NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fiscal space is defined as the difference between a nation’s sovereign debt-to-GDP ratio and the limit beyond which the nation will default unless policymakers take fiscal steps that are outside of anything they have done historically. That limit is sometimes referred to as the fiscal cliff, just to ram home the imagery of fixed physical limits beyond which disaster beckons.

How much fiscal space does the UK have? Moody’s have an answer, which depends most heavily on when you ask the question. In September 2019 it was as follows:

This shows the UK with a fiscal space (the “dynamic” means they assume interest rates increase as borrowing does, due to “crowding out” arguments – ie government borrowing pushing up the price of borrowing for everyone – so beloved of most economists) of around 175% of GDP, with this then projected to fall over the following 5 years as rates “normalized”. While the cost of borrowing seems to be dynamic, the actual borrowing itself is not allowed to be in these calculations – it is assumed that they just add to debt without increasing the revenue components of the primary balance.

Well of course then we had 2020, at which point (June 2020) Moody’s appear to have stopped talking about fiscal space and instead are now focusing on something called “debt affordability”. What happened to dynamism and crowding out? Not explained:

However despite this triumph of debt affordability, they then produce another graph to indicate that governments still need to be bearing down on debt to GDP ratios:

As they say in the document “rating implications will depend on governments’ ability to reverse debt trajectories ahead of potential future shocks”. Remember this was in June 2020. Let’s also remind ourselves of another graph:

Requiring governments to reverse debt trajectories in this environment is insane and likely to result in more deaths if not ignored. However as recently as last month in their issuer comment for the UK they said:

However, compared to the government’s March budget (that was quickly overtaken by events), there are some initial signs that fiscal policy outside of investment is likely to be less expansive than previously announced. What remains unclear is whether this ambition will be able to withstand the political pressures that seem to be inevitable given the government’s previous commitments. Even before the Spending Review, longer-term spending commitments for health, education, and defence had already been announced. Together, these three areas account for around 60% of total expenditure.

I have been hard on Moody’s in this piece, they are most certainly not alone. But this attempt to divorce sovereign debt levels from what is actually going on in countries needs to stop as does the constant discounting of the value of any government spending at all. Political pressures to spend more on health and education are not always things that governments need to “withstand” in order to look good in a Moody’s graph. There are far more important things at stake.

 

I previously wrote a blog in 2013 based around the Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistical bulletin entitled Estimates of the Very Old (including Centenarians), 2002-2011, England and Wales, which summarises how the proportions living to 90 years old and above have changed since 1981. It showed us a population living within a population: Nonagenarian (ie the over 90s) England and Wales (NEW) within the full population of England and Wales. I thought it might be time for an update, based on the latest ONS bulletin from September 2020, which now covers the period 2002-2019.

There have been quite a few changes. There are still more women than men in NEW, although the overall ratio has reduced from 2.7:1 in 2011 to around 2:1 in 2019 (see below). The NEW population, which was somewhere between the sizes of Malta’s and Cape Verde’s full population in 2011, has now just passed that of Western Sahara and has its sights firmly set on passing Luxembourg’s population next.

The population of NEW is still growing far more quickly than that of England and Wales, or indeed the UK, with a 25% increase between 2011 and 2019. However, with the NEW population you need to look beyond just improvements in public health and medical advances to the time at which they were being born. For instance, the number of people alive at almost every age from 90 years and above was higher in 2019 than in 2018, but with by far the largest increase at age 99 years (62.2%). This was caused by a big increase in births from the second half of 1919, compared to the previous year, as a result of the end of World War 1!

The bulletin ends with a sombre reminder that, although we would normally expect the large increase in those aged 99 years in 2019 to translate into a record number of centenarians in 2020, other factors, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to have had a significant impact. COVID-19 deaths are highest for the 85 years and over age group. Public Health England have calculated excess deaths in the over 85 population at 11,656 between 21 March and 18 December 2020 (with 13,844 categorised as COVID deaths, suggesting a drop in excess deaths from other causes). This compares with the 2019 NEW population of 605,181, an increase of 21,157 on 2018.

I am an actuary. I have worked for over 22 years either in, or serving in some capacity (apart from the two years I spent learning to be a teacher), the finance industry. I spent the 12 years before that mostly either bringing up children or writing unpublishable novels, with some early career experiences in the security printing industry thrown in which I thank principally for teaching me early that no way of doing things is for ever. Seven of my former employers no longer exist, mostly swallowed up in subsequent corporate transactions. I am increasingly convinced that a “career” like mine is no longer possible for the next generation, and my most recent evidence for this is based predominantly on two excellent books.

The first is The Finance Curse by Nicholas Shaxson. This demonstrates, convincingly, that a huge part of our current malaise as a nation, whether it is the loss of control over our own affairs, or the current, Victorian, levels of inequality or the fact that we don’t appear to invest in any of things we need to prosper as a society any more, can be traced back ultimately (sometimes via very cunning circuitous routes) to the Faustian pacts the City of London have lobbied the rest of us into with the rest of the world.

The second is The Pinch by David Willetts (and link to his slides – one of which is shown above – on it from 2015 here), whose central argument is that we are not attaching sufficient value to the claims of future generations, and that this is an intellectual failure of my generation: the one that spawned both me and Boris Johnson. I will declare an interest here: David is Chancellor at the University of Leicester, where I work as an actuarial science lecturer, in addition to all of his many other achievements and will be speaking at the Leicester Actuarial Science Society on 11 March on intergenerational fairness linked to a new edition of his book.

So for any highly talented twenty-somethings looking to make his or her mark in the world (and I have been privileged to meet and teach many of you over the last few years), I would, very hesitantly (because you probably don’t need me of all people to be giving you an agenda), suggest that the following things might be a priority for your generation:

  1. Don’t be distracted by the short term. Most people now want action on climate change, for instance, which has been delayed to a ridiculous extent by our inability to place sufficient value on the needs of future generations. Most of the things worth working towards and campaigning on are long-term problems with solutions which require long-term patient consensus-building. Our generation have been unable to do this seriously, yours cannot afford to be so distracted.
  2. Stay focused on the big issues: What is the proper allocation of wealth between the generations? Most of the problems we fixate on, like obesity or anti-social behaviour or credit card debt are just symptoms of the breakdown of the inter-generational contract which the baby boomers (because we felt that we could do so because of our greater numbers) have visited upon our societies. We have then presumed to pass moral judgement on the generation we have so comprehensively wronged, which is of course an easier message for many in our generation to hear but is one of the main reasons we have become too distracted to deal with the big long-term issues that we face as a society.
  3. Don’t make it all about good guys and bad guys. It is easy to vilify individuals in this great inter-generational psychodrama that we have all been living through, and it might make you feel momentarily more empowered or encouraged as a result, but in the long term the power is with you anyway and you will be more effective if you make it about good and bad systems. Good systems pursue the interests of our own people, whereas bad systems pursue the interests of people who need to be persuaded to invest in our society but have no real long term interest in doing so: ie other societies who clearly need to prioritise their own people’s needs and tax avoiding multinational companies and individuals.

I would like to finish with the concluding sentences of The Pinch:

The modern condition is supposed to be the search for meaning in a world where unreflective obligations to institutions or ways of doing things are eroded. The link between generations past, present and future is a source of meaning which is as natural as could be. It is both cultural and economic, personal and ethical. We must understand and honour those ties which bind the generations.

In the nine years since The Pinch was published we have done the very opposite of honouring the ties which bind the generations. We must hope that the generation following us have more wisdom.

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA), through its Actuarial Research Centre, is inviting research teams and organisations to submit proposals for a research project on modelling pension funds under climate change. The research is intended to address the need for pensions actuaries to understand the potential magnitude of climate change impacts, and hence if and when climate change might be relevant to the funding advice they give. What areas in particular might be useful to look at through the lens of a pension actuary?

The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is around 400 parts per million by volume (ppmv), or a little over 140% of the generally accepted pre-industrial level of 280 ppmv. What level we can cap this at depends on how we respond in every country in the world. There are therefore many opinions about it:

Source: IPCC AR5: Fig 2.08-01 

Here RCPs stand for Representative Concentration Pathways, and are meant to be consistent with a wide range of possible changes in future anthropogenic (i.e. human) greenhouse gas emissions. RCP 2.6 assumes that emissions peak between 2010-2020, with emissions declining substantially thereafter. Emissions in RCP 4.5 peak around 2040, then decline. In RCP 6.0, emissions peak around 2080, then decline. In RCP 8.5, emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century. What this means is that the best we can hope for now is a scenario somewhere between RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5, with the US Government’s Environmental Protection Agency appearing to believe that RCP 6.0 is the most realistic scenario. As you can see, RCP 4.5 assumes an eventual equilibrium at around 500 ppm, or about 180% of pre-industrial levels and RCP 6.0 an equilibrium at around 700 ppmv, or about 250% ppmv.

Equilibrium climate sensitivity is defined as the change in global mean near-surface air temperature that would result from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration. A doubling of the pre-industrial level to 560 ppmv (ie between the RCP 4.5 and RCP 6.0 assumption) has been projected to result in a range of possible outcomes:

Source: IPCC 2007 4th Assessment Report, Working Group 1 (Figure 9-20-1)

This is certainly a bit of a we know zero kind of graph, but has worryingly fat tails indicating reasonable chances of 10 degrees plus added to average global temperatures. To put this in context, let’s use the approach taken in Mark Lynas’ excellent “Six Degrees“, where the combined research into the effects of each additional degree above pre-industrial global temperatures is collated to allow us to view them as distinct possible futures. Some examples are as follows:

One degree

We are nearly here (around 0.8ᵒ so far):

  • Return of the “Mid-west American dust bowl” but with greater vengeance
  • Increase in hurricane activity
  • Loss of low lying islands, eg Tuvalu

Two degrees

The “safe” level we are trying to limit increases to:

  • Release of greenhouse gases begin to alter the oceans. May render some parts of southern oceans toxic to Ca CO3 and thus to one of life’s essential building blocks, plankton.
  • Heatwaves like 2003 which killed 35,000 people in Europe and led to crop losses of $12 billion and forest fires costing $1.5 billion will occur almost every other summer.
  • Crippling droughts can be anticipated in Los Angeles and California
  • From Nebraska to Texas the anticipated drought would be many times worse than the 1930s “dust bowl” phenomenon.
  • Polar bears would probably become rapidly extinct.
  • Mediterranean countries will become drier and hotter with significant water shortages.
  • IPCC estimate sea level rise of 18 to 59 cms.
  • Monsoons would increase in India and Bangladesh leading to mass migration of its populations.
  • International food price stability will have to be agreed to prevent widespread starvation.

Three degrees

  • Africa will be split between the north which will see a recovery of rainfall and the south which becomes drier. This drier southern phase will be beyond human adaptation. Wind speeds will double leading to serious erosion of the Kalahari desert.
  • Indian monsoon rains will fail. ·
  • The Himalayan glaciers provide the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers. In the early stages of global warming these glaciers will release more water but eventually decreasing by up to 90%. Pakistan will suffer most, as will China’s hydro-electric industry.
  • Amazonian rain forest basin will dry our completely with consequent bio-diversity disasters
  • Australia will become the world’s driest nation.
  • New York will be subject to storm surges. At 3° sea levels will rise to up to 1 metre above present levels.
  • In London, a 1 in 150 year storm will occur every 7 or 8 years by 2080.
  • Hurricanes will devastate places as far removed as Texas, the Caribbean and Shanghai.
  • A 3° rise will see more extreme cyclones tracking across the Atlantic and striking the UK, Spain, France and Germany. Holland will become very vulnerable.
  • By 2070 northern Europe will have 20% more rainfall and at the same time the Mediterranean will be slowly turning to a desert.
  • More than half Europe’s plant species will be on the “red list”
  • The IPCC in its 2007 report concluded that all major planetary granaries will require adaptive measures at 2.5° temperature rise regardless of precipitation rates. US southern states worst affected, Canada may benefit. The IPCC reckons that a 2.5° temperature rise will see food prices soar.
  • Population transfers will be bigger than anything ever seen in the history of mankind.

Three degrees obviously needs to be avoided, let alone ten, but the problem is that business as usual for the finance industry may not be the way to get there. As some recent research has suggested, financial market solutions to environmental problems, such as carbon trading, may be ineffective. As the authors state: By highlighting the tenuous and conflicting relation between finance and production that shaped the early history of the photovoltaics industry, the article raises doubts about the prevailing approach to mitigate climate change through carbon pricing. Given the uncertainty of innovation and the ease of speculation, it will do little to spur low-carbon technology development without financial structures supporting patient capital.

Patient capital is something developed economies have been seeking for some time, whether it is for infrastructure investment, development projects or new energy sources, and no good way to create it within the UK private sector has been found yet, including various initiatives to try and get an increase in pension scheme investment in infrastructure projects. It therefore seems to me to be the wrong question to ask what impacts climate change are likely to have on the assumptions used for pension scheme funding, when it is the impact of the speculation which pension scheme funding encourages which is one of the main drivers of our economies towards the worst possible climate change outcomes.

A more productive research question in my view would be to bring in legislators and pensions lawyers as well as environmental scientists and others researching and thinking in this area alongside actuaries to look at how we could change the regulatory framework within which pension scheme funding and investment within other financial institutions where actuaries are central takes place. There is already research into what changes may be necessary to international law to reflect the new Anthropocene era the planet has entered, where the dominant feature is the impact of human activity on the environment. In my view this should be extended to the UK legislative and regulatory landscape too.

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.

For a brief period this week, before the Panama leaks brought everyone back in the room, one of the BBC’s main headlines was that a change to the UK State Pension was projected to make around three-quarters of people currently in their 20s and two-thirds of those currently in their 30s worse off than under the current arrangements. Figures of £19,000 and £17,000 “over the course of their retirement” were bandied around.

The reason the analysis had been carried out by the Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) was that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is required to carry out an impact assessment of such proposed changes and had given the PPI the task.

First of all, the full summary of the analysis, coverage of which on the BBC has at least started to become a little more measured by today, is as follows:

PPI nSP

As you can see, the numbers that came out were weekly losses of up to £17 per week for some groups and weekly gains of up to £13 per week for others. These numbers were themselves based on complicated projections about how benefit changes would be phased in and also how much the State Second Pension would pay people many decades into the future (the DWP paper can be found here). They were then aggregated by multiplying by the number of weeks in retirement until the pensioner was expected to die, based on the current State Pension Age timetable and the principal projections from the ONS 2015 Life Tables. The total amounts expected to be paid to people in retirement, however, were not (for those in their 20s this would be around 24 x 52 x 155.65 (the start rate for the new State Pension) as a minimum = £194,250 in 2015 terms). Neither was any explanation made of just how many years people were being projected to live. For £17 a week to translate into £21,000, the person currently in their 20s will need to be in retirement for nearly 24 years. It is not clear exactly when this person is expected to retire: the current tables only go up to a date of birth of 6 April 1978 (when State Pension Age is expected to be 68) with a vague intention to increase it to 69 by the late 2040s. An assumption of a retirement age of 69 looks consistent with the projections, which indicate a life expectancy at that age of 22.95 years for males and 24.81 years for females born in 1995.

And that last bit leads me on to why this particular news story is in my view just foolish. I tend to get a bit crotchety whenever anyone projects anything as a fact to a date beyond my personal life expectancy (less than 33 more years, according to the ONS). We are talking about people being worse off in the 2050s and 2060s. Here are a few more projections for you with those kinds of timelines:

  • World population will be 9 billion by 2050 (UN – currently it’s 7 billion)
  • Total energy demand in CO2 equivalent doubles from current levels by 2060 (IPCC)
  • Banking assets in London exceed 9 times UK GDP by 2050 (Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England)
  • 60% of government bonds across all countries will be classified as junk by 2050 (Standard & Poors)

The vast majority of people are going to be better off who retire in the next 15 years (at least in terms of their State Pension), as will most people retiring in the decade after that. Beyond that we are in the region of the unknowable – almost certainly a very different-looking world which will have required several further adjustments to state pensions before we get there. So please let’s not waste time having foolish arguments about made up winners and losers.

I wanted to share this lovely account of Vonnegut’s story shapes because it is one very powerful way to categorise different outcomes and, as such, potentially a very interesting way of illustrating them and their implications. I feel sure I will be returning to this theme soon.

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories

From Visually.

 

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

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.

The response to the consultation on the Budget pension proposals has much to welcome in it. The Government appears to have listened to the arguments that their concerns about the impact on financial markets of the reforms bordered on paranoia, and have agreed to continue allowing private sector defined benefit schemes and funded public sector schemes to process transfers. They have committed to continuing to consult on the idea of extending the new freedoms to defined benefit schemes themselves, which would avoid the need for a lot of expensive fee-generating transfers into defined contribution arrangements.

And yet. The section on the guaranteed guidance suggests that, despite the opinions expressed in the consultation, the Government is still primarily focused on guidance “at the point of retirement” despite the probability that this is likely to become just one of the criticial retirement phases following these reforms. And the reform of pensions legislation seems overly concentrated on facilitating innovations in annuities rather than allowing the level legislative playing field between different forms of pension provision that would be required to prevent the death of defined ambition.

But the real problem I have with the consultation response concerns the minimum pension age. A point i have made before. Currently 55, the Government has decided to increase this to 57 by 2028. I think this is a mistake. Why promote freedom in the form you take your benefits but not when you take your benefits?

And the need for this freedom is evident. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) release on healthy life expectancy at birth by local authority suggests that, in many areas, this may condemn people to work until they are sick.

Here is the graph for males in local authorities where the healthy life expectancy (HLE) is less than the state pension age (SPA):

HLE males

And the equivalent graph for females:

HLE females

For each local authority area you need the red line to be above the minimum pension age to be 95% sure the average member of its population is able to retire, even if only partially, in good health. For the males, Blackburn, Blackpool, Islington and Tower Hamlets already have red lines below a minimum pension age of 55. Increase this to 57 and the number of red lines below multiplies alarmingly. And this is just an average – many will have life expectancies well below this.

Of course we assume life expectancy will increase between now and 2028, but healthy life expectancy? One of the problems is that it has not been measured for very long, and there have been disagreements about how it should be measured. As the King’s Fund shows, in 2005 a change to the methodology caused healthy life expectancy to plunge by 3 years, suggesting a rather optimistic approach previously. The ONS methodology is set out here.

It seems clear to me that there is sufficient doubt around how long people around the UK are expected to remain in good health for the Government to pause before raising the minimum pension age. After all we already know how those in ill health are likely to be treated if they try to claim they can’t work.

ATOS

A flower for every person that died within 6 weeks of ATOS finding them fit for work

At times it all sounds like the joke about the visitor to Hell being shown by their PR department how the bad press had been much exaggerated. There were concerts on Wednesday afternoons and coffee mornings on Fridays, the manure was only ankle deep in many places and the eternal flames were optional. However, on accepting his place for eternal damnation, another senior devil he had never seen before walked in to announce “Ok, tea break’s over. Back on your heads!”

It would seem that tea break is over.