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.

There have been a lot of predictions already for 2015. The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development predicts employment in the UK increasing by half a million, GDP growth of 2.4% and earnings growth of between 1% and 2%, ie keeping its predictions reasonably close to what happened in 2014 and/or what the OBR, OECD and IMF are predicting. The annual FT economists’ survey resulted in an average conclusion amongst 90 economists that GDP growth would increase from 2.4% pa to 2.5% pa around election time and then on to 2.6% pa soon after. I could go on but I think you get the general idea – small changes around current economic statistics with a remarkable level of agreement amongst the experts. It’s enough to make you want to use these predictions to populate your models with, which is of course the general idea.

But before you get any idea that these people know more about 2015 than you do, consider what was being said about the oil price only 6 months ago in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Fiscal sustainability report. Here is the graph:

Oil predictions

Once again, there was a trend of projecting a price rather similar to the current one and a remarkable level of agreement amongst the experts. Here is what has actually happened subsequently:

Brent crude oil price

Now I don’t want to pick on these forecasters in particular, after all the futures prices indicated that these views were the overwhelming consensus. But the oil price is a fundamental indicator in most economic models – Gavyn Davies details how the latest fall in oil prices has changed his economic forecasts here – with implications for inflation and GDP growth, and dependent upon predictions about many other areas of the political economy of the world which impact supply (eg OPEC activity, war in oil-producing areas) and demand (eg global economic activity). So an ability to see a big move in oil prices coming would seem to be a clear prerequisite for being able to make accurate economic forecasts. It seems equally clear that that ability does not exist.

Economic forecasts generally tell us that things are not going to change very much, which is fine as long as things are not changing very much but catastrophic over the short periods when they are. Despite the sensitivity testing that goes on in the background, most economic and business decisions are taken on the basis that things are not going to change very much. This puts most business leaders in the individualist camp described here, ie a philosophical position which encourages risk taking. Indeed even if some of the people advising business leaders are in the hierarchist camp, ie believing that the world is not predictable but manageable, to anyone with little mathematical education this is indistinguishable from an individualist position.

The early shots of the election campaign have so far been dominated by the Conservative Party branding Labour’s spending plans (which to the extent they are known appear to involve quite severe fiscal tightening, although not as drastically severe as Conservative ones) as likely to cause “chaos”, while the Labour Party wants to wrap itself in the supposed respectability of OBR endorsement of their economic policies. Neither of them has a plan for another economic crisis, which concerns me.

What are desperately needed are policies which are aimed at reducing our vulnerability to the sudden movements in economic variables which we never see coming. We should stop trying to predict them because we can’t. We should stop employing our brightest and best in positions which implicitly endorse the assumption that things won’t change very much because they will.

What sort of an economy would it have to be for us not to care about the oil price? That’s what we need to start thinking about.

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.

From time to time I get asked about my banner header showing successive Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts for GDP growth against actual GDP growth and, in particular, what has happened since. The OBR produces its forecasts twice a year, in March and December, and the latest one is here. However I have resisted updating my banner to date for a number of reasons:

  • The statement that economic forecasts are wildly inaccurate has become a truism that, in my view, no longer needs additional evidence in support; and
  • To be completely honest, once actual GDP growth started to increase (as was inevitable eventually, and particularly once the Government’s austerity boot’s grip on the economy’s neck started to weaken), the graph no longer looked quite as amusing.

However, I have recently started to question the first of these assumptions so here is an updated graph:

OBR update 2014

Notice how the point at which growth peaks and starts to fall is moving closer with each new forecast. This is as much a part of their models as putting back the upward path a quarter or two with each successive forecast was while that path was still actually falling. Be assured that the OBR will not forecast the next fall before it actually happens.

What concerns me is the forecast consensus which is starting to build around 2014-2018 of GDP growth between 2% and 3% pa (currently narrowing as a forecast to 2.5% – 2.8% pa). This is despite the OBR themselves making no more than a claim of 20% probability of growth staying in this range, as the following fan chart shows:

OBR fan chart

However I don’t see this fan chart turning up in many news reports and therefore my concern is of an election campaign fought under the illusion of a relatively benign economic future. I think it is likely to be anything but, particularly as the Government is likely to stick the boot back in post election whoever wins.

There seems to be no chance of stopping the OBR and others publishing their forecasts, too many people seem to value the power of the story-telling however implausible the plot, so the only course available seems to be to rubbish them as often as we can. That way it may just be possible, despite all the noise about predictions of economic recoveries and collapses we cannot possibly foretell being used to try and claim our political support more generally, to keep in mind that we know zero. And make better decisions as a result.

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.

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.

A recent piece of research into how the way people spend their money changes as they age got me thinking about how age might currently influence a particular household’s own Consumer Price Inflation (CPI).

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) produces a monthly inflation report for each major sector of expenditure, alongside the updates for CPI. The latest of these, out yesterday, showed CPI falling to 1.6%, finally less than wage inflation in the UK. However CPI is based on an average basket of goods to determine how people’s cost of living is increasing and this of course differs from person to person. In particular, the spending habits of the population, when split by the age of the household reference person (the ONS term for what used to be known as the “head of household”, when it was always the man of the house even when that house was owned by the woman: this was changed in the 90s), differ markedly.

CPI by age

The graph is based on the latest splits available of spending by the 12 categories used by the ONS to determine CPI (these are from 2012, although the overall averages these figures provide give CPI figures of 0.1% or less different from the actual figures so I think they will do for illustrative purposes).

What we can see straight away is that the gap between CPI for under 30 year old households and the 65-74 year old households has shrunk from around 0.8% pa to around 0.5% pa. However, under 30 year olds are still experiencing consistently higher inflation than the rest of the population. In fact this section of the working population are still experiencing inflation well in excess of the average wage inflation of 1.7% announced today.

The big winners since July have been the 30-44 year olds, with their households down to 1.5% pa inflation from 2.7% pa at the start of the period. And if your head of household is between 50 and 74 you are now experiencing average inflation year on year of only 1.4% pa.

The people who have not won quite so much (other than the under 30s) have been the over 75s, with their households at 2.6% pa at the start of the period and at 1.6% pa (ie bang on the average) at the end. Interestingly, the under 30s and over 75s have an average inflation above the headline rate, and everyone in between is coming in below it.

Why the differences? Well the change in the inflation rate has varied hugely amongst the 12 categories of spending.

CPI constituents

Food and non-alcoholic drink inflation has fallen from 3.9% to 1.7%, Clothing and footwear from 2.5% to 0.2% and Transport from 1.5% to -1.0%, so any sector with spending habits weighted towards these areas is going to have done better than average. The 30-64 year old households spend between 5.9% and 6.1% on Clothing and between 15.9% and 16.7% on Transport compared to the averages of 5.6% and 15.2% respectively. However the over 75s spend 18.8% of their income on Housing, fuel and power, which has seen inflation remain stubbornly high at 3.1% pa, and have higher than average spending on Health (4.6% against 1.5% average) and Household goods and services (8.3% against 6.8% average), both of which saw an increase in inflation over the period. Education appears to be in a world of its own, with inflation falling from 19.7% at the start of the period to 10.3% at the end. Perhaps fortunately for those placing a lot of faith in the headline rate, Education does not account for more than 3% of spending in any group (it’s 3% for the under 30s) and only 1.6% overall.

So, as always, the picture is more complicated than the headline rate. And, when it comes to inflation, age matters.

Source: Wikimedia Commons - Original work of the US Federal Government - public domain

Source: Wikimedia Commons – Original work of the US Federal Government – public domain

Placebos are medicines or procedures “prescribed for the psychological benefit to the patient rather than for any physiological effect” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originating as a way of doctors to clear their consulting rooms of people they did not feel could be helped with real medicine, placebos’ status, as Ted Kaptchuk makes clear, underwent a dramatic fall from acceptability after the Second World War and the general adoption of the randomised controlled trial to establish the efficacy of medical treatments. The lack of research since into the various aspects of treatment collectively called “the placebo effect” (Kaptchuk is a notable exception to this) is bemoaned by Kaptchuk, who feels an important element of successful treatments is not getting the attention it deserves.

This may be changing. After all, the impacts of placebos and nocebos (from the latin meaning “I will do you harm”, these are as mysterious as placebos, but make you feel worse rather than better) can be dramatic. Ben Goldacre does a five minute routine on them here (warning: it’s a bit rude). A recent Horizon documentary also looked at placebos, with the suggestion that they might have had an impact on the UK Olympic Team GB cyclists as well as in more serious cases like those of Parkinson’s sufferers.

Why am I talking about them? Because, in a more general way, to quote Seth Godin: “A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and our body work”. Godin asks why, if a placebo can make wine taste better and improve the way your back feels, we should be squeamish about discussing them.

The main reason, of course, is the feeling that it is unethical to promote treatments and products which have no scientific basis. This also explains why people operating within professions – whether medical or otherwise – are so wary of them. Professions see themselves, in the Baconian tradition, as bodies of people with expert knowledge using that expertise scientifically for the benefit of society. Placebos do not fit into this world view at all.

Imagine two pensions actuaries: Actuary A is a very experienced practitioner, known for years by many of his clients and a trusted source of wisdom. Everything he says, which he conveys with a practised seriousness and sonorousness, interspersed with frequent not-completely-discreet stories about the antics of other people he has met in his long career, is accepted by his clients like tablets of stone brought down from the mountain.

Actuary B is a young relatively newly qualified actuary. He has just obtained his scheme actuary certificate after toiling away in the background providing much of the analysis and calculation work underpinning the consultancy provided by the more senior actuaries in the firm, including Actuary A. He is seeking his first scheme actuary appointment, and has been trouping along to trustee meetings behind Actuary A for some carefully selected clients which the firm would like to move from A to B. B realises quickly, confirmed by his first trustee meeting where one of the trustees looks him up and down quickly and tells him that he doesn’t trust anyone with shiny shoes, that these clients have been selected because of their particular reluctance to pay the elevated charge out rate of Actuary A. Unfortunately this does not mean that they are keen to see a cheaper actuary installed on their schemes, quite the reverse in fact. The trustees who are most incredulous about the fees associated with actuarial advice seem also to be those who set most store in the mystical wisdom of Actuary A and his booming voice.

Now if I say that I think there are placebos at work here I do not mean that these clients are not receiving carefully constructed advice, appropriate to their needs and in compliance with all legislative and regulatory standards. What I am saying is that, from the lack of shine on Actuary A’s shoes, to the gravitas (I think it used to be referred to by a different generation as “bottom”) brought to bear on any particular issue by Actuary A, there are many things which do not add anything to the quality of advice (which in some cases has been almost entirely constructed by Actuary B), but which are valued at least as much (if not more, in Actuary B’s view) by the client.

As Simon Carne has pointed out recently, supported by John Reeve in this month’s The Actuary, the physical advice is subject to an ever increasing body of regulation, to the point where some clients might be deterred from even asking an actuary the time. However, everything about the environment in which the advice is conveyed – from the tone of voice; to the way the actuary sits; to the degree of direct eye contact; to the choice of gestures used; to, where meetings are held at the firm, the whole experience of someone entering the building and being led into a room deliberately designed to make an impression – is not. In the same way that a presentation is not just the collection of slides put together on PowerPoint, we need to give more recognition to the fact that the advice that is valued by clients is a lot more than that which is written or even spoken.

Although, judging from the number of times I have had to be the bearer of bad news (with the expectation that that will be the case preceding me and therefore helping me in delivering that message in many cases), perhaps the more usual term for this element of actuarial advice should be nocebo rather than placebo.