I predict more red tape

Incoming regulations on pensions and employment will hamper firms in 2006.

by Patience Wheatcroft, business and City editor of The Time
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now we know the remedies that Lord Turner of Ecchinswell proposes for the ills of Britain's pension system. His hefty report, the result of three years' work, was unveiled at the end of November. It provides ample material from which to start a seasonal look at what 2006 may bring for the business world. For the strong likelihood is that 12 months from now, nothing will have been done towards implementing any of Turner's proposals.

'The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory,' said the Marquess of Halifax. And memory tells us all that reports into the impending problems in the pensions industry are destined to be filed on the shelf marked 'Thanks, but no thanks'.

Even before Turner, the former McKinsey consultant who led the CBI before moving into investment banking, had delivered his report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was showing his disdain. Once it was published, others were quick to take a similar line. There was widespread business opposition to its proposals for compulsory pension contributions from employers, and few employees were enthusiastic about delayed eligibility for the state pension, even if it were a more generous one.

Pensioner poverty is a problem too far off for politicians in power now to see any benefit in tackling if it will not be popular with the average voter.

Some pensions issues, though, cannot be so easily shelved as the Turner report. With companies collapsing and members of their pension schemes facing the loss of their pension entitlement, the Government has launched the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). Firms are likely to be billed about £1 billion to feed the fund in its first year, but here is another prediction for 2006: that money will not be enough and the bill will keep rising.

Along with the PPF, the Government has instituted a new regulatory regime for corporate pensions, and it does not take much imagination to see that this will have big implications in the coming year. Companies with pension funds in deficit will find that their ability to move will be strictly governed by the attitudes of the pension fund trustees and the regulator.

Already, many potential private-equity acquisitions have been abandoned because of problems over the pension fund. In coming months, we'll see firms prevented from making acquisitions or paying dividends because the needs of the pension fund must take priority.

Business will be hampered in other ways, most obviously by the raft of employment rules that continue to pile up on businesses big and small.

Despite the constant promises of this Government - like those that have gone before - to cut back on red tape and regulation, I confidently predict that at the end of 2006 businesses will not be conscious of any lessening of the regulatory burden.

They will also be operating in a less benign economy. I'm tempted to predict that Gordon Brown will break his golden rule, but that would be foolhardy - he is far more likely to change the rules, or their measurement, rather than admit defeat. But as he struggles to fill the gap in his finances left by a slowing economy and the huge increases in public spending, he will turn to business for help. The corporate tax take will continue to grow.

The economies of China and India will continue to surge this year, and I suspect that British companies will edge towards the latter rather than the former. The Indian government is making great strides in opening up its markets, and will move further and faster in 2006. The common language makes India a welcoming market for British companies, and there is much to be said for investing in a democracy.

It has been a dangerous prediction in the past to suggest that Japan has finally emerged from its slump, but that does at last seem to be the case. The Japanese economy should be getting into gear once more this year.

The strength of the US economy should never be underestimated and it could continue to defy the weight of its twin deficits and power ahead.

But a continuation of the war against the financial services sector by New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer is likely.

Back in Britain, 2006 could be the year when quoted companies find that there are simply not enough directors to go round. The rewards for being a non-executive do not compensate for the risks involved, and people of the right calibre will not volunteer.

Some will follow the trend whereby top executives defect from quoted companies to work with private-equity partnerships. But here is a final prediction for 2006. Private-equity deals will start to go wrong. There's too much leverage around: one established private-equity operator was astonished to encounter a deal with nine different levels of debt. There will be defaults, and probably a lot of them. It may be 2007 before the restructuring specialists can enjoy a real bonanza, but it will come.

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