The response to the consultation on the Budget pension proposals has much to welcome in it. The Government appears to have listened to the arguments that their concerns about the impact on financial markets of the reforms bordered on paranoia, and have agreed to continue allowing private sector defined benefit schemes and funded public sector schemes to process transfers. They have committed to continuing to consult on the idea of extending the new freedoms to defined benefit schemes themselves, which would avoid the need for a lot of expensive fee-generating transfers into defined contribution arrangements.

And yet. The section on the guaranteed guidance suggests that, despite the opinions expressed in the consultation, the Government is still primarily focused on guidance “at the point of retirement” despite the probability that this is likely to become just one of the criticial retirement phases following these reforms. And the reform of pensions legislation seems overly concentrated on facilitating innovations in annuities rather than allowing the level legislative playing field between different forms of pension provision that would be required to prevent the death of defined ambition.

But the real problem I have with the consultation response concerns the minimum pension age. A point i have made before. Currently 55, the Government has decided to increase this to 57 by 2028. I think this is a mistake. Why promote freedom in the form you take your benefits but not when you take your benefits?

And the need for this freedom is evident. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) release on healthy life expectancy at birth by local authority suggests that, in many areas, this may condemn people to work until they are sick.

Here is the graph for males in local authorities where the healthy life expectancy (HLE) is less than the state pension age (SPA):

HLE males

And the equivalent graph for females:

HLE females

For each local authority area you need the red line to be above the minimum pension age to be 95% sure the average member of its population is able to retire, even if only partially, in good health. For the males, Blackburn, Blackpool, Islington and Tower Hamlets already have red lines below a minimum pension age of 55. Increase this to 57 and the number of red lines below multiplies alarmingly. And this is just an average – many will have life expectancies well below this.

Of course we assume life expectancy will increase between now and 2028, but healthy life expectancy? One of the problems is that it has not been measured for very long, and there have been disagreements about how it should be measured. As the King’s Fund shows, in 2005 a change to the methodology caused healthy life expectancy to plunge by 3 years, suggesting a rather optimistic approach previously. The ONS methodology is set out here.

It seems clear to me that there is sufficient doubt around how long people around the UK are expected to remain in good health for the Government to pause before raising the minimum pension age. After all we already know how those in ill health are likely to be treated if they try to claim they can’t work.

ATOS

A flower for every person that died within 6 weeks of ATOS finding them fit for work

At times it all sounds like the joke about the visitor to Hell being shown by their PR department how the bad press had been much exaggerated. There were concerts on Wednesday afternoons and coffee mornings on Fridays, the manure was only ankle deep in many places and the eternal flames were optional. However, on accepting his place for eternal damnation, another senior devil he had never seen before walked in to announce “Ok, tea break’s over. Back on your heads!”

It would seem that tea break is over.

Another month, another consultation. This time it’s the Pension Protection Fund’s (PPF) turn. I last wrote about their plans five months ago. Since those dark days things seem to have moved on a bit: there is now a proposed model and a timetable for implementation.

And there is much to cheer here. One of the main criticisms consistently levelled at the current system was that it was hard for employers to understand how to improve their score, without handing over money to Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) for reports and fees to advisers to interpret them. Here, at last, is a model which is not owned by the credit agency running it, something I have long argued for. This means that the scores and data underlying them can be monitored by companies much more easily, and in more detail, by a free web-based portal.

Unfortunately the PPF are risking undermining this transparency for large companies by considering a credit rating override, where the insolvency risk would be determined by the company’s credit rating score instead. In my view this idea should be resisted.

Other successes are the moves to stop ABCs from getting too much credit for their complex structures, and the use of past data to review the treatment of Type A contingent assets (although they have chickened out of removing these altogether) and the last man standing levy reduction.

In all there were nine success criteria which were used to make the decision on the model used, but the one given the greatest weighting was “predictiveness”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this word does not exist, but I take it to mean “degree to which insolvency risk assessed predicts the number of actual insolvencies for a given score”. Of course, it is nothing of the kind that has been assessed. They have taken the last eight years of data and compared the proportion at each score level with the percentage of insolvencies expected (they say “predicted”), and wrapped up the differences in an eye-catching diagram using the Gini coefficient (this is usually used to talk about inequality, when you are looking to minimise it, but here they are trying to allocate levies where the risk lies and therefore trying to maximise the distance from an even distribution).

PPF levy GiniAll a high Gini score means in this context is that the selected model fits well with the actual insolvencies over the last eight years. The danger is that the model has been over-fitted to eight years’ data, a rather untypical period for the economy in many ways and possibly not very indicative for what lies ahead until 2030 (when the levy is supposed to end). Fortunately they are proposing to continue monitoring how well the “predictiveness” works in future.

The other area of the consultation where I take issue is the PPF’s opposition to having a transition period. Their impact assessment shows that 10% of schemes are expected to see an increase of over £50,000 in their levy as a result of these changes, with 200 of them seeing an increase of over £200,000. It therefore seems odd that they should oppose a transition period to allow companies to better cope with the long term move to a fairer allocation of levies. The main argument they give for this is that it would be a cross subsidy. But so is the restriction on the increase in levy by moving down a band to 60%, which I can see much less justification for and which results in bands 2 and 3 underpaying for their insolvency risk and bands 5 and 6 overpaying for it.

But overall a broad welcome, as I will be telling them. Let’s see what survives the consultation (it ends at 5pm on 9 July).

My consultation responses are as follows:

Chapter 2

1. Do you agree that we should seek to maintain stability in the overall methodology for the levy, only making changes where there is evidence to support them?

Yes.

Chapter 3

2. Do you consider that the definition of the variables in the scorecards is sufficiently precise to provide for consistent treatment?

Yes.

3. Do you agree that it is appropriate to re-evaluate the model to ensure that it remains predictive?

Yes.

4. Do you have comments on the design of the “core model” developed by Experian?

Very pleased that the PPF have decided to move away from a proprietary model, where large parts of its operation are kept secret through commercial confidentiality arguments.

5. Do you agree with the success criteria set out by the Industry Steering Group and that the PPF-specific model developed by Experian is a better match with them than Commercial Delphi?

Yes.

6. Do you agree that it is appropriate to use the separate scorecard developed by Experian not-for-profit entities, even though this requires an extension of the data set used to generate the scorecard?

Yes.

7. Do you have comments on the approach to the rating and proposed identification of not-for profit entities, developed by Experian?

No.

8. Are there other public sources of data that Experian should consider extending coverage to?

No.

9. Do you agree with the proposed data hierarchy?

Yes.

Chapter 4

10. Do you favour a credit rating over-ride?

No. This would undermine the gain in transparency offered by the PPF-specific model.

Chapter 5

11. Do you agree with our proposed aims for setting levy rates?

I am concerned about the cross subsidy implicit in the 60% limit on levy differences between adjacent bands.

12. Do you agree it is appropriate to divide the entities with the best insolvency probabilities in to a number of bands, to ensure that the cliff-edges between subsequent bands are limited, or do you favour a broad top band?

Cliff edges are unavoidable with this model. I think there is a strong argument for having slightly fewer slightly bigger ones. This would remove many of the small band movements at the top end, which are relatively unproductive for risk management.

13. Do you agree with the proposed 10 levy bands and rates?

Not completely. Bands 2 and 3 appear to be underpaying for their insolvency risk, and bands 5 and 6 appear to be overpaying.

14. Do you agree that for 2015/16 levy year insolvency probabilities are averaged from 31 October 2014 to 31 March 2015?

Yes.

Chapter 7

15. Do you support transitional protection for those most affected by the move to the new methodology, recovered through the scheme-based levy?

Yes.

Chapter 9

16. Do you agree that the appropriate route to reflecting ABC’s in the levy is to value them based on the lower of the value of the underlying asset (on employer insolvency) after stressing or the net present value of future cashflows?

Yes. I do not accept that ABCs’ primary objective is to reduce risk. The changes proposed appear to ensure that they do not get overly favourable treatment in terms of levy reduction.

17. Do you agree that a credit should only be allowed where the underlying assets for the ABC is UK property? Do you have any comments on the example voluntary form/required confirmations?

Yes.

18. Do you support the proposal to make the certification of contingent assets more transparent, through requiring certification of a fixed amount which the guarantor could pay if called upon?

Yes.

19. Do you have any comments on the proposed revised wording for trustee certification for Type A contingent assets?

The revised wording seems appropriate.

20. Do you agree with our proposals to adjust guarantor scores to reflect the value of the guarantee they are potentially liable for? Do you favour the adjustment being achieved by a factor being applied to the guarantor’s Pension Protection Score or by an adjustment of the guarantor’s levy band?

This looks like a very complicated approach designed to put off sufficient schemes from using Type A contingent assets so that there will not be a very large squeal when they are removed altogether.

21. What other measures do you suggest to ensure that, where a scheme certifies information about a contingent asset to the PPF, any resulting levy reduction is proportionate to the actual reduction in risk?

I think the proposals are complicated enough.

22. Do you agree with the proposed form of confirmation when Last Man Standing scheme structure is selected on Exchange?

Yes.

23. Do you agree with the revised scheme structure factor calculation proposed for associated last man standing schemes?

Yes.

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.

The Pensions Regulator has finally released its response to its consultation on regulating defined benefit pension schemes along with the simultaneous release of the final new code on funding defined benefits, its latest annual funding statement and two new documents: the defined benefit regulatory strategy and the defined benefit funding, regulatory and enforcement policy. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

I set out a critique of the draft proposals back in January. These boiled down to two main criticisms:

  • That the new system proposed was effectively a return to the one-size-fits all approach of the Minimum Funding Requirement, which had done so much to undermine responsible scheme funding by employers; and
  • That the focus on governance, reverse stress testing, covenant advice, etc, effectively smuggled in from EIOPA’s latest IORP Directive, was likely to be a problem for small schemes.

BFO RIP

So what has the Regulator’s response been to these criticisms? Well, on the one-size-fits-all approach which was proposed as the Balance Funding Objective (BFO), the response is comical:

  • They have changed the name of their funding objective. The BFO is now called the Funding Risk Indicator (FRI). It is otherwise unchanged. This is reminiscent of the Lenny Henry sketch at the time that Windscale was renamed as Sellafield: “In future, radiation will be referred to as magic moonbeams”.
  • They are going to keep all their risk indicators secret. I have set out below their response in full on this point.

We believe that there may be potentially significant benefits to be gained in using the FRI and publishing more detail on our risk indicators in terms of providing clarity around standards, especially for small schemes, driving consistency and providing a useful framework for evaluating impact. However, after careful consideration of the risks and benefits highlighted in consultation responses, we have concluded that we should develop further our approach to risk assessment over the next year, including our risk indicators, to make sure it is sufficiently robust to support our intended uses beyond using it, alongside our other risk indicators, to prioritise our engagement. We have decided, for the time being, not to publish in detail where we set our risk indicators (beyond a high level description) in the funding policy document or in the annual funding statement.

So how will this work? Will the Regulator display charts like this one each year?

TPR graphWill they then berate the schemes and their advisers who were so bad at guessing where their secret line was? Because be in no doubt, with the speed of the revolving door operating between the Regulator and the industry it regulates, these indicators will get out and then gradually get disseminated through the pensions industry, from the biggest consultancies (who can easily fund having their consultants on secondment to Brighton) downwards, just as the Regulator’s previous “secret” link between assessment of covenant strength and “expected” discount rate assumptions did.

And what about the problem with small schemes? This is, in my view, considerably better handled by the Regulator. However, it does all comes down to its idea of proportionality.

Proportionality

The response to the consultation states:

Many respondents were concerned that proportionality did not follow through consistently in the consultation code or it was not explained clearly how it could be applied in practice. In particular, some thought our expectations around the extent of the analysis required to assess the covenant seemed disproportionate. The concern was that it would be difficult and costly for small schemes to apply the code’s principles.

I was one of those respondents. It continues:

We have reviewed the drafting to ensure that proportionality is properly referenced and emphasised throughout. We are looking to develop additional guidance to support the final code and will consider whether the proportionality principle can be explained further through illustrative examples.

On covenant assessment, we had already made clear (under the ‘Working with advisers’ section) that trustees may chose not to commission independent covenant advice as long as they can satisfy
themselves that they are sufficiently equipped, independent and experienced to undertake the work to the appropriate standard. In the section on ‘Employer covenant considerations’, we have emphasised the need for a proportionate approach (for instance, in-depth analysis may not be necessary if the scheme is relatively small or there has been no material change in the covenant since the last review). We also stress that assessment should focus on the knowledge gaps and where value can be added. Finally, we have made clear that the scope of any covenant review will depend on the circumstances of the scheme and it is, therefore, not always necessary for trustees to consider all the factors listed in the code.

In addition the Regulator has dropped the size of employer and strength of covenant as factors for trustees to consider in deciding on what is proportionate for their schemes, realising, rightly in my view, that the absolute size of employer and strength of covenant are much less important than the relative size of employer to scheme and risks to the scheme from failures of covenant which are already mentioned.

This all seems sensible. I do, however, think they will struggle to go further in setting out what proportionality means, since the problem of defining it has bedevilled the Solvency 2 project from the beginning and has still not been fully resolved. The IORP Directive is no clearer in this respect. What the Regulator could do is make a clear distinction between schemes with less than 100 members and the rest in terms of their responsibilities under the Code, reflecting the fact that the IORP Directive does not apply to these schemes.

Small schemes and risk-based prioritisation

But perhaps they have. Concerns were raised in the consultation about considering the size of the scheme in deciding whether to subject that scheme to greater scrutiny. It was argued that smaller schemes tended to be less well administered and advised (presumably by advisers and administrators of larger schemes!), more risky than larger schemes and should receive greater regulatory scrutiny. Some also questioned the usefulness of education without what they felt was the same prospect of regulatory scrutiny. I admit that I was one of those expressing concern about a lack of scrutiny coupled with a much increased regulatory burden for small schemes before the Regulator’s latest concessions on proportionality.

In their response the Regulator defended its actions by stating that large schemes all other things being equal, are of greater concern to us as they have the greatest impact on members and risk to the system (90% of members and liabilities are concentrated in the 1,210 largest schemes). However they expect the same standards of the small schemes that they aren’t scrutinising so hard. Bearing in mind that the Regulator regulates scheme managers rather than members (and many of those small schemes have just as many trustees as the larger ones) I don’t think this is a very convincing defence, but it seems to be preferable to admitting that they are just regulating schemes that fall under the IORP Directive.

Next steps

So a big raspberry for the secret FRI and a qualified welcome for the changes on proportionality. The final code has now been laid in Parliament and is expected to come into force in the next few months, subject to the parliamentary process. So if you think that there is more than a little tweaking left to do to this legislation, you need to start lobbying now.

The consultation on the proposals for pensions announced in the Budget, and contained in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, ends on 11 June. I have set out my response below. I hope that it will sufficiently incense one or two more people into making their views heard, before the chance disappears.

A.1
The government welcomes views on its proposed approach to reforming the pensions tax framework.

1 Should a statutory override be put in place to ensure that pension scheme rules do not prevent individuals from taking advantage of increased flexibility?

Yes. Otherwise you are just writing cheques to pensions lawyers.

2 How could the government design the new system such that it enables innovation in the retirement income market?

Reform preservation rules, the TPR code on funding, HMRC rules and the PPF levy framework so as not to penalise different arrangements across the defined ambition spectrum. Remove the annual allowance, controlling the level of tax relief offered through the lifetime allowance only (I got this the wrong way round in my first draft – the annual allowance assumes regular incomes, many people now have incomes which bounce up and down alarmingly from year to year. It is also ridiculously cumbersome to administer).

3 Do you agree that the age at which private pension wealth can be accessed should rise alongside the State Pension age?

No. There is already an issue around healthy life expectancy and the state pension age in some regions of the UK.

4 Should the change in the minimum pension age be applied to all pension schemes which qualify for tax relief?

Yes. The arrangements need simplification.

5 Should the minimum pension age be increased further, for example so that it is five years below State Pension age?

No (see answer to 3).

A.2
The government welcomes views on its proposed approach to supporting consumers in making retirement choices.

6 Is the prescription of standards enough to ensure the impartiality of guidance delivered by the pension provider? Should pension providers be required to outsource delivery of independent guidance to a trusted third party?

There needs to be more clarity about the charges which can be levied for guidance or if it is to be remunerated in some other way.

7 Should there be any difference between the requirements to offer guidance placed on contract-based pension providers and trust-based pension schemes?

No. In most cases the scheme members have not chosen to receive lower levels of service.

8 What more can be done to ensure that guidance is available at key decision points during retirement?

I think there needs to be a right (but not requirement) to it for everyone at 50, 60, 70 and 80 as a minimum, at an agreed national nominal charge. I imagine that the £20 million available to develop resources for this will need to be increased significantly to make an impact on the quality of guidance materials provided.

A.3
The government would welcome views on the options outlined in point 5.15, including their likely complexity, and the burdens they might place on scheme sponsors and HMRC.

9 Should the government continue to allow private sector defined benefit to defined contribution transfers and if so, in which circumstances?

Yes. In all circumstances.

10 How should the government assess the risks associated with allowing private sector defined benefit schemes to transfer to defined contribution under the proposed tax system?

The reasons the Government have advanced for the changes to DC are equally compelling when applied to DB:

1. There is a lack of choice for people at retirement, which has become more of an urgent concern now that auto enrolment is boosting DC membership. This is even more the case for DB members who are already numerous (although getting less so daily), as their only choices are how much cash to take up to the 25% tax free limit and (up to a point) when to retire.
2. Current regulations deter innovation. This is, of course, why defined ambition as an idea has been so slow to get off the ground.
3. Restrictions on cash commutation imply a lack of trust of members to be able to decide how they spend their savings.
4. The concern that the annuity market has not maximised income for scheme members. This is mirrored by the high cost of de-risking via bulk annuities, which is the ultimate “flight path” for most DB pension schemes, and which many argue has resulted in a big drag on the growth of UK PLC.

All that would be required to extend the proposed freedoms would be to allow DB members to commute as much of their benefits at retirement, whether for cash or income drawdown, as they wanted, with the rest taken as pension as now. This could be applied to private and public sector schemes and would, I believe, at a stroke head off the rush to transfer.

Even if the Government does manage to stop people pouring out of the exits before April next year, this has to be bad policy. To provide more freedom and choice to one group of pensioners and at the same time to remove a longstanding freedom (and one available at the point members joined the schemes) from the other groups is clearly unfair. What is worse, with an election looming, it is likely to be unpopular.

A.4
The government would welcome views on any potential impact of the government’s proposals on investment and financial markets.

For private DB schemes, the Government says the decision is “finely balanced”. I think their fears are exaggerated and rather contradict the earlier declaration of trust in pensioners to make appropriate decisions about their retirement – after all appropriate investment in support of regular income in retirement (which would presumably be recommended by the “guaranteed guidance” to be offered to DC members) should not differ markedly from the equivalent investments in DB schemes. Whether DB schemes invest on a longer-term basis than individuals is, as the Kay Review made clear, uncertain.
The level of the Government’s concern about financial markets rather makes it look as if individuals can be trusted to look after themselves, with a slightly bigger safety net and a bit of advice, but financial markets cannot. This cannot be right.

SPV colourWith the recent revelations about the tax affairs of Gabby Logan and Gary Barlow in the news, it seems a good time to focus on the pension scheme equivalent.

Asset-backed contributions or ABCs have been lurking in the background of pension scheme funding for a while (Marks and Spencer set up such an arrangement in 2007), but have really only come to prominence since 2010. As you can see, they had quite a few takers over the next three years:

ABC history

The total number of ABCs has now grown to more than 60, with a value of more than £6 billion. The value of each has tended to be around 10-20% of total scheme assets.

So why is this? For employers the answer is easy:

  • The employer can “pay” across an asset to the scheme while continuing to use it within its business.
  • The future stream of payments to the scheme is capitalised to make an immediate increase to the scheme’s funding level, which both makes the company accounts look better (although the Financial Reporting Council have been looking hard at a number of these) and reduces its Pension Protection Fund levy.
  • There is the potential to accelerate the tax relief on employer contributions if it is set up carefully.
  • The new effective “recovery period” (ie the period over which the stream of payments is paid from the special purpose vehicle known as a Scottish limited partnership (SLP) into the scheme) is usually longer than that of the recovery plan it replaces. It may also be more “back end loaded”, ie with a lump sum at the end allowing lower payments in the short to medium term.

But for trustees it is less clear:

  • The payments into the scheme are normally lower than they would be under a recovery plan which would not attract additional scrutiny from the Pensions Regulator.
  • The “asset” the employer is offering should already have been priced into the funding negotiations as part of the assets of the company included within the trustees’ covenant review. The ability to gain access to this asset on the occurrence of certain trigger events is, in principle, no different from the employer allowing the scheme to take a charge over that asset. However there are likely to be more hurdles to realising the asset under an SLP-type arrangement, as these arrangements are inherently more complicated than a simple legal charge.
  • There is usually no flexibility about the payments from such an arrangement which are targeted to meet a notional funding target many years in the future. By this time, the true funding target is likely to have changed, as will the value of the asset held in the SLP.
  • In order to make the arrangement work, they have to be a corporate trustee, even if they have not previously felt the need to incorporate to carry out their duties.

In summary, this is a vehicle for getting around the restriction on employer-related investment (ERI) of 5% of total assets which has existed since the Pensions Act 1995 came in. The only exceptions previously were small self-administered schemes (SSASs) which could use company property and loans to the company as assets on the basis that all the people in them were directors of the company. Whether it achieves this or not is as yet untested in the courts, although there have been some very confident legal opinions expressed about the fact that the letter of the ERI legislation only refers to shares or other securities, which cannot exist in this case because:

  • The SLP is an unincorporated body within the UK so it cannot issue shares. As one lawyer has said “the magic of a SLP is its distinct legal identity”.
  • A partnership interest is not generally considered a share (which is why, the confident legal opinion goes, along with the safeguards written into the agreements, Scottish independence would not make these deals suddenly illegal – although this obviously begs the question of why then you would go to such great lengths to create a SLP in the first place).

The Pensions Regulator is clearly uncomfortable with these arrangements, sensing that they are just devices for driving a coach and horses through its code of practice on funding. However, they are not illegal, so the Regulator has been able to do no more than issue guidance to trustees and their advisers on asset-backed contributions, with a long list of risks that they pose and advice trustees would need to seek before agreeing to one. They correctly point out that an ABC is not a bond-like investment, as some have suggested (unless by bond you mean a corporate bond issued by the sponsor of the scheme, ie an investment which becomes riskier the worse your sponsor is doing – which is not normally the point of bond investment). But the real kicker is the requirement they have set for a separate underpin that would protect the scheme’s position eg “in the event that the courts find that ABCs are void for illegality or where there is a change in the law”. This could turn out to be very expensive for the 60 such arrangements already in place.

However, just for a moment, despite all memories of other situations where lawyers have told us that scheme documents are copper-bottomed but which have subsequently proved to have traces of straw (equalisation, for instance), let us assume that the ABC drawn up in the way the Regulator has suggested will benefit the schemes which participate. These arrangements may observe the letter of the legislation but they clearly do not observe their spirit. Just look at the typical structure of one:

ABC diagram

And then tell me that it bears no resemblance to the kind of “tax management scheme” we have seen punished recently. Here is Chris Moyles’ one as an example:

Chris Moyles

More and more voices are questioning the tax relief that pensions receive (the Institute of Fiscal Studies being one recent example). Steve Webb has also indicated that he would like to see a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions for higher rate taxpayers. Is this really the time to be championing schemes which accelerate that tax relief even more?

I was introduced to a great piece of research by Tim Jenkinson, Howard Jones and Jose Vicente Martinez this week (Tim was speaking at the Workplace Pensions Live event in Birmingham). It looked at the performance of US active equity products recommended by investment consultants (a large sample covering 90% of the investment consulting market worldwide) compared to those not recommended by them over the period 1999-2011.

What they found was that:

  • Investment consultants’ recommendations seem less heavily influenced by return-chasing strategies than by more intangible personal assessments, eg of the capabilities of fund managers, the consistency of their philosophies and the usefulness of their reports (any of those explanations for recommendations sound familiar?);
  • People tend to follow the recommendations they are given; and
  • There is no evidence that investment consultants’ recommendations add value to plan sponsors.

IC underperformanceThe underperformance of recommended funds compared to unrecommended was 1% pa on average when all funds were given an equal weighting, falling to an underperformance of 0.26% pa when weighted by the size of fund recommended. This suggests that when investment consultants move away from recommending larger funds they are doing even worse.

 

There may be other reasons for using an investment consultant other than higher returns of course. People may appreciate “a narrative that provides comfort” (similar to the placebo effect in financial advice I previously discussed here) and which gives them ready-made explanations for their own stakeholders. However, bearing in mind the consistent underperformance, why do they follow the recommendations they are given?

One reason may be that the recommendations provide cover for decisions made. Another may be regulatory pressures, eg the Pensions Regulator in the UK requires pension scheme trustees to take professional investment advice (a requirement Tim Jenkinson believes is unhelpful) and it may be viewed as odd to then ignore it.

But the report concludes that a more likely reason is that people are generally unaware of how little value is being added. Certainly studies like this one that set the problem out in such stark terms are fairly thin on the ground. The investment consultants’ world is a very concentrated one (of the $25 trillion funds under management: $4.4 trillion are managed by Aon Hewitt, $4 trillion by Mercer and $2.1 trillion by Towers Watson) and the necessary information can be difficult to get hold of.

Another reason that the underperformance may be less obvious is the impact of the recommendation itself. As John Allen Paulos explains in his classic A Mathematician Plays the Market, for an over or underperforming stock you both need the performance itself and for someone to pick it. If you always pick what the investment consultant recommends the second condition is automatically met. Sometimes that will be the lucky stock and sometimes it won’t, but you will always choose it when it is, whereas a random choice of stocks will choose it in its lucky weeks less frequently.

What all this tells us is that you cannot assume that the additional complexity investment consultants’ appear to be biased towards is adding any value to your pension scheme or business. Tim Jenkinson suggests there should be a presumption of passive investment unless a very persuasive argument for active management can be advanced. And at the small end, as he says: “if you’re not big, be simple”.

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.

The Pensions Regulator has just published a remarkable survey. As it says:

In August 2013, The Pensions Regulator (the regulator) commissioned quantitative research into the running costs of defined benefit (DB) pension schemes. The specific objectives of the research were:

  • To understand the costs of administering a DB scheme;
  • To contextualise and understand scheme costs against services received;
  • To compare and contrast scheme costs by size, specifically at what size do scale efficiencies become apparent.

What they found instead was that costs for what they termed small schemes (those with 12 to 99 members, schemes with fewer than 12 members were excluded from the survey) were so variable that, even ignoring the top and bottom 5% of schemes, they ranged from £264 per member per year to £2,744 per member per year (over 10 times as much). This is far larger than any variation by size of scheme: the average for a small scheme is £1,054 per member per year, whereas the average for a very large scheme (more than 5,000 members) is £182 per member.

TPR chart

So the conclusions are clear: the costs of running a DB scheme are not primarily dependent on how big your scheme is, but how well you administer your scheme, how well you manage your advisors and service providers and how disciplined you are in setting an investment strategy and managing its implementation. For a small scheme, the irrelevance of size to costs is further illustrated by the following scatter graph helpfully supplied in the report, showing no correlation between total running costs per member and scheme size for schemes with 12 to 99 members:

Small scheme scatter

This is not necessarily a call for more independent trustees. The proportion of small schemes which used independent trustees (22%) was not so much less than the proportion of large schemes (1,000 to 4,999 members) which used them (35%) and yet the variation in costs for large schemes (£80 to £689 per member per year) was not nearly as great. But it is a call for a much greater weighing of costs and benefits in the services trustees procure for small schemes.

So there is considerable work to do for small DB schemes, particularly with the additional costs likely to result from the Regulator’s recent proposals, which were consulted upon earlier this year. Another point that comes out of the survey is that the vast majority of schemes, of all sizes, regards the year in question where these costs were measured (2012) as having higher costs than an “average” year. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps there is some denial going on here about what the new normal looks like.

If you want to see how your scheme compares to others of its size, the Regulator has provided a handy checklist to capture the information. This would seem to be an exercise which many small schemes, if they are not already aware of this as an issue, would be well advised to carry out as a matter of urgency.

Sponsors are not currently getting good value from some of these schemes, particularly small schemes, which account for 1,689 (or 36%) of the 4,696 DB scheme universe (excluding hybrid and public sector schemes). The cost of defined benefit has been defined. And it needs to come down.

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.