How safe is your pension?

Think your final-salary pension is safe? You might have to think again, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Think your final-salary pension is safe? You might have to think again. A paper from the Pensions Institute suggests that around 1,000 of the 6,000 UK private-sector pension schemes offering defined benefit pensions (the ones that pay you a percentage of your final salary, inflation-linked for life) are "highly unlikely" to be able to pay out all they owe in full. That's because they have a combined pension deficit of £45bn that they will never be able to make up. The situation is so bad, says the Pensions Institute, that radical measures are needed: they want pension schemes in trouble to be able to restrict members' benefits even if their pensions are already in payment. Doesn't sound good, does it?

What's gone wrong with these schemes? And who should you blame? The answer looks complicated at first glance. First, Gordon Brown removed the pension fund dividend tax credit, which cut the total return to any money the funds had invested. Secondly, companies took holidays from paying into their funds when stockmarkets were booming, and they looked fully funded. That looks stupid now, but probably seemed perfectly justified then. Third, life expectancy has risen much faster than trustees expected so the schemes have to pay out on average for way longer than they intended. And fourth, in a desperate effort to cut their investment risks, pension funds have dumped equities and poured into bonds, the yield on which has completely collapsed. But the answer isn't really as complicated as it looks. The last point is the one that matters the one that is overwhelming these funds. The lower the projected yield is on a fund, the more cashit needs to meet its future obligations.

The lower interest rates go, the bigger pension fund deficits get. And right now interest rates are ludicrously (and clearly damagingly) low. That brings us back to who we might blame. How about the people who set super low interest rates in the first place?

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You hear a lot about how low interest rates and the quantitative easing (QE) that pushed bond yields down so much saved the West in the wake of the financial crisis. You don't hear so much about how the extreme policies of our central banks played a major part in causing the financial crisis in the first place; about how they have driven an insane mis-allocation of capital since; about how they make cash savings pointless; drive bubbles; induce asset price volatility (as we all frantically try to second-guess what they might do and get it wrong); and generally make the world a rather more confusing place than it could be. You probably should. Either way, if you get an unexpected call from your pension provider in 2016 saying that the payments you thought were guaranteed for life are about to be cut, you will know who to blame the unelected officials running our monetary policy.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.