Barbara Judge, Chairman of the U.K.'s Institute of Directors and former head of Britain's Pensions Protection Fund, has reiterated earlier calls for government action in order to prevent a recurrence of the British Home Stores (BHS) collapse that made headlines in April.
Judge said that regulators need the authority to block M&A transactions that put retirement savers at risk, highlighting last year's sale of BHS - just prior to its collapse - as an example of a situation where a deal should have been blocked. She also called for the Pension Regulator to be more proactive in assessing risks to savers at struggling companies and for stronger corporate governance standards among trustees.
"The sad demise of BHS reflects well on nobody ... it is now clear that the time has come to move on from the media firestorm, and to look at constructive and useful ways in which we can apply the lessons learned in the aftermath," Judge concluded in a report obtained by TheStreet Monday.
BHS, which once had sales in excess of $1 billion, was sold for just £1 to Retail Acquisitions Ltd in March 2015. The buyer pledged at the time to turnaround the struggling firm but it has since been alleged that the investor who led the firm lacked the retail and financial experience to run such a business.
BHS collapsed into administration in April 2016, little more than a year after its supposed rescue, leaving a £571 million ($641 million) pension deficit in its wake.
The pension deficit first appeared on the firm's books in 2006 and had been growing steadily ever since, but in the aftermath of the BHS insolvency, the scheme has fallen into the hands of the Pension Protection Fund - Britain's pension equivalent of the banking industry's depositor protection scheme.
Judge has also criticized the Pension Regulator for failing to spot the risk of insolvency at BHS and for not monitoring the firm more closely, but acknowledges it needs its teeth sharpened by government.
"It is time to give the Pensions Regulator a binding veto over merger and acquisition activity, in firms of a certain size, where a sale does not come complete with a clear and obvious statement of how any pension fund deficit will be met in the future," Judge said.
Monday's report is not the first time that Judge has called for reform of the way that pension deficits are treated before, during and after mergers. But the repeated call is poignant given that June's Brexit vote has forced U.K. interest rates to new record lows, exacerbating the crisis that pension fund managers were already facing.
Tata Steel (TATLY) is currently attempting to sell its U.K. operations, formerly British Steel. The operations were losing close to £1 million per day at the last count but buying them will likely entail taking on a £700 million pension deficit.
Moreover, in October Tesco (TSCDY) , one of the world's largest retailers and Britain's largest employer, reported that its pension deficit doubled during the six months to August 31.
The deficit at the Tesco rose by £3.2 billion to £ 5.9 billion during the period. But the grocery retailer is far from being alone when it comes to battling unfunded liabilities.
In August, London's most celebrated fund manager Neil Woodford sold his stake in British weapons manufacturer BAE Systems Plc (BAESY) , saying that management now face a choice between investing for growth and balancing the assets and liabilities within its retirement scheme.
This is while consultants at PWC noted in August that the combined pension deficit of British firms now stands at almost £710 billion.