LONDON (Reuters) - Differences over how to regulate Britain’s new pension superfunds, designed to deal with pension deficits, have delayed the first deals in this area until next year, industry sources say.
The pension superfund structure has been developed by the pensions industry to narrow the huge deficits in Britain’s 2 trillion pound ($2.43 trillion) final salary pension sector.
The pension funding problem is Europe-wide, as people live longer and as years of central bank stimulus actions have depressed interest rates, leading to gaps between the fixed sums the pension schemes pay out and their investment income.
But through superfunds, Britain has come up with a new way for companies to get those pensions off their books.
The superfunds consolidate collective assets from various pension schemes, aiming to benefit from economies of scale and manage the money more efficiently.
The need for a solution is pressing, industry sources say, after high-profile cases of employers underfunding pensions, such as in the collapsed department store chain BHS.
The two major superfund players - the Pension Superfund and Clara-Pensions - were hoping to get their first deals approved by The Pensions Regulator this summer.
The Pensions Regulator issued guidelines on pension superfunds last year and is expected by market participants to become the regulator when formal legislation is introduced.
But the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), which regulates insurers in Britain, is concerned that pensions may come under a less rigorous regulatory regime and also wants a say, the sources said.
“A cross-departmental committee has been established to finalize the oversight regime for consolidators and they expect to announce their conclusions in the autumn,” Antony Barker, managing director of The Pension Superfund, said.
The committee includes the Treasury, representing the PRA, The Pensions Regulator and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Barker said.
Insurers say their model is safer than pension superfunds, as bulk annuities are subject to stringent insurance capital rules. But this makes them more expensive.
The PRA said in a consultation response earlier this year that it was worried about the risk of arbitrage between regulatory regimes and that “the insurance framework provides an appropriate model” for pensions consolidation. A PRA spokeswoman declined to comment further.
A spokesman for The Pensions Regulator said it was “working hard to assess the two emerging superfunds and will have completed this by the end of the year”.
The DWP would continue to work closely with regulators, other government departments and stakeholders to develop proposals, a DWP spokesman said.
Nearly two-thirds of Britain’s 5,000 defined benefit, or final salary, pension schemes are in deficit, putting a burden on companies looking to strike merger deals or restructure debt.
Pension deficits among FTSE 350 companies stretched by more than 6% in July to 51 billion pounds, due to market volatility caused by Brexit uncertainty, consultants Mercer said on Friday.
The British government issued proposals last year on improving the pensions landscape and opened a consultation with industry players and watchdogs on the regulation of the pension superfunds.
It has not yet provided a response to the consultation feedback, which the DWP spokesman said would be published in due course.
In the meantime, the bulk annuities market is growing.
The Rolls Royce (RR.L) UK pension scheme agreed a record 4.6 billion pound deal with Legal & General in June, while British American Tobacco’s (BATS.L) UK pension scheme struck a 3.4 billion pound deal with Pension Insurance Corporation this week.
But many pension schemes find the insurance too expensive. And superfund advocates say that at 20-30 billion pounds a year, the bulk annuity market is only scratching the surface of the problem, risking the viability of more pension schemes.
The Pension Superfund this week agreed a second deal with an unnamed pension scheme with 300 million pounds in liabilities but needs to wait for clarity on the regulatory regime to proceed.
Clara-Pensions said it had had “significant interest” in its model.
“For members of some defined benefit pension schemes, uncertainty is a reality,” said Adam Saron, Clara-Pensions CEO, adding that for employers who could not immediately afford the insurance, “Clara can provide greater certainty”.
Reporting by Carolyn Cohn. Editing by Jane Merriman