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U.K. Pension Watchdog Prepares to Bite

The Pensions Regulator has announced plans to crack down on companies who prioritize investor dividends over repairing scheme deficits.

  • Joe McGrath

The U.K.’s Pensions Regulator plans to crack down on companies failing to repair deficits in their employees’ defined benefit schemes, Chief Executive Lesley Titcomb said Thursday in Manchester.

Addressing delegates at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association’s conference, Titcomb said the organization will be increasingly exercising its “full suite of regulatory powers” to shore up DB schemes in coming months.

The warning comes two months after a survey by investment consultant JLT found funding for FTSE 100 company DB schemes deteriorated by £17 billion ($22.4 billion) in 2016.

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The Pensions Regulator has not been as tough as it should be with schemes and their sponsors, according to Titcomb and, she said, the country’s pensions industry. “For many years our regulatory approach has been to educate, enable, and enforce. What we are hearing from our regulator community is that they expect us to be tougher on those who do not comply. So, we are becoming tougher.”

The organization will be “intervening more quickly and earlier in the process,” and using some of its enforcement powers for the very first time, she said, particularly when companies prioritize dividend payments to investors over contributions to their underfunded pension schemes.

“We acknowledge that there are many demands on employers’ cash. But affordable means different things to different employers. As the regulator, we think that if an employer can pay into schemes to reduce deficits, we think that they should,” Titcomb told PLSA attendees. “Many schemes should do more to tackle their deficit and reduce the risk to their members and to the Pension Protection Fund.”

The Pension Protection Fund is the U.K.’s backstop for companies in financial stress that can no longer fulfill their pension obligations. The lifeboat fund has been in the spotlight over the past two weeks after British airline Monarch collapsed into administration for insolvency, triggering questions from the government Work and Pensions Committee as to whether the PPF would lose out on an arrangement made with Monarch prior to its collapse.

The Pensions Regulator is able to force a company to increase scheduled pension contributions if it deems the company is treating the scheme unfairly. According to the agency’s most recent enforcement bulletin, it fined pension schemes 98 times between April 2014 and June 2017 for failing to supply their regular financial returns.