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.
Public.Resource.Org SI Neg. 2001-1900. Date: na...Oblique aerial view from approximately 12,000 feet, 50 miles from the detonation site, two minutes after the detonation of a hydrogen bomb during an unidentified US atomic weapons test, circa 1950s. At this point in time, the mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet...Credit: Unknown USAF photographer. (Smithsonian Institution)

Public.Resource.Org SI Neg. 2001-1900. Date: na…Oblique aerial view from approximately 12,000 feet, 50 miles from the detonation site, two minutes after the detonation of a hydrogen bomb during an unidentified US atomic weapons test, circa 1950s. At this point in time, the mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet…Credit: Unknown USAF photographer. (Smithsonian Institution)

I have just started reading an excellent new book by Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction, where she sets out the case against devolving important decisions to mathematical models without adequate feedback loops. The opening example she gives, of a teacher fired from her job in Washington because a school feeding students into her school was manipulating test scores, makes her general point very well. I am looking forward to the chapter on insurance. However, the thought that this raised in my mind is how, increasingly, we don’t even need the algorithms and mathematical models to behave in a robotic fashion – we constantly follow rules set by others rather than using our own judgement. Indeed regulators push us more and more in this direction. They are nearly all under-staffed and over-tasked and need shortcuts to manage their workloads. And the most obvious shortcut is to focus on the very big and the very different. The very big are normally very much better staffed than the regulators and difficult to win arguments with. Regulators are therefore left with the very different. So regulators make life for the very different very difficult. And, before long, the very different no longer exist and the systemic risk in your population of banks, schools, hospitals or whatever it is has increased. What O’Neill rightly focuses on as the main danger of widely used models is their lack of a feedback loop. If nothing tells you when your model is not reflecting the world it is modelling, it will not be long before it is doing a great deal more harm than good. And when a regulators uses a model which does not rely on inputs from the system it is regulating, then the model becomes the world it is regulating, often with bizarre consequences. One of the main reasons that the 2008 crash was so dramatic is that so little was done to prevent it even as warning signs grew. This was because, in the model used to regulate banks, these warning signs didn’t exist. Unfortunately and worryingly for us, the lessons learned, in the main, were not that model-led regulation was bad, but that the models used just needed to be more complicated. Every call for what is being regulated to be simplified (by breaking them up into smaller units, in the case of banks, or simplifying the regulations themselves, rather than the regulatory arms race of measure and unintended loophole we seem doomed to keep repeating) has been resisted, resulting in a regulatory framework which becomes more bafflingly complex with every passing year. This is a process recognised in Government and there have been occasional attempts to reverse the tide. To date, with little effect. And the regulators themselves? They are cash-strapped and at the mercy of inconsistent Government policy. So we have CQC inspectors (of NHS Trusts) and Ofsted inspectors (of schools and colleges) making short visits, producing reports based on anything anyone has said to them on these short visits, allowing for no factual corrections, subject to no cross examination, just to get through their caseloads without causing headaches for their political masters, but often resulting in inconsistent scrutiny or, in some cases, in abrupt reversals in conclusions in successive inspections. At the same time, it appears clear that you can evade your financial responsibilities almost completely if you are rich and unscrupulous enough. Our regulatory systems have proved unreliable in too many areas and have in my view lost credibility as a result. So where do actuaries fit in to all this? They are one of the professions centrally involved in building, updating and interpreting models across a wide range of financial firms. Everything from the amount a firm makes in pension contributions, to the amount held in reserve by an insurer or a bank, to the detailed agreements in a corporate restructure, often involving staggering sums of money. This work cannot be carried out effectively by playing to an unreliable regulator. Upon accepting the Army-Navy Excellence Award on November 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the US Government’s Manhattan Project in Los Alamos to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons, proclaimed: “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” He realised that responsibility for the use to which your work is put can never be wholly given away to someone else. If mathematical models are to be the dominant regulatory tool of a financial world, and of the consultancies and financial firms competing in that world, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of the highly paid professionals who followed inappropriate rules rather than exercising their own expert judgement when it mattered.
Ha-Joon Chang invites you to get involved in economic debate and not leave it to the experts in the latest RSA Animate of his Economics: The User’s Guide. Well worth 12 minutes of your time!
Party membership long timeline Today I am going to talk about politics and how we tend to approach it. When I was working as an actuarial consultant we had a client who wanted to write to the local MP about how the Pension Protection Fund levy his company were paying on behalf of their admittedly poorly funded pension scheme was endangering the viability of the business itself. Our view was that it would do no harm and the letter was sent. Nothing came of the complaint, not that we had expected anything would, but the letter was responded to. And so have my letters both times I have written to my MP in a personal capacity, one of them even came back with a Minister’s letter enclosed with it. One way of looking at this is that it is fantastic. It shows democracy working for individuals and businesses at a local level about the issues they care about. A kind of democracy service. This is certainly how we are encouraged to think of it. However another way of thinking about it is that this is just bonkers. To understand this, consider some numbers. There are not nearly enough GPs, according to the latest of many similar reports of a “looming health crisis”. How many full-time equivalent GPs are there per 1,000 patients per practice in England? 0.58, meaning that on average there is 1 GP for every 1,724 patients. GPs frequently complain that the standard 10 minute consultation this necessitates is not enough time to fully explore their health. Compare this with the position of MPs, another profession which runs “surgeries”. There are 650 MPs to cover the whole of the UK. That’s one for every 92,000 people, or 68,000 voters. It is therefore faintly ludicrous to expect MPs to be able to:
  • write to a relevant department or official;
  • send a letter to an appropriate Minister;
  • make a personal appointment to discuss an issue;
  • make an issue public; or
  • speak at an event concerning an issue.
for each and every one of his or her constituents and their businesses, as the blurb suggests. “These steps can often go a long way to providing a solution” it adds helpfully. If we were all to take up this suggestion of course, the system could not cope. And it cannot, by definition, be fair: a 92,000th of the power of an MP, even if it’s the PM, is probably not worth having in your corner, so the process MP’s use to decide who to help becomes a postcode (or, in reality, power) lottery on a much grander scale than anything we might be concerned about in the NHS. So beware of MPs who say that their minds have been made up on an issue by what can only ever be anecdotal contact with their constituents at best. Even when most of us don’t bother our MPs, they are still inundated with a level of enquiries, most misdirected, that makes it very hard for them to keep up with their parliamentary work. So it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that an entirely parliamentary approach to doing politics might not be the only option. And now the Labour Party are exploring this idea in the current leadership election. To the side now coalescing around Owen Smith, Corbyn’s policy-making on the hoof and lack of organisation and discipline at times makes him unfit to lead a party set up in 1906 to promote “socialism via parliamentary means”. To Corbyn’s supporters, the party needs to become a movement not confined to Parliament, and the sudden surge in party membership to 450,000 and £4.6 million collected in 48 hours from the £25 fee paid by registered supporters are signs that he is the person who can deliver this. People cannot agree whether Jeremy Corbyn represents the past or the future, which certainly makes the present very exciting. But if MPs are too busy to represent us the way we want to be represented, we may all need to get more involved in politics from now on.    
800px-Tata_Steel_Logo_svgThe Government has launched a consultation into what unique arrangements could be put in place purely for the British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS) so that: • It won’t be a burden on the new owner of the steel business in the UK • It won’t be a burden on the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) • It won’t be a burden on UK PLC The consultation document states that “In such a complex situation, the Government needs to listen to a wide range of opinions in order to decide what course of action we should take. We are therefore seeking views on the options and proposals set out in this paper. We would welcome both answers to the specific questions posed and also wider thoughts on the ideas discussed.” It therefore seems strange that they have chosen the period leading up to the EU Referendum to launch the consultation, when a wide range of opinions is likely to be the last thing they get. It is almost as if they are trying to bury a bad consultation. In fact it is not complicated, because this is the poor collection of options it is considering (my responses are in italics): Option 1: Use existing regulatory mechanisms to separate the BSPS ie the regulatory mechanisms which have been good enough for: • MG Rover Pension Scheme • United Industries PLC Pension Scheme – United Industries PLC section • Caithness Glass Group Benefits Plan • Denby 2001 Pension Scheme – DH Realisations Limited (formerly known as Denby Holdings Limited) segregated part • Do It All Pension Plan – Do It All Ltd Section • Allied Carpets Group Plc Pension Scheme • Polaroid (UK) Pension Fund • The Royal Worcester & Spode Pension Scheme • Woolworths Group Pension Scheme – Woolworths Group Sections 129 • British Midland Airways Limited Pension and Life Assurance Scheme – UK DB SectionRailways Pension Scheme – Relayfast Group Shared Cost Section • Royal Doulton Pension Plan – Royal Doulton (UK) Limited segregated part of section • HMV Group Pension Scheme • Industry Wide Coal Staff Superannuation Scheme – UK Coal Operations Section • Industry Wide Mineworkers Pension Scheme – UK Coal Operations Section • The Kodak Pension Plan • Saab GB Pension Plan – Saab Great Britain Limited segregated part Amongst many others (only 5,945 schemes of the original 7,800 defined benefit schemes protected by the PPF remain outside). Consultation question 1: Would existing regulatory levers be sufficient to achieve a good outcome for all concerned? Yes. These levers were good enough for all these other schemes. Apparently these are not good enough for Tata Steel. Option 2: Payment of Pension Debts Under the defined benefit pension scheme funding legislation, a sponsoring employer can chose at any time to end their relationship with the scheme – even if the scheme is in deficit. However, the employer must pay to do so. Tata have indicated that Tata Steel UK (TSUK) would not be able to make such a payment, and that this would be unaffordable. The usual options in this case would be: • A sale with the pension scheme • The insolvency of Tata Steel (how ridiculous this sounds shows that the required payment is not unaffordable) • A sale without the pension scheme, in which case the PPF would be looking for substantial mitigation from Tata Steel and/or a share in the company in exchange for taking on BSPS Apparently these options are not good enough for Tata Steel. Option 3: Reduction of the Scheme’s Liabilities Through Legislation The proposal would reduce the level of future inflation increases payable on all BSPS pensions in payment and deferment to a similar or slightly better level than that paid by the PPF. If adopted, this would mean that in the future existing pensioners would receive lower increases to their pensions than they would under the current scheme rules, or possibly no increases at all. Deferred members would also receive a lower increase to their preserved pension when they reached normal pension age, and would then receive the lower increases to their pension payments. This approach is not without risk – which is why it is not routinely used. Actually I am not aware it has ever been used. Although the intention would be for the scheme to take a low risk investment strategy, there is always residual longevity and investment risk, and it is possible that the scheme would fall into deficit in the future. In the event of scheme failure, the downside risk would ultimately be covered by the PPF and its levy payers. ie after all of the legislative hyperactivity for the benefit of one scheme, it could easily just end up in the PPF anyway. Question 2: Is it appropriate to make modifications of this type to members’ benefits in order to improve the sustainability of a pension scheme? No. As there is no guarantee it will improve the sustainability of the only pension scheme being considered, ie BSPS. Regulations under section 67 of the 1995 Act Section 67 of the 1995 Pensions Act (‘the subsisting rights provisions’) provides that scheme rules allowing schemes to make changes can only be used in a way which affects benefits which members have accrued if: • the changes are actuarially equivalent – this means that an actuary has certified there is no reduction in overall benefit entitlement, only in the way the benefit is paid (for example, indexation is reduced but initial pension level is increased to compensate); or • the individual member consents. Consultation question 3: Is there a case for disapplying the section 67 subsisting rights provisions for the BSPS in order to allow the scheme to reduce indexation and revaluation if it means that most (but not all) members would receive more than PPF levels of compensation? Ie they want to remove the need to get members’ consent before reducing their benefits. The answer is again no. Option 4: Transfer to a New Scheme This option would allow for bulk transfers without individual member consent to a new scheme paying lower levels of indexation and revaluation. A bulk transfer with consent has been used previously as a mechanism for managing exceptional problems around an employer and their DB scheme. However, the BSPS trustees have concerns about getting individual member consent to a transfer. The sheer size of the scheme means that getting member consent for a meaningful number of members would be difficult and the transfer would only be viable if enough members consented to transfer. Setting up a new scheme and transferring members to it may also need to be done rapidly in order to facilitate a solution to the wider issues surrounding TSUK – and this would be difficult to achieve in the necessary timescales if individual member consent to a transfer had to be achieved. Consultation question 4: Is there a case for making regulatory changes to allow trustees to transfer scheme members into a new successor scheme with reduced benefit entitlement without consent, in order to ensure they would receive better than PPF level benefits? No, as it would not ensure that they received better than PPF level benefits. Governance of the New Scheme The British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS) operates as a trust. The scheme is administered by B.S. Pension Fund Trustee Limited, a corporate trustee company set up for this purpose. The assets of the Scheme are held in the name of the trustee company and, as required by law, are separate from the assets of the employers. The trustee board has 14 members, seven are nominated by the company and seven are member-nominated trustees. The role of the trustees is to ensure that the scheme is run in accordance with the scheme’s trust deed and rules, and the pensions legal framework. The trustees’ duties are also to ensure the proper governance of the scheme and the security of members’ benefits. Consultation question 5: How would a new scheme best be run and governed? Under trust, separate from the assets of the employer, and subject to full existing pensions law. You could probably manage with considerably fewer than 14 trustees, but these should include member nominated trustees and, probably, a professional independent trustee. Consultation question 6: How might the Government best ensure that any surplus is used in the best interest of the scheme’s members? Pensions legislation already has provisions for how to apply assets to secure full benefits for members with an insurance company and deal with any surplus that occurs (it is usually set out in the scheme rules). A surplus is a highly unlikely scenario. What the Draft Regulations Would Say Disapplication of the subsisting rights provisions to the British Steel Pension Scheme Regulations (section 67) These regulations would disapply the subsisting rights provisions to changes made in relation to indexation and revaluation under the BSPS Scheme Rules. This would mean that TSUK can exercise the power in the existing scheme rules to reduce levels of indexation and future revaluation to the statutory minimum without member consent. We intend to make any disapplication of the subsisting rights provisions subject to certain conditions being met to ensure member protection is not further compromised. This is a terrible idea. Section 67 has protected many members from reductions to benefits they have already built up over the years. It should be maintained. These would include requiring the BSPS trustees to agree unanimously that the changes to indexation and revaluation would be in the best interests of the scheme members. We are also considering whether it may be appropriate to make it a condition that the Pensions Regulator agrees to the changes being implemented. Why has the Pensions Regulator not been asked for its view already? Consultation question 7: What conditions need to be met to ensure that regulations achieve the objective of allowing TSUK to reduce the levels of indexation and revaluation payable on future payment of accrued pension in the BSPS without the need for member consent, balancing the need to ensure that member’s rights are not unduly compromised? The objective is inappropriate. Disapplication of section 67 should be abandoned. Consultation question 8: What conditions need to be met to ensure that regulations achieve the objective of allowing trustees to transfer members to a new scheme without the need for member consent, balancing the need to ensure that members’ rights are not unduly compromised. They can’t. And this therefore shouldn’t be attempted. All in all, a very bad consultation rushed out under cover of a much higher profile campaign.
EU referendum The increasing complaints about the counter-productive nature of most “expert” interventions in the EU Referendum Debate appear to have had no effect on their supply. In one of the latest, the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) has commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to research The Impact of Possible Migration Scenarios after ‘Brexit’ on the State Pension System. Concerned that this might be ignored, the IFoA helpfully released the following key findings in a press release:
  • Reducing annual migration numbers, for example by c150,000*, could cost the State more than £3bn per year by 2032 and more than £8bn per year by 2057
  • To offset this funding gap in 2057 might require a further increase in the State Pension Age from 68 to 69 or a reduction in State Pension of £300 per year
  • Government could also use policy levers such as National Insurance contributions, or the level of State Pension benefits to mitigate against the net increase in Government costs
  • Raising the potential earnings profile of immigrants could also mitigate, or even reverse, impacts
The report itself adds two important caveats to these findings. First, the net effect on the government budget is not statistically significant. Second, the increase in total state retirement benefits over the time period considered, without any change in migration policy, of around £94b dwarfs the higher costs due to any changes in migration scenarios considered. Only the second of these made it into the press release, several paragraphs down. I am guessing, perhaps unfairly, that most of the UK press will only use what is in the press release. In which case they will not understand that the baseline scenario against which the six migration scenarios the report studies is itself based on Office of National Statistics (ONS) Principal Population Projections which show net migration falling to 185,000 from 2020-21, and remaining constant at that level in subsequent years. Now this may happen but, considering how much attention is being devoted to the immigration question within the EU currently, I would regard it as highly unlikely to represent the non-Brexit position. Which makes the comparisons rather meaningless. And there is of course the problem of projections to anything like 2057 which I have commented on before. The immediate conversion of financial scenarios into specific policy responses like changes to the State Pension Age is, I am afraid, pure Project Fear behaviour. I am not a Brexiteer, but the constant barrage of “evidence” like this is not going to win any arguments for the Remain side in my view, which is shared by many others. My view is that Brexit might finally make it clear to us that our problems of democracy are at a national level rather than an EU one, as suggested in Chris Bickerton’s excellent The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide. This might be worth a certain amount of economic sacrifice. On the other hand staying in the EU might make action in areas where cooperation is required – such as climate change, pollution, migration and tax reform – more likely, although the EU’s track record internationally is mixed here. EU membership probably makes some kinds of policy change more difficult, perhaps encouraging more thought before radical change. What has become obvious is that announcing the Referendum has done nothing for the discussion except to turn it into an adversarial one. I have lost count of the number of online petitions I have been invited to sign up to by people who have lost sight of the need to have a discussion and just want their side to win at any cost. If enough people voting for a particular outcome do so with a clear reason about what they would do to improve our society after the vote, we will have won whatever the outcome. If it’s Brexit, we will need to roll up our sleeves, as we will have made life more difficult for ourselves in purely economic terms, but if the feeling of control and responsibility for sorting out our national problems energises a large segment of the population it will be a win. If it’s Remain, but we realise that the EU cannot continue as it is and that a massive shift of control away from the elite political class of all nations is required, whether via DiEM25 or something perhaps more relevant to the concerns of the UK, that would also be a win. What we need above all is for the most energetic and innovative people amongst us to decide to vote and follow it through. The only way we will lose is if we vote for Remain and then just continue as we are. So, if anyone under the age of 30 is reading this, I would encourage them to:
  1. Register to vote (you have until Tuesday 7 June) and can do this here;
  2. Stop listening to my generation and that of my parents (if you are, your deference to age and experience in this case is misplaced!); and
  3. Make up your own minds.
And whatever we all decide on 23 June, we can make it work out okay for all of us. Of that I am quite certain.
Go on pick a card It is election time for the UK Actuarial Profession. The annual Council election is our chance to have our voices heard and to help in setting the strategic direction of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA). And this year I am running! I think the next 10 years could be one of the most formative periods the profession has seen – with politics and economics at something of a turning point globally, and the place for actuaries and the finance industry more generally within that open to question as never before. I feel, as a former pensions actuary who now works with the actuaries of the future every day, that I have something to contribute to the process of actuaries finding their place in this new world. So if you are a member of the IFoA please watch my video below and, if you share my priorities for the profession, I would greatly appreciate your vote.
pension statement They plop through the letterbox about once a year. Pension statements. They tell you what your units in the various funds you are invested in were worth at some recent date (if you have a defined contribution (DC) pension – I am not talking about defined benefit (DB) pensions today as there are far fewer consequences of not making any decisions with these). They also tell you the estimated yearly pension at your Normal Retirement Date, based on the Statutory Money Purchase Illustration (SMPI) assumptions about what will happen over the intervening years, some of which are set out in the statement. However, for many it is even more scary than the bank statements they leave unopened for six months or their insurance renewals. Why is that? Well it seems that pensions tick all the boxes for emotional “fear factors” that make some potential threats feel scarier than others:
  • Human-made risks scare us more than natural ones. The basic reasoning is perhaps that natural things have been around for longer and therefore “stood the test of time”. That piece of paper with your pensions details on it is as man-made a thing as things come. And the more that pension providers seek to make them look slick and professional, with brightly coloured diagrams and soundbites extracted from longer bits of text, the more new and untrustworthy they can seem. Ingenious ways of hedging your investment risk within a pension fund which cannot be easily explained are also likely to make it feel more “unnatural” than a more direct investment.
  • Imposed risks scare us more than those we take voluntarily. So one of the consequences of auto-enrolment may have been to make pensions appear as less of a voluntary process. Also the more restrictions that are placed on the investments you hold, the less control you will feel you have because:
    • Some “expert” is needed to explain the restrictions to you;
    • The restrictions almost inevitably mean that you need to behave in a different way to how you would have done otherwise (otherwise the restriction would not have been necessary). This might mean you have to put more money into it than you had intended, or in a different place to where you would have chosen or have to wait longer before you can take it out again.
  • Risks to children scare us more. Newspapers and online articles are full of stories about how much worse off our children are likely to be as a result of threats to our pensions system: whether this is the retreat of defined benefit pensions or the reform of the state pension or the collapse of capitalism.
  • We subconsciously weigh possible harms against potential benefits. This is the one to which pensions are particularly vulnerable. The harms are immediately obvious: money that we could be spending now on things which are important to us now are instead being funnelled away into a fund to which we have no immediate access. The benefits are uncertain, particularly now most of us are in DC arrangements, even within the current set of rules governing how pension schemes operate. But on top of this uncertainty is yet another layer of uncertainty concerning how those rules might change before we get our hands on our cash. We feel powerless and at the mercy of forces we don’t understand.
So what is to be done? I think that pension providers could address many of these fears by doing two things:
  • Keep it simple. Only introduce complexity when the benefits are obvious enough to be explained simply. More complex financial instruments may be appropriate for corporate pensions (although often they are not). They are almost never appropriate for retail pensions. Make sure every fund you offer has an easily accessible factsheet which covers what it invests in, what it is trying to do and how much it will cost. At the end of each year you should be told how much interest (why do we use different words for fund growth depending on where it is invested?) you have earned on your fund and how much you have been charged for having your money in that fund. Just like you would on your bank account. Some funds do this very well already.
  • Keep restrictions to the absolute minimum and let everyone know about them in advance. If someone is not going to be able to take advantage of some particular aspect of the pension freedoms now available, don’t wait until they try and do so. Tell them now. Few, if any, funds currently offer this.
Unfortunately there is probably not much that can be done about future pensions uncertainty. The future of the global economy is very uncertain and the UK’s economic future equally so. There is no political consensus over economic policy and the rules by which pensions are governed in the future seem likely to change in unpredictable ways over the next 30 years. But the simpler the products are, the easier they will be to regulate and the less likely they are to be affected in unforeseen ways by future changes. I have deliberately avoided the question of pensions guidance or advice. This is because I do not think that people fear pensions advice itself, they fear paying for advice that they don’t understand and then making bad decisions as a result. This is a debilitating fear which is often discussed as if it suddenly struck as an individual approached retirement. In reality it has grown year by year as people feel powerless to affect what happens to the money everyone tells them they have been paid but which they have never seen other than in this annual pensions statement when it lands on the mat. Take the fear out of that and it would change the pensions environment completely.
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.