The explosion in company pension fund shortfalls in Britain nicely illustrates issues which will dominate economics and investment in coming years: the re-pricing of risk, a disillusionment with equity markets, and the boom in savings these shortfalls will help to drive.
Under current accounting rules, the pension funds of companies in Britain’s FTSE 100 index are together 96 billion pounds ($170 billion) underfunded, more than double the deficit of a year ago and an all-time record, according to a report from pension fund consultants Lane, Clark & Peacock.
This is partly for the very positive reason that people are living longer but principally because of the dire performance of financial markets, especially equities, over the past year.
To make matters worse, the surge in corporate bond spreads, which are used to calculate the current value of pension plans’ future liabilities to retirees, has actually minimised how underfunded British pension plans look when accounting measures are applied. Minimised how underfunded they look, but not how underfunded they are.