U.K. Pension Costs Slowing M&A Activity

December 7, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – A new Watson Wyatt U.K. survey found that 33% of responding companies consider the level of their pension liabilities as an obstacle to going after potential mergers or acquisitions.

A Reuters news story about the survey said latest figure represented nearly a doubling of companies in that predicament over the last 24 months  

The study indicated that the role of pension funding in the U.K. is affected by the fact that employers pursuing a restructuring or merger are required to fully cover liabilities – a rule to prevent employers from walking away from their pension obligations.  Longer life expectancies are also making pension obligations a prevalent factor as companies recalculate their pension liabilities.

“These figures suggest that defined benefit liabilities are an economic problem for UK competitiveness,” the study said.

In other areas, the study found that more than a third of responding employers plan to shutter or at least modify their defined benefit plans.

Watson Wyatt noted that personal accounts — a state plan designed to encourage pension savings among those with little or no savings — will be introduced into the U.K. retirement plan landscape in 2012, and companies will have the option to use the new system or automatically enroll employees in their existing pension funds. Critics of personal accounts have said they would encourage employers to either roll back more generous arrangements or stop them altogether to enroll their staff in the national plan, which only requires employer contributions at 3%, but the survey found only 8% of respondents admitted they would reduce contributions for new or existing members following the introduction of personal accounts.

Six percent said they would increase contributions to differentiate their plan from the new minimum standard, but 71% said they are likely to maintain their contributions.