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Asda clears way to float with £4bn pension deal

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Asda has its headquarters in Leeds. Pic: Asda

The American owner of Asda struck a deal to transfer almost £ 4 billion of pension liabilities from the UK supermarket chain, removing an obstacle to an independent stock market listing.

Sky News has learned that Walmart and Asda managers have agreed to buy a £ 3.8 billion pension from Rothesay Life, an insurer specializing in corporate retirement plans.

The deal, which will be among the largest ever agreed with a British company, is due to be announced by the end of the week, and possibly by Thursday night.

Image:
A checkout from Asda

A source close to Asda said the deal with Rothesay represented another step toward the split of the supermarket chain following its failed attempt to merge with rival J Sainsbury.

Under the agreement, Rothesay will assume responsibility for paying retirement benefits to approximately 12,000 Asda Group Pension Plan members.

One source said Asda is likely to make a one-off payment under the £ 1 billion scheme, with full purchase of the plan as a long-term goal.

The announcement comes amid a blizzard of deals involving the insurance company, with National Grid and Telent announcing pension risk transfer transactions with Rothesay in recent weeks.

The private group now manages over £ 50 billion in assets.

The deal with Asda will be significant because it removes one of the financial uncertainties on its balance sheet as it prepares for legal investors to support a separate listing in London.

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Roger Burnley, Asda's chief executive, said over the summer that Walmart was "willing" to pursue an initial public offering and would probably take two to three years.

A private equity-led acquisition of Asda, which was bought by Walmart in 1999 and employs 150,000 people, also remains a possibility.

A supermarket demerger, which positions itself as a low-priced commodity supplier every day, will occur during a period of intense competition in the industry.

German shops Aldi and Lidl have been consuming the traditional Asda market for several years.

Asda's pension purchase agreement comes at a time of tension over the company's approach to new employment contracts, with thousands of employees facing layoffs next month unless they agree to sign them.

Asda and Rothesay declined to comment.

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