If the models are correct we are heading for a Zombie Apocalypse

Let’s forget the strapline of this blog for a moment and assume that the models are correct. The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is targeting “self-sufficiency” by 2030, ie no more levies from sponsors of pension schemes required for it to independently fund all the future benefits of every scheme member whether they are already in the PPF or going to end up in it with only the insufficient assets their former employers allocated to their former pension schemes for company. BHS has concluded a very high profile deal in the last couple of weeks to set up a new self-sufficient scheme for its former employees. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) has proposed a funding plan which targets self-sufficiency less a “covenant” (ie amount of money feasible to get out of the university sector in the future) by 2031. John Ralfe mentioned a few other examples in his article from 2015.
These are schemes which have been dubbed “zombie” schemes on the basis that they are basically dead, with no new money or new members coming in, but nevertheless dragging themselves along the floor year after year until all of their members have stopped twitching.
What does the UK pensions world look like in 2030? Well according to various sources:
• UK population will have increased to 70.6 million (assuming Scotland and Northern Ireland are still in it) with 21.4% of them over the age of 65 (S&P)
• Credit rating of UK will have fallen to A, with a further fall to BBB by 2035 assuming no change in economic policy (also S&P)
• Average life expectancies at birth in UK would be over 85 for women and 82.5 for men (Imperial College and WHO)
• Benefit outgo from defined benefit pension schemes is £100 billion more than contribution income pa (Hymans Robertson)

This does not sound like a happy place for our zombies to be negotiating with the occasional limb getting torn off as multiple doors are slammed in their faces. Although the self-sufficiency route is now a common approach amongst large schemes, it is largely untested. No scheme as far as I am aware has actually managed to run in a self-sufficient manner for any appreciable length of time, whereas the more expensive buy out route (where the benefits for members are purchased in the form of contracts with an insurer) is by comparison well established.

So off into this volatile landscape our zombies will be let loose, trying to run themselves like little insurance companies, but without the scale or diversification or experience which makes insurers (mostly) survive for long periods. However that better track record comes at a price which schemes are currently reluctant to pay. There is a good chance that this experiment will not end well.

My guess for 2030? That the volatile landscape will have claimed some casualties amongst the self-sufficient zombies and put them into the PPF with much bigger deficits than if they had gone there straight away. And then all the other zombies will T-U-R-N A-R-O-U-N-D V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y and follow them there. At which point the PPF will realise that they are undead no longer.

Public.Resource.Org SI Neg. 2001-1900. Date: na...Oblique aerial view from approximately 12,000 feet, 50 miles from the detonation site, two minutes after the detonation of a hydrogen bomb during an unidentified US atomic weapons test, circa 1950s. At this point in time, the mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet...Credit: Unknown USAF photographer. (Smithsonian Institution)

Public.Resource.Org SI Neg. 2001-1900. Date: na…Oblique aerial view from approximately 12,000 feet, 50 miles from the detonation site, two minutes after the detonation of a hydrogen bomb during an unidentified US atomic weapons test, circa 1950s. At this point in time, the mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet…Credit: Unknown USAF photographer. (Smithsonian Institution)

I have just started reading an excellent new book by Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction, where she sets out the case against devolving important decisions to mathematical models without adequate feedback loops. The opening example she gives, of a teacher fired from her job in Washington because a school feeding students into her school was manipulating test scores, makes her general point very well. I am looking forward to the chapter on insurance.

However, the thought that this raised in my mind is how, increasingly, we don’t even need the algorithms and mathematical models to behave in a robotic fashion – we constantly follow rules set by others rather than using our own judgement. Indeed regulators push us more and more in this direction. They are nearly all under-staffed and over-tasked and need shortcuts to manage their workloads. And the most obvious shortcut is to focus on the very big and the very different. The very big are normally very much better staffed than the regulators and difficult to win arguments with. Regulators are therefore left with the very different. So regulators make life for the very different very difficult. And, before long, the very different no longer exist and the systemic risk in your population of banks, schools, hospitals or whatever it is has increased.

What O’Neill rightly focuses on as the main danger of widely used models is their lack of a feedback loop. If nothing tells you when your model is not reflecting the world it is modelling, it will not be long before it is doing a great deal more harm than good. And when a regulators uses a model which does not rely on inputs from the system it is regulating, then the model becomes the world it is regulating, often with bizarre consequences. One of the main reasons that the 2008 crash was so dramatic is that so little was done to prevent it even as warning signs grew. This was because, in the model used to regulate banks, these warning signs didn’t exist. Unfortunately and worryingly for us, the lessons learned, in the main, were not that model-led regulation was bad, but that the models used just needed to be more complicated.

Every call for what is being regulated to be simplified (by breaking them up into smaller units, in the case of banks, or simplifying the regulations themselves, rather than the regulatory arms race of measure and unintended loophole we seem doomed to keep repeating) has been resisted, resulting in a regulatory framework which becomes more bafflingly complex with every passing year. This is a process recognised in Government and there have been occasional attempts to reverse the tide. To date, with little effect.

And the regulators themselves? They are cash-strapped and at the mercy of inconsistent Government policy. So we have CQC inspectors (of NHS Trusts) and Ofsted inspectors (of schools and colleges) making short visits, producing reports based on anything anyone has said to them on these short visits, allowing for no factual corrections, subject to no cross examination, just to get through their caseloads without causing headaches for their political masters, but often resulting in inconsistent scrutiny or, in some cases, in abrupt reversals in conclusions in successive inspections. At the same time, it appears clear that you can evade your financial responsibilities almost completely if you are rich and unscrupulous enough. Our regulatory systems have proved unreliable in too many areas and have in my view lost credibility as a result.

So where do actuaries fit in to all this? They are one of the professions centrally involved in building, updating and interpreting models across a wide range of financial firms. Everything from the amount a firm makes in pension contributions, to the amount held in reserve by an insurer or a bank, to the detailed agreements in a corporate restructure, often involving staggering sums of money. This work cannot be carried out effectively by playing to an unreliable regulator.

Upon accepting the Army-Navy Excellence Award on November 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the US Government’s Manhattan Project in Los Alamos to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons, proclaimed: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” He realised that responsibility for the use to which your work is put can never be wholly given away to someone else.

If mathematical models are to be the dominant regulatory tool of a financial world, and of the consultancies and financial firms competing in that world, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of the highly paid professionals who followed inappropriate rules rather than exercising their own expert judgement when it mattered.

Party membership long timeline

Today I am going to talk about politics and how we tend to approach it.

When I was working as an actuarial consultant we had a client who wanted to write to the local MP about how the Pension Protection Fund levy his company were paying on behalf of their admittedly poorly funded pension scheme was endangering the viability of the business itself. Our view was that it would do no harm and the letter was sent. Nothing came of the complaint, not that we had expected anything would, but the letter was responded to. And so have my letters both times I have written to my MP in a personal capacity, one of them even came back with a Minister’s letter enclosed with it.

One way of looking at this is that it is fantastic. It shows democracy working for individuals and businesses at a local level about the issues they care about. A kind of democracy service. This is certainly how we are encouraged to think of it.

However another way of thinking about it is that this is just bonkers. To understand this, consider some numbers.

There are not nearly enough GPs, according to the latest of many similar reports of a “looming health crisis”. How many full-time equivalent GPs are there per 1,000 patients per practice in England? 0.58, meaning that on average there is 1 GP for every 1,724 patients. GPs frequently complain that the standard 10 minute consultation this necessitates is not enough time to fully explore their health.

Compare this with the position of MPs, another profession which runs “surgeries”. There are 650 MPs to cover the whole of the UK. That’s one for every 92,000 people, or 68,000 voters. It is therefore faintly ludicrous to expect MPs to be able to:

  • write to a relevant department or official;
  • send a letter to an appropriate Minister;
  • make a personal appointment to discuss an issue;
  • make an issue public; or
  • speak at an event concerning an issue.

for each and every one of his or her constituents and their businesses, as the blurb suggests. “These steps can often go a long way to providing a solution” it adds helpfully.

If we were all to take up this suggestion of course, the system could not cope. And it cannot, by definition, be fair: a 92,000th of the power of an MP, even if it’s the PM, is probably not worth having in your corner, so the process MP’s use to decide who to help becomes a postcode (or, in reality, power) lottery on a much grander scale than anything we might be concerned about in the NHS. So beware of MPs who say that their minds have been made up on an issue by what can only ever be anecdotal contact with their constituents at best.

Even when most of us don’t bother our MPs, they are still inundated with a level of enquiries, most misdirected, that makes it very hard for them to keep up with their parliamentary work.

So it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that an entirely parliamentary approach to doing politics might not be the only option. And now the Labour Party are exploring this idea in the current leadership election. To the side now coalescing around Owen Smith, Corbyn’s policy-making on the hoof and lack of organisation and discipline at times makes him unfit to lead a party set up in 1906 to promote “socialism via parliamentary means”. To Corbyn’s supporters, the party needs to become a movement not confined to Parliament, and the sudden surge in party membership to 450,000 and £4.6 million collected in 48 hours from the £25 fee paid by registered supporters are signs that he is the person who can deliver this.

People cannot agree whether Jeremy Corbyn represents the past or the future, which certainly makes the present very exciting. But if MPs are too busy to represent us the way we want to be represented, we may all need to get more involved in politics from now on.

 

 

EU referendum

The increasing complaints about the counter-productive nature of most “expert” interventions in the EU Referendum Debate appear to have had no effect on their supply. In one of the latest, the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) has commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to research The Impact of Possible Migration Scenarios after ‘Brexit’ on the State Pension System. Concerned that this might be ignored, the IFoA helpfully released the following key findings in a press release:

  • Reducing annual migration numbers, for example by c150,000*, could cost the State more than £3bn per year by 2032 and more than £8bn per year by 2057
  • To offset this funding gap in 2057 might require a further increase in the State Pension Age from 68 to 69 or a reduction in State Pension of £300 per year
  • Government could also use policy levers such as National Insurance contributions, or the level of State Pension benefits to mitigate against the net increase in Government costs
  • Raising the potential earnings profile of immigrants could also mitigate, or even reverse, impacts

The report itself adds two important caveats to these findings. First, the net effect on the government budget is not statistically significant. Second, the increase in total state retirement benefits over the time period considered, without any change in migration policy, of around £94b dwarfs the higher costs due to any changes in migration scenarios considered. Only the second of these made it into the press release, several paragraphs down.

I am guessing, perhaps unfairly, that most of the UK press will only use what is in the press release. In which case they will not understand that the baseline scenario against which the six migration scenarios the report studies is itself based on Office of National Statistics (ONS) Principal Population Projections which show net migration falling to 185,000 from 2020-21, and remaining constant at that level in subsequent years. Now this may happen but, considering how much attention is being devoted to the immigration question within the EU currently, I would regard it as highly unlikely to represent the non-Brexit position. Which makes the comparisons rather meaningless. And there is of course the problem of projections to anything like 2057 which I have commented on before. The immediate conversion of financial scenarios into specific policy responses like changes to the State Pension Age is, I am afraid, pure Project Fear behaviour.

I am not a Brexiteer, but the constant barrage of “evidence” like this is not going to win any arguments for the Remain side in my view, which is shared by many others. My view is that Brexit might finally make it clear to us that our problems of democracy are at a national level rather than an EU one, as suggested in Chris Bickerton’s excellent The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide. This might be worth a certain amount of economic sacrifice. On the other hand staying in the EU might make action in areas where cooperation is required – such as climate change, pollution, migration and tax reform – more likely, although the EU’s track record internationally is mixed here. EU membership probably makes some kinds of policy change more difficult, perhaps encouraging more thought before radical change.

What has become obvious is that announcing the Referendum has done nothing for the discussion except to turn it into an adversarial one. I have lost count of the number of online petitions I have been invited to sign up to by people who have lost sight of the need to have a discussion and just want their side to win at any cost.

If enough people voting for a particular outcome do so with a clear reason about what they would do to improve our society after the vote, we will have won whatever the outcome. If it’s Brexit, we will need to roll up our sleeves, as we will have made life more difficult for ourselves in purely economic terms, but if the feeling of control and responsibility for sorting out our national problems energises a large segment of the population it will be a win. If it’s Remain, but we realise that the EU cannot continue as it is and that a massive shift of control away from the elite political class of all nations is required, whether via DiEM25 or something perhaps more relevant to the concerns of the UK, that would also be a win. What we need above all is for the most energetic and innovative people amongst us to decide to vote and follow it through.

The only way we will lose is if we vote for Remain and then just continue as we are.

So, if anyone under the age of 30 is reading this, I would encourage them to:

  1. Register to vote (you have until Tuesday 7 June) and can do this here;
  2. Stop listening to my generation and that of my parents (if you are, your deference to age and experience in this case is misplaced!); and
  3. Make up your own minds.

And whatever we all decide on 23 June, we can make it work out okay for all of us. Of that I am quite certain.

Go on pick a card

It is election time for the UK Actuarial Profession. The annual Council election is our chance to have our voices heard and to help in setting the strategic direction of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA). And this year I am running!

I think the next 10 years could be one of the most formative periods the profession has seen – with politics and economics at something of a turning point globally, and the place for actuaries and the finance industry more generally within that open to question as never before. I feel, as a former pensions actuary who now works with the actuaries of the future every day, that I have something to contribute to the process of actuaries finding their place in this new world.

So if you are a member of the IFoA please watch my video below and, if you share my priorities for the profession, I would greatly appreciate your vote.

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.

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

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.

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?

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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.