Press release

1 Feb 2021 London, GB

One in ten listed UK companies with a defined benefit pension scheme issued a third consecutive profit warning in 2020, indicating likely increase in insolvencies

One in ten listed UK companies with a defined benefit pension scheme issued a third consecutive profit warning in 2020, indicating likely increase in insolvencies

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Related topics Financial Services
  • Nearly two thirds (62%) of listed companies with defined benefits (DB) schemes issued a profit warning in 2020, with 10% issuing three within a 12-month window - a danger sign that can precede insolvency 
  • Of the 249 profit warnings issued, 90% were COVID-19 related  
  • 22 profit warnings were issued by listed DB scheme sponsors in the last quarter (Q4 2020)

LONDON, MONDAY 1st FEBRUARY 2021: Nearly two-thirds (62%) of listed defined benefit (DB) pension scheme sponsors issued 249 profit warnings in 2020, constituting 43% of the total 583 UK profit warnings issued during the period, according to the latest EY quarterly analysis of profit warnings. Ten per cent of the firms warning issued their third consecutive profit warning in 2020, which is often a precursor to insolvency.  

The number of profit warnings issued by all UK quoted companies in 2020 reached a new annual high (583), with more expected due to continued market uncertainty and lockdown restrictions. Of the total number of UK-registered listed companies (1,198), 23% (280) have a DB scheme, and most are concentrated in more traditional industries that are particularly vulnerable to the economic impact of the pandemic. Thirty-five per cent of all listed companies warned in the first three quarters of 2020, versus 62% of the total of listed companies that have a pension scheme. Ninety per cent of profit warnings issued by listed DB sponsors in 2020 were COVID-19 related. 

10% of FTSE firms with DB schemes issued three warnings in a row over 12 months

There was a surge in 2020 in the number of UK listed companies issuing three or more profit warnings within a 12-month period. According to EY analysis, typically up to one in five companies that issue three warnings within 12 months will enter Administration within the following year.

Twenty-seven UK listed companies with DB schemes issued at least their third profit warning last year, representing 10% of all such listed UK companies, including 15 companies in the FTSE 350. When comparing this to the entire FTSE (including those without a pension scheme attached), it is double: 62 out of 1,198 UK listed companies issued their third warning in a 12-month period in 2020, representing 5% of all listed firms.  

Sectors under pressure include large number of firms with DB schemes 

Profit warnings issued by DB sponsors in 2020 were concentrated in industrial and consumer discretionary sectors, which reflects increased pressure on sponsors in these industries. The five FTSE sectors with the highest number of warnings were: Travel and Leisure (30), Industrial Support Services (23), Construction and Materials (19), Retailers (18) and Household Goods and Home Construction (14). 

Listed companies with a pension scheme can be found in all but six of the FTSE sectors; 57% sit within Industrial and Consumer Discretionary FTSE sectors (those listed above), which account for 36% of all warnings across the total listed market. These sectors tend to issue the most profit warnings, which has been acutely the case during COVID-19.

Gareth Mee, UK Actuarial Leader at EY, comments: 

“The market pressures of 2020 were no small feat to overcome, and given how 2021 has started, the outlook isn’t likely to improve in the short term. All businesses have been challenged by the pandemic, but those with defined benefit pension obligations sit disproportionately in the sectors which are struggling most. Corporates and trustees alike are working hard to maintain business as usual, while ensuring pension obligations to members are fulfilled. But with volatility persisting, and the pressures across many schemes’ investment portfolios increasing, the outlook is concerning, making the case for an urgent relook at pension scheme de-risking and strategic planning for an increasingly uncertain future.” 

Karina Brookes, UK Pensions Covenant Advisory Leader at EY, comments: 

“Scheme sponsors continue to face significant market challenges, with cash conservation and re-financing efforts remaining high on the agenda. For companies with DB schemes attached, the current pressures on cash flows are exacerbated by the additional need to fulfil pension promises. Many sponsors need flexibility to manage the longer-term consequences of disruption and extended economic uncertainty. Trustees faced with weakened sponsors need to ensure that the security of members’ benefits is protected during restructuring, refinancing and reshaping, and that the scheme is treated equitably with other stakeholders through the subsequent recovery period. Evaluating financial resilience and employer covenant longevity will be particularly critical here. Developing solutions with the right balance requires collaboration and transparency, but ultimately will ensure that pensions remain rightly high on the list of Board priorities.”

Notes to Editors

  • EY has been conducting profit warnings research and analysis since 1999
  • The latest EY Profit Warnings analysis can be found here