Steve Webb, the pensions minister, thinks we only have 12 months to save DB but that, in its current form, it might be like trying to apply electrodes to a corpse. Unfortunately his prescription – Defined Ambition (DA) – is still very much undefined and therefore, as yet, unambitious.

Pension active membership

Number of members of private sector occupational pension schemes: by membership type and benefit structure, 2004-11

Source: Office of National Statistics

The graph above shows how dramatic the decline of DB active membership (ie members still accruing benefits in defined benefit schemes which provide a pension defined in advance, where the balance of funding is committed to by the employer in nearly all cases) has been in recent years. It also shows, contrary to some reports, that there has been no advance in DC active membership (ie defined contribution schemes where only the contributions are defined in advance and final benefits are at the mercy of financial markets and annuity rates). It just hasn’t fallen much. In fact, if all of the DC active members had instead been offered DB active membership, the number of DB active members would still have fallen.

So it is a crisis and it appears to be those who are opting for no pension scheme at all who are really growing in number. The auto-enrolment programme starting to be rolled out across the country will have an impact, after all if you keep asking the question and don’t take no for an answer you will attract customers – just ask the banks who were selling PPI cover.

But I wonder if the crowd avoiding pensions of any sort up until now might perhaps have more wisdom than those trying to pile them into schemes whether they want to or not. Because DC has to date been a very poor offer for most, with very low levels of contributions. The latest survey by the ONS of households between 2008 and 2010 where the primary earners are between 50 and 64 revealed that median pension savings in DB schemes were equivalent to around six times those in DC schemes. And the minimum contributions under auto-enrolment of 8% of qualifying earnings from all sources with all risks staying with the member is unlikely to change this massive inequality quickly if at all.

If you have very little money, and the pension option means that your pension contributions are likely to be bounced around by the markets for a few decades before dribbling out in whatever exchange the insurance companies are prepared to give you, is it irrational to think that you might want to keep some access to your savings along the way? The following graph suggests most people don’t think so.

Decile savings

Breakdown of aggregate saving, where household head is aged 50 to 64: by deciles and components, 2008/10

Source: Office of National Statistics

This graph suggests that people do save for a pension where they can, but if there is not much to go round, they also want some more liquid savings. The problem is not that they are not saving for a pension, it is that they have no assets at all.

So what is to be done? Clearly campaigning for a living wage needs to continue and be intensified, and reductions to benefits are going to make the problem worse. But fiddling around with marginally different forms of DC arrangements for decades will also be disastrous. Think not just a few naked pensioners on the beach as we had before the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) came in for DB members. Think armies of them with a genuine grievance against a society that did this to them. And what will have been done to them is to suggest that by paying 4% of their salary into a pension scheme, they have somehow safeguarded their future. Good employers are not going to want to be associated with scenes (or schemes) like this.

DC contributions need to be much higher while they remain so risky, which is why DB schemes target asset levels much higher than their best estimate of the cost in most cases, but clearly DB levels are too high for nearly all employers. There is not much time, as Steve Webb says, so let’s stop messing around and pick an alternative.

I vote for cash balance (CB). There are many different sorts but the feature they all have in common is a defined cash sum available at retirement which members can then take in a combination of lump sum, annuity and drawdown (ie keeping the sum in the scheme and drawing income from it as needed). It means that the bumping around by the markets is taken on the chin by your employer not you, but only until retirement (the type of risk employers are used to managing in their businesses anyway), and the risk of you living longer (reflected in lower annuity rates) when you get to retirement is your problem. It seems reasonable to me. Whoever thought that an employer should be concerned with how long you are going to live (unless they were the mafia)? Good employers could also offer a broking service for annuity purchase to avoid the problem of pensioners not shopping around adequately.

There are a few of these in existence already, although only 8,000 members in total benefit from them so far. In the case of Morrisons, the guarantee is 16% of salary a year, uprated in line with CPI. This is one of the current minimum levels to be accepted as an auto-enrolment plan. Alternatively you could drop to 8% a year, but uprate it by CPI plus 3.5% pa. Either would be a huge improvement for someone with limited means to relying on what 8% of earnings pa might amount to in 40 years’ time, and unable to take the risk that the answer is not much.

But the first step is to establish CB as what is meant by DA and that will need Government support to work. I propose:

  • CB to be promoted as one of the main options for an auto-enrolment scheme, equivalent to the 8% minimum but without total risk transfer to the employee.
  •  Develop a colour coding scheme for a combination of benefit level and risk transfer, with DC at minimum auto-enrolment at the red end, minimum CB at amber running through green to the equivalent of a public sector DB scheme or better as (NHS) blue.
  • Sort out the PPF position on CB. They currently treat them as full DB schemes. Scale down PPF levies to reflect the lower level of risk that they present to the PPF.
  • Simplify the pensions legislation around CB to reflect the fact that the scheme’s responsibility for managing risk ends at retirement.

And we really need to start now!

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