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Vauxhall's pensions challenge and why it couldn't be happening at a worse time

The decision for Vauxhall employees and pensioners is a tough one: Accept some reduction in pension benefits now; or take the risk that there’ll be no company, no jobs and a much reduced pension scheme anyway in a few years’ time.

Put like that – and it will soon be as stark as that – the answer seems obvious.

Secure the future, as best can be done, of the Vauxhall operations at Ellesmere Port and Luton, avoid having the pension fund being off-loaded to the state pension rescue body and live to fight another day.

PSA Peugeot Citroen is no more sentimental about pensions liabilities than any other company, and they will be driving a hard bargain with General Motors and the British government about the terms and conditions of their take-over of GM’s European operations, including those sizeable and important ones in the UK.

Brexit stacks the odds against the Vauxhall workers anyway, so they will have to try that much harder, in terms of being competitive and efficient, than their counterparts in PSA and GM plants in Germany, Spain and France. So, yes, their pensions are vulnerable.

We have seen all this before with the Tata Steel rescue, and the fate of its pensions scheme.

Had the Unilever-Kraft Heinz deal gone ahead there might have been similar concerns there too, sooner or later. It is going to become a more pressing issue, for a number of reasons.

First, even if interest rates are going to edge upwards over the next few years, they will remain near historically low levels. That means that the yield on government bonds that are purchased to fund pensions payments will remain low too; so you need to buy more bonds to deliver a given fixed pensions liability.

When interest rates are as grotesquely low as they have been for almost a decade now, it means that parent companies will have to push more and more money into these funds to make sure they have the income to honour pension obligations (which can go up with inflation even when interest rates are low).

That is the fundamental reason why so many “black holes” have appeared at some of our biggest and best known companies in recent years – BAE Systems, BT, engineer GKN, Barclays, and G4S are all known to have substantial deficits.

To plug those means that current employees have to cope with smaller pay rises than they would otherwise get, dividends reduced or the investment plans for the future of the enterprise have to be cut, or some combination of those, all of which are not good for the future – fewer jobs.

In any case, interest rates are not about to return to “normal” levels soon. If they did, though, much of the agony of the pension crisis would disappear (and some funds might even be over-funded, depending on how conservative their trustees and actuaries have been).

Second, under Brexit, the chances are that corporate consolidation will speed up. If for no other reason, this will be because of the radically devalued pound (which may have further to go down).

When overseas-based companies spy quality assets in the UK they will regard what has happened to sterling as a fine opportunity to pick up a bargain, as with Arm Holdings last year.

They will be less happy about picking up huge pensions liabilities. It’s also the case that Brexit might push other British companies into more financial difficulties if established European export markets become harder to access. Again, companies’ will look to the cost of running old-style pension schemes.

Third, the pressure from wage earners for rewards and pay rises now (rather than a pension for some time way into the future) will become more intense as inflation picks up and living standards in the here and now become squeezed. In other words, unions and employees generally may agree to reform pensions if that can means they can have a pay rise this year. But they’ll pay for it in the decades to come.

So Defined Benefit schemes, and the defined liabilities that go with them, are about the past, and in too many cases they are endangering the futures of otherwise viable and efficient and profitable enterprises – future jobs.

I write as someone with small residual “deferred” pensions in two DB schemes, and, modest as they are, they will make some difference in my retirement, I hope. Can I feel content about having them eroded so that the corporations I once worked for have a brighter future? Not a question I feel comfortable trying to answer, I admit. Like I said about Vauxhall’s workers, deferred pensioners and actual pensioners, this is a tough choice.

The pension crisis is no less urgent than the housing crisis. Like housing, it affects almost everyone. And not just big or even small companies, ether. Lots of charities, trade unions, trade bodies and other organisations have defined benefit schemes and, in some cases, a surprisingly large deficit, one that could send them bust.

That’s because they may have had more employees than you’d think passing through their structures during their long and distinguished history, and far fewer workers, and profits, now. The only exception to all this is, famously, the public sector, where taxes and borrowing provide the funding to meet what are still some extremely generous schemes. There is also, then, a hidden liability that falls upon private sector workers to fund, and which will become more onerous the slower the economy grows.

There is much unfairness around, and especially in the world of pensions.

Thinking about the collapse of Equitable Life, the theft of Mirror group pension funds by Robert Maxwell, and countless mis-sold (ie fraudulent) personal pensions from the 1980s and 1990s , that’s all too clear. No wonder people don’t trust the financial sector.

But why should the private sector’s DB schemes be decimated while those very private sector pensioners face rising tax bills to pay the pensions of often much better off public sector pensioners?

Seeing some poor guy who used to toil on the Vauxhall Victor assembly pay out more tax simply to pay for the next Caribbean cruise of some superannuated hospital consultant, town planner or retired City architect is surely indefensible too? 

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