Failure of BHS a Warning for Everyone in a Pension Scheme - Time for Government Action

12/05/2016 11:55

Sadly, the only thing trendy about the collapsed retailer BHS is the fashionably weak state of its pension provisions, highlighting a growing problem the Government must now address.

Staff in the BHS final salary scheme have had to be bailed out by the Pension Protection Fund, which is financed by everyone in a pension, leaving the rest of us with the vague sense of being played for chumps.

How, we wonder, can the owners of firms ever be allowed to apparently milk millions of pounds in fees and other interesting financial baubles over years whilst allowing a £571 million black hole to emerge in the pension fund which the rest of us must fill? Hopefully, politicians and regulators will get some answers quickly.

Meanwhile, if it remains business as usual, BHS is unlikely to be the last collapse of a well-known brand with the taxpayer left picking up the pieces. A study has estimated that one in six final salary schemes are in danger of failing and will need rescuing over the next 10 years.

There are no particular surprises about what got us into this state. Successive governments have raided pensions and reduced their values, whilst the economic crisis of 2008 accelerated problems. The only thing going up much is life expectancy; and that is hardly a help.

It was always wrong to allow companies to take 'holidays' from making contributions into pension schemes, a change introduced by a Conservative government. But it was also wrong for Gordon Brown, as Labour chancellor, to withdraw dividend tax credits, crucial to providing decent growth, during the 1990s. It was one of his first acts in office and profoundly undermined pubic trust in the sanctity of their savings.

Another major issue in this particular case is the changing shape of shopping. We simply do more of it online. Stores seem to be thriving only as part of an 'omnichannel' world, with click-and-collect a typical nod to where the future lies. The bricks and mortar presence is often no more than a showcase for items eventually bought later over the internet.

But in acknowledging that, it is important not to be distracted by the loss of a tired brand or the changing shape of retail. The more worrying issue is what the ballooning UK pensions deficit means for the health of the wider UK economy, not to mention the prospects for even well-funded pensions invested in vulnerable firms.

Although we have been poorly served by politicians (final salary pensions underwritten by the taxpayer, naturally), they can't be blamed for the internet and our choices about how we shop.

What we need is retailers of vision (at least, looking at a horizon somewhere beyond how the next yacht is to be paid for) to justify their rewards.

Instead, we seem to have a director class that sees only a problem to be deferred or transferred to someone else (the taxpayer) to sort out; and all, of course, whilst leaving their own remuneration intact.

From a practical point of view we also rely on external accountants for warnings. Yet something seems to have gone horribly wrong at BHS, which leaves a troubling question over whether the right information is known - or assessed - about the financial health of businesses. And where were the company's directors whilst the pensions hole was being dug?

But the biggest question before we all get back to our shopping apps is not how to save BHS. It is how to save the many unviable pension schemes out there. We have been warned.