10 in their name, Mr Rubenstein said, because schemes were so far in deficit.
If the company behind the pension was unable to meet its promises, it would have to be taken over by the protection fund. In such cases, most members are given 90 per cent of their predicted retirement payments each year. Wealthier savers stand to lose more as annual payouts are capped at approximately £30,000.
Those already retired will be protected, leaving those in their forties and fifties, who will claim benefits in future years, most at risk.
It is unclear how many schemes would fail, Mr Rubenstein said, because companies were hiding the scale of the problem.
“We should be having this conversation now, rather than leaving people under the impression they will have a pension as promised,” he said.
Mr Rubenstein added that while pension schemes with large holes in their finances were required to have “recovery plans”, some were unlikely to work, having been stretched over a nine-year period on average. Recovery plans are easily derailed if returns fall below expectations. Many companies were “travelling in hope”, he said.
Stephen Soper, chief executive of The Pensions Regulator, which oversees the funds, said:
“We are prepared to work with [struggling schemes] to try to deliver a solution that balances the interests of the members, PPF and employer.”
Many final salary schemes have closed as a result of long-term funding problems, with just 8 per cent open to new members, according to the National Association of Pension Funds.
The gap between the money held in such schemes and the pensions they have pledged to pay is widening dramatically.
While such pensions hold £1,200bn of investments, the most conservative valuation of their pension promises is closer to £1,500bn. This £300bn gulf has grown from almost nothing in just 12 months (see graph, below).
The shortfall highlighted in this data, however, is not the real extent of the gap. The £300bn figure is based of the reduced pensions that workers would be paid if their scheme collapsed and had to be taken over by the PPF.
In broad terms, if your scheme fails – in most cases because your current or former employer goes bust – the PPF will step in, paying 90pc of promised pensions up to an annual cap of £30,000. For most workers the cap is high enough to mean they receive 90pc of their promised income. But for higher earners, with big pension entitlements, the cap can inflict a brutal loss of retirement income (see repot, below).
The gap between pension schemes’ investments and the value of actual promises made to pensioners is therefore far higher than the £300bn that would deliver the PPF level of payouts. One independent estimate, by Citigroup, put the real gap at £850bn.
Even figures from the Pensions Regulator, the body charged with monitoring schemes’ solvency, suggest that if schemes had to pay all their pensions as promised today, they would be 45pc short.
It is possible that shortfalls could shrink in time if investment returns grew and companies contributed more. Mr Rubenstein said: “You shouldn’t be scared by one month’s numbers. But companies need realistic recovery plans. Many are on life support at the moment, kept alive by cheap loans.”
Actuary Henry Tapper, of consultant First Actuarial, said: “There is no silver bullet. There is no obvious factor that will induce growth. The only guarantee is what the PPF would pay if it had to take over your pension.”
The PPF expects to bail out twice the value of pensions in the coming year as in the previous one. This increase is not due to a rise in insolvencies, but to the growth of the shortfalls in the funds that fail.
Pilot’s pension cut from £47,000 to £26,500
The Pension Protection Fund, the lifeboat scheme for savers in stricken salary-linked pensions schemes, is able to guarantee most people 90pc of their promised pension.
But for bigger pensions the scheme has a cap. The most you can receive is £36,000 per year – less if you retire before you are 65.
The pension scheme of Monarch Airlines is currently being taken over by the PPF following a restructuring of the company. There was not enough money in the fund to meet all the pension promises made in earlier years. While most staff’s pension will fall below the cap, meaning they will get 90pc of their entitlements, some high-earning pilots will see drastic cuts.
One Monarch pilot, 51, who did not want to be named, planned to use his generous promised pension of £47,000 per year to help his children and pay off his mortgage. But he and his wife have been forced to rethink their plans because under the PPF they will get a maximum of £26,500. “I’m still in a state of shock,” he said. “It’s like a grieving process. There’s this sense of injustice. My pension is something I’ve paid into over the years and it’s something I was promised. I was paying around £1,000 a month from my salary, excluding the company contribution, and I’ve always regarded my pension as deferred pay. It wouldn’t be so bad if I was in a position to do something about it, but for me the time available is short.”
See The Telegraph for original article.