Source: Flikr Creative Commons by Thomas Galvez under license

Source: Flikr Creative Commons by Thomas Galvez under license

Patrick Collinson’s article about bringing in auto-annuitisation and a national annuity service has prompted some discussion.

As he said:

It won’t solve the problem of overcharging by the City while workers are saving to build up their pension pot. It won’t solve stockmarket underperformance. It won’t solve the biggest issue for annuities – that we are continuing to live longer and longer. But a National Annuity Service could at least make sure that one of the biggest financial decisions anybody faces isn’t a case of pension pot luck.

Peter Kane, Corporate Relationship Director at Standard Life, felt that the biggest challenge was that most employees in the UK are not saving enough and the average level of fund at retirement (before an annuity is even considered) is insufficient. He’ll get no argument from anyone about that being a big challenge, but there has been a great deal of discussion about it and there will continue to be so. It does not in any way diminish the importance of what he refers to as “the annuity issue”.

Matt Dorrington, Pension Consultant at Capita Employee Benefits, thinks what we need to consider is who will hand hold these people and how are they remunerated for their services. The reason a national annuity service would be set up of course is if the Government decided that the pensions industry was not hand holding enough and requiring to be remunerated too much.

Joe Robertson, Member Nominated Director at The Pensions Trust, was concerned about the computerisation required to process the information to allow enhanced annuities for the masses. Is that why there has been so little encouragement to people to access the much better value annuities their personal information could buy them for so many years (up to 24% of annuities were enhanced in some way in 2012, but only 2% were in 2003)?

If the Government were to step in with a cheaper annuity advice and broking service, would this lead to commercial annuity brokers leaving the market, or to their charges coming down to closer to the state broker’s rates? Commercial brokers might well still offer a wider range of options, justifying higher fees. If auto-annuitisation only applied for pension funds up to a certain level, with funds above this level not needing to be surrendered to the national service, might there still be a market for advising high net worth individuals?

These are just some of the many questions which would need to be answered, but such a service could potentially significantly improve outcomes for many. If nothing else it could reduce the current very wide variation in outcomes, although this may of course lead to those who currently navigate their way around the system quite cannily ultimately being worse off.

I would like to see an additional service provided by the new broker if it ever came into existence: to index market annuity rates against the relative cost of annuities under the Pension Protection Fund’s (PPF’s) Section 143 basis in any given month (this gives the amount of money the PPF currently requires schemes to have to purchase an annuity when their sponsor has failed so as to avoid entry into the PPF). Obviously even standard annuity rates vary by postcode, but it would provide a check on market prices increasing beyond what movements in the underlying investments used by annuity providers would justify.

But of course the real problems are at the bottom end. According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), 30% of annuities were purchased with less than £10,000 in 2012. For annuities purchased with £20,000 or less, this percentage increases to nearly 40% for external annuities (ie when people “shop around”, as apparently they now do in 48% of cases) and nearly 60% for internal annuities (when they don’t).

Why is this, when legislation allows people to take the first £18,000 of pensions savings as cash (the so-called “trivial commutation” rules)? Part of the answer may lie in the latest report from the Pensions Institute entitled How do savers think about and respond to risk?. Of particular relevance I think is this finding:

One clear preference stands out: the reluctance to dip into long-term savings to meet a shortfall in short-term savings goals and vice versa. This provides support for the idea from behavioural finance that people have different “mental accounts” for their savings goals and are reluctant to “borrow from” them for other purposes (ie the mental accounts are not fungible). This holds very strongly for the long-term fund: only as a last resort are most people prepared to dip into this to meet short-term savings goals. A slightly bigger percentage of people are, however, prepared to use their short-term fund if they face the risk of a shortfall in their long-term savings goals.

I think at least part of the reason for the high demand for small annuities is this unwillingness to convert money which has always been seen as long term savings (and for which, as another part of the report makes clear, most people are generally more willing to accept a lower, but more stable, income than to risk significant falls in the asset value) into a form which could end up meeting short term needs instead. Of course, part of the reason might also be lack of awareness that the option not to buy an annuity exists. A state broking service may therefore help here too.

In view of the particularly poor value offered in the market at the lower end (£5,000 buys you around £5 a week, not increasing and which does not include anything for your spouse) and the persistent demand in spite of this, I would like to propose one further step. I think the Government might want to consider creating a section of the PPF for small pots. Say, those up to £18,000?

It is in no way what the PPF was set up to do. And yet. The administration expertise with handling large volumes of small pensions is already in place there. And, if the terms offered were on a S143 basis, it should not create any additional funding burden. What ever they make think of it, employers with pension schemes have become accustomed to dealing with the PPF.

If the PPF were able to take small pots on similar terms to those currently only available to larger annuities in the market, and the market were then left to provide annuities for everyone else, outcomes might be improved at all levels.

The PPF as an annuity provider of last resort? Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come.

DA optionsThe Defined Ambition consultation ended on 19 December but the lobbying has continued. Camps have now formed around the various options.

Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister, and Alan Rubinstein, Chief Executive of the Pension Protection Fund, have been enthusiastic supporters of something called the pension income builder, which increases the guaranteed pension accrued each year with part of the annual contribution, with the remaining contributions invested in a collective defined contribution (DC) arrangement.

The Collective DC more generally, where returns are smoothed between members in an attempt to reduce the volatility of returns on individual DC, has also had some very vocal proponents. Considering it was originally ruled out as an option by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), has had 10 objections to it raised by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and has been accused of not reducing risk so much as moving it around between members by Lord Hutton, this is a little bit of a surprise.

Lord Hutton, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and chair of the Commission on Public Service Pensions Commission, is dismissive of the whole defined ambition idea. Recently he said that the Government should stop “banging on” about defined ambition and let the pensions industry focus on applying defined benefit (DB) investment strategies to DC schemes. He is a particular fan of the Liability Driven Investment (LDI) approach, common in DB schemes protecting their funding position, being applied more consistently to DC. Hutton has recently joined Redington, an investment consultancy, so I imagine we can expect to hear a lot more from him on this subject.

Much has been made of the Dutch system, which has a “second pillar” of large industry-wide pension schemes. This has suffered from the same economic pressures which have dogged the UK system since the turn of the century, but has arguably retreated from straight final salary benefits – first to career average retirement earnings (CARE), then to risk sharing via variable contributions for employers balanced by variable benefits for employees, and currently renegotiating again  in the wake of the 2008 crash – in a more orderly manner. I tend to feel that the main reason the Dutch system is better than ours is the same reason that their flood defence system is better: they put a lot more money into it. Nine times as much in the case of flood defences, and contributions into their second pillar average 20% of salary compared to the current average into DC schemes in the UK of under 8%. They also make you buy an annuity, make you join and don’t let you opt out. Despite this it remains remarkably popular with the public.

As you can see, there are a lot of acronyms flying around, and relatively little discussion with the people who these schemes are likely to end up getting foisted on. The Association of Consulting Actuaries (ACA) carried out a survey of smaller firms which revealed that what they wanted was:

  • Members to receive more from their savings;
  • Increased transparency and trust in the companies who provided pensions;
  • No collective schemes; and
  • More tax concessions.

This last point is unlikely to be conceded, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies joining the increasing clamour this week to limit the generous tax exemptions to employers and members with occupational pension arrangements.

But has anyone asked members of pension schemes? Very few, as far as I can see. The most notable being the Pension Regulator’s survey of DC pension members in 2012. When those still actively contributing to these schemes were asked which of a long list of things would encourage them to take more interest in their pension, the three things they wanted overwhelmingly most of all were:

  • Someone making clear to them how much they needed to save;
  • Being able to talk to someone to understand their pensions better; and
  • Clear communication from their employer and their pension provider.

Notice how concerns about guaranteed benefits did not feature here. When asked, 85% had some understanding that their pension income was not guaranteed, and even more (94%) had an understanding that contribution levels were a key factor in determining that income. While 78% thought their company or personal pension would be one of their main sources of income in retirement (the next highest was the state pension with 22%), only 24% were confident that their current level of contributions was going to provide an adequate income. So they know they have a problem.

What they are asking for is a step change in financial education so that they can begin to tackle that problem. So could it be that all of the groups we have heard from above are trying to solve the wrong thing entirely?

As far as the regulatory environment is concerned, I think the document Defining Ambition produced by the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) before the consultation probably summarised the situation best. Joanne Segars stopped short of supporting any particular solution and instead laid out some of the main options and where they sat on the scale of risk (which I have reproduced above) to the member.

Segars suggested that we shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”, and should instead concentrate on providing a flexible continuum of regulation to cover the whole scale of risk, otherwise any new approaches would be snuffed out by HMRC’s and TPR’s lack of flexibility and overly complex approach before they even got going, much as cash balance schemes have been over the last 20 years. I felt that this was just fence-sitting at the time, but have since realised that she was right. We have all been “banging on” for too long about things about which prospective members simply don’t care.

Assuming a relaxation of the regulations which doesn’t yet exist, we actuaries have piled enthusiastically into debating slight differences between our different pet schemes, standing toe to toe and swapping model results like punches, while seemingly forgetting all about the member.

Suddenly the most important contribution in Defining Ambitions seems clear to me: that of Morrisons’ HR Director about how they introduced a three year financial education and advice programme (called Save Your Dough) throughout their workforce ahead of their auto-enrolment date. They realised that they needed to help their employees understand their finances first before they would understand that they could make a difference to their long-term finances by saving into a pension. They involved Alvin Hall to add some celebrity glitter to the process, but also involved their main union USDAW. And they used a lot of different communication tools, from booklets to podcasts to online modellers to short films and video diaries in addition to the more traditional information sources and face to face sessions. They trusted that they had good people who would make reasonable decisions given sufficient accessible information.

I am sure there are other examples of such good practice out there, but we have not encouraged them with our endless debates about DC plus v CDC v DB minus and everything in between. The small stuff has been sweated quite enough. Let’s help firms talk to their members better instead.

Have you, as a result of your frenetic activity since Christmas, got a bit of a peer review backlog? I can help. Let me be the scheme actuary you’re temporarily short of. With a 10% discount on the rates shown here until the end of the UK 2013/14 tax year, and a further 10% reduction for type 2 peer reviews.

Peer review cartoon

The Pensions Regulator has a consultation on the go. In fact they have two: regulating defined benefit pension schemes and regulating public service pension schemes. Both started in December and are due to wind up in February. The defined benefit pension schemes one alone runs to over 160 pages across the four documents published. All at the busiest time of the year for most pensions actuaries, caught between the 31 December 2013 accounting disclosures and the looming deadlines for submitting the 31 December 2012 scheme funding assessments. Could it be that they are rather hoping to limit the feedback they get?

Because the changes that are being proposed to the funding regime known as scheme specific funding which has run for 8 years are dramatic. Under the pretext of only making changes to allow the introduction of the Regulator’s new objective to “minimise any adverse impact on the sustainable growth of an employer” (see my previous post on this), they have effectively announced the death of scheme specific funding and proposed a system which looks very much like the Minimum Funding Requirement (or MFR – the previous discredited funding regulations) mark two to me, although the Regulator insists that it will be completely different this time.

The main problem with the MFR was that it was a one-size-fits-all approach (although it did vary in strength depending on how far on average members had to go until benefits were paid – known as the duration of the scheme), which encouraged an inappropriate level of contributions for many schemes (the minimum funding requirement effectively became a maximum funding requirement in many cases).

Fast forward to now, and the new proposed funding approach based around something called the Balanced Funding Outcome (BFO). This calculates a required level of assets for each scheme on an “objective liability measure, independent of the scheme’s funding assumptions”. The actual assets will be compared with the required amount and a recommended level of contributions to get up to the required level will then be calculated by the Regulator. The contributions the scheme trustees have agreed with the scheme’s employer will then be assessed to see if they measure up. Where MFR varied by duration, BFO will vary by duration and covenant (how likely the employer is to stick around to pay the last pensioner). So, as you can see, completely different!

At the end of Appendix G of the 50 page draft funding policy, we finally find the problem that I think the Pensions Regulator really wants to solve:

TPR graph

Look at all those dots. They’re all over the place. There is currently absolutely no correlation between the deficit reduction contributions (DRCs) employers are paying and the funding level in their schemes. The Regulator is determined to change that, by giving trustees and employers sight of their preferred contribution number during their negotiations. The contribution number won’t be compulsory of course, but if you use it then the Regulator will leave you alone. It is almost as if they have never heard of Daniel Kahneman or behavioural economics.

What will happen? Well who knows but here’s a guess. Schemes to the bottom left of the chart above (ie low assets and contributions) are already being subjected to extra scrutiny and generally have employers in such a poor financial state that there is very little they can do about it. But those in the top right will effectively have been given permission to swoop down to the blue line with a whoop of “Pensions Regulator’s new objective”. It will be like the 90s all over again when pension schemes took contribution holidays because they were measuring their funding in an unrealistic way. It will be seen as financially stupid to be in the top right of the Regulator’s graph. Group think will be in charge once more. But, to use another quote from Yogi Berra, the baseball icon, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else”.

If we agree to this we will be making the pensions system more fragile. The model used by the Regulator will not anticipate the next defaulting economy or other Black Swan that throws currency and financial markets into meltdown (no one was suggesting Argentina would default a month ago) and reduces everyone’s level of funding, so when that happens everyone will be in trouble rather than just the proportion of schemes in difficulties we have now. The overall funding risk of defined benefit pension schemes will be inflated so much that the system may not easily recover.

It gets worse. There is a lot in this consultation about governance, and also references to asset liability modelling, due diligence, reverse stress testing, scenario testing and covenant advice. These are all things which are likely to be a problem for small schemes, which I pointed out previously when they were proposed by EIOPA (because, let’s be clear, it is compliance with prospective EU legislation which has driven many of these proposals). But guess which group are going to see an almost total reduction in the scrutiny they get from the Regulator under the new regime? That’s right: small schemes.

There is still time to register your opposition to reliving the last 15 years of defined benefit pensions all over again: the consultation runs until 7 February.

Unemployment

We are only six months into the Bank of England’s new regime of giving forward guidance about what circumstances might lead them to adjust the Base Rate and they are already in a bit of a mess with it. Whether forward guidance is abandoned or not is still in the balance, amid much confusion. However, much of this confusion seems to be due to the challenge that events have provided to the assumption that the Bank of England could make reasonably accurate economic predictions.

It turns out that not only did the Bank not know how fast unemployment would fall (not a surprise: the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) minutes from August make clear that they suspected this might be the case), but neither did they know, when it did fall, what a 7% unemployed economy would look like. The Bank has been very surprised by how fragile it still is.

Back in August 2013, when unemployment was still at 7.7%, the MPC voted to embrace the forward guidance which has now fallen on its face. This said that: In particular, the MPC intends not to raise Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% at least until the Labour Force Survey headline measure of the unemployment rate has fallen to a threshold of 7%, subject to the conditions below.

The “conditions below” were that all bets would be off if any of three “knockouts” were breached:

1. that it would be more likely than not that CPI 18 to 24 months ahead would be at 2.5% or above (in fact it has just fallen to 2%);

2. medium-term inflation expectations no longer remained “sufficiently well anchored” (the gently sloping graph below would suggest it hasn’t slipped that anchor yet); or

3. the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) judged monetary policy posed “a significant threat to financial stability”. More difficult to give an opinion on that one but, looking beyond the incipient housing market bubble, it is difficult to see that monetary policy is causing any other instability currently. Certainly not compared to the instability which would be caused by jacking up interest rates and sending mortgage defaults through the roof.

Source: Bank of England implied spot inflation curve

Source: Bank of England implied spot inflation curve

So it seems that there has been no clear knock out on any of these three counts, but that the “threshold” (it was never a target after all) of 7% is no longer seen as significant a sign of economic recovery as it had been believed it would only last August.

Fun as it is to watch the illusion of mastery of the economy by the very serious people flounder yet again, as what is an intrinsically good piece of economic news is turned into a fiasco of indecision, I think the Bank is right to believe that it is far too early to raise interest rates. I say so because of two further graphs from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) latest labour market statistics, which were not included in their infographic on the left.

The first is the graph of regional unemployment, which shows very clearly that large areas of the UK are still nowhere near the magic 7% threshold: the variations are so wide and, in austerian times, the resources to address them are so limited that it makes sense not to be overly dazzled by the overall UK number.

Regional unemployment

The second is the graph of those not looking or not available for work in the 16-64 age group since the 1970s. As you can see, it has recently shown a very different pattern to that of the unemployment graph. In the past (and borne out by the data from 1973 to around 1993) the number not available to work has tended to mirror the unemployment rate as people who could manage without work withdrew from the job market when times got tough and came back in when things picked up. However in the early 90s something new started to happen: people withdrawing from the job market even when unemployment was falling. There has been a steady increase in their number until it finally started to fall only last year. So what is happening?

Not in labour force

One of the factors has been a big increase in the number of people registered as self employed, rising from 4.2 million in 1999 to 5.1 million in 2011. However, many of these people are earning very little and I suspect that at least some of them would have been categorised as unemployed in previous decades. There must therefore be some doubt about whether 7% unemployed means what it used to mean.

The Bank of England have shown with their difficulties over forward guidance that it is very hard to look forward with any degree of precision. It should be applauded for admitting that it doesn’t know enough at the moment to start pushing up interest rates.

For those people who are not pensions geeks, let me start by explaining what the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) is. Brought in by the Pensions Act 2004 in response to several examples of people getting to retirement and finding little or no funds left in their defined benefit (DB) pension schemes to pay them benefits, it is a quasi autonomous non-governmental (allegedly) organisation (QUANGO) charged with accepting pension schemes who have lost their sponsors and don’t have enough money to buy at least PPF level benefits from an insurance company. It is, as the PPF themselves appear to have acknowledged with several references to the schemes not yet in their clutches as the “insured” in a talk I attended last week, a statutory insurance scheme for defined benefit occupational pension schemes, paid for by statutory levies on those insured. As a scheme actuary I have always been very glad that it exists.

The number of insured schemes has dwindled since it was named the 7800 index in 2007 (with not quite 7,800 members at the time) to the 6,300 left standing today. As you can imagine, the ever smaller number of schemes whose levies are keeping the PPF ship afloat are very nervous about how that cost is going to vary in the future. They have seen how volatile the funding of their own schemes is, and seemingly always in the worst case direction, and worry that, when their numbers get small enough, funding the variations in PPF deficits could become overwhelming. Particularly as the current Government says whenever it is asked (although no one completely believes it) they will never ever bail out the PPF.

So there has been keen interest in the PPF explanations of how those levies are going to change next year.

PPF levies are in two parts. The scheme-based levy, which is a flat rate levy based on the liability of a scheme, and the normally-much-bigger-as-it-has-to-raise-around-90%-of-the-total-and-some-schemes-don’t-pay-it-if-they-are-well-funded-enough risk-based levy. The risk-based levy depends on how well funded you are, how risky your investment strategy is and the risk your sponsor will become insolvent over the next 12 months.

It is this last one, the insolvency risk, which is about to change. Dun and Bradstreet have lost the contract to work out these insolvency probabilities after eight years in favour of Experian. However, unfortunately and for reasons not divulged, the PPF has struggled to finalise exactly what they want Experian to do.

The choices are fairly fundamental:

  • The model used. This will either be something called commercial Delphi (similar to the approach D&B currently use) or a more PPF-specific version which takes account of how different companies which run DB schemes are from companies which don’t. The PPF-specific version looks like it was originally the front runner but has taken longer to develop than expected.
  • The number of risk levels. Currently there are 10, ie there are 10 different probabilities of insolvency you can have based on the average risk of the bucket you have landed in. One possibility still being considered at this late stage is not grouping schemes at all and basing the probability on what falls out of the as yet to be announced risk model directly. This could result in considerable uncertainty about the eventual levy. Even currently, being in bucket 10 means a levy 22 times bigger than being in bucket 1.

So reason for nervousness amongst the 6,300 perhaps? The delay will mean that it won’t be known by 1 April (an appropriate date perhaps) when data starts to be collected for the first levies under the new system next year. Insolvency risk is supposed to be based on the average insolvency probability over the 12 months to the following March, but the PPF will either have to average over a smaller number of months now or go back and adjust the “failure scores” (as the scale numbers which allocate you to a bucket are endearingly called) to the new system at a later date. Again, the decision has yet to be made.

All of this suggests an organisation where making models is much easier than making decisions. And that is in no one’s interest.

Perhaps surprisingly in the audience I was in, the greatest concern expressed was about the fact that the model the PPF uses to assess the overall risk to their future funding (and therefore used to set the total levy they are trying to collect each year) was different from either the current D&B approach, or either of the two possible future approaches, to setting failure scores, ie the levies they pay are not really based on the risk they pose to the PPF at all.

There are obviously reasons why this should be the case. Many of the risk factors to the PPF’s funding as a whole would be hard to attribute, and therefore charge, to individual sponsors. For instance the PPF’s Long-Term Risk Model runs 1,000 different economic scenarios (leading to 500,000 different scenarios in total) to assess the amount of levy required to ensure at least an 80% chance of the PPF meeting its funding objective of no longer needing levies by 2030. Plus it plays to sponsors’ basic sense of fairness that things like their credit history and items in their accounts (although perhaps not including, as now, the number of directors) should affect where they stand on the insolvency scale, rather than things that would impact more on PPF funding, like the robustness of their scheme deficit recovery plans for instance.

It is rather like the no claims discount system for car insurance. This has been shown to be an inefficient method for reallocating premiums to where the risk lies in the car driving population, and this fact has been a standard exam question staple for actuarial students for many years. However it is widely seen as fair by that car driving population and would therefore be commercial madness for any insurer to abandon.

So there we have it. The new PPF levy system. Late. Not allocating levies in accordance with risk. And coming to a pension scheme near you soon.

There has been the usual flurry of misleading headlines around the Prime Minister’s pledge to maintain the so-called triple lock in place for the 2015-20 Parliament. The Daily Mail described it as a “bumper £1,000 a year rise”. Section 150A of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, as amended in 2010, already requires the Secretary of State to uprate the amount of the Basic State Pension (and the Standard Minimum Guarantee in Pension Credit) at least in line with the increase in the general level of earnings every year, so the “bumper” rise would only be as a result of earnings growth continuing to grind along at its current negative real rate.

However, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is currently predicting the various elements of the triple lock to develop up until 2018 as follows:

Triple lock

The OBR have of course not got a great track record on predicting such things, but all the same I was curious about where the Daily Mail’s number could have come from.

The Pensions Policy Institute’s (PPI’s) report on the impact of abandoning the triple lock in favour of just a link to earnings growth estimates the difference in pension in today’s money could be £20 per week, which might be the source of the Daily Mail figure, but not until 2065! I think if we maintain a consistent State Pensions policy for over 50 years into the future a rise of £20 per week in its level will be the least remarkable thing about it.

The PPI’s assumption is that the triple lock, as opposed to what is statutorily required, would make a difference to the State Pension increase of 0.26% a year on average. It is a measure of how small our politics has become that this should be headline news for several days.

Pirates colourImagine a ship tossed around in a rough sea. The waves throw the vessel in all directions, before the sea level plummets sharply. Whirlpools have formed to the south of them and there are fears these will spread north and swallow the ship. The only means of escape is a rope ladder dangled above the ship, from an airship desperately being inflated above their heads. However the only place on the ship where this can be reached is the ship’s bridge, which is reserved for the ship’s officers.

Strangely the crew do not attempt to storm the bridge but seem resigned to their fate. Instead the captain orders the airship to dump several tons of ballast into the ship, pulling it even further down into the water. To all pleas for mercy from the crew his reply is the same: row harder. The captain has had the sail removed and passed up to the airship crew, on the understanding that the material will be made into a tow rope that will pull the ship to safety. But that seems like a long time ago. The crew have been left with no choice but to row, their daily rations gradually dwindling.

Question: if the sea level rises again, as of course it will eventually, so that the rope ladder moves into reach for everyone on the ship not too weak to take advantage of it, despite everything the ship’s officers have done to make the crew’s lives more hopeless, should we congratulate the ship’s captain on his stewardship? I and many others think not.

Meanwhile the head of a pin is drawing perilously close to the fabric of the airship as the crew pile heedlessly up the rope ladder…..

When I started writing this blog in April, one of its main purposes was to highlight how poor we are at forecasting things, and suggest that our decision-making would improve if we acknowledged this fact. The best example I could find at the time to illustrate this point were the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth forecasts over the previous 3 years.

Eight months on it therefore feels like we have come full circle with the publication of the December 2013 OBR forecasts in conjunction with the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Little appears to have changed in the interim, the coloured lines on the chart below of their various forecasts now joined by the latest one all display similar shapes steadily moving to the right, advising extreme caution in framing any decision based on what the current crop of forecasts suggest.

OBR update

However, the worse the forecasts are revealed to be, the keener it seems politicians of all the three main parties are to base policy upon them. The Autumn Statement ran to 7,000 words, of which 18 were references to the OBR, with details of their forecasts taking up at least a quarter of the speech. In every area of economic policy, from economic growth to employment to government debt, it seemed that the starting point was what the OBR predicted on the subject. The Shadow Chancellor appears equally convinced that the OBR lends credibility to forecasting, pleading for Labour’s own tax and spending plans to be assessed by them in the run up to the next election.

I am a little mystified by all of this. The updated graph of the OBR’s performance since 2010 does not look any better than it did in April, the lines always go up in the future and so far they have always been wrong. If they turn out to be right (or, more likely, a bit less wrong) this time, then that does not seem to me to tell us anything much about their predictive skill. It takes great skill, as Les Dawson showed, to unerringly hit the wrong notes every time. It just takes average luck to hit them occasionally.

For another bit of crystal ball gazing in his Statement, the Chancellor abandoned the OBR to talk about state pension ages. These were going to go up to 68 by 2046. Now they are going to go up to 68 by the mid 2030s and then to 69 by the late 2040s. There will still be people alive now who were born when the state retirement age (for the “Old Age Pension” as it was then called) was 70. It looks like we are heading back in that direction again.

The State Pension Age (SPA) was introduced in 1908 as 70 years for men and women, when life expectancy at birth was below 55 for both. In 1925 it was reduced to 65, at which time life expectancy at birth had increased to 60.4 for women and 56.5 for men. In 1940, a SPA below life expectancy at birth was introduced for the first time, with women allowed to retire from age 60 despite a life expectancy of 63.5. Men, with a life expectancy of 58.2 years were still expected to continue working until they were 65. Male life expectancy at birth did not exceed SPA until 1948 (source: Human Mortality Database).

In 1995 the transition arrangements to put the SPA for women back up to 65 began, at which stage male life expectancy was 73.9 and female 79.2 years. In 2007 we all started the transition to a new SPA of 68. In 2011 this was speeded up and last week the destination was extended to 69.

SPAs

Where might it go next? If the OBR had a SPA modeller anything like their GDP modeller it would probably say up, in about another 2 years (just look again at the forecasts in the first graph to see what I mean). Ministers have hit the airwaves to say that the increasing SPA is a good news story, reflecting our increasingly long lives. And the life expectancies bear this out, with the 2011 figures showing life expectancy at birth for males at 78.8 and for females at 82.7, with all pension schemes and insurers building in further big increases to those life expectancies into their assumptions over the decades ahead.

And yet. The ONS statistical bulletin in September on healthy life expectancy at birth tells a different story which is not good news at all. Healthy life expectancies for men and women (ie the maximum age at which respondents would be expected to regard themselves as in good or very good health) at birth are only 63.2 and 64.2 years respectively. If people are going to have to drag themselves to work for 5 or 6 years on average in poor health before reaching SPA under current plans, how much further do we really expect SPA to increase?

Some have questioned the one size fits all nature of SPA, suggesting regional differences be introduced. If that ever happened, would we expect to see the mobile better off becoming SPA tourists, pushing up house prices in currently unfashionable corners of the country just as they have with their second homes in Devon and Cornwall? Perhaps. I certainly find it hard to imagine any state pension system which could keep up with the constantly mutating socioeconomics of the UK’s regions.

Perhaps a better approach would be a SPA calculated by HMRC with your tax code. Or some form of ill health early retirement option might be introduced to the state pension. What seems likely to me is that the pressures on the Government to mitigate the impact of a steadily increasing SPA will become one of the key intergenerational battlegrounds in the years ahead. In the meantime, those lines on the chart are going to get harder and harder for some.

The consultation on the future shape of workplace pensions has been going on for nearly a month now and ends two weeks on Friday. It is littered with errors, from completely repeated questions (Q52 = Q54) to ones which are so similar as makes no difference (Qs 41 and 44 for example) and the thrust of a lot of the questions are quite hard to answer if you do not share some of the underlying assumptions of the DWP about the process, but come on! This is our chance to put a bit of definition into the rather blurry outline of a straw man which some of the newspapers have been tilting at so vigorously!

You don’t have to answer all of the questions, but just to goad you a bit I have done so here. Agree, disagree, I would love to hear from you. But not until you have responded to one of the following addresses:

How to respond to this consultation

Pleasesendyourconsultationresponses,preferablybye-mail,to:definedambition.pensionsconsultation@dwp.gsi.gov.uk

Or by post to:

Defined Ambition Team

Private Pensions Policy and Analysis

1st Floor, Caxton House

6-12 Tothill Street

London

SW1H 9NA

 

Feedback on the consultation process

There have only been 24 posts on the blog. I think the main reason for this was identified early in the process from a contributor referring to herself only as Hannah:

Hannah

I applaud the use of an open blog but it’s obvious that there’s a bit of a problem here! Perhaps, to avoid this becoming sidetracked, you could introduce a drop-down in the comment section so that people could select what aspect of DA reform or the consultation their comment relates to – and if their comment relates instead to concerns about their accrued benefits, you could redirect them to a separate specialised member queries page?

Reply

Sam Gilbert

Thanks for this Hannah, we will look into this once the blog picks up pace.

DA Team, DWP

Of course the blog never did pick up pace because people soon realised that there comments would be lost in a stream of pension benefit queries. Not the way to encourage a consultation. If you want to comment on this or anything else about the process of the consultation, the contact details are as follows:

Elias Koufou

DWP Consultation Coordinator

2nd Floor

Caxton House

Tothill Street

London

SW1H 9NA

Phone: 020 7449 7439

Email:elias.koufou@dwp.gsi.gov.uk