So even Royal Dutch Shell has decided that the oil business is hard enough, without running a life assurance scheme for employees on the side. There is now not a single company in the FTSE100 index which offers a final salary pension scheme to new employees. This is the unintended consequence of well-meaning governments piling obligations onto the schemes, while moving them up the batting order of corporate creditors.

Thus, in little more than a generation, a system which allowed most businesses to look after long-serving employees in retirement has been destroyed. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially since Shell’s decision is a cold commercial one, rather than a necessary part of a survival plan. Yet we shouldn’t get too upset. The old system never worked as well as its advocates now claim. Long-serving employees become addicted to final-salary schemes, unable to leave because no new employer can afford to match their accrued benefits. In a world where companies’ life expectancy can be less than that of their employees, this makes no sense.

Successive legislation added widows’ benefits, guaranteed increases and other obligations to the schemes. From an informal undertaking to look after retired employees, pensions have moved up the ranks of creditors to become the equivalent of a secured loan of uncertain amount. As a result, cash is diverted to meet the actuarial demands of the scheme, starving the very business which is supposed to be paying the benefits.

Today’s norm, the “defined contribution” scheme, leaves the risk with the employee and the management of the assets with the employer, which is hardly ideal. Still, there’s no situation so dire that government intervention cannot make it worse, and so it is with Nest. This will force every employer to put every employee into a minimum scheme, unless the employee opts out at the start. It will be a criminal offence to encourage him to do so.

Nest will slice 4% off employees’ take-home pay and add the same amount to employers’ bills. This is hardly an encouragement to take on more workers, while the row over public sector pensions has shown that saving 8% a year will not buy a comfortable old age. Besides, those who are decades away from retirement have far more pressing demands, like mortgages and children, on their earnings. So far, only the largest employers, who mostly already have pension schemes running, are in the firing line, but the idea is to dump every business in the land into the Nest. There is still time for the government to see this crackpot scheme for what it is, and shelve it indefinitely. Perhaps Shell’s decision will concentrate a few minds.

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