Group of pins

Two women were fighting on my train the other morning. It was a packed train, with people standing the length of the carriage, so I didn’t see it so much as hear it. The first woman felt she had been pushed by the other one and complained very loudly and with much swearing. The second woman made some comment about the first woman’s mother and it escalated from there, getting louder and louder. Neither was prepared to let the other have the last word and, seeing the impact the mother comment had had, the second woman used it again. At which point the first woman hit her. The other passengers had been sitting and standing grim-faced up until this point, but now one or two intervened. One, who had the bearing of a lay preacher, attempted to assume sufficient authority to stop the argument. He was ignored. Another one stood and put the second woman in his seat and stood between them.

The second woman continued to make comments, but as much to herself as to the first woman. She kept stamping her feet in frustration. She was clearly in unbearable discomfort, but not from any physical pain. Finally she called the police and, as we pulled into New Street Station, started to give a physical description of her assailant. “Everyone on the train saw it” she said several times, while the passengers around her stared in any direction but hers.

I don’t know what happened next in the lives of these two women, although an announcement was made a couple of days later on the same service that police were working their way through the train for witness statements about the incident. They never appeared in my carriage, and I am not sure what I would have said if they had. And I don’t know what your reaction to my story is – whether that the other passengers, including me, should have acted differently or some commentary on the behaviour of the two women. I am, however, reasonably confident that you will have a reaction, perhaps quite a strong one, despite my limitations as a narrator. The reason I am confident about this is that I found myself, involuntarily, completely absorbed in the dispute, upset when one of the women expressed upset, constructing back stories for each of them, questioning their strategic wisdom at various points and, by the time we arrived at New Street Station and I dispersed with all the other witnesses, emotionally drained. And a look at the faces around the carriage suggested to me that most of my fellow passengers reacted similarly.

Why am I telling you this? Because it is a clear example of our domesticated brains in action. The almost physical pain this argument caused me and most of my fellow passengers is the reason we can travel from Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham every day with rarely an incident. It is often referred to these days, in pejorative terms, as Group Think. The shared assumptions and behaviours which allow us to live alongside each other in peace. I then get on a second train each day from Birmingham to Leicester, which I tell everyone is a great train to work on. But this is only because I can trust the 80 or so other passengers not to start an argument. The police could not cope if everyone behaved like the two women in my story. When the police do make an appeal for witnesses, they do so secure in the knowledge that nothing they say or do will encourage more than a handful to come forward, so strong is our group instinct to stay out of each other’s lives if we can. It is not indifference but survival. You need very strong structures to counteract the very strong instinct for Group Think.

However the reason Group Think is used pejoratively is that we have had vivid demonstrations of its power to make large groups of people behave stupidly. For example, herding behaviour in financial markets often causing the very problems people are trying to protect themselves from by going with the crowd. Or regulatory regimes which seem to encourage monocultures to develop, whether in finance, health, education, politics or academia, based on shared assumptions rather than encouraging diversity, because monocultures are easier to regulate. Many professions, including the actuarial profession, have introduced specific professional guidance to encourage whistle-blowing where appropriate, ie standing up to the policies and practices of their own organisations in most cases, which often means doing battle with Group Think. How successful such initiatives prove to be remains to be seen.

Encouraging challenges to Group Think is hard. It normally means going out of your way to allow views to be expressed you don’t agree with. It makes getting your own way harder to achieve. It can seem to us like the opposite of strong leadership and decisiveness when we seek out opinions that will make decision-making more complex. But we have made our society so complex and organisationaly fragile that this is what we are going to need to do more of in the future to stop it all from crashing down around us.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

S&P sovereign credit ratings

The Treasury is consulting on the tax relief that should be available in future for pension schemes and their members. The principles for any reform that it has set out are:

  • it should be simple and transparent;
  • it should allow individuals to take personal responsibility;
  • it should build on the success of automatic enrolment; and
  • it should be sustainable.

Simplicity, transparency, personal responsibility and sustainability mean different things to different people, which means that the precise meaning of these principles will depend on the politics of the people proposing them. However the words themselves are difficult to argue with, which is presumably why they have been chosen.

It has then set out 8 questions that it would like answered in response to its consultation. The consultation ends on 30 September. I have set out my responses below. I hope that they will sufficiently incense one or two more people into making their views heard, before the chance disappears.

1. To what extent does the complexity of the current system undermine the incentive for individuals to save into a pension?

On this question I think I agree with Henry Tapper at the Pension PlayPen. He says the following:

In summary, millions of pounds of tax relief is wasted by the Treasury helping wealthy people avoid tax…Incentives are available to those on low earnings who pay no tax, but this message is not getting through, we need a system that resonates with all workers, not just those with the means to take tax advice.

I then think I agree with the following:

The incentive should be linked to the payment of contributions and not be dependent on the tax or NI status of the contributor – if people are in – they get incentivised.

That would certainly make the incentive to the pension scheme member clearer and potentially easier to understand. The other simplification I would support would be the merging of income tax and national insurance contributions – many of the sources I have referenced below are trying to solve problems caused by the different ways these two taxes are collected. This simplification would be an essential part of any pension reforms in my view.

2. Do respondents believe that a simpler system is likely to result in greater engagement with pension saving? If so, how could the system be simplified to strengthen the incentive for individuals to save into a pension?

This is the invitation to support TEE (ie taxed-taxed-exempt, the same tax treatment as for ISAs). I have up until now been persuaded by Andrew Dilnot and Paul Johnson’s paper from over 20 years ago that this was not a good idea. This pointed out that the current EET system:

  • Avoids problems with working out what level of contributions are attributable to individuals in a DB system
  • Does not discourage consumption in the future relative to consumption now

I have changed my mind. The first point has already been addressed in order to assess people against the annual allowance, although this may need to be further refined. The second point is more interesting. As Paul Mason has pointed out in Postcapitalism, the OECD 2010 report on policy challenges, coupled with S&P’s report from the same year on the global economic impacts of ageing populations point to the scenario pensions actuaries tend to refer to when challenged on the safety of Government bonds, ie if they fail then the least of your problems will be your pension scheme. The projections from S&P (see bar chart above) are that 60% of government bonds across all countries will have a credit rating below what is currently called investment grade – in other words they will be junk bonds. In this scenario private defined benefit schemes become meaningless and the returns from defined contribution schemes very uncertain indeed. A taxation system which seeks to extract tax on the way in rather than on the way out then looks increasingly sensible.

I think that both the popularity of ISAs and the consistently high take up of the tax free cash option by pensioners, however poor the conversion terms are in terms of pension given up, suggest that tax exemptions on the way out rather than on the way in would be massively popular.
3 Would an alternative system allow individuals to take greater personal responsibility for saving an adequate amount for retirement, particularly in the context of the shift to defined contribution pensions?

Based on my comments above, I think the whole idea of personal responsibility for saving adding up to more than a hill of beans for people currently in their 20s may be illusory. People do take responsibility for things they can have some control over. Pension savings in the late twenty-first century are unlikely to be in that category.
4 Would an alternative system allow individuals to plan better for how they use their savings in retirement?

As I have said I favour a TEE system like ISAs. I think some form of incentive will be required to replace tax exemption, such as “for every two pounds you put in a pension, the Government will put in one” with tight upper limits. The previous pensions minister Steve Webb appears to broadly support this idea. Exemption from tax on the way out (including abolition of the tax charges for exceeding the Lifetime Allowance) would also aid planning.
5 Should the government consider differential treatment for defined benefit and defined contribution pensions? If so, how should each be treated?

I think this is inevitable due to the fact that defined contribution (DC) schemes receive cash whereas defined benefit (DB) schemes accrue promises with often a fairly indirect link to the contributions paid in a given year. In my view taxation will need to be based on the current Annual Allowance methodology, perhaps refined as suggested by David Robbins and Dave Roberts at Towers Watson. The problem with just taxing contributions in DB is that you end up taxing deficit contributions which would effectively amount to retrospective taxation.

A further option discussed in Robbins and Roberts is making all contributions into DB schemes into employee contributions. I would go further and apply this to both DC and DB schemes – a sort of “reverse salary sacrifice” which could be encouraged by making the incentives on contributions only available on employee contributions, which would then be paid out of net pay. Any remaining accrual contributions made by employers in a DB scheme would be taxed by an adjustment to the following year’s tax code.
6 What administrative barriers exist to reforming the system of pensions tax, particularly in the context of automatic enrolment? How could these best be overcome?

I think everything points to the need for the retirement of DB for all but the very largest schemes. It would be better to do this gradually starting soon through an accelerated Pension Protection Fund (PPF) process rather than having it forced upon us in a hurry later in the century when PPF deficits may well be considerably higher than the current £292.1 billion.
7 How should employer pension contributions be treated under any reform of pensions tax relief?

As I have said, I think they should be converted into employee contributions based on higher employee salaries. This would make it clearer to people how much was being invested on their behalf into pension schemes.
8 How can the government make sure that any reform of pensions tax relief is sustainable for the future.

They can’t, and any change now will almost certainly be revisited several times over the next 50 years. However, systems where people feel they can see what is going on and which are tax free at the end are currently very popular and I would expect them to remain so for the foreseeable future. That takes care of political sustainability in the short term. What about longer-term economic sustainability? Faced by an uncertain and turbulent next 50 years where I have argued that personal responsibility (rather than communal responsibility) for pensions will seem increasingly irrelevant, I think what I have proposed will allow us to transition to a system which can be sustained to a greater degree.

We are entering what may prove to be a traumatic time for the world economy if Postcapitalism is even half right. Pensions taxation seems a good place to try and start to move our financial institutions in a more sustainable direction.

Nick Foster is a former pensions actuary who now lectures at the University of Leicester

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Fiscal spaceI was a pensions actuary for some years, and spent most of that time advising trustees of defined benefit (DB) pension schemes about what to do with their funding debts (we called them deficits or shortfalls, but so as not to confuse them with what the UK Government means by a deficit, ie spending greater than receipts in any given year, I will stick with the term debt here). It seems to me that there are many parallels between this kind of debt and the kind that governments run:

  1. The debt has built up over many years, and the reasons it was built up are often no longer a priority for the sponsor trying to pay off the debt (whether this is former employees for companies, or bailed out banks for governments)
  2. It is very sensitive to things which are not under the control of the sponsor (whether this is gilt yields or pensions legislation for companies, or the state of the world economy for governments)
  3. The debt position can change very quickly
  4. The sponsor usually has more attractive options for investing money than paying off the debt

Pension scheme debts fall broadly into three categories:

  • Small debts, where the company sponsoring the pension scheme can easily afford to service the debt and is relatively large financially compared to the debt. Think Norway, with their massive sovereign fund, or South Korea on the graph above. There are a wide range of ways of dealing with a debt like this: if the funding target was not to buy out the benefits with an insurance company at this point, I would generally try and encourage the trustees and sponsor in that direction because of point 3. However there are many other completely reasonable approaches here and the point is that, whichever is chosen, it is unlikely to seriously affect the ability of the company to implement its business plans.
  • Large but manageable debts. The company does need to put in place a proper funding plan here. How quickly it would be asked to pay off the debt would depend on what is called the employer covenant, which is the willingness and ability of the company (or sometimes group of connected companies, which is where the willingness comes in) to pay. Strong companies are allowed more options and longer repayment periods if they want them, although in some cases they may just want to fully fund and remove the ongoing costs of meeting the regulatory and administrative requirements of running a DB pension scheme. Think of the UK in this category. The paper from which the graph above is taken is concerned with the green zone cases like the UK, for which it concludes that reducing debt in the current circumstances of very low real interest rates (the same problem making pension debts so large) and demand shortfalls in the economies in question (the rather more important debt) is likely to be undesirable as the costs will outweigh the benefits.
  • Large and unmanageable debts. The company cannot afford a funding plan. In most cases the scheme does not have access to sufficient assets to buy policies to pay full pensions to its members with an insurer. An organisation called the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) then gets involved, which guarantees to pay full pensions to pensioners and 90% to non-pensioners, in exchange for all the assets it can get from the defaulting scheme and its sponsor. The sponsor usually needs to be insolvent for its scheme to enter the PPF, although sometimes it is allowed to return phoenix-like without the pension scheme but with the PPF as a stakeholder receiving a share of company profits over an agreed period.

I saw my role as to help trustees negotiate hard for a funding settlement with the sponsor, on the understanding that the sponsor would also negotiate hard. It was always clear to me that the sponsor’s responsibility was to grow its business and it would look to direct most of its profits to that end. The trustees were there to ensure that the (in the main) employees of the past who had been made a pension promise were not forgotten by the employees of the present and future and their employer when resources were being directed.

Imagine what the trustees’ role might be if this whole basis of funding was turned on its head: companies directing ever more of their profits into debt repayment at the expense of any sort of investment in the future of their businesses. To the extent that this threatened the future income stream to the scheme as the business fell apart, trustees and their actuaries might find themselves making very different arguments (perhaps along the lines of the flexibility the regulator promotes and the importance it stresses of trustees having a good understanding of the employer’s position and plans, including how any plans for sustainable growth enhance the employer covenant). But we would then be in a situation where what the company was expert in, ie running its business, had been subordinated to funding a pension scheme, while what the trustees and their advisers were expert in, ie funding the pension scheme, had become less important than protecting the long term health of the company. This would appear to be sub-optimal.

But it is not that different from having a government that makes its highest priority to reduce a debt which it does not fully understand and certainly cannot fully control, while cutting back on all the things that governments do which support the economic health of a country, from investing in infrastructure and housing to promoting real social security for the economic units, ie us, within it.

And imagine what would happen if we treated schemes with large unmanageable debts like Greece. The current deal which looks like it might be agreed tomorrow involves asset sales, spending cuts, tax increases and reform of both its tax and pensions system in return for three year loans and debt restructuring and reprofiling. This would be the equivalent of not only putting the sponsor into administration and selling off all its assets but also immediately demanding pension contributions from the workers who had been kept on into a scheme which would never give them any benefits just before firing them with no pensions (pensioners left without pensions was a scenario which occasionally happened in the UK before the PPF and sometimes led to naked pensioners demonstrating on the beach). The sell off would, as it always does (and certainly has in the case of Greece) pay off the banks first before moving on to the unsecured creditors. Insolvency practitioners know that they can get more for a company by selling it as a going concern rather than as just a bunch of assets. The PPF similarly understand that a proportion of future profits can be in their best long term interests as a creditor rather than dancing around the flames of a fire sale. The Troika, the IMF and their enforcer, the ECB, appear to have lost sight of this.

The current austerity fixation is not bringing good private sector practice into the public sector. On the contrary it is removing the public sector foundation required for the private sector to flourish. And that is just bad business.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Go on pick a card

Defined ambition has failed.

  • This was mainly because, tasked with suggesting a less onerous alternative to defined benefit (DB) schemes that gave more protection than defined contribution (DC) schemes, the pensions industry (including actuaries) did not get behind the least bad option, but instead presented a spectrum of options
  • The public and employers were unimpressed
  • And employers had enough on their plate anyway dealing with auto-enrolment
  • So they have now all (or nearly all) enrolled their employees into DC
  • And the reason they are in DC now is the same reason they were in DB before: because they were offered so many choices they lost sight of the fact that there was a choice.

DA options

The time to significantly influence corporate pension provision would appear to have passed until people realise how hard it is to make sufficient provision via a DC scheme. That may not be until the money actually runs out as the finance industry has a proven track record in keeping people in schemes (eg the early personal pensions and later endowment mortgages) long after they retain the capacity to do them any good.

In the meantime, people with DC pensions and madly transferring DB members now have freedom and choice. I predict that this too will fail.

  • This will mainly be because, tasked with providing cost-effective advice to people to empower them to make good decisions about their financial future, the pensions industry do not get their act together and just present a spectrum of options
  • The public will be unimpressed
  • And employers, who might have been persuaded to increase employee education and engagement in pensions, will have enough on their plate anyway dealing with auto-enrolment
  • So now most of them will be managing their own retirement with not enough money, vulnerable to pensions scammers and paying far more tax than they need to
  • And the reason they will not be in an annuity now is the same reason they were in one before: because they were offered so many choices (see the Pension Wise website, inexplicably still in an unfinished Beta state) they lost sight of the fact there was a choice.

Pension_Wise_Logo

The time to significantly influence individual pension provision appears to be rapidly running out.

How does this story end, I wonder?

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

shutterstock_84989578

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) is introducing a new mandatory Actuarial Profession Standard (APS) in relation to review of actuarial work. The existing requirements in the APS applying to scheme actuaries will be withdrawn.

APS X2 Review of Actuarial Work will come into force on 1 July 2015 and is accompanied by a detailed, practical Guide. One of its key requirements is that actuaries, for any piece of work they wish to have reviewed, will need to consider the need for that review to be independently carried out, ie by someone not otherwise involved in the work in question.

I should declare straight away that I have a conflict of interest about this new standard, having set up a business because I felt scheme actuaries should have access to peer review services from an experienced scheme actuary outside their organisations. I am delighted that an idea which seemed a little odd to some when I first started offering these services in 2013 should now be regarded as sufficiently mainstream by the IFoA to prompt a revision of peer review guidelines.

Under APS X2, review processes are defined as either work review or independent peer review. Whereas work review is a general term covering all forms of review processes, the term independent peer review can only be applied to review processes involving reviewers not otherwise involved in the piece of work under review.

There are many reasons why you might want to have your work independently reviewed, for example:

  • Work reviewed within a firm might be influenced by the respective positions of the actuary and his/her reviewer within the management structure of the organisation;
  • Even if the work is reviewed by a colleague completely objectively, it might not be seen to have been;
  • There is a risk of group think in any organisation. Review from outside can significantly reduce this risk;
  • An independent reviewer may have a different range of experiences to draw on from those within your organisation. This can be particularly useful when reviewing work where there are potential conflicts of interest or concerns over how best to communicate a piece of work.

If this sounds of interest and you think it might be time to take a look outside for some of your peer review needs, my details can be found by following the link.

 

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

I ask this question because:

  • I have just read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and am convinced by their arguments and evidence that inequality lies at the root of most of the social problems we have in the UK; and
  • As a scheme actuary, I persuaded myself that I was facilitating a common good, namely the provision of good pensions to people who might not otherwise have them to as high a level and for as long as possible given the economic conditions of the sponsors. The introduction of the Pension Protection Fund reduced the importance of the scheme actuary role, by mitigating the impact of sponsors not meeting their obligations, but still left a job I felt was worth doing. However, it now seems to me that, if pensions are not tackling inequality or even exacerbating it, they might be doing more harm than good.

First of all, I strongly recommend the Equality Trust website, which has a number of graphs showing the links between inequality and various social ills. One example, showing the relationship between inequality and mental illness, is set out below.

Equality Trust graph

So what is the evidence on inequality and pensions? Certainly inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, in this case after a reduction for housing costs, has increased markedly in the UK since the 1960s.

Gini over time

While the proportion of private pension provision since 1997 as a percentage of the workforce has fallen (courtesy of the Office for National Statistics).

ONS workplace pensions

But is there much of a correlation between them? Well there is a weak negative correlation between the Gini coefficient and the percentage in workplace pensions as a whole.

Gini v workplace pensions

And a rather stronger one when we just look at defined benefit (DB) pension scheme membership.

Gini v DB scatter

Neither of these are particularly strong correlations. Any impact by workplace pensions on inequality is likely to be limited of course, because they are in general structured (via final salary formulae in the case of DB, and employer and employee contributions as a percentage of salary in the case of defined contribution (DC)) to preserve relative incomes in retirement, even if not absolute differentials. However, moving now to the OECD statistics website, we can look at the retirement age community as a whole and compare their relative inequality with that of the working age population.

Turning to the working age population first, we can see below that the UK is a very unequal society compared to a range of rich countries, although less so than the US.

Gini working age

data extracted on 15 Aug 2014 15:52 UTC (GMT) from OECD.Stat

On the other hand, we get a very different picture if we consider the UK’s over 65 population, where the level of inequality is well below that of the US, and broadly comparable with the other major EU states.

Gini retirement age

data extracted on 15 Aug 2014 15:52 UTC (GMT) from OECD.Stat

Clearly this is not primarily down to private pension provision, but the more redistributive state pension and other benefits. However, at least the weak correlations we saw previously suggest that private pensions have not made inequality any worse and possibly slightly mitigated against it.

I think we can do better than this: after all we had inequality levels equivalent to current Norwegian levels back in the early 60s (which is why I included them in the international comparisons above). So the news that pensions tax relief is likely to be provided at a 30% rate for all after the election rather than reflecting the current tax bands is not, in my view, the cause for gnashing of teeth as the Telegraph and others believe but actually a good thing. After all, the Pensions Policy Institute have shown that 2/3rds of all tax relief is going to those earning over £45,000 pa.

One of the clear conclusions of the research carried out in The Spirit Level and elsewhere is that reducing inequality in society benefits every group in it, including those who are redistributed away from. Pension provision has its part to play in this.

And 30% tax relief does not seem like too high a price to me.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone
Trust me. I'M AN ACTUARY!

Trust me. I’M AN ACTUARY!

I commented on the Pensions Regulator’s new code of funding in a recent post. The reason I am returning to it so soon is that a good friend of mine has pointed out a rather important, but subtle, aspect of the new code which I had missed. It goes to the heart of what we should expect from a professional in any field.

Experts and the Problem of P2C2Es

In 1990, while still in hiding from would-be assassins keen to implement Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote a book for his son called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. This introduced the idea of P2C2Es or Processes Too Complicated To Explain. These were how awkward things, like the fact that the Earth had a second moon which held the source of all the world’s stories, were kept hidden from ordinary people. All the people who worked on P2C2Es were employed at P2C2E House in Gup City under a Grand Comptroller. When I read it to my son a few years later I enjoyed the story of very clever people conspiring against the general public as a fairy tale.

Since 2008, it has become increasingly clear that this is no fairy tale. Whether you are looking for the cheapest quote for insuring your life, house or your car; a medical opinion about your health; an investment that meets your needs: it is a P2C2E.

Malcolm Gladwell and others make the case that expert failure is what we should really fear, when important things rely on experts not making mistakes doing things that most people do not understand. The inability to challenge expert opinion has cost us all a lot of money in the last few years. We should stay clear of P2C2Es whenever we can in my view. Professionals should present evidence and the intuitions gained from their experience, but leave the decisions to people with skin in the game.

Other professionals disagree with this. There is, from time to time, a push to get rid of juries in cases where the evidence is thought too complicated (eg fraud) or too dangerous to make public in even a limited way (eg terrorism). Some of these succeed, others don’t. There are also frequent political arguments about what we should have a referendum on, from Scottish independence (got one if you’re Scottish) to membership of the EU (one is promised) to recalling your MP mid-term (so far no luck on this one).

There is a similar divergence of opinion amongst actuaries. Since the Pensions Regulator’s first code of practice for funding was launched, in 2006, the scheme actuary’s role has been clearly set out as one of adviser to the scheme trustees and not, other than in the rare cases it was cemented in the scheme rules, a decision maker. However there are actuaries who look back wistfully to the days when they effectively set the funding target for pension schemes and all parties deferred to their expertise. I am not one of them.

Because this was really no good at all if you were a trustee expected to take responsibility for a process you were never really let in on. The arrival at a contribution rate or a funding deficit for a scheme funding on a basis presented to them as a fait accompli was to many trustees a P2C2E. We risk returning to those days with the new code of funding.

What this has to do with pensions

Compare the wording of the new Code of Practice for pension scheme funding with the previous one:

2006 code

The actuary is not passing an opinion on the trustees’ choice of method and assumptions.

2014 code

Trustees should have good reasons if they decide not to follow the actuary’s advice. They should recognise that if they instruct their actuary to certify the technical provisions and/or schedule of contributions using an approach which the actuary considers would be a failure to comply with Part 3, the actuary would have to report that certification to the regulator as the regulator considers such certification to be materially significant.

Where Part 3 refers to the funding regulations for actuarial valuations. Previously actuaries who were unable to provide the required certification of the calculation of the technical provisions or of the adequacy of the schedule of contributions had to report the matter to the regulator only if a proper process had not been followed or the recovery plan didn’t add up to the deficit. It was thought that going any further would involve passing an opinion on the trustees’ choice of method and assumptions.

Will the new code make schemes better funded? In some cases perhaps, but at the cost of moving scheme trustees into a more passive role where they do not feel the same level of responsibility for the final outcome. It is the difference between roads where cars are driven by people concerned with road safety and the ones we have where drivers are primarily concerned with not setting off speed cameras. The general level of safety is reduced in both cases, with the further danger that this passivity will trickle into other areas of trustee responsibility. And the risk to the schemes of the group think of scheme actuaries (a relatively small group of professionals who tend to all cluster around the same schedule of continuing professional development (CPD) events) is massively increased.

Ha-Joon Chang famously said never trust an economist. Is it any less dangerous to trust an actuary under these circumstances?

 

 

 

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

I have been reading Ha-Joon Chang’s excellent book Economics: The User’s Guide after listening to him summarising its thrust at this year’s Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature and the Arts. It is very disarming to meet an economist who immediately tells you never to trust an economist, and I will probably return to his thoughts on the limitations of expert judgement in a future article.

But today I want to focus on his summary of the major schools of thought in economics, and what the implications might be for actuaries. Chang’s approach is that he does not completely subscribe to any particular school but does not reject any either. He bemoans what he sees as the total domination of all economic discussion currently (and therefore also all political discussion about running the economy) by neoclassical economists. I think actuarial discussion may suffer from a similar problem.

So what is neoclassical economics? Well it has become almost invisible to us due to its omnipresence, in the way fish don’t see the water they swim in, but its assumptions may surprise you. It assumes that all economic decisions are at an individual level, with each individual seeking to maximise what is known as their utility (ie things and experiences they value). The idea is that we self-interested individuals will collectively make decisions which, within the competitive markets we have set up, result in a socially better outcome than trying to plan everything. This approach has become a very conservative outlook (ie interested in preserving the status quo) in Chang’s view ever since it was further developed to include the Pareto principle in the early 20th century, which says that no change in economic organisation should take place unless no one is made worse off. This limits the scope for redistribution within a society, which can lead to the levels of inequality we see now in parts of the developed world which many are becoming increasingly concerned about, Thomas Piketty included.

Arguments between neoclassical economists in Chang’s view tend to be restricted to ones about how well the market actually works. The market failure argument says that there is a role to play for governments in using taxes and regulations (negative externalities) or in funding particular things like research (positive externalities) to mitigate the impacts of markets, particularly in areas where market prices do not fully reflect the social cost of particular activities (eg pollution on the environment). Another criticism made of neoclassical economics is that it does not allow properly for the fact that buyers and sellers do not have the same level of information available to them in many markets, and therefore the price struck is often not the one which would lead to the best outcome for society as a whole. So the more “left wing” neoclassicalism requires more market regulation to protect consumers and the environment they live in.

The more “right wing” neoclassical response to this is that people actually do know what they are doing, and even build in the likelihood that they are being conned due to asymmetric information in the decisions they make. The government should therefore reduce regulation and generally get out of the way of wealth-creating business. This form of neoclassicalism views the risk of government failure as much greater than that of market failure, ie even if we have market failure, the costs of government mistakes will inevitably be much greater.

And if you draw a line between those two forms of neoclassicalism, somewhere along that line you will find all of the main UK political parties and pretty much all economic discussion within the financial services industry.

And, on the whole, it tends to circumscribe the role that actuaries play in the UK.

One of the major drawbacks of neoclassical theory is that is assumes risks can be fully quantified if we only have a comprehensive enough model. Actuaries are predominantly hierarchists, who believe that they can manage the inequalities which flow from neoclassical theory via collectivist approaches, like insurance policies and pension schemes, and protect individuals and indeed whole financial systems from risk. Since Nicholas Nassim Taleb and others made so much money from realising that this was not the case in 2008, this has probably been neoclassicalism’s most obvious flaw, and the one which has given rise to the most discussion (although possibly not so much change to practice) amongst actuaries.

But there are others. Neoclassicalism assumes that individuals are selfish and rational, both of which have been persuasively called into question by the work of Kahneman and others, who have shown that we are only rational within bounds and make most of our decisions through “heuristics” or rules of thumb. Actuaries have tried to reflect these views, some of which were originally developed by Herbert Simon in the 40s and 50s, particularly in the way that information is communicated (eg the recent publication from the Defined Ambition working group), but have very much stayed at the microeconomic level (very much, according to Chang, like much of the Behaviouralist School themselves) rather than exploring the implications of this theory at a macroeconomic level.

Neoclassical theory is also much more focused on consumption than production, with its endless focus on markets of consumers. One alternative approach is that proposed by the Neo-Schumpeterian School, which rightly points out that, in many markets, technological innovation is considerably more important than price competition for economic development. The life-cycle of the iphone, from innovation to temporary market monopoly to the creation of a totally new market in android phones is a case in point. Actuaries have done relatively little work with technology firms.

Another school of economic thought which is much more focused on production is the Developmentalist Tradition, which believes governments can improve outcomes considerably by intervening in how economies operate: from promoting industries which are particularly well-linked to other industries; to the protection of industries which develop the productive capability of the economy, particularly infant industries which might get smothered at birth by the more established players in the market. This tradition clearly believes that the risk of government failure is less than the potential benefits of intervention. The failure of productivity to pick up in the UK since 2008 has been described as a “puzzle” by the Bank of England and other financial commentators. Perhaps some clues might lie outside a neoclassical viewpoint.

The Institutionalists have looked at market transaction costs themselves, pointing out that these extend way beyond the costs of production, and could theoretically encompass all the costs of running the economic system within which the transactions take place, from the courts to the police to the educational and political institutions. They have suggested that this may be why so much economic activity does not take place in markets at all, but within firms. I think actuaries have started to engage with failures in pricing mechanisms recently, particularly where these have environmental consequences such as in the case of carbon pollution and the implications for the long term valuations of fossil fuel reserves on stock markets.

The Keynesians I have written about before. They are probably the most opposed to the current austerity policies, pointing out how, if a whole economy stops spending and starts saving when in debt, as an individual would, the economy will stay in recession longer and recovery (and therefore the possibility of significant deficit reduction) will be slower. The coalition government in the UK have neatly proved this point since 2010.

I could go on, about the Classical or Marxist Schools which have been largely discredited by historical developments over the last 200 years, but which still have useful analysis of aspects of economics, or the spontaneous order of the markets believed in by the Austrian School. However my point is that I think Chang is right to highlight that there is a wider range of economic ideas out there. Actuaries need to engage with them all.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

The Pensions Regulator has finally released its response to its consultation on regulating defined benefit pension schemes along with the simultaneous release of the final new code on funding defined benefits, its latest annual funding statement and two new documents: the defined benefit regulatory strategy and the defined benefit funding, regulatory and enforcement policy. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

I set out a critique of the draft proposals back in January. These boiled down to two main criticisms:

  • That the new system proposed was effectively a return to the one-size-fits all approach of the Minimum Funding Requirement, which had done so much to undermine responsible scheme funding by employers; and
  • That the focus on governance, reverse stress testing, covenant advice, etc, effectively smuggled in from EIOPA’s latest IORP Directive, was likely to be a problem for small schemes.

BFO RIP

So what has the Regulator’s response been to these criticisms? Well, on the one-size-fits-all approach which was proposed as the Balance Funding Objective (BFO), the response is comical:

  • They have changed the name of their funding objective. The BFO is now called the Funding Risk Indicator (FRI). It is otherwise unchanged. This is reminiscent of the Lenny Henry sketch at the time that Windscale was renamed as Sellafield: “In future, radiation will be referred to as magic moonbeams”.
  • They are going to keep all their risk indicators secret. I have set out below their response in full on this point.

We believe that there may be potentially significant benefits to be gained in using the FRI and publishing more detail on our risk indicators in terms of providing clarity around standards, especially for small schemes, driving consistency and providing a useful framework for evaluating impact. However, after careful consideration of the risks and benefits highlighted in consultation responses, we have concluded that we should develop further our approach to risk assessment over the next year, including our risk indicators, to make sure it is sufficiently robust to support our intended uses beyond using it, alongside our other risk indicators, to prioritise our engagement. We have decided, for the time being, not to publish in detail where we set our risk indicators (beyond a high level description) in the funding policy document or in the annual funding statement.

So how will this work? Will the Regulator display charts like this one each year?

TPR graphWill they then berate the schemes and their advisers who were so bad at guessing where their secret line was? Because be in no doubt, with the speed of the revolving door operating between the Regulator and the industry it regulates, these indicators will get out and then gradually get disseminated through the pensions industry, from the biggest consultancies (who can easily fund having their consultants on secondment to Brighton) downwards, just as the Regulator’s previous “secret” link between assessment of covenant strength and “expected” discount rate assumptions did.

And what about the problem with small schemes? This is, in my view, considerably better handled by the Regulator. However, it does all comes down to its idea of proportionality.

Proportionality

The response to the consultation states:

Many respondents were concerned that proportionality did not follow through consistently in the consultation code or it was not explained clearly how it could be applied in practice. In particular, some thought our expectations around the extent of the analysis required to assess the covenant seemed disproportionate. The concern was that it would be difficult and costly for small schemes to apply the code’s principles.

I was one of those respondents. It continues:

We have reviewed the drafting to ensure that proportionality is properly referenced and emphasised throughout. We are looking to develop additional guidance to support the final code and will consider whether the proportionality principle can be explained further through illustrative examples.

On covenant assessment, we had already made clear (under the ‘Working with advisers’ section) that trustees may chose not to commission independent covenant advice as long as they can satisfy
themselves that they are sufficiently equipped, independent and experienced to undertake the work to the appropriate standard. In the section on ‘Employer covenant considerations’, we have emphasised the need for a proportionate approach (for instance, in-depth analysis may not be necessary if the scheme is relatively small or there has been no material change in the covenant since the last review). We also stress that assessment should focus on the knowledge gaps and where value can be added. Finally, we have made clear that the scope of any covenant review will depend on the circumstances of the scheme and it is, therefore, not always necessary for trustees to consider all the factors listed in the code.

In addition the Regulator has dropped the size of employer and strength of covenant as factors for trustees to consider in deciding on what is proportionate for their schemes, realising, rightly in my view, that the absolute size of employer and strength of covenant are much less important than the relative size of employer to scheme and risks to the scheme from failures of covenant which are already mentioned.

This all seems sensible. I do, however, think they will struggle to go further in setting out what proportionality means, since the problem of defining it has bedevilled the Solvency 2 project from the beginning and has still not been fully resolved. The IORP Directive is no clearer in this respect. What the Regulator could do is make a clear distinction between schemes with less than 100 members and the rest in terms of their responsibilities under the Code, reflecting the fact that the IORP Directive does not apply to these schemes.

Small schemes and risk-based prioritisation

But perhaps they have. Concerns were raised in the consultation about considering the size of the scheme in deciding whether to subject that scheme to greater scrutiny. It was argued that smaller schemes tended to be less well administered and advised (presumably by advisers and administrators of larger schemes!), more risky than larger schemes and should receive greater regulatory scrutiny. Some also questioned the usefulness of education without what they felt was the same prospect of regulatory scrutiny. I admit that I was one of those expressing concern about a lack of scrutiny coupled with a much increased regulatory burden for small schemes before the Regulator’s latest concessions on proportionality.

In their response the Regulator defended its actions by stating that large schemes all other things being equal, are of greater concern to us as they have the greatest impact on members and risk to the system (90% of members and liabilities are concentrated in the 1,210 largest schemes). However they expect the same standards of the small schemes that they aren’t scrutinising so hard. Bearing in mind that the Regulator regulates scheme managers rather than members (and many of those small schemes have just as many trustees as the larger ones) I don’t think this is a very convincing defence, but it seems to be preferable to admitting that they are just regulating schemes that fall under the IORP Directive.

Next steps

So a big raspberry for the secret FRI and a qualified welcome for the changes on proportionality. The final code has now been laid in Parliament and is expected to come into force in the next few months, subject to the parliamentary process. So if you think that there is more than a little tweaking left to do to this legislation, you need to start lobbying now.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

Sometimes the best explanations of things come when we are trying to explain them to outsiders, people not expected to understand our particular forest of acronyms, slangs and conventions which, while allowing speedier communication, can also channel thinking down the same tired old tracks time after time. Such an example I think is the UK Government Actuary’s Department (GAD) paper on Pensions for Public Service Employees in the UK, presented to the International Congress of Actuaries last month in Washington.

Not a lay audience admittedly, but one sufficiently removed from the UK for the paper’s writers to need to represent the bewildering complexity of UK public sector pension provision very clearly and concisely. The result is the best summary of the current position and the planned reforms that I have seen so far, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in public sector pensions.

There are two points which struck me particularly about the summary of the reforms, designed to bring expenditure on public service pensions down from 2.1% of GDP in 2011-12 to 1.3% by 2061-62.

The first came while looking at the excellent summary of the factors contributing to the decline of private sector pension provision. Leaving aside the more general points about costs and risks, and those thought applicable to the (mainly) unfunded public service schemes which have been largely addressed by the planned reforms, I noticed two of the factors thought specific to funded defined benefits (DB) plans:

  • A more onerous burden on trustees of plans, including member representation, and knowledge and understanding; and
  • Company pension accounting rules requiring liabilities to be measured based on corporate bond yields.

As the GAD paper makes clear, the Public Service Pensions Act will result in a significant increase in interventions on governance in particular in some public sector schemes. The Pensions Regulator’s recent consultation on regulating public service pension schemes is also proposing a 60 page code of practice be adopted in respect of the governance and administration of these schemes. This looks like the “onerous burden” which has been visited on the private sector over the last 20 years all over again.

The other point is not directly comparable, as company pension accounting rules do not apply to the public sector. However, as pointed out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week, supplementary tables to the National Accounts calculating public sector pensions liabilities will be required of all EU member states from September this year onwards, to comply with the European System of Accounts (ESA) 2010. These are carried out using best estimate assumptions (ie without margins for prudence) and a discount rate based on a long term estimate of GDP growth (as compared to the AA corporate bond yield required by accounting rules).

The ONS released the first such tables published by any EU member state, for 2010, in March 2012. This for the first time values the liabilities in respect of unfunded public sector pension entitlements, at £852 billion, down from £915 billion at the start of the year.

I think there is a real possibility that publication of this information, as it has for DB pension schemes, will result in pressure to reduce these liabilities where possible. An example would be one I mentioned in a previous post, where mass transfers to defined contribution (DC) arrangements from public sector schemes following the 2014 Budget have effectively been ruled out because of their potential impact on public finances. If such transfers reduced the liability figure under ESA 2010 (which they almost certainly would) the Government attitude to such transfers might be different in the future.

The second point concerned the ESA 2010 assumptions themselves. There was a previous consultation on the best discount rate used for these valuations, ie the percentage by which a payment required in one year’s time is more affordable than one required now, with GDP growth coming out as the preferred option. Leaving aside the many criticisms of GDP as an economic measure, one option which was not considered apparently was the growth in current Government receipts, although this would seem in many ways to be a better guide to the element of economic growth relevant to the affordability of public sector provision. Taking the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts from 2013-14 to 2018-19 with the fixed ESA 2010 assumptions for discount rate and inflation of 5% pa and 2% pa respectively gives us an interesting comparison.

ESA v OBRThe CPI assumption appears to be fairly much in line with forecasts, but the average nominal GDP and current receipt year on year increase over the next 6 years of forecasts are 4.47% pa and 4.61% pa (4.72% pa if National Accounts taxes are used rather than all current receipts) respectively. A 0.5% reduction in the discount rate to 4.5% pa would be expected to increase the liability by over 10%.

Another, possibly purer, measure of economic growth, removing as it does the distortions caused by net migration, would be the growth of GDP per capita. If we take the OBR forecasts for real GDP growth per capita and set it against the long term ESA 2010 assumption of 1.05/1.02 – 1 = 2.94% the comparison is even more interesting:

Real GDP v ESAIn this case the ESA assumption is around 1% pa greater than the forecasts would suggest, making the liability less than 80% of where it would be using the average forecast value.

The ESA 2010 assumptions are intended to be fixed so that figures for different years can easily be compared. It would clearly be easy to argue for tougher assumptions from the OBR forecasts (although the accuracy of these has of course not got a great track record), but perhaps more difficult to find an argument for relaxing them further.

Whether the consensus holds over keeping them fixed when and if the liability figures start to get more prominence and a lower liability becomes an important economic target for some of the larger EU member states remains to be seen. However if the assumptions cannot be changed, since public sector benefits now have a 25 year guarantee in the UK (other than the normal pension age now equal to the state pension age being subject to review every 5 years), then the cost cap mechanism (ie higher member contributions) becomes the only available safety valve. So we can perhaps expect nurses’ and teachers’ pension contributions to become the battleground when public sector pension affordability becomes a hot political issue once more.

We can poke fun at the Government’s enthusiasm to take on the Royal Mail Pension Plan and its focus on annual cashflows which made it look beneficial for their finances over the short term, but we may also look back wistfully to the days before public sector pensions stopped being viewed as a necessary expense of delivering services and became instead a liability to be minimised.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone