Standard Life’s pension leads charge into bonds

The average FTSE 100 company’s defined benefits pension scheme saw its asset allocation to bonds increase to 61% in the year to December 31, 2015, according to recent research by Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT) Employee Benefits.

Leading the retreat from stocks and into bonds was Edinburgh-based Standard Life’s pension, which increased its holdings of bonds — which are typically debt securities of governments and companies — from 45% to 73%, according to the JLT research.

In its latest quarterly report, JLT said that in monetary terms, the general retreat into bonds equates to a rise of about £20 billion to a record £330 billion in the year to December 31, 2015.

Six years ago, bond allocations typically stood at 50% of these pension funds’ assets.

“Standard Life is the latest company to report a big switch out of equities, with bond allocations increasing by 28%,” said JLT.

It said 62 FTSE 100 companies have more than 50% of pension scheme assets in bonds.

Charles Cowling, director, JLT Employee Benefits, said: “We have seen a number of major British institutions facing significant difficulties with their pension liabilities recently, so this is an important step to take.

“What the FTSE 100 pension schemes need, however, are cash contributions that will feed their current deficits.”

Last month, JLT said the collective deficit of the UK’s private sector defined benefit pension schemes had grown to £294 billion from £262 billion in the past year, with funding levels falling from 83% to 81%.

JLT said 10 FTSE 100 companies have total disclosed pension liabilities greater than their stock market value.

“If there can be some momentum gained via the markets, that does not reverse when interest rates eventually rise, there could be some scope to turn things around,” said Cowling.

“But there is a long way to go before the very significant risks still being run in pension schemes will cease to worry shareholders and pension scheme members.”

JLT said FTSE 100 companies are looking for lower risk investment strategies “at a time when they are struggling to keep up with contributions to plug their pension scheme deficits.”

Despite the total deficit of FTSE 100 companies dropping to £70 billion from £82 billion 12 months ago, contributions have fallen by £600 million in the same period.

JLT said only 29 of FTSE 100 companies are currently disclosing a surplus and 58 continue to report deficits of their DB pensions schemes.

Cowling added: “The option of bond holdings may also be a luxury for a limited number of the FTSE 100.

“JLT’s data shows that it is only the most well-funded pension schemes who have been able to take advantage of a low risk strategy, with the ten best funded schemes holding an average of 80% of bond investments compared to an average of less than 30% held by the worst-funded schemes.

“There remain significant concerns around those who cannot opt for bond-focused investment strategies – and these schemes are often the ones with the most to lose.

“With lower assets to back up a higher-risk, equity strategy, a number of FTSE 100 companies are still gambling in the investment casino, to try to keep on top of their deficit contributions.

“With interest rates at an all-time low and further uncertainty ahead of the EU Referendum, pension schemes continue to represent a material risk to a number of FTSE 100 businesses.

“Ten FTSE 100 companies have total disclosed pension liabilities greater than their equity market value.”