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Rate of UK defined benefit scheme closure levels off in 2015

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Defined benefit pension schemes in the UK that are still open to new members remained so this year, according to official data, putting a halt to the trend towards closure of the sought-after retirement income plans.

Figures from the tenth edition of The Purple Book, published by The Pensions Regulator (TPR) and the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), show that the percentage of schemes open to new members fell to 13% in 2015 from 43% in 2006.

But the data also showed there had been a “levelling off” of the closure of open DB schemes.

A further 51% of DB schemes are still accruing benefits for existing members in 2015, according to the survey of approximately 6,000 DB pension schemes in the UK.

Andrew Warwick-Thompson, executive director at TPR, said: “After a decade of dramatic decline, the DB landscape has reached a point of relative stability in terms of scheme status and membership.” 

However, he said the impact of new pension “freedoms” would not be seen until the next set of data were published next year, adding that those changes may yet shift the landscape again. 

Andrew McKinnon, CFO at the PPF, said the data showed the UK’s DB pension landscape had seen “seismic shifts” over the past decade and highlighted the need for effective risk management. 

“It is more important than ever that the PPF exists to ensure that members, of schemes that really are unable to pay what they promised, don’t end up without any pension at all,” he said.

Active membership of DB schemes fell by 3.4% in 2015 from the year before, the smallest drop in active members recorded in the Purple Book. 

At the end of March, the aggregate s179 funding position of the schemes was a £244.2bn (€346bn) deficit — the largest s179 deficit at an end-March date since the PPF was set up, according to the set of DB statistics, which the PPF and TPR say provides the fullest view of risks faced by these schemes.

At 84% in 2015, however, the s179 funding ratio had seen lower levels in both 2009 and 2012, according to Purple Book data.

Scheme funding was shown to have deteriorated by a further 1.5 percentage points between the end of March 2015 and the end of September.

This mainly reflects the impact of lower equity markets and Gilt prices on assets, the PPF and TPR said, which they added had more than offset the effect higher Gilt yields have had on liabilities.

Data in the Purple Book is from 31 March and so was gathered before the UK government announced the new “freedoms” granted on pension assets in April.

Mark Paxton, senior bulk annuity consultant at Barnett Waddingham, said the Purple Book data showed that, as schemes matured, they were continuing to de-risk, preferring bonds or more sophisticated investment strategies to equities.

“We expect that many schemes will have aspirations to buy-in or buyout, particularly where they are closed,” he said.

The fall in funding levels revealed by the new official data over 2015 would mean this was a “challenging target”.

“But if schemes are prepared, and ready to transact when an opportunity arises, it is not unachievable,” Paxton said.

He said that, in particular, the availability of medical underwriting and the ability to insure large-pension members – known as “top-slicing” – meant schemes could now manage their risks more affordably.

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