I don’t know what I don’t know

A member splatted against the relentless forehead of a streamlined, efficient, simplified and clarified IFoA

So the proposals which I wrote about last month have been reconsidered by the newly elected Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) Council on 15 October, where they agreed some tweaks to the original proposals as follows:

Council devised and ultimately voted for revised measures based on the member feedback it had received on the previously approved reforms. You told us that you wanted the new President and Council (2023-2024) to reconsider the reforms and we agreed this at our meeting on 1 September 2023. You told us that you wanted better communication and more engagement and we have embarked on one of the biggest member engagement exercises in our history which will continue next year into the role of Council. You told us that you were uncomfortable with the idea that actuaries would be in the minority on the board. We have responded by changing the makeup of the new IFoA Board so that it will continue to have a majority of actuaries. You told us that you wanted safeguards to ensure the IFoA Board could be held to account and that a “bad board” could not self-perpetuate. We have responded by ensuring that appointments of members and independents to the IFoA Board will need to be ratified by Council on first appointment and every 3 years for the remainder of their term.

So am I happy now? The answer is no in some respects and I don’t know in others. No I am not happy that a member vote still seems to be proposed for 2026, giving this proposal the inside track to becoming the final permanent governance structure by only asking for a vote after most of us will have become quite hazy about what went before it.

I don’t know because we are still not going to be given sight of any part of the DAC Beachcroft report to which these proposals are supposed to be a response. We are therefore being asked to completely trust the description of what was in it by the very people trying to sell us their proposals. That is a big ask in my view.

However it is also difficult to raise any formal objections to the proposed amendment to Regulations 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12 and 13 in this state of enforced ignorance. I will therefore be raising the concerns I have set out here by contacting the Corporate Secretary at the IFoA. If you feel that you can go further and formally object on the basis of what you have or have not been told, then those objections should be raised by 30 January to be considered.

Perhaps I am making too much of what I don’t know, but I was struck by the references here to any future consultation being confined to the role of Council, with the rest of the governance structure seemingly regarded as done and dusted. Also if you watch to the end of the little video there, you are confronted with this message:

Is our ability to continue to self-regulate at all really under threat? I would have expected to be told rather more about why this is before being asked for my views in a member organisation such as the IFoA.

I accept that many of the IFoA’s functions may need a more streamlined system to run them effectively. There are many different alternative structures which we could consider to achieve this. But these proposals are about changing the very nature of the IFoA and that requires full disclosure to members about why we are doing this and a chance to vote before we do so in my view. More than a tweak, in other words.

Horizon and its implications for us all

Copyright ©Steve Bell 2009/All Rights Reserved e.mail: belltoons@ntlworld.com tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664. Reproduced by kind permission of Steve Bell https://www.belltoons.co.uk/bellworks/index.php/leaders/2009/2913-16-10-09_BOINGUSES

We have been here many times before, even in recent memory. The 2008 banking crisis, memorably immortalised by the Steve Bell cartoon above; the MPs’ expenses scandal the following year; the successive disappointments of Brexit; and now the the Post Office Horizon scandal. All of these had in common an initial public expression of outrage, followed by loud condemnations of aspects of it from within the Establishment, followed by a series of measures which generally failed to change anything substantive. So the ring-fencing legislation brought in to isolate the risk taking within banking from retail customers has steadily been lobbied against and is now gradually being unravelled. MPs continue to have expenses scandals. I don’t know how to encapsulate in a sentence the Muppet Show of how the Establishment has been trying to deal with Brexit since 2016. And now this.

The Post Office scandal seems to be being discussed everywhere: beyond the TV, radio and social media, it is in the pub, the supermarket queue, in families and workplaces. The Establishment condemnation is already underway, as pithily summarised by Marina Hyde here. I do not really care about the implications for the honours lists, but very much hope that the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses get the compensation they are seeking. However this time the response cannot stop there.

As David Allen Green has written in Prospect today (with a great overview of what has happened from a legal point of view), the scandal also represents a failure of the legal system. This was partly caused by the repeal, in 1999, of the part of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which presumed in favour of individuals rather than computer systems. This has been particularly unfair in these cases as the evidence defendants needed to show that Horizon was at fault often remained undisclosed by the Post Office. It was also caused by the Post Office’s eagerness to pursue private prosecutions.

Coincidentally, I came across the concept of private prosecutions a couple of weeks ago while reading the excellent Butler to the World: How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals by Oliver Bullough (which also suggested to me that I should revisit the issue of Scottish Limited Partnerships soon, but I digress). As Oliver points out:

Under measures introduced in the post-2010 austerity agenda, defendants…have no prospect of reclaiming their expenses from public funds if they are convicted. Even if they’re acquitted, they can only get their expenses back if a request for legal aid has previously been turned down…Meanwhile, private prosecutors – whether individual or companies – can claim back all reasonable expenses if they lose. Financially speaking, a private prosecution is a one-way bet. As long as you can afford the upfront cost of bankrolling the case, you’ll get your money back because under common law you are acting on behalf of the Crown.

David Allen Green has called for private prosecutions to be abolished, which I would agree with. But I also think the burden of proof needs to be returned to the operators of computer systems in what I predict will become increasingly frequent human-expert system disputes in the future. In fact we need to go further than that and have a full public consultation into what legal protections individual humans will need in a world increasingly driven by decisions and calculations made by non-human systems.

Over seven years ago I wrote an article in response to Cathy O’Neil’s excellent Weapons of Math Destruction, where she set out the case against devolving important decisions to mathematical models without adequate feedback loops. I said then (with an Oppenheimer reference too!) that:

If mathematical models are to be the dominant regulatory tool of a financial world, and of the consultancies and financial firms competing in that world, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of the highly paid professionals who followed inappropriate rules rather than exercising their own expert judgement when it mattered.

It is starting to look like we may be there already unless we act fast.

What would be gained from increasing the state pension for all?

Source: https://youtu.be/31xY6rYiu2E

When I was nearing qualification as an actuary at the turn of the century, one of the recommended texts for both the specialist pensions (the then equivalent of SP4 and SA4) exams was Alastair Jollans’ 1997 paper to the Staple Inn Actuarial Society (SIAS) entitled Pensions and the ageing population. At the time there was quite a lot of actuarial comment about how superior a funded pension system was to a pay-as-you-go system and the example of Chile in particular. The following sentence from Alastair’s paper stuck with me at the time:

It is also clear that the Chilean scheme made a huge psychological difference, and this may be one of the major advantages of funding.

Meanwhile the Labour Government had been moving to reform the State Earnings Related Pension (SERPS) with its Green paper of 1998 A new contract for welfare: partnership in pensions, and replace it with a new State Second Pension (S2P). It had two aims – giving more help to people for whom private pensions were not an option and helping moderate earners to build up better second pensions through the introduction of stakeholder pensions. The intention was that S2P would become flat-rate over time with the following reasons given for this (bold mine):

Although SERPS is an efficient second pension, it is earnings-related. It does least for those on low incomes who have most difficulty in building up a good second pension. Many people on modest incomes will also receive limited benefits from SERPS or from the private provision they may make instead.

So the limitations of the current system (where the new State Pension has replaced S2P and auto-enrolment has replaced stakeholder pensions), as previously discussed here, were recognised from the outset of the experiment of moving to funded pensions.

Fast forward to now and Chile’s system is tottering, leading to mass protests. It turns out that the psychological advantage of its funding approach was only an advantage for those that could afford it, whereas the 40% who gained no benefit from invested funds (a remarkably similar proportion to the UK statistics) preferred the psychological advantage of a guaranteed state pension. Even the FT admits it needs reform, although fairly technical in nature:

At the very least, a sensible reform now should be to eliminate the investment limits by asset class and introduce an investment policy based on risk metrics at the portfolio level. The government should also relax the restrictions on alternative investments and eliminate the ill-designed hedge requirements.

The Council on Foreign Relations was less restrained in 2022:

Pensions were never a good fit for strictly private management, as basic building blocks of the welfare state are definitive public goods. Yet the failure of the system has reverberated beyond the retirees trying to make ends meet. Pensions became a leading cause for the millions of Chileans who took to the streets in protest in 2019, spurring the formation of a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution that will be voted on in September.

The best path for pensions would be a reform that ensures adequate retirements for more Chileans. This requires a more robust public system with dedicated funding to sustain it. If legislators can make this happen, they can reduce the financial hardship too many of Chile’s elderly now face. And, to the benefit of democracy in both Chile and its neighbors, they could also thereby restore at least some of the political legitimacy that the old system helped to put in doubt.

In my first post in this series, I explained why the State Pension needs to be much bigger than the Triple Lock is ever going to get it to. The second post then moved on to discuss the leaky pensions budget and what to do about it. In this third and final post in the series, I focus on why increasing pensions should be a priority when there is so much destitution in all parts of our society.

We are living in anxious times, with discomfort about the state of the world now so extreme that many of us are disconnecting from it and, instead, treating it as a personal mental health challenge requiring breathing exercises and mindfulness and radio programmes like Radio 2 Unwinds with Angela Griffin and similar. This follows a pattern with other crises, where we have been encouraged to abandon collective action to protect our pay and conditions by ever more onerous anti-union legislation or to abandon collective action to combat climate change by ever more onerous anti-protest legislation. Instead we are constantly encouraged to look inward and focus on our own wants and the things about ourselves which are standing in the way of those wants, ie to approach the world solely as a consumer. It is much more convenient for the companies working in the retail markets if we all behave this way.

Moving away from the collective provision of state pensions for all to a reasonable level and instead towards the individual provision of funded occupational pensions follows this pattern. However, as we have seen, many have been left in poverty without any asset security as a result of this move. This leaves them more vulnerable to sickness, debt and generally less resilient to the uncertainties of the future.

Seth Godin recently blogged about the engineering philosophy essential to creating something both useful and fit for purpose. It involves asking who is it for and what is it for.

Increasingly I feel that we have lost sight of these two questions in how we provide pensions, my answers would be:

  • Who is it for? Everyone.
  • What is it for? To increase people’s resilience.

In the case of resilience, the discussion has been kept at a, in my view deliberately, high level of abstraction so that most people feel that it is not their concern. McKinsey produced a particularly incomprehensible example here, but it is probably unfair to pick on them as they are just one of many, and they did at least mention societal resilience. A great technique for excluding people from the discussion is to produce a proliferation of definitions which noone can agree on (five were identified in this article in Nature by Rockstrom et al, for instance). However, as Rockstrom identified, in essence a resilient system needs just five characteristics:

  1. Diversity, ie support comes in multiple forms and does not assume everyone is the same;
  2. Redundancy, ie if one part of the system fails, there is always a good Plan B and mechanisms available to replace system failures quickly and efficiently;
  3. Connectivity, ie our supply chains are diversified and the resources we need drawn from a wide range of sources, and our populations are kept well connected with each other and the services they need;
  4. Inclusivity and equity; and
  5. Adaptive learning, ie we review whether the system is working reasonably frequently and learn from experience.

So what would be gained from increasing the state pension for all?

  • Marginalising older people when their bodies already feel less resilient and forcing them into the boxes required by our processes of means-testing are likely to extinguish many of these voices from the national discussions we need to have. A significant increase in pensions for all, instead of the ridiculous triple lock which is only tolerated as it slowly gets us to this goal without having to have the discussion about what a decent pension would be, is what is needed.
  • A larger state pension would give us all more security through redundancy, ie a decent baseline underneath the other sources of income. Our invested pensions are not as diversified as they look and very vulnerable to a range of system-wide events and our means-tested benefits are very frequently prone to error and delay. The prospect of this greater level of security and certainty in retirement would also ease the burden of many working age families who are supporting older relatives, and the effects would therefore extend well beyond the retired population.
  • Poverty crushes the diversity of a population, as the cartoon above from the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty Olivier de Schutter makes clear. We need diverse people with diverse thought and we need to include them in our society and listen to what they have to say.
  • Focusing on those of retirement age to allow them to live better will save money in other areas. According to a Guardian study, an 85-year-old man costs the NHS about seven times more on average than a man in his late 30s. Health spending per person steeply increases after the age of 50. It would also reduce reliance on an inefficient and fragmented disability benefit system.
  • Increasing the state pension would obviously have a much greater effect at the bottom half of the income deciles than at the top and would therefore have a big impact on inequality. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies said of increases to the minimum wage for working people between 2011 and 2021:

...inequality in male earnings rose between 1980 and the Great Recession, driven by rising wage inequality at the top and rising hours inequality at the bottom. This trend appears to have stopped in the last decade, as growth in the minimum wage outstripped wage growth further up the distribution, and hours worked stopped falling disproportionately for low-wage men.

Increases to the state pension would be likely to have just as dramatic an effect.

And we all gain from a more equal society, even those we redistribute away from. As the Equality Trust have shown in their research, high levels of income inequality are linked to economic instability, financial crisis, debt and inflation; less social mobility and lower scores in maths, reading and science; an increase in murder and robbery rates; reduced longevity, more mental illness and obesity, and higher rates of infant mortality. People in less equal societies are less likely to trust each other, less likely to engage in social or civic participation, and less likely to say they’re happy.

My view is that we need to start somewhere in creating a more equal, and therefore more resilient, society here in the UK. And I would start with pensions.