Brexit uncertainty may hit university pensions

Market shocks caused by Brexit vote may have implications for sector’s largest pension scheme

July 4, 2016
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Gloomy forecast: if the USS does not clear its deficit, it may potentially trigger new changes to benefits or contributions to ensure that the USS can cover its pension commitments

Brexit is likely to have worsened the £8.3 billion deficit in the university sector’s main pension fund, renewing fears about potential further increases in contributions from employers and employees.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, which has about £49 billion in assets, has declined to say how its financial position had been hit by the post-Brexit market crash, stating that its long-term investment strategy allows it to “ride out” dips caused by potentially short-term market shocks.

However, like other defined benefit (DB) pension providers, USS is likely to have suffered significantly in the short term, experts believe. The topic was discussed by vice-chancellors at a Universities UK board meeting held immediately after the emergence of the referendum result, Times Higher Education understands.

The combined deficit of UK DB schemes rose by £80 billion to £900 billion overnight on 24 June as gilt yields fell to an all-time low, according to financial consultancy Hymans Robertson. A similar 10 per cent surge in the USS’ deficit would add another £800 million to its deficit.

“Pensions schemes were already in significant deficit and that has only got worse,” said John Ralfe, an independent pensions adviser, who estimated that the USS’ deficit will have increased in line with other schemes.

The bleaker financial outlook for the USS would deepen concerns over whether recent changes would be enough to plug the gaping hole in the fund’s finances, said Mr Ralfe.

That gap was estimated at £8.3 billion on 31 March 2015, even when savings from this spring’s reforms are considered, according to the latest USS accounts.

“It is not clear how USS thinks employer deficit contributions of just 2.1 per cent of salary will be enough to clear the multibillion deficit by 2031, as agreed at the last valuation,” Mr Ralfe said.

If the USS does not clear its deficit, it may potentially trigger new changes to benefits or contributions to ensure that the USS is able to cover all its pension promises to its 323,000 members, he added.

Many of the scheme’s largest investments are likely to have taken a substantial hit from the market shock after the referendum result.

One of its major stock market investments is in BT, where it held £181.3 million in shares, as of 16 June. The company’s share price fell 10 per cent in the two days after the referendum amid fears that the UK’s economy will shrink post-Brexit.

Other large investments include Lloyds Bank (£140.5 million), whose stock plunged about 30 per cent in the two days after the referendum, and Barclays (£105.9 million), whose share price was down about 30 per cent over the two days.

However, the stock market did rebound to some extent after the immediate post-referendum slump.

Some 6 per cent of USS assets are also held in property, which has performed strongly in recent years, but is expected to dip in light of the referendum shake-up.

And some of the USS’ high-profile bets on infrastructure also face more uncertainty, including the third runway at Heathrow Airport, where the USS holds a 10 per cent stake.

A USS spokeswoman said it had faced “significant market turbulence”, but it was a “long-term investor, globally diversified and backed by a substantial covenant from the higher education sector”.

This enabled it to “ride out troughs due to market dislocations, which may be short term in nature”, she said.

“We will monitor political and market developments closely, but don't expect to make any fundamental changes in the immediate post-referendum period,” the spokeswoman added.

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Reader's comments (1)

Mark Carney did his level best to talk the country down before and after the referendum. His predecessor has roundly criticised his handling of matters. The question is why is Mark Carney still in place.

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