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.

Towers watson surveyAs a quick illustration of the differences between how businesses in the UK and Germany approach change this chart from the recent Economist Intelligence Unit research carried out for Towers Watson takes some beating. To UK eyes, an insane proportion (45%) of German businesses are proposing to make physical changes to their workplaces by 2020 to accommodate a greying workforce. There is an even more dramatic contrast when the issue of flexible working hours is raised. Less than half of UK businesses intend to offer more flexible working hours by 2020, compared to over three quarters of German businesses.

Neither are we interested in training our older workers apparently. Only 28% of UK businesses intend to ensure that the skills of their older employees remain up to date, compared to 48% of German businesses.

So where are UK businesses preparing to manage change then? Giving employees more choice over their benefits is cited by 60% of UK businesses, compared to 45% in Germany and the European average of 48%.

But is this the positive step it is presented as? It seems unlikely to me that these UK businesses that don’t want to invest in older workers’ working environments or give them flexibility over hours or location or train them is interested in providing any choice over benefits that doesn’t also cut their costs. There are going to be some battles ahead over exactly how the pensions changes in the Budget are to be implemented. Judging from this survey, they are going to be hard fought.

drawn down colourMy father used to regularly paraphrase Benjamin Franklin at me about nothing being certain except death and taxes when I was growing up. However, having spent the turn of the century advising members of small self-administered schemes how to navigate the 6 (some claimed there were in fact up to 13) different tax regimes for pensions which then applied so as to get the maximum possible benefit from them, I was a cheerleader of the tax simplification which the 2004 Finance Act brought in and which demolished all that.

Now it seems that actuaries are no longer going to be necessarily required for members of defined contribution (DC) schemes to get at their savings. In an age of increasing uncertainty about both death and taxes, I find myself cheering this too.

But why stop there? In their consultation document, the Government states that:

With the right consumer guidance, advice and support, people should be able to make their own choices about how to finance their retirement. Everybody’s circumstances are unique and it should not be for the State to dictate how someone should have to spend their savings.

It then adds:

Those who want the security of an annuity will still be able to purchase one. Equally, those who want greater control over their finances in the short term will be able to extract all their pension savings in a lump sum. And those who do not want to purchase an annuity or withdraw their money in one go, but would prefer to keep it invested and access it over time, will be able to purchase a drawdown product.

So the question has to be asked: why are these freedoms and choices not to be extended to defined benefit (DB) members as well?

The reasons the Government have advanced for the change 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. The other freedom DB members have, of course, is to transfer out, although this freedom makes everybody feel very nervous and is possibly about (see below) to be snuffed out altogether.
  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 these 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.

To be fair to the Government, they do acknowledge the logic of extending the freedoms set out in the consultation to DB members in section 6. But then something strange happens.

Firstly, for public sector schemes, as they are mostly unfunded, the Government says it is concerned about the negative cashflows of members transferring out. If 1% of public service workers did so, the joint Treasury/HMRC analysis is that the net cost would be £200 million. This, I think, provides a revealing peak into the world of state funding, where taking on the Royal Mail Pension Plan was seen as positive for Government finances and off balance sheet private finance initiative (PFI) contracts continue to be negotiated offering doubtful value to the state. It doesn’t matter how much things cost over all, it seems, as long as you are only paying out a bit at a time. The Government often behaves in this respect like the victim of a pay day loan shark. Depending on the commutation terms offered, extended commutation has the potential to solve the public sector pension crisis in a way that Hutton’s Pensions Commission didn’t quite manage to.

Not even considering the option of allowing greater commutation from the schemes themselves, the Government has already decided to ban such transfers from public sector to DC. There is to be no consultation on this.

For private DB schemes, the Government says the decision is “finely balanced”. They are worried about all of those currently captive DB pension investments being spent on Lamborghinis. This rather contradicts 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.

However the Government is very concerned about financial markets – they have section 6 of the consultation devoted to nothing else. It is almost 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.

Again, the Government is not consulting on extending commutation of benefits, but solely on the transfer issue. And apparently removing the current right of all members of defined benefit schemes, except in exceptional circumstances, as proposed with public service defined benefit schemes…must be the government’s starting point, unless the issues and risks around other options can be shown to be manageable.

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.

By the way, one of the things that stands out for me in this whole consultation is the use of State with a big S and government with a small g. It is as if typography alone could portray the “State” as big and bad and “government” as on the side of the little guy. I have done the reverse here.

So, if you DB members want to stop the flickering light of Freedom and Choice dying before it even got going, I advise you not to go gentle but to rage, rage and respond in large numbers to questions 9 and 10 of the consultation in particular. You have until 11 June.

One of the pensions announcements in the Budget last week which got less coverage amongst the talk about freedom and the death of the annuity was the one about the minimum age at which pension benefits will be able to be taken in the future. In this respect the Government appears to feel that less freedom is preferable.

Historically the minimum age was 50 except for a list of exempted professions kept by HMRC (or the Inland Revenue as they then were) which included professional footballers. However in 2010 it was increased to 55. From 2028 it is proposed that it is going to be increased again, to 57, thereafter linked to increases in the State Pension Age (SPA).

PwC have projected that, assuming the policy of linking SPA to life expectancy continues into the future, we can expect a SPA of 77 by 2089 and 84 by 2134. If this all sounds a little futuristic, it does highlight a concern about the Government proposal of using SPA minus 10 (or even SPA minus 5 which is also being consulted upon) as a national minimum pension age.

Male HLEFemale HLE

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) have produced an interesting split of both life expectancy at birth (LE) and healthy life expectancy at birth (HLE) by deciles of deprivation. Graphing these with the steadily increasing SPAs shown in black and the minimum pension ages in red we can see that the bottom male and female 10% by deprivation already have a healthy life expectancy below the current minimum pension age, with a further 10% being caught by the increase to 57.

Admittedly we might hope for an increase in both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy at all levels by 2028, but the differentials between the poorest and the richest in this respect have been widening for some time. Certainly if the SPA minus 5 idea is adopted, giving a minimum pension age of 62 by 2028, it is difficult to see the bottom deciles reaching that age in good health. And what about a minimum pension age of 67 by 2089 (72 if SPA minus 5)? Do we think that we have policies in place to increase the healthy life expectancy of the bottom decile by the 15 years (or 20 years if SPA minus 5) that would be required to allow them to retire in good health, even assuming they felt able to do so financially?

As I have mentioned before, I think the Government needs to consider ill health early retirement to a greater extent in its policies towards state pension benefits, but this may be particularly urgent with respect to minimum retirement ages. The main problem as I see it would be the assessment of ill health, bearing in mind the current ATOS fiasco.

One alternative approach might be to try and maintain the minimum pension age as a proportion of SPA rather than a fixed number of years earlier. So, for instance, the current proportion (55/65 or 85%) would give a minimum pension age when SPA reached 77 of around 65.5 rather than the 67 proposed.

Leaving the proposals as they stand, however, is likely to lead to an increasingly ill elderly workforce engaged in the lowest paying and most physically demanding occupations. Not free, and without choices. That doesn’t sound like an election winner to me.

Amongst all the noise about the changes to how you can get money out of your pension scheme it is easy to forget about the more pressing issue of getting money in.

Recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures about the progress of pension scheme membership during 2013 under auto enrolment show how far the type of pension scheme and size of your pension pot depends upon the size of the organisation you work for.

type of scheme by size

Of course the auto enrolment staging dates have not yet dragged in the smaller workforces.

Size of workforce Staging date range for size of workforce
100,000 or more 1 October 2012 – 1 November 2012
10,000 – 99,999 1 November 2012 – 1 March 2013
1,000 – 9,999 1 April 2013 – 1 October 2013
500 – 999 1 October 2013 – 1 November 2013
100 – 499 1 January 2014 – 1 June 2014
13 – 99 1 March 2014 – 1 September 2016
1 – 12 1 March 2014 – 1 September 2016

So, by the end of 2013 when these statistics were collated, auto enrolment had only arrived for workforces with 500 or more members. But the scale of the task auto enrolment has to tackle is clear. The proportion of employees with no pension at all is 89.6%, 74.6% and 55.7% for workforces of 1-12, 13-99 and 100-499 respectively. These smaller workforces are also very unlikely to have any form of defined benefit membership in their schemes (1.6%, 5.3% and 16.2% respectively).

employer conts by size

When it comes to contributions, the most popular contribution range is 4-8% for all but the 1,000 plus organisations (for which a third are in the 12-15% range). It will be interesting to see the impact on this of the increases to minimum contribution rates when they come in.

Perhaps not having to buy an annuity will encourage more people not to opt out even when the contribution rates start to rise. I certainly hope so because, when it comes to pensions, it is not what you do with it that really counts.