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.

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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.

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Trust me. I'M AN ACTUARY!

Trust me. I’M AN ACTUARY!

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

Experts and the Problem of P2C2Es

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this has to do with pensions

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

2006 code

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

2014 code

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

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

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

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




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