UK – The pension fund for publisher is set to complete its recovery plan three years early, after its latest valuation showed an earlier £360m (€400m) deficit had declined by over a third.

According to the Pearson Group Pension Plan’s last triennial valuation, the deficit fell from £365m at the beginning of 2009 to £210m in January 2012.

With net assets valued at £2.2bn in 2012, pp from £1.6bn in 2009, representing a 10 percentage point increase in funding to 91%. The funding improvement was the result of investment outperformance and higher-than-expected inflation, according to actuaries Towers Watson.

In addition, Pearson Group made a one-off payment of £67.8m into the plan in 2010 as a result of selling its global market research provider IDC.

The publishing group also paid in £14.7m when the “cashflow upside” provisions in the previous recovery plan were triggered – providing supplementary payments to be made when Pearson’s cashflow allows without prejudicing its credit rating.

The recovery plan has now been revised to eliminate the deficit by June 2017, instead of 2020.

The pension scheme has agreed with Pearson that the company will pay £40.8m a year into the plan, as well as ongoing employer contributions for future service.

In addition, a payment will be made if Pearson’s annual dividend payments to shareholders increase by more than 5% a year. The cashflow upside arrangement will also continue, with a limit of £15m per year for the combined payments, potentially further accelerating the end date for the recovery plan.

At the beginning of January 2012, the scheme’s investment portfolio comprised 29.4% in fixed interest bonds, 22.6% in index-linked bonds, 28.3% in listed equities, 13.1% in alternatives, and 5.1% in property, with the remainder in cash and net current assets.

In other news, the aggregate deficit of UK defined benefit (DB) funds increased at the end of March, lowering the funding ratio of the Pension Protection Fund’s 7800 index by more than two percentage points.

According to the latest data, funding stood at 82.6%, down from 84.6% a month earlier, with the aggregate deficit rising £35bn to £236.6bn.

Adam Boyes, senior consultant at Towers Watson, not ed that for a “significant minority” of plan sponsors, this increase came at the worst possible time, coinciding with a fund’s triennial valuation date.

“The question now is what to do about it,” he said. “Even where employers can afford to pay a lot more than they have been doing – and many cannot – schemes may have to anticipate remaining underfunded for longer than previously planned.

“For some employers who closed their final salary schemes to new entrants a long time ago, this will be another reason to consider stopping existing members from building up further benefits as well.

Boyes added: “The more it is going to cost them to finance pensions promised in the past, the less money they may have available to pay for new final salary entitlements.”