There are many reasons why it is much harder for a small actuarial consulting firm to do business than a large one. Large firms can obviously afford to put people on the committees which design actuarial regulation, whereas small practitioners tend not to be able to spare the billing time lost. This has resulted in many recent developments, in regulation in particular, disproportionately favouring larger firms.

The Technical Actuarial Standards (TAS), whatever your opinion of them and I am generally in favour, have spawned TAS committees in larger firms and, in all firms, has required a redesign of most advice given by pensions actuaries. This has been bad enough for large firms, but much more difficult for firms with one or two actuaries. Large firms can devote resources to producing the personality-free template documents we see springing up all over the place and have a ready source of peer advice to help apply the TASs to new documents as they become necessary. The “tick list” approach of GN9, GN11, GN16, GN19 and the rest, so heavily criticised by the now defunct Board for Actuarial Standards (BAS) when introducing the TASs, did at least make compliance relatively straightforward for small firms, allowing them to concentrate on the far more important and personal task of tailoring advice to the specific needs of their clients.

The new guidance for actuaries on conflicts of interest is similarly slanted. The suggestions are almost all big company solutions, from separation of teams to information barriers to setting up conflicts committees, designed to protect the income of firms with multiple offices from the loss of the ability to provide advice to connected parties. The one man business is pretty much left with “ceasing to act” as a strategy, leaving the field even clearer for the bigger firms.

I have been vaguely aware of this for some time, but since I left a medium-sized consultancy last year and started providing peer review services to small firms, it has been harder to ignore. I do not expect to continue as a sole trader over the long term, but I fear for those who do.

And the latest example that has struck me is the recent behaviour of the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI). This is an organisation with a proud tradition of providing analysis and resources on all aspects of mortality, longevity and morbidity to the Actuarial Profession. Anyone could access their materials for free, unlike Hymans Robertson’s Club Vita or the postcode analyses provided by companies like Longevitas. It was public data, available and accessible to public, academics, journalists and actuaries alike, working in the public interest.

No more. A fee structure has been put in place with effect from 1 April this year. Large consultancies will pay what, for them, is a flea bite of a fee. But I imagine some of the small firms will think twice about the relative costs of being locked out or the fee for continued access. And to demonstrate just how unfair it is, I have graphed the cost per qualified UK actuary below:

CMI fees.png

Apart from the fun to be had seeing how the formula impacts different consultancies (and speculating about some of the lobbying that might have been going on to achieve this) the graph shows us that the average cost starts at £250 for a firm with one actuary, but ends at around £30 per actuary for a firm the size of Towers Watson (mainly based on the number of UK actuaries listed in the latest actuarial directory – my apologies if any of these are out of date).

There are anomalies too. A firm with 20 actuaries pays £210 per actuary, whereas one with 21 pays £352 (the highest per actuary cost of all).

It is not as if these are avoidable costs. Funding and accounting cost mortality assumptions may not need to be updated every year but other routine work will. For instance, thanks to changes to the Statutory Money Purchase Illustrations (SMPI) technical memorandums since December 2011 (overseen by the Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC’s) actuarial council with, you guessed it, no one from a small actuarial firm on board), anyone without access to the CMI 2013 projections (which are the first to be pay-to-view) will be unable to provide SMPIs from 6 April next year.

This does not appear to me to be fair treatment of smaller actuarial firms, nor of their clients, who are also small firms. According to the Association of Consulting Actuaries’ (ACA’s) Second Report of the ACA Smaller Firms’ Pensions Survey, published earlier this year, small firms, which the larger consultancies increasingly are finding not cost-effective to service, represent a more and more important sector of the economy:

The small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) sector, here defined as businesses employing 250 or fewer employees, is the largest part of the UK private sector economy in terms of employment. These smaller firms employ over half of the UK’s private sector employees (59.1%) and generate just short of a half (48.8%) of all private sector turnover, amounting to some £1,500 billion per year. They make up over 99% of all UK private sector enterprises. The number of these SMEs has increased by 39% since 2000, whereas there are only just over 6,500 UK private sector enterprises that now employ 250 or more employees compared to 7,200 a decade or so ago (a reduction of 10% over the period).

If the CMI does have to charge for its services, then I would propose a flat per actuary fee, set at a rate designed to generate the same level of income, as a much fairer approach. Assuming this aimed at raising between £250,000 and £300,000 from consultancies next year, I estimate this should result in a per actuary fee of around £100. In my view that would be replacing the mortality of fairness with fairness of mortality.

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