Carillion’s collapse could highlight a much wider problem for UK pensions

  • Carillion's pension savers will see a minimum of a 10 percent drop in their retirement income
  • More broadly, the collapse of the firm should be a "wake-up call" for every U.K. pension saver, according to a financial consultancy
  • McPhail said that big insolvencies had raised awareness to the problem and more is now being done to protect future pensions
A construction crane showing the branding of British construction company Carillion is photographed on a building site in central London on January 14, 2018, with the skyline of the British capital in the background including the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.
DANIEL SORABJI | AFP | Getty Images
A construction crane showing the branding of British construction company Carillion is photographed on a building site in central London on January 14, 2018, with the skyline of the British capital in the background including the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.

Carillion's pension savers will see a minimum of a 10 percent drop in their retirement income, but more broadly, the collapse of the firm should be a "wake-up call" for every U.K. pension saver, according to a financial consultancy.

"The collapse of Carillion further underscores the colossal black hole in many defined benefit pension schemes. For instance, the combined deficit of the FTSE 350 firms has now reached 70 percent of their profits," Nigel Green, the chief executive and founder of deVere Group, told in CNBC via email. A defined pension scheme in the U.K., also known as a "final salary" pension, normally depends on an employee's length of service and their earnings at retirement.

The British multinational firm Carillion, which focuses on government contracts, entered into compulsory liquidation on Monday after its creditors refused to lend more money to the debt-laden firm. Shares of Carillion stopped trading as a result and its biggest creditors, including HSBC and RBS, traded lower on the news.

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

Staff pensions schemes at Carillion are set to take a hit, but Green believes that the liquidation "should trigger alarm bells for pension savers across the U.K." as it puts a huge question mark over the fate of yet another major pension fund. He told CNBC that the funding gap for pensions has become deeper, which increases the chances that more and more people will not be able to receive their retirement benefits in full.

Carillion reportedly has roughly £1.5 billion ($2 billion) of debt, including a £580 million ($798 million) pension deficit.

Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at Hargreaves Lansdown, told CNBC Tuesday that the aggregated deficit on U.K. pension schemes at the moment is around £80 billion ($109.96 billion). He highlighted however that it had been as high as £400 billion ($549.81) a couple of years ago.

"The deficits have swung quite a lot over the last few years, driven largely by interest rates, so low interest rates drive up the liabilities, which increase deficits. They are not as bad today as they were a couple of years ago, but around five out of six of the final salary, these defined benefits pension schemes in the U.K., are currently in deficit," he said.

As a result of the collapse of Carillion, the company's employees will now get their pension savings from the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) — a government supported fund that provides compensation to employees of insolvent firms. But according to Green, "it can be reasonably expected that those members who are not yet drawing their Carillion pension could now experience a drop of at least 10 percent to their retirement income."

He added in a research note Monday that there's a wider problem in the country after similar issues for firms like British retailer BHS and Tata Steel. Some workers saw their pension funds rescued by the PPF but without being given any other alternative.

"Whilst the PPF is an invaluable and necessary resource as it offers a buffer and layer of protection for members, there is, however, a maximum that any support of this nature can sustain in the longer-term. How many more major collapses could it take," Green said in the note.

BHS collapsed in April of 2016 with a deficit of £571 million ($ 786 million). It was put into liquidation at the end of 2016 after the Pension Protection Fund said that this would be best outcome for the failed pensions. More recently, the British airline Monarch also collapsed and Toys R Us was saved from falling into administration in 2017 after a deal with the PPF.

McPhail added these insolvencies had raised awareness to the problem and more is now being done to protect future pensions.

"There's pretty robust regulation and it is being strengthened at the moment, so more pressure is being put on trustees and on the governance of these schemes to scrutinize the management of the schemes effectively. But it's not in a bad place at the moment and most of these schemes have in place deficit reduction programs," he said.