When the first lockdown was put in place in March last year, it brought a period of uncertainty never seen before. Almost instantly, requests for the suspension of deficit repair contributions (“DRCs”) were received and the Pensions Regulator issued its first Covid-19 guidance to trustees and employers soon after.
The early days and weeks of the first lockdown had an adverse impact on all but a very small number of employers. We saw DRC deferral requests from around 15% of employers in our book of business, across a range of sectors. As restrictions eased many businesses began to recover and certain sectors have even experienced record trading levels. As a result, many employers who deferred DRCs in early to mid-2020 have now caught up or agreed relatively short-term repayment plans.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are employers who continue to experience extremely challenging conditions and the latest lockdown has brought a bleak winter for many. It is clearly evident that sectors such as travel, retail and hospitality have been severely damaged by the impact of Covid-19. However, we are also seeing an acceleration of structural change in other sectors as consumers and businesses adapt to home working and remote operations. Some of these employers are now struggling to recommence payments, let alone put in place a sensible payment plan for catching up on deferred payments. We are seeing a number of situations where already lengthy recovery plans are being stretched even further and there are questions about the ability of the employer to fund the scheme.
The professional trustees at 20-20 Trustees are very commercially minded. We’re supportive and sympathetic to the employer’s challenges, but where we are faced with an employer experiencing financial difficulties, our focus is placed on managing the scheme’s position as a creditor as part of our role in protecting members’ benefits. To do this often requires a change in mind-set from traditional thinking, and having helped schemes and sponsors through tough spots over the years, we have identified a number of critical and practical actions that work well:
– Explore all available options and seek appropriate mitigation for the scheme – covenant support or security over assets.
– Closely monitor the strength of the covenant, ensuring that there is no unnecessary covenant leakage.
– Consider whether all possible government support measures have been considered and utilised by the employer.
– Understand and monitor the position of other creditors – as stated in TPR guidance, equitable treatment should be an absolute priority to ensure it is not just the pension scheme taking the pain and that the scheme’s position is not worsening to the benefit of other creditors.
– Consider and implement the PPF’s contingency planning measures where appropriate.
It is also important to assess and consider whether the scheme’s position might deteriorate over a period of time as a result of scheme drift, in addition to the non-payment of contributions. TPR and the PPF will also be interested in the level of “PPF drift” – how the PPF deficit moves over time. Calculation of drift doesn’t need to be an extensive exercise; we have seen actuarial advisors provide a high-level estimate of whether and by how much the scheme’s position might be worsening – asking the right questions and framing the objective correctly from the outset is key.
At 20-20 Trustees we work with schemes whose employers cover the full spectrum of covenant strength. The importance of having a commercial, collaborative advisor group in circumstances where the employer is facing financial difficulties cannot be underestimated. We think a lot about using our expertise to work thoughtfully with advisors and deliver the most value we can to our clients. These situations can evolve quickly and it is important to us to take all possible steps to manage and protect scheme members as well as the scheme’s creditor position generally, as other creditors will inevitably be trying to do the same.