Now you see it, now you don't. It seems like it happened overnight. One moment literally millions of employees up and down the country could look forward confidently to adequate, in many cases generous, and often very generous pensions and a comfortable old age. The next moment, seemingly within the blink of an eye - or at least in no more than the time it takes for an actuary to redraft his figures - and it has all been stolen from them. Substitute welfare survival for a comfortable old age.
There is no shortage of scapegoats. Step forward first, Robert Maxwell and his ilk for whom pension fund assets represented a treasure ripe for ransack. What he did was blatant embezzlement, an outright criminal act. But it can well be said that, in essence, the end result of what he did was little different from the undoubtedly technically legitimate behaviour of an army of businessmen who secured a transfer of resources from pensioner to shareholder through the expedient of the pension fund 'holiday'. No need for the company to put more money into the pension pot for a while when there was the actuary's assurance that there was already more than enough there to provide pensioners with what they had been promised.
Hardly surprising, then, that someone else should be tempted to cast his greedy eyes in the same direction. Step forward chancellor Gordon Brown, anxious to do the seemingly impossible: raise more tax without breaking the Labour Party's 1997 election pledge not to put up taxes. Harry Houdini would surely have been proud of him. By the simple measure of abolishing the dividend tax credit, which up until then had enabled the so-called gross funds - pension funds and charities - to claw back the tax paid by companies on dividends, he raised a cool £5bn plus a year. Nobody would be hurt, ran the argument, as rising share prices would see all well for pensioners at the end of the day. There would, as it were, be no 'victims' to borrow the standard excuse of the white-collar criminal.No excuse
What is extraordinary, however, is that the man who likes to dub himself 'Mr Prudence' simply failed to foresee that what by now has become a £100bn hole in pension fund resources would not somehow impact on pensions. Or at least that is what we gather from the spin-doctors and other apologists who talk for Mr Brown on matters he would prefer to avoid.
Not 'foreseeing', however, is not going to be a good enough excuse for finance directors and auditors in the future. Not, at least, in the view of our very own David Tweedie and the Accounting Standards Board, who in their wisdom have decided to include crystal ball gazing among the responsibilities of those involved in the preparation of company accounts. For, in case you had not noticed (no excuse),, Retirement Benefits, requires disclosure in company accounts on the sustainability of a final salary pension scheme.
In complying withmuch (arguably everything) will depend on actuarial crystal ball gazing about such matters as forecast wage and salary levels, life expectancy, investment growth, investment returns and similar matters essentially incapable of more than very broad brush prediction - as indeed Gordon Brown has found out. No surprise, then, if turns out in practice to provide very little real comfort to those looking to company accounts for reassurance about their pension prospects.
Here's an interesting fact. At 3.45pm a few weeks ago the black hole in all of the FTSE 100 companies' pensions schemes miraculously vanished when the market went through a certain figure.
Here's another. The bigger the black hole becomes, the more quoted company shares are written down. The more they are written down, the lower their value in the pension schemes that hold them and the bigger the black hole becomes. I know who I'd like to push into it.
Phil Shohet is a director of KATO Consulting.