While U.S. hedge fund investor and Sears Canada Inc. shareholder Eddie Lampert suggested in a blog post earlier this month that the shortfall in the company’s pension plan isn’t as bad as originally reported, a new report has found that’s not the case.
A Feb. 18 report by FTI Consulting Inc., the monitor appointed in the Sears Canada restructuring proceedings under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, noted revised estimates putting the defined benefit pension plan shortfall at up to $260 million. The pension shortfall is in addition to $421 million in expected claims related to Sears Canada’s retiree benefits plan.
While the pension shortfall is slightly less than the $267 million deficit reported in an earlier actuarial valuation as of Dec. 31, 2015, the number is higher than the $110 million suggested by Lampert recently. According to Lampert, the $267-million figure included the unfunded post-retirement benefits plan providing life, health and dental insurance to retirees. He also suggested the earlier number didn’t reflect more recent factors, such as a rising discount and returns on the plan’s assets.
“Assuming a reasonable rate of return on its C$1 billion in assets and accounting for the increase in interest rates, Sears Canada should be able to meet its pension obligations,” Lampert wrote on his blog.
Ken Eady, vice-president of the Store and Catalogue Retiree Group, which represents retirees of Sears Canada, begs to differ. “To be kind, I would say he didn’t understand what he was saying,” he says. While there have been suggestions the pension deficit could be lower if a significant number of members take commuted values, Eady says there are many factors to consider and notes it’s challenging to get a firm picture of the plan’s current status. “I’m not sure that any of those numbers are any better than those that came before them,” he says, noting the post-retirement benefit plan obligations are significant.
“The liability there is greater because there are no plan assets,” he adds.
The latest activity around the Sears pension situation comes as issues around the plan have been back in the spotlight and advocacy around retirement security more generally heats up. Last week, a group of Sears pensioners asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to appoint a litigation trustee to review certain actions leading up to the company’s restructuring proceedings in 2017. A key issue of concern has been dividend payments to shareholders several years ago even as worries about the pension plan’s funding status grew. In an interview with the Toronto Star on the weekend, Lampert defended the payments, suggesting investors suggested significant losses from the Sears Canada situation overall.
On Wednesday, CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons) turned up the heat on politicians to act on protecting pensions more generally by holding a day of action. As part of the advocacy efforts, the organization held meetings with Liberal MPs across the country to demand legislative changes to better protect pensions during restructuring proceedings.
In the meantime, Eady says his association is also asking the Ontario government to take action on the Sears pension situation. Its demands include having new improvements to the province’s pension benefits guarantee fund apply retroactively to the Sears plan or having the Ontario government take it over, as it did with the Stelco Inc. restructuring. “I don’t know why they would do that for them and not for us,” says Eady.
A third request is to grant approval to the Sears plan to amalgamate with another pension fund. “We’ve been approached by another pension plan that would be willing to amalgamate with ours,” says Eady, noting the association has yet to receive a response from the government to its requests.
“There are those who would say they have some liability here, too,” he adds, referring to the association’s years of efforts to sound the alarm about the status of the Sears pension plan prior to the chain’s move to liquidate its stores in 2017.
In other news, the monitor’s report this week noted a proposal to set a procedure for pension and retiree benefits claims. For retiree benefits claims related to the health and dental plan, the proposed procedure would consider the replacement cost to obtain replacement coverage, as well as other factors such as life expectancy and inflation.
And in a separate report last week, the monitor raised concerns about the retiree motion to appoint a litigation trustee in the Sears restructuring matter. Among its concerns is a lack of agreement among the many stakeholders, including various creditors, in the Sears restructuring about who the litigation trustee should be and the scope of the mandate.