Black hole in pensions pot to hit wages and dividends

TENS of thousands of Yorkshire workers and shareholders face seeing wages and dividends restricted because of a black hole in pensions of up to £2bn at some of the region's major employers.

Britain's slow recovery from the financial crisis and longer life expectancy have piled huge pressure on private sector pension funds and experts believe it will force company bosses to pour in more cash.

Firms such as Northern Foods, housebuilder Persimmon and chemicals company Croda have all racked up deficits of well over 100m while at Halifax Bank of Scotland the shortfall is more than 800m.

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The picture is hardly less bleak in the public sector, with this region's local authority pension funds facing huge deficits and BBC staff last week voting to strike in a row triggered by the 1.5bn black hole in the corporation's pension scheme.

The deficits are a snapshot in time and all of the firms named can manage them over the course of decades, with many seeing values change as the stock market falls and rises.

But while none are considered to be at risk of collapsing, analysts have warned that private sector employees face seeing more cuts to their retirement schemes as firms struggle to meet liabilities built up over many decades.

"Employers can alter the terms going forward by changing from final salary to career average, or capping people's salary, or they may shut up shop and say you are not building up more benefits," said Laith Khalaf, an advisor at financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown.

"What would be happening to that money if it was not going on the deficit? It would be spread elsewhere."

Wages, shareholder payouts and capital investment could all suffer as they face having to prop up their pension funds, Mr Khalaf added.

"If investment returns are lower then you need to put more cash in (but) the main problem they face is the increase in longevity. That adds hugely to the liabilities of the fund if they underestimate by even one year."

HBOS, taken over by Lloyds at the height of the financial crisis and now part-owned by the taxpayer, has estimated its deficit at 834m while actuaries have put it at 1.147bn. It plans to pour in hundreds of millions of pounds over nearly a decade.

Asda, which is based in Leeds, has seen its pension deficit rise more than tenfold, from 22.08m to 210m, although most of its staff are in a less onerous defined contribution scheme.

Its Bradford-based rival Morrisons has cut its pension deficit from 49m to 17m but only after making a 91m payment to the fund and shifting from a final salary to a career average scheme. Earlier this year it handed new chief executive Dalton Philips a pay and benefits package worth up to 6.1m.

Northern Foods has seen its deficit more than double to 149m. Croda, the East Yorkshire chemicals company, has a deficit of more than 200m, before tax, but finance director Sean Christie said this should be considered against the fact it has a stock market value of 1.8bn.

"There has not been any great change in recent years to make it more or less scary," he said.