mobile pics Nov 2013 010Now that the Great and Good of the actuarial profession and pensions industry have launched their joint consultation with the DWP on defined ambition (DA) options, it is interesting to look at the initial response in the print media.

The first thing to note is how little of it there is. The Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph have it on the front page. The Financial Times, Guardian and Times do not. Nor do the red tops. All three headlines sit alongside photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge.

And the response varies. The Express have written what looks like a positive piece (“Bigger Better Pensions For All”) until you discover it has decided to present the launch of the consultation as an “industry shake-up” which will “spell the end of annuities”. I was a little puzzled about this at first, as the consultation is not really about annuities at all, until I realised that Steve Webb had made a speech the previous day and mentioned the FCA review of annuities. This clearly fed into the default Express editorial line better than the actual topic of the consultation. This became clearer on page 4, with the headline “’Poor value’ annuity payouts are axed in pensions shake-up” next to a big picture of a smiling Ros Altmann. There appears to be only one story possible in the Express on pensions, whatever the actual news event.

The Mail does at least focus on things that are in the consultation, concentrating on the proposals to allow final salary pensions to drop some currently guaranteed elements of benefits such as indexation and spouses’ pensions. “The Death Knell for Widows’ Pensions” is their headline, but the article beneath is fairly balanced on flexible defined benefit (DB), quoting both those highlighting the reductions to benefits the proposal would allow on the one hand, and the danger that all the remaining horses would bolt from the DB stable if changes were not made on the other.

Finally, the Telegraph. “Pensions face new blow from ministers” is their headline. The article is similarly balanced, and is the only one to make the important point that benefits already accrued would be unaffected.

The coverage of the alternatives put up for consultation is patchy. Strangely the Express does best here, despite its desperation to make it a story about the death of the annuity, it does mention in passing collective defined contribution (DC) and guaranteed DC. Otherwise the focus is exclusively on flexible DB in both the Mail and Telegraph, and what members currently accruing non-flexible DB might lose as a result. The comparison with public sector pensions is made several times, with the Telegraph pointing out that the recent settlement on public sector pensions, which would not be removing the requirement to provide indexation and spouses’ pensions, was promised by ministers to be the last for 25 years.

So what kind of start does this represent for engaging the UK public in the debate on the future on pension provision? Mixed, I think. There will clearly be much more scrutiny on any legislative easing to current benefit guarantees than there will be to any addition of guarantees on pensions which currently have none. Perhaps this is to be expected. I do worry that cash balance may get squashed out as an option between the two camps of flexible DB and guaranteed DC – it is barely mentioned in the consultation, and can work well when coupled with a strong commitment to employee education like Morrisons have attempted.

But these are early days and the first thing everybody needs to do is respond to the consultation. Most pensions actuaries and many others will have strong views on many elements of it. So don’t leave it to your firm to do it on your behalf. The deadline is 19 December.

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