Thursday 21 September 2017

'Hundreds more pension schemes will close down'

Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Damien Eagers
Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Damien Eagers
Charlie Weston

Charlie Weston

Pensions experts have warned that hundreds more company schemes are set to shut, due to low interest rates and regulatory rules.

They said the rules were creating a false sense that schemes were in more trouble than they were already in.

This will likely to lead to a situation where employers will choose to invest in their business, rather than pumping money into defined benefit schemes with big deficits, according to Gerry Moriarty, of the Irish Association of Pension Funds, a body that represents pension savers.

Some 750 defined benefit schemes have been shut down in the past 10 years alone. This represents six out of 10 of these plans, which were prevalent in larger companies and semi-states, according to figures from regulator, the Pensions Authority.

There are some 600,000 people with defined benefit pensions, which promise to pay a set level of retirement income based on final salary and years of service.

But a funding crisis for schemes in the private sector means the deficits in them have more than doubled to €7bn, raising questions about whether more of them will reduce pension benefits, or close.

Private sector pension funds are already reeling from a Government levy that took €2.4bn from them. The levy is not charged an more - but because of the way it was imposed it is still impacting the pensions of thousands of people.

Mr Moriarty said that along with large numbers of private sector company schemes closing, many have cut what they pay out in retirement.

Most now pay half of final salary for someone with full service, down from two-thirds of full salary.

"A lot of schemes will close. We have an artificial situation due to bond yields and regulatory rules," Mr Moriarty said.

He said that the liabilities have shot up. The liabilities reflect what a defined benefit scheme would have to pay out if they closed today.

The liabilities have jumped because bond yields, or interest paid on bonds, have gone down. A pension fund that closes down uses its funds to buy bonds to pay pensions, but low bond yields mean it takes more money to buy a set level of pension.

Mr Moriarty said this was a false situation. "Most schemes will not close tomorrow and go out and buy an annuity to pay pensions at a time when annuities are more expensive than ever. A pension fund has 30-year life span," he said.

Irish Brokers' Association chief executive Ciarán Phelan said that if the same solvency rules were applied to the pensions of politicians and public service employees it would be a more honest assessment of the true cost to the taxpayer of these gold-plated pension.

"In the private sector these rules are seeing the vast majority of DB schemes closing and employee benefits as a result being reduced. It is unfair that one sector of society has to abide by a certain set of rules when it comes to pension planning and those who set the rules for the rest of us don't."

A spokesman for the Pensions Authority denied its rules were pushing up the deficits in pension schemes.

Pension Minister Leo Varadkar's spokesman said the situation of defined benefit funding is being monitored by the department and the Pensions Authority.

Irish Independent

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