FTSE 100 companies are prioritising dividends over pensions. Start-ups already have the solution.
“US . . . and them . . .” wailed Pink Floyd in their seminal album, Dark Side of the Moon. But that was in the 1970s, when an ‘US and Them’ culture permeated the UK. Those days are gone, aren’t they? Unions and management are, on the whole, on the same side, aren’t they?
Those old conflicts seem to have come back into focus with the revelation by Lane Clark and Peacock that FTSE 100 companies operating ‘defined benefit’ pensions are paying out more in dividends than in pension contributions.
Factor in the furore over BHS, Philip Green and the company pension. It’s no surprise that some are trying to relate a story of how nasty capitalists are screwing the glorious workers.
The Guardian focused on this today: It headlined: stop the bosses plundering our savings.
The Guardian piece called for making pension holidays, where companies take a break from paying into a pension, illegal. It also called for companies to guarantee their pension.
Returning to the Lane Clark and Peacock research, it found that of FTSE 100 companies that offer defined pensions, that is to say a pension which offers a guaranteed income in retirement, dividends payments in 2015 tallied £71 billion. But they only paid out £13.3 billion in pension contributions.
Lane Clark and Peacock said that no less than a third of these companies could have wiped out their deficits if they had paid the money that had been handed out to shareholders into their pension.
But there is some irony in this. For pension companies, and thus the private pensions held on behalf of millions of workers, dividends are essential.
It is easy to paint a scenario in which FTSE 100 companies are robbing poor old Peter the lowly worker in order to pay Paul, the wealthy shareholder. To an extent, the reality is that companies are robbing Peter the worker to pay Peter, the investor in a pension fund.
There is another option, of course.
And that is to break the link between the two different personas of Peter. If workers were granted pensions partially in the form of shares in the companies that they work for, then US and Them will be one and the same.
This is a course a familiar concept for start-ups which often use stock options as a way to attract the best talent.
Nonetheless, if we want to create a truly collaborative corporate culture, then worker shareholders may at least be the partial solution.