Investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein says the combined pension deficit of Europe’s largest 300 companies has fallen 6% to e214bn.
“During 2004, we estimate pension assets rose by e54bn,” DrKW European and UK equity strategist Karen Olney says in a research note. “But liabilities, too, rose by e40bn, leaving the end 2004 net deficit at e214bn.” The estimate is 6% lower than the actual deficit of e227bn recorded at the end of 2003.
“A fall of only 6% is truly disappointing,” Olney writes.
“Pension deficits are a moving feast as markets oscillate, mortality rates change and companies make some one-off contributions.”
Olney calculated the estimated deficit by taking total pension assets and liabilities from company annual reports and updating them to take account of market movements and discount rates. “Our results are purely indicative in nature and highlight that this issue is still very much alive.
“Pension contributions have gone up by 60% (as last reported) so management has been making an honest effort. Unfortunately lower bond yields and worsening mortality rates means the reported 2003 deficit remained at e227bn.”
Olney states that two years of strong markets and increased contributions have seen pension deficits fall by about a quarter. “However, if markets continue to trade sideways, the deficit could be around for a while,” she says.
“We expect a world of lower numbers, namely the ice-age to continue.”
The note also warns that new accounting standards could lead to larger pension liabilities and lower
corporate dividends.
Olnet notes that that under the new
IAS19 standard the income statement gets a positive boost from the return on asset assumption which is multiplied by the pension assets – as well as a boost from lower interest payments.
She says: “The impact on this year’s income statement could be positive, but the lower discount rate means a fatter liability.”
And the research points out that dividends could be frustrated if those responsible for paying a dividend suffers a hit to the balance sheet.