Not many I’ll be bound; those who do are likely to be the 10% with inquiring minds who took their Pension Wise consultation. Speaking to a couple of the pathway providers who I spoke to last week, traffic from the comparator site is minimal. This may be just as well as the site is a disgrace.
I have complained in previous blogs about the lack of relevant factual information on the site with which to make meaningful comparison but – having now had a month or two to dig deeper, I will restate my objections to the site.
Why is the MaPS investment pathway comparison site a disgrace?
First and foremost it focuses decision making purely on cost
This is a clip I did on a search for myself. I did so having been excited by this claim on the MaPS site
This is not a shop around service, many of the readymade investment pathways are not represented – where is the LV Product – where is the Vanguard Product, where are the offerings from True Potential, Open Money and SJP?
Confusingly the site tells me
I originally took this statement to be the reason why MaPS could not be inclusive. But I suspect that MaPS have been bullied by incumbents into including this statement. I would imagine that “deals” could be had with any provider – why the home bias?
Secondly, the basis of the “cost” comparison is deeply suspect. Everyone inside pensions should know that the amount you pay for pension management is much more than the explicit charges disclosed by the platform provider . But the site gives no details of the true cost of investing in these pathways . Instead every comparison gives the same explanation. The first year charge shown …
will take into account the expected charges for the pension drawdown product and the investment pathway chosen and, if applicable, any income you have chosen to withdraw.
But there is nothing on the site that allows the inquisitive purchaser to understand whether the hidden costs are included or a breakdown of costs. This is important because if you want to use the site filter, it becomes clear that the only basis of comparison is charges
You can also sort High-Low on the first year charge.
Not whole of market – not clear on charges – so what about value?
My journey through the site has given me “an idea of what the market looks like” and two ways to compare the market (hi-lo, lo-hi on charges). But I am also being told that I can
Click on ‘more information’ to find out additional details such as the product features and charges, along with a description of the risks and investment objective of the chosen investment pathway option you’ve selected.
What is iniquitous and disgraceful is that MaPS are making the purchasing experience one dimensional and giving no instruction on value whatsoever.
What is needed is a quantitative approach to value assessment and that needs to be done independently of providers using proper simulations of how these pathways and platforms actually work. This is not as hard as it sounds and I will be putting forward suggestions to MaPS on a way to compare the effectiveness of these pathways based on historic simulations (ex ante). No doubt those with stochastic models could do the same going forwards – though these monte-carlo simulations don’t do it for me.
Similarly, there are independent assessments of the sustainability of funds – ranging from TCFD reporting to Morningstar’s Sustainalitics, which could be employed to provide an insight into the E, S and G of the pathways.
Solutions are available, why aren’t they being explored?
I am increasingly frustrated with MaPS, which will come as no surprise to readers of this blog. The £108m spent by the organisation last year came out of levies which ultimately find their way into the charges we pay for financial products.
The users of those products should be demanding a service from MaPS that is at leas fit for purpose, this service is a disgrace. Someone needs to be held accountable for its delivery.
The best thing that can be said about the MaPS investment pathway is that no-one appears to know about it, let alone use it. It could easily become just another failed project that quietly fades into the distance, unused and unloved.
But investment pathways are the only game in town for those who cannot afford or do not want an advised product. Many non-advised products are providing value and many of those do not make it onto the platform. Those that do are being ill if not misrepresented. Purchasing decisions are being reduced to price comparisons and the price comparisons are dodgy. Solutions that are available are not being explored and no one seems accountable.
I’m pleased that Julius Pursail has commented on my post on lifestyling. He’s someone who cares a lot about member outcomes. He’s made it clear in Professional Pensions that he wants the trust he advises – Cushon – to do more than the lowest common denominator or a strategy of “minimum detriment”.
Here’s what he has to say….I’ve put my tuppence worth in red
There are two sources of cost that members bear inherent in Lifestyling.
The first is the potential forgone return that derives from members not being fully exposed to a high return asset class (equities) as derisking (into whatever lower risk asset mix the trustees have decided upon) takes effect in the run up to “expected” benefit vesting.
Trustees take these decisions based on complex trade offs around the range of possible returns for different cohorts of members and uncertainty around the timing and type of benefits the member is likely to take.
As Con Keating pithily observes, the size of this forgone return that materialises when benefits are taken, represents the cost the member has born for decisions the trustee has taken about risk.
I think of this as “opportunity cost” which can be measured by comparing the lifestyle outcome with the outcome from not lifestyling. Here is an example
Here the orange line represents the return for someone who had not been lifestyled and the green line the person whose fund had been totally de-risked of equities (the other lines are for those who are in between. You can see that for five years after the crash that followed the market peak at 2000, lifestyle would have produced better outcomes. But staying in a de-risked fund had an opportunity cost from around 2005.
You can see that the same pattern emerged in the 2008 crash, it wasn’t till 2014 that the lifestyle fund showed an opportunity cost.
By comparison , the impact of the pandemic on outcomes in 2020 was short lived and lifestyle only provided protection for a year.
There really is no telling when the market is in freefall, how long lifestyle protection is worth having but like any insurance, its value is in relieving the stress of the short term market calamity. How many of those who enjoyed lifestyle protection over these crashes , were aware of the job it did? Conversely, how many savers are currently still in bonds and failing to enjoy the current market rally?
Lifestyle is an insurance that few know they have purchased. The value of that insurance is hit and miss and its cost can be immense. Using this insurance when it isn’t needed is a waste of money and this is why the kind of interactive messaging that Cushon wants to employ is helpful.
The second cost to members flows from the cost of trading between asset classes. This is an area where providers can help to minimise costs and improve outcomes by unit matching wherever possible between different members, benefitting both the seller (the older DC member) and the buyer (the younger member, still buying equities).
It must be right that trustees understand the impact of both these sources of cost, by measuring ex post member outcomes in the way AgeWage has pioneered. Understanding how well decisions made by the trustee about risk have turned out can help review the ex ante decisions trustees have taken about the risks members bear.
This is about execution and it’s something that trustees should be able to control. We can see historically the operational cost of lifestyling by comparing similar strategies executed in different ways. It’s a bit like measuring the time it takes to change wheels in a formula 1 pitstop, every car goes through the same wheel change but some lose more time than others. You can’t guarantee winners and losers but you can see which tyre- change times get it right more often than not. Past performance should be a guide to future performance – especially if its judged over two or more cycles (see above).
Turning to the questions you raise in your subsequent post about Cushon’s ability to use technology to engage with members, the 60% App driven member engagement figure relates to schemes that have been launched direct onto Cushon tech (we are in the process of porting the old Salvus (now Cushon) MasterTrust onto our technology). By using straightforward behavioural techniques and push messaging, that figure has climbed rapidly to 80% after just a few months. This level of engagement offers transformational capacity to create well tailored lifestyle strategies for our members, based on their own risk preferences.
As I have said above and in the previous blog, Cushon’s approach is a good one, provided it doesn’t overwhelm the member and get them sending messages to spam. Here is the challenge- laid down by Richard Chilman as a comment on my initial blog.
The trouble with much of this is that life is quite unpredictable.
Many of those for whom life is more predictable have great difficulty knowing when they might retire and what that retirement might look like, especially if it is a few years away. When it comes to it, retirement is often a gradual process involving part time working.
However, for very many people, retirement is driven by unforeseen and unwelcome events. There are first the redundancies, with the uncertainty of what (if any) work can realistically be done afterwards. There are then the health issues which often stop or limit the work that people can do, and indeed the things they may be able to do after work. And then there are the family issues like separation or caring for others. All these are the practical things that drive “retirement” for many and their access to their pensions and state benefits.
At least for most people, it is difficult to see how personalisation can work with any reliability at all. It can’t change how money has been invested in the past. For the future, the small percentage of financially sophisticated and organised people may continually feed changes of personal circumstances to a pension provider. However, this is pure fantasy land as far as most of the “pension lumpen” are concerned. They don’t keep on top of a number of complex things in their lives and have little if any understanding of investment issues. They just understand cash.
It would be interesting to see any examples of the kind of nudge that Cushon have in mind. It would also be good to know whether Cushon’s nudge to their membership to think and invest green, extends to those in their fifties and sixties. “Lifestyle” can be interpreted in many ways, but for the lumpen it is most connected with the quality of life we can lead!
This blog is in response to Ros Altmann’s comments on Mark Fawcett’s “new bargain”. It is good that this discussion is happening, though my thoughts are amateur and are driven by opinion rather than a deep understanding of private markets. We need a proper debate about how our retirement savings are managed and this looks like part of it. Ros’ comments are in italics, mine in red.
Dear Henry, thanks for your response to my comments. I certainly do not advocate LDI and bond-yield returns for DC and am referring to the performance of the assets in DB schemes which have benefited from diversification into illiquid and other types of asset class, to benefit from long-term risk premia that should be available for success.
I am pleased you talk about long-term risk premia, from what I hear from those close to private investments, current conditions mean the harvesting of short-term risk premia will yield a meagre crop. This may be a good thing as it reduces the opportunities to trade – which I see as damaging the stability of companies invested in and rarely in the interests of investors. There have been attempts to replicate LDI structures within DC, they have failed – DC is not ready to be locked down just yet!
The problem with DC investing, relying only on equities and bonds, is that this does not take advantage of the market inefficiencies which exist more frequently in less publicly scrutinized markets.
I agree that the private markets provide opportunities for growth , let’s hope we can avoid strategies which take advantage of vulnerable stocks and profit from their demise. This seems to be against the S in ESG and trustees need to be clear with their managers that they are looking at long-term growth.
Also, with assets like infrastructure, there is both a growth and a real income rationale, which can be tapped into and which DB schemes have used to their advantage. The current DC landscape does not seem to factor in long-term inflation protection directly at all. Even in the annuity space, the emphasis is always on fixed, level annuities (because they are the only way that buying an annuity at a relatively young age (in your 60s!) can look even remotely attractive for those in good health.
Your argument seems to accept that “DC and pensions” can be spoken of together. I agree that large DC schemes should be considering paying inflation proofed pensions and that the emphasis on scheme design needs to turn from lifestyling (where the aim is typically to de-risk) towards an ambition to pay a wage in retirement. Infrastructure supports the payment of “real income” – which I take you to mean – “income that keeps pace with inflation”. Your points about annuities are well made. Currently, many annuities are set up with the option to be replaced within a couple of years by lifetime annuities, the current annuity market is in a holding pattern awaiting the return of interest.
Having a more diversified approach can help with inflation protection as well as upside returns. DB has become more obsessed with managing downside risks that many schemes have perhaps focussed too little on gaining the upside above liabilities which is essential for paying the pensions after costs.
Is this not a consequence of over-zealous regulation designed to protect the PPF at all costs? Your work in the Lords , with Sharon Bowles did much to convince Government to relax its position on “open DB pensions”, I hope this will be reflected in a softer re-write of TPR’s DB funding code. I have made the point to the Pensions Minister that open DB, CDC and consolidated DC share the capacity to invest for growth.
In the end, though, on the issue of fees, only the largest schemes are likely to have the muscle to negotiate the best fee deals and that is the same in DB. The advantage that DB trustees have is that they are not held to daily pricing or liquidity and can take a longer term view, which is what I believe we need in DC too.
This is part of the new bargain isn’t it? Mark Fawcett’s phrase has implications not just for fees but for people’s expectations from their pensions. So long as pensions are promoted as tax-advantaged wealth then liquidity will be to the fore. This is where the advisory market and DC pension trustees diverge. The wealthy , especially since Woodford, have a right to be wary of illiquids. They find themselves locked into property funds and “gating” is still a specter hanging over hedge-funds. Right now, trustees are wary about offering illiquids on a stand-alone basis as members may be in the legal position of demanding liquidations under scheme rules.
I have heard legal opinion that trustees may be liable to create that liquidity – possibly with recourse to the sponsor. Trustees have a right to be nervous. But large schemes with defaults that allocate a small percentage to illiquids need not have these worries. The Government’s agenda is to bifurcate the market with SIPPs serving the wealth market and large workplace pensions serving the non-advised (and typically less wealthy).
I would not pay 2+20% to any manager because I believe the advantages are too skewed towards the manager. A 2% annual fee in the current interest rate environment seems extraordinary for an institutional portfolio. It has taken many years for DB trustees of the largest funds to negotiate harder on fee levels, the smaller schemes are still paying more. I suspect the same for DC is likely.
I am sure you are right, though Government seems bent on recreating the DC market so that the “new bargain” can happen quickly. I see a lot of people paying 2 and 20 type fees in the wealth market. They are not formally structured that way but if your client is paying 2%pa + and being hit by exit penalties, the impact is at least as severe.
Of course a lot of this cost is to do with platforms and advice and buys a lot more than fund management, but if organizations like Nest can offer no penalties on entry and exit and funds that include the diversifying strategies you talk of, workplace pensions become an attractive alternative for the wealthy. The FCA continue to push advisers to get their clients to consider workplace pensions as a benchmark, I can understand why advisers are nervous – this kind of competition is good news.
There are no easy answers and QE has distorted conventional risk measures in ways we cannot yet understand, so we do not really know what relative risks in capital markets are. The Capital Asset Pricing Model relies on the underlying risk-free rate being ‘risk-free’, but central banks have interfered with this now, so I would argue there are no risk-free assets and concepts of ‘high risk’ and ‘low risk’ are less reliable than ever before.
This argument is new to me but I can see where you are coming from. Of course much advice is given on the basis of a client’s “risk appetite” and the assumption is that “risk” is measured against cash as a risk-free rate. If you are suggesting that this assumption needs to be revisited, what do you see the new “risk free rate” as being based on? Do you think that “risk free” is a misnomer? I like Leonard Cohen’s view in his anthem
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”
Once again, an argument for diversification across assets. But certainly not a case for paying extortionate fees.
I am very happy with your conclusion. I don’t understand why the price to access private markets should be set at such a premium. It is up to those who demand high prices to justify their value and it’s up to those who pay them to exercise their right not to.
The “new bargain” may include concessions on both sides. DC funds cannot demand daily pricing and force liquidity. Private managers must find a way to price their services at rates acceptable to trustees, regulators and the law. This discussion is helpful to me and I hope it is helpful to people who read this blog. If you have comments to make and would like to join in the conversation, please post them. We are all learning and the new bargain is still a long way from being settled.
“In the UK in 1917, King George V sent 24 congratulatory telegrams to citizens who had reached their 100th birthday. By the mid-1980s there were about 3,000 centenarians. In 2019, there were more than 13,000.”
But what if longevity isn’t rising for everyone? Data from England, which predate the coronavirus pandemic, show a nascent but troubling development.
While life expectancy has continued to rise in rich neighbourhoods and in the poor parts of affluent regions like London, it had started to fall since 2010 in the most deprived areas of poor regions like the North East
Should the state pension be underwritten?
Is it fair that we increase the state pension at the same rate for everyone? Should where you live determine when you get your pension. Should the state pension like most purchased annuities, be underwritten?
These are ideas which are being openly discussed in the columns of the FT . Baroness Ros Altmann, a former pensions minister, has called for an urgent rethink of the system, with new flexibility so that struggling groups can access their state pension early.
John Ralfe, an independent pension consultant, argues the system is fair already because more affluent workers pay more tax.
“The people with the highest likelihood of reaching 103 are the people who are paying in the most anyway.”
Since the publication of this blog, Ros Altmann has commented on more fundamental issues (for the full comment, scroll below this blog).
Latest ONS figures show the shocking reality that the least well-off women have healthy life expectancy little beyond age 50, whereas in the best-off groups women’s healthy life expectancy lasts till their early 70s.
That is fundamental (and similar disparities apply to men too, but this fact may explain the tendency of policymakers to assume that raising State Pension Age close to age 70 is a reasonable option.
On the basis of these ONS stats and the vast differential in private pension coverage (again with women worst off, as well as many women losing out in State Pensions too), it seems clear to me that a flexible band of starting age is much fairer than the current system.
At the moment, if you are healthy and wealthy enough to wait longer to start the pension, you can get more, but if you are not healthy or wealthy in your early 60s you get not a penny! Even if you have 40 or more years of NI contributions.
The argument that the current system is ‘fair’ does not stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, higher earners pay far less National Insurance as a percentage of salary because of the cut-off of the upper earnings limits.
Secondly, higher earners can receive more State Pension by delaying the start date. Thirdly, higher earners have much more chance to build up other pensions.
I believe it is vital to reconsider the idea that raising State Pension Age is a reasonable response to rising ‘average’ life expectancy. The vast differentials in both healthy life expectancy and average longevity, as well as the fact that 35 years is not a full working life for most people, suggests room for meaningful reforms.
I was disappointed that the recent review ruled out using a flexible band of pension ages that allows for ill-health and very long working life. Flexibiilty should work both ways, not just for the better off!
These arguments stretch beyond financial economics and even social equality. There are arguments that there is little labor for laborers in their late sixties , partly because those who toil with their hands , lose physical capacity earlier and partly because they don’t want to work until they drop.
Al Rush is currently running a poll on this aspect of the debate, responses have been sufficient to make it meaningful
If you have had a hard life in engineering, Armed Forces, road building, shipbuilding, mining, trawling, steelmaking etc, where there is reasonable evidence of reduced life expectancy, should you get access to a state pension earlier than someone who has (eg) sat in an office?
According to a large official survey of European workers, 72 per cent of high-skilled white-collar workers said they could do their current job at age 60, but only 44 per cent of lower-skilled manual workers. And that was all before the pandemic hit. It is likely the virus will worsen the health divide between rich and poor.
Although we still have a lot to learn about its long-term effects, we know that deprived communities had the highest infection rates, and that many of those admitted to hospital are struggling to make a full recovery
Those who rail against the cash stripping and high drawdown rates reported by the FCA in their retirement income market studies , should consider that many who have what are deemed “small pots”, see the proceeds of retirement saving as a windfall and as a bridging payment till the onset of the state pension.
Should small pots be used to bridge to the onset of the state pension?
A 55 year old today with a retirement pot of £30,000 has 12 years to wait for their state pension but could reasonably expect to pay themselves £250 per month from their retirement account without too much fear that the account would run dry at 67. I mention these figures as they approximate what’s in the pot for the average person by the time they get to 55. But of course the number is wrong for the poorest in society because so much employment has not been pensionable – especially if someone has been out of work, in self-employment or in work before auto-enrolment staged. The situation is particularly grim for women.
The grim truth is that there is rarely enough in the savings pot to reduce the burden of work, which brings into sharp perspective both the poverty of private pensions for the poorest and the value of the state pension, when it finally arrives.
Should there be early retirement options for the state pension?
This is where there are questions about the fairness of increasing the state pension age at the same pace for everyone. A number of other countries have already opted to give pension benefits early to some groups. Portugal, France and Germany allow penalty-free early retirement for people who started work young and have had long working lives. Last year, Denmark decided to allow 61 -year-olds to retire one to three years earlier if they had spent more than 42 years in the labor market (which can include periods of unemployment).
I think there is an argument for allowing those who have most need of the state pension early – to have access to it early – with generous early retirement factors that recognize that the state will subsidize where it sees hardship. But this introduces an element of means-testing into the state pension which will be controversial. Whether the means testing is on medical grounds -(impaired annuity underwriting) , or linked to financial circumstances (becoming part of universal credit), there is a strong argument for offering those in their sixties an early retirement option – based on need.
Fair shares for the state pension
There is no argument for offering people in good health with sound finances this option. People like me need to recognize we must work longer than we set out to do, or save a lot harder than we used to do or simply trim our expectations for retirement income.
My readers tend to be the lucky ones who will benefit most from the state pension being a “wage for life”. We should be innovating so that those with reduced means and impaired health get a just state pension.
Bananarama and the Funboy Three do not figure on my Spotify playlists , they supplied us with some annoying earworms and the inspiration for this blog but ‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) is a song written by jazz musicians Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young. It was first recorded in 1937 by Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James, and Ella Fitzgerald and here it is
I’m going to remind readers – boringly. that the majority of your pension pots at retirement aren’t down to your savings, but your investments
The financial services are keen to promote saving because without it there wouldn’t be a financial services industry and it annoys me that most of the measurement of how good a pension system we have, is measured by organizations who’s primary measure is the level of mandated savings in the system.
The chart above shows the impact of contributions on the pot in red, a core level of growth in grey, a 1% boost from getting to average investment performance in yellow and a further boost of 1% which is about the best you can hope for, being outperformance of 1% against the average. All these results are taken from our proprietary data set and I’d be happy to share this and other charts with any of you.
In an excellent article, which I hope to publish on this blog shortly, Robin Powell explains that despite being ranked 4th in the world by dint of its $2tr mandated savings pot, Australia has work to do
..there is a broad consensus that the system could be improved by increasing transparency, lowering costs, reducing tax concessions for the well-off and having a legislated goal for super.
From July 1, 2021, new reforms will be introduced aimed at improving the efficiency of the system, reducing fees and holding super funds to account for underperformance.
There are also steps being taken to get wealthy Australians to spend their pots , many of which roll up as reservoirs of capital , feeding the financial services industry but doing little for the economy and sucking tax revenues from poor to rich (sound familiar?).
The Australians are waking up to some alarming realities, the retirement savings industry is neither socially just or economically advantageous, it is becoming otiose. While this realization sinks in, the plan to increase Super’s mandated contribution increase from 9.5 to 12% over the first five years of the decade has been put on hold. $30bn in rents is being extracted by financial services companies from the existing pots, enough it seems is enough.
Putting something back
One Australian reaction to the pandemic was to release wealth from younger people’s pension pots to provide emergency cash. This has been much criticized in the UK as it is can be seen as a tax on the future prosperity of the young rather than relief from general taxation.
Playing hardball with the young goes hand in hand with playing hardball with the planet and Australia lags other OECD countries, especially Britain, in the use of its retirement funds to drive positive change on climate issues.
I do not want to over-egg this pudding, but the Australian retirement savings system seems to be focused entirely on wealth preservation. It looks from here, that the economic miracle of Super is stifling wage growth and driving inter-generational inequality to a much greater degree of other – less highly rated pension systems – the UK’s especially.
Having spent much of the last 25 years being lectured by David Harris esq. ,I think now is the time to hoist the union jack up and make a few claims for what us limeys are doing right.
The way we invest it
Britain has embraced ESG like no other country. We can look forward to COPS 26 in November with impending pride. We will by then be reporting , using TCFD on our pension funds, we will have launched a Government backed special purpose vehicle to allow our savings to access private markets and we will be close to launching our first collective scheme that will see over 160,000 savers get pensions not pension pots at retirement.
We are increasingly investing for social good and the social purpose of our investments will be a proper wage in retirement for millions who have saved, not because they have to, but because they chose to. Rather than a mandatory savings system, we have a voluntary system with a not too generous safety net for those who choose to opt-out.
The Government has improved the investment of our pensions by making positive interventions that have kept the right balance between innovation and regulation. The charge cap and bans on active member discounts and consultancy charging have had a large part to play in limiting excesses in workplace pensions. The reporting of hidden costs and charges in Chair report have made for greater transparency and reduced bad practice. Now moves to drive consolidation, especially among occupational schemes, is creating the economies of scale enjoyed in Australia by Super Funds.
Government policy appears in many ways, ahead of Australia as does industry practice. Indeed we have so turned round our pension saving system since the Pension Commission reported in 2004/5 that we are well on the way to restoring public confidence in pensions in the UK.
We are saving better and investing better and we should be back among the best pension systems in the world. Currently we rank only 14th. but I would put a “PP” against that place, Britain is once again going in the right direction. It’s not just what you save, it’s the way that you invest it.
Despite its chummy style, Richard’s article paints a brutal picture of scheme eat scheme consolidation where the winners will be commercial master trusts that can a) win the most business pitches and b) best engage members. Success is defined in terms of marketing.
Opperman and Ali adopt a diametrically opposed position, arguing that pension schemes
need to adopt investment strategies which deliver long-term value, by considering the risks and opportunities relating to supply chains and communities, employees and business models, local economies and landscapes. Success is defined in terms of social impact.
This is not a strictly fair comparison but for Richard Butcher – as a professional trustee – to argue in an FT publication that
Admin is a hygiene factor: get it right and no one notices, get it wrong and you are in trouble. Same, in a sense, with investment (leaving aside style preferences) and governance.
Shows how far apart policy and commercial practice have become. As with any polarization, reality lies somewhere in between. In writing together with one of Britain’s leading campaigners against violence to females, the Pension Minister is positioning himself in a very particular way which may be considered marketing. In writing an article that only mentions member interests tangentially, the Chair of the PLSA is positioning himself as the devil’s advocate.
Nevertheless, both Opperman and Butcher see consolidation in radically different terms, for Opperman consolidation is about improving member outcomes through undiluted ESG, for Butcher it is a commercial necessity. Many reading this that Butcher’s position is the more honest, but for me it is a misrepresentation of pensions – pensions without purpose have gone wrong.
Pensions and social purpose
Opperman and Ali argue that
While their money is often invested in familiar businesses, those businesses may make decisions and undertake activities that put people’s pension savings at risk. Pensions have huge repercussions for a healthy and stable society.
The article goes on to link causes that most of us would call “just” with the investment strategies that pension schemes could adopt
…economic justice for women – particularly in the economically developing world – is one of the biggest opportunities we have for unleashing a new wave of growth, while simultaneously reducing violence and discrimination against women and girls such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual violence.
The Home Office’s call for evidence on violence against women has just closed but recent events have shown that this is front and center in the minds of almost all women and most men. Any pension scheme that can show that through the way it invests, it has reduced the risks of women being violated, has a higher chance of engaging with members (one of the two differentiators Richard Butcher claims can make master trusts “winners”).
Butcher’s argument is that engagement is about helping member to help themselves to better income in retirement and Ali and Opperman argue that misogyny in business practice is bad business and devalues investments. It presents a risk to people’s retirement incomes which can be mitigated through properly managing the S in ESG.
Investment – to Ali and Opperman – is more than a hygiene factor in the value delivered by pensions and here I think there is a fundamental difference in the views of the two articles. For Opperman and Ali, pensions without purpose have gone wrong.
Is there evidence of a bridge between social idealism and commercial practice?
I think there is. The success of Pension Bee suggests that organizations that clearly demonstrate their social purpose by the way they organize and promote their investments can be commercially successful. Its recent announcement that it intends to float on the London Stock Exchange, confounds conventional views that financial organizations can only be valued against Ebitda.
Smart Pensions has recently confounded me by investing nearly 10% of its default fund in an expensive illiquid fund that provides credit to parts of the world economy other investors will not touch. Nest has recently partnered with Octopus to improve the carbon footprint of the energy business. Cushon has focused its value proposition around the impact of its investments by declaring itself carbon neutral from inception.
The capacity of these organizations to stand on their own too feet and not be consolidated is largely due to their taking big commercial bets on social purpose. These bets could in the short term reduce profitability but I don’t see the shareholders of Pension Bee, Smart or Cushon objecting.
Pensions without purpose have gone wrong; pensions with purpose could be “winners” , unlikely as this may seem to some.
If you feel strongly about these issues – why not let your feelings be known. The Government’s Call for Evidence will help increase our collective understanding of what is being done here and around the globe, and what more we can do, to ensure both the risks and opportunities presented by social factors are adequately considered by pension schemes.
I’m certainly going to be on this call and listening to both the Chancellor and the special guests
When it comes to talking pensions , it looks like Pension Bee are more likely to get the Chancellor’s ear than the usual suspects. No wonder the stock market is valuing what is still called a “start up” at £350m.
Sunak will be talking with the CEOs of Plaid, who hook financial institutions up via APIs, Plural AI who help us take better decisions by getting us better data, Hopin who provide digital platforms for conferences and 20 Minute VC , that gives Fintechs a voice to get funding.
You may not have heard of these organizations, I have not heard of some of them but they are the stuff of the future and that’s why I’ll be tuning into the call this pm.
So what’s the agenda?
If you don’t know what this is about, don’t walk away, listen! I’d have expected to see Pension Dashboard as a heading, it isn’t – I think I know why. The Pensions dashboard cannot happen without a digital strategy which makes pension data “smart data” and that means opening up pensions as the CMA opened up banking.
That means organizations like Plaid and Yappily, working with the big 12 pension providers to ensure that most of our data is available on an app to app basis, so that firms like Pension Bee, AgeWage and many other Pentechs can deliver information in real time. Putting the information people need to value their pensions is not hard , nor is it hard to imagine people using that information in constructive ways. The counterfactual is that people don’t get the data, don’t get it translated into meaningful information and don’t have the chance to take the necessary steps to sort their later life finances
To think that the pension industry is too important to listen to the arguments of Pension Bee, Plaid, Plural AI and Coadec is delusional!
This is no stunt!
Is Rishi Sunak playing a PR game? I don’t think you need to play PR games when you are the Chancellor facing the kind of problems he is.
Is the London Stock Exchange being bamboozled by Pension Bee? I don’t think you get a full listing on the back of a strong social media offering.
What is going on , behind the backs of the pension establishment is a revolution in financial technology, in digital communication and in the way the market values companies. It’s about responding to change – big and lasting change brought about by the climate, by our leaving the EC and by the jolt of the pandemic.
Sunak understands that these changes and the challenges they bring, are best met through innovation. Painful as it is for us to change, we must. We mustn’t miss out.
Pensions mustn’t miss out!
There is a very real chance that in focusing on our local issues, the UK pension industry misses the great surge in innovation happening everywhere else. I got a few emails yesterday from friends complaining that I wasn’t criticizing Pension Bee for an unrealistic valuation.
It is true that Pension Bee makes a loss and will probably make more of a loss as it invests more for the future. To those who quote Ebitda , I respond Ebitladeedah! The rewards of innovation are far distant – as are the rewards of a pension. If you don’t think that the innovation that Pension Bee, can deliver lasting benefits over time , perhaps you should be on this call. I urge you to come into the Clubhouse at 4.30pm this day – Thursday 25th March!
When auto-enrolment started I, naively as it turns out, hoped that small employers would be excited enough by the chance to choose a workplace pension, to consider what made for a good scheme and download a report that told them why they’d made the choice they did.
Pension PlayPen did produce such reports and the methodology behind the report was signed off by a firm of actuaries who stood behind the research. In total we produced more than 7,000 of these reports and I hope that employers have kept them in their digital pension file to explain to staff why they are saving into the scheme they are.
But for most of the 1.1m employers that staged auto-enrolment, the default button was “choose Nest”, followed by “People’s” and “Now Pensions”. Many employers , new to workplace pensions, did not take a decision based on member outcomes, their primary concern was support so that they could remain compliant with auto-enrolment regulations.
But things have moved on and workplace pensions are now being asked to show how they will deliver more value for the saver’s money. A quick look at this simple chart shows that the main way that a pot builds in the early years of saving is through the red box (contributions) , but over time investment returns increasingly determine the size of the pot. This chart shows how , even where investments underperform (the grey box) , investment returns overtake contributions in the build up of the pot. If investment returns are in line with the average of all other savers, people get the additional build up of the yellow box and if people can get a higher return of just 1% more than average, their pot builds with the addition of the blue box. The message is simple, improving member outcomes is all about improving long term returns.
Put another way, members and employers control the red box, trustees determine the rest.
Of course there are people who want to determine their own strategies and trustees must ensure they have the tools to do so, or make it clear why this isn’t allowed. At present only NOW pensions doesn’t allow self-selection.
In July we will have been auto-enrolling for 9 years. Many DC savers were saving before their employer staged auto-enrolment. For many people, their pot is now filling up faster from investment returns than from contributions.
The jewel in the auto-enrolment crown is that almost everyone who is auto-saving is auto-investing into default funds that are growing at a tremendous rate (and have been for many decades). The chart above shows how people’s pots have actually grown over the past 30 years , net of average costs and charges but with average performance on an average contribution.
By comparison, an investment in a cash ISA would be filling the pot up at a trickle.
The difficult second album
The Government (in the shape of the DWP but with Treasury support) is embarking on launching what Guy Opperman calls auto-enrolment (2.0). Much of the noise is about increasing contributions for the self-employed, the young and those on low incomes.
But the much more radical agenda is Government’s interventions in the investment of workplace pensions , which are subtle but could be very important. Get it right and people will be getting the blue box, get it right and you’ll be stuck in the grey-zone of the chart above.
There are infact two interventions, the first is what woodsmen call “coppicing”, where Government is planning to cut out deadwood to leave the strong trees in the forest to grow stronger. This will be done by small scheme trustees voluntarily winding up their work and handing their assets to bigger schemes capable of managing money with an eye to the blue box.
This is a fraught process as many of the saplings in the wood have every chance of growing to strong trees, we don’t want to see innovative and courageous schemes being uprooted. We need to work out where the deadwood is and that means testing a few trunks.
But if Government gets it right and the coppicing speeds ahead, then we will find much fewer trees but trees that can grow to full strength delivering timber and lumber for many years ahead.
Excuse the mixed metaphor, but I think Government is going about this the right way and that in getting increased scale into our workplace pensions, it is creating an opportunity for DC schemes to make the kind of difference to people’s pots that means they are in the blue and not the grey. But to get to that point, things will be difficult and there needs to be collective resolve among people in pensions to accept that the long-term good outweighs the short-term advantage of immediate profit.
Yesterday the TUC conference discussed widening the scope of auto-enrolment to include the self-employed, the youngest workers and those on low incomes within the financial net of auto-enrolment.
Yesterday UBER finally admitted that it controlled its workers to a degree that , amongst other things, it would be establishing a workplace pension for them.
The two events are connected of course for , without pressure from unions, UBER’s drivers would not have the rights conferred on them yesterday. Some may call the GMB’s victory a restriction of trade (including some UBER drivers) but for those of us who consider workplace pensions a benefit, UBER’s change of position is welcome as is the trade union’s part in it.
But the big questions on pension inclusion remain to be answered, not least whether the 2017 proposals have the support of the Treasury. The success of auto-enrolment came at a price to the public purse, requiring huge increases in tax relief granted to the newly enrolled , increases that were not anticipated against opt-out forecasts from the DWP that happily proved too pessimistic.
But the 2017 reforms would take levels of tax-relief to new heights. Even if it fixed the net-pay problem, HMRC’s system of tax relief rewards the wealthy and does little to encourage those previously financially excluded. Moving to a system where those on high earnings only received tax-relief at basic rates or the more draconian system where tax relief was granted on the pension not the contribution (TEE), would free up the money needed to pay for auto-enrolment (2.0) – the DWP’s formulation.
I don’t think that we have a radically redistributive Government and I don’t think that we have a Chancellor who wishes to prioritize redistribution within pensions so I remain concerned about where the money to pay for the extension of auto-enrolment is going to come from.
But the debate at the TUC conference did at least show a consensus among those on Jo Cumbo’s panel that unions do see the financial inclusion of those not fully eligible for auto-enrolment as a priority. It would be good to see pressure coming from other parts of the Labour movement to support the DWP as the current timetable for roll-out of the 2017 proposals (mid decade) could well mean that they do not appear within the lifespan of this Government (which ends in 2024).
If we are serious about extending Auto Enrolment to properly cover excluded groups like low earners, the self employed and the young, then pressure needs to be put on the Treasury to show it is willing to pay the bill.
Right now there appear to be a lot of good intentions but precious little to show for them… and that goes for sorting out the net-pay anomaly too!
Yesterday was the first of the TUC’s pension conference and in a single session, the conference debated “investing in a just transition to a low carbon economy”. Guy Opperman spoke and was well received by Chair Paul Novak and by the 150 odd delegates who were noticeably easier about his agenda in the chat rooms than they had been openly on his previous visits to Congress House.
Opperman spoke of his work to “free up” the opportunity to invest the long-term capital sitting in workplace pensions in the just transition. He sounded and looked more at home in this environment than last week when he was urging those who managed the money to do better. Strangely for a Conservative politician, his position on the planet, on financial inclusion and social purpose seemed more at home in this environment than at the PLSA investment conference.
This was a deeply serious discussion grounded in the context of a pandemic now a year old and of lockdown – but a few days from it’s anniversary. The TUC has clearly found a place for itself in this “just transition” and the debate had none of the tub-thumping razzmatazz I associate with some of their conferences. This was more in line with the dignity of the movement my father and grandfather talked to me about. Their grounding in west country Methodism linked their Liberalism to the social agenda of the Labour Party. With a Conservative Government , a Liberal party that has lost its way and a Labour movement in deep shock, can we turn to the Unions again for leadership?
Extending workplace pensions coverage to those workers currently excluded
Ensuring more workers can benefit from collective pension schemes
Rethinking the balance between state and workplace pensions to tackle poverty and inequality in old age
Fair pensions for all
“Pensions” are not just a minority sport – tax wrappers for the wealthy. They make the difference between a financial future in later age of state and family dependency and financial independence and dignity.
The TUC’s agenda is spot on and I am looking forward to attending these sessions , even though they clash with the equine investment conference in Gloucestershire.
The pandemic has accelerated parts of the economy that we once thought marginal, our towns and cities buzz with electric bikes and scooters delivering us meals from restaurants that have been thrown a lifeline by the gig economy. The Unions have fought and won rights for the Uber drivers and they can do more. Workplace pensions need to be included as a right for those doing these important jobs. If you have an FT subscription you can read here about the fate of migrant workers trapped on British farms since Brexit, the unions need to include all groups whether urban or rural, no-one’s life or livelihood is more special than another’s,
We can vote at 18 but young workers have to wait till they are 22 to be enrolled (though they have and usually miss out on) the right to an employer contribution before then. Many are excluded from auto-enrolment because they do not earn enough and many who earn enough find much of their pay is not pensioned. Many who earn under £12,500 are denied the promised Government incentive to save because they find themselves in the wrong kind of scheme. The Unions can and I hope will, champion the reforms promised in the 2017 auto-enrolment review and due to be delivered in the time of this parliament.
Having played such a pivotal part in opening CDC to large employers, the Unions should now recognize the role of the commercial master trusts in spreading the coverage of the CDC concept. While single employer DC schemes work out how to consolidate themselves into multi-employer schemes and the contract based workplace pensions struggle to introduce investment pathways, it is these master trusts that offer the best hope of ensuring more workers enjoy pensions as well as pension pots.
Finally the Unions need to be clear about their position on redistribution of the nation’s wealth through the state pension and through the tax system. The maintenance of the triple lock well into the third decade of the century is a great achievement for Britain but we still have a poor state safety net relative to other economically developed country. We cannot go soft on the continued improvement of the state pension as it is the way to ensure dignity in retirement for everyone – and that means everyone.
As for tax, the agenda for change has never been more open. Post pandemic, all bets must be off. We cannot allow austerity 2.0 to mean those who use public services, lost public services while those who have wealth, keep it in tax privileged savings vehicles that contribute little at a great opportunity cost to the public purse. We do need proper reform of the pension taxation system to remove the huge inequality that means the vast majority of tax-relief benefits those who least need it.
We need fair pensions for all and judging by yesterday’s session, the TUC and its unions are in a position to help deliver them.
Important research into how insurers are making the money behind annuities matter
We tend to forget that a very large amount of the money yet to be paid as pensions , is backed by funds held by insurers and that money is invested, not just in gilts but in a wide variety of income producing assets capable of meeting the promises made originally by pension schemes or by the insurers themselves, at the point when an annuity is sold.
Annuity specialist Retirement Line has started to research the annuity providers it uses to get its customers annuities. I work with Mark Ormston to better understand what is going on and Mark has supplied me with a summary of Retirement Line’s research into the ESG initiatives within the life companies. This money matters every bit as much as the money accumulating in DC pensions (which do not invest in annuities) and DB pensions (which sometimes buy-in annuities to reduce longevity risk)
This research is the first I have seen of its kind and I hope it will be picked up by firms monitoring the progress of insurers towards their climate goals. All too often, the high-profile flagship products, GPPs and Master Trusts get all the attention. We cannot let in house funds get left behind. Well done Retirement Line for kicking this off. Let’s hope they can use their distribution clout with insurers to drive positive change.
ESG investment considerations within annuities
Are working on pinning down by year-end some more succinct public messaging on this front, however, in the meantime, they have quite a lot out in the public domain already, eg particular asset deals where they have issued press releases (e.g. green trains, wind farms, sustainability-linked commercial mortgage loans), articles they have done in Pensions Age and the Sunday Times, their green asset investment commitment that they made in 2015 (which they met well ahead of time: they now have c. £6bn of green assets across Aviva) and their wider Aviva commitment to £10bn of UK infrastructure and real estate investment which was announced by Amanda Blanc our CEO recently.
Galloper wind farm
Aviva supported a UK renewable energy project with a £131m loan to finance offshore transmission assets for a wind farm off the Suffolk coast. Each year, the Galloper Offshore Wind Farm’s 56 turbines generate enough green electricity to power the equivalent of more than 380,000 British homes.
Completed a £75 million Private Placement on behalf of the Aviva UK Life annuity business with settle, the not-for-profit housing association which manages over 9,000 properties across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
However, they are working on a full policy. This will probably not available for 6 months.
This is a statement issued by Just
The United Nations has set out sustainable development goals that businesses who value sustainability have a moral obligation to align to as best they can. We will aim to make a positive difference to those goals that we can directly affect and make a concerted effort to not harm others.
Many efforts we are already undertaking across the business are aligned to these goals and contribute to our becoming a sustainable business. Some examples of these are:
– conscious changes to our investment strategy to increase our involvement in sustainable practices and away from unsustainable ones;
– creation of the diversity and inclusion strategy that David Richardson is championing;
– continuing our efforts to reduce our own carbon footprint;
– embedding the possible impacts of climate change into our risk management activity.
Last month debt investors subscribed £250m to our first Green Bond, which suggests they have strong confidence that we are creating a green sustainable business. All of this activity should improve our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) credentials (the measures that others will assess us by).
Legal & General
LGR (Legal & General Retirement – the entity that conducts annuity business) consists of two parts: LGR Institutional, which transacts worldwide pension risk transfer (PRT) business, and LGR Retail, which transacts individual retirement business. LGR invests the premiums it receives in a combination of fixed income (or similar, fixed cashflow generating) assets, hedging derivatives and reinsurance contracts to provide a safe and secure cash flow which enables us to back pension liabilities. Most of the asset management services are sourced in-house through LGIM, which executes LGR’s strategic ESG objectives.
LGR has three ESG objectives:
Environmental impact through portfolio decarbonisation: to align with the Paris Climate Agreement, support net-zero objectives and reduce our portfolio carbon emission intensity to half by 2030.
Social impact: invest in assets which create real jobs, improve infrastructure and tackle the biggest issues of our time – including housing, climate change, fostering an inclusive society and the ageing population.
Governance: good investment underwriting requires LGR to identify and manage financial related risks including ESG.
LGR considers ESG to be a primary factor in all of its investment objectives. ESG factors are particularly important in long-term credit risk assessment because, by nature, many ESG risks are low probability and high impact.
The assets which back regulatory and shareholder capital are managed separately to the annuity portfolio. These assets are invested through Legal & General Capital (LGC) in an impact-aware and ESG-aware manner, which further diversifies LGR’s portfolio exposure in equity and real asset markets.
More details on this and L&G’s Inclusive capitalism can be found in L&G Sustainability report
Whilst ESG is considered within the investment process for the assets they hold, they do not have any specific restrictions relating to ethical investing on the mandate that controls the assets backing our annuity liabilities.
Don’t have an overall ESG score for the annuity portfolio investments, although they will be looking to develop such metrics during 2021;
They will be reporting the CO2 outputs that they finance in their annual report and working on the detailed strategy for how they aim to meet the CO2 commitments they have made;
Their targets of 50% carbon footprint reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 in their investments cover the whole of Scottish Widows. Shareholder assets are one part of that strategy although some areas may move at a faster pace than others;
For information, the largest sectors they are invested in their annuity fund are long term loans to:
UK Housing Associations – funding social housing
UK Infrastructure Projects – funding social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, etc), renewables, railways, etc
UK Universities – funding higher education facilities
UK Real Estate – with a significant investment in the supply of affordable rental properties
Annuity money matters.
Kudos to Retirement Line, an annuity broker that’s thinking beyond the usual metrics of “rates” and considering the social , environmental and governance going on with the money they broke. Let’s hope, in time, that ESG considerations become part of all annuity purchasing decisions. Retirement Line work in the retail space ; I wonder how much attention is taken by trustees when they buy-out pensioners or buy-in annuities.
I encourage Retirement Line to pick up from this start and create an ESG research lab. They are uniquely placed to help not just their customers but institutional trustees, their advisers and the Governmental departments and regulators charged with ensuring TCFD on all money in the pension system.
The more scrutiny on insurers operating in this space, the better for the planet. Retirement Line are never shy in self-promotion – on ESG they are indeed….
In this post I look at the Government’s favored measure ,to help consolidation take place- value for money (VFM for short). I look at the work going on at the regulators in creating a new framework for VFM and look at how such a framework could be used in practice.
The DWP, FCA , TPR and the Work and Pensions Select Committee have all called for a common definition of value for money but only the FCA has so far produced one. The FCA have stated their intention
To provide a clear direction for IGCs, we propose to introduce an explicit definition of VfM. In developing a definition, our aim is to make this specific to the role of the IGC and to align it with TPR’s DC code. This definition would be set out as guidance in our handbook.
The administration charges and transaction costs borne by relevant policyholders or pathway investors are likely to represent value for money where the combination of the
charges and costs and the investment performance and services are appropriate
It may be tweaked but this looks like the basis for a new simplified VFM framework. But this framework is not proving universally popular.
The FCA’s also suggest in CP20/9 that IGC’s identify failing employer schemes , write to them and compare them with alternative workplace pensions.
We think it is difficult to conduct a meaningful assessment of VfM when an individual provider’s schemes are reviewed in isolation. A review of other options available on the market can provide a point of reference, and may provide better value for scheme members
I understand that the FCA has received several representations arguing that comparisons are invidious and potentially misleading. They argue that simplifying value for money to a point where it can be used to compare different types of workplace pensions, is not practical and could be misleading;
The FCA have told me they are not minded to back down from the position, indeed they told me they were working with TPR on the consultation response which is delayed till the second quarter of 2021
Should we protect the diversity of VFM definitions?
To date value for money assessments have focused on technical details such as cost and charges ,compliance with service standards and complaints. Each IGC and Trustee Chair has had the freedom to create their own VFM framework
A great deal of time and effort has been invested in these bespoke frameworks. They have involved institutional measures aligned to how providers measure themselves. These assessments have been based on the FCA’s requirement to
whether the default investment strategies or pathway solutions are designed and undertaken in the interests of scheme members or pathway investors, and have clear statements of aims and objectives
• whether the firm regularly reviews the characteristics and net performance of investment strategies or pathway solutions to ensure they align with the interests of scheme members or pathway investors and that the firm takes action to make any necessary changes
• whether core financial transactions are processed promptly and accurately
• the level of charges scheme members or pathway investors pay
• the direct and indirect costs incurred as a result of managing and investing, and activities from managing and investing, the pension savings of relevant scheme members, or, the drawdown fund of pathway investors, including transaction costs
I can quite understand why IGCs are unwilling to move to a new framework. But move they must. Basing VFM assessments on these measures alone makes it hard for employers (let alone savers) to make meaningful comparisons as each scheme sets its own benchmark and marks its own homework.
We at AgeWage think that important as these factors are, they are only elements of good pension governance and not the framework for explaining value for money. We need something simpler and more intelligible to ordinary people. Above all we need something consistent that allows employers and savers to compare one scheme with another – and one pot with another.
The current diaspora of VFM frameworks make it impossible for employers or savers to make choices. Pension comparisons need not be invidious, we need a new framework for VFM.
The new framework the FCA are proposing for VFM
The FCA propose to introduce a common definition of VfM and 3 elements that
IGCs must take into account in a VfM assessment. These elements are costs and charges, investment performance and quality of service
For GPPs to be compared with trust based schemes, employers need a common means of comparison for both value and money. In our view such commonality is best measured by the internal rate of return (IRR) achieved by each saver. The IRR shows the achieved investment performance net of costs and charges.
Quality of service can be measured by the quality of data and this can be assessed by considering the plausibility of the data (do the IRRs make sense?).
We argue that while the complex VFM constructs advertised in IGC Chair Statements do a good job in helping IGCs measure VFM on their and their providers terms, they do not serve the greater purpose of helping employers and savers work out what good looks like.
We agree with the FCA that a new VFM framework is needed, it should simplify the assessment and focus on the three elements that form the common definition
What does good look like? – the need for comparability.
So what does a good IRR look like and how can we identify an implausible IRR?
What is needed is a benchmark, a common comparator which defines what good , bad and average is. Such a benchmark exists in the form of an index created by Morningstar that defines the average return a DC saver in the UK would have received since 1980.
Comparing actual IRRs with the synthetic IRRs arrived at by investing contribution histories in the benchmark fund allows each scheme to be measured for the excess value it has given savers/members over time. This can either be measured as a monetary amount of as a score – providing an algorithm can be created that takes into account out performance over time.
Analyzing contribution histories using an actual and synthetic IRR, not only shows defines the value created or lost but gives a metric for suspect data where the difference between the IRR and the synthetic IRR is implausible.
The answers to the questions of what good looks like and how we can define VFM so that it provides a common comparator, are to be found in the data of each employer scheme.
Ironically , the answers are startling simple and easy to demonstrate, all that is needed is access to data – something which IGCs have no problem getting and a standard way of analysing it.
If it’s that simple, why has no one tried it before?
A system of marking VFM based purely on measuring returns has two fundamental challenges
It offers a view of the past which cannot be relied upon to be mirrored in the future
It is dependent on consensus that the benchmark is representative
The first challenge is fundamental to any outcomes based definition of VFM, but it addresses the concern of savers who in the 2017 NMG research commissioned by IGCs made it clear that what mattered most was the outcome of their saving. This may be a “populist” approach but it should have the advantage of being “popular” with the people IGCs are there for.
The second challenge is peculiar to fiduciaries for whom the benchmark does not represent the investment strategy of their ideal default. Clearly most defaults will not replicate the investment strategy of the default and this will be one of the reasons schemes provide more or less value for money invested.
Other factors include costs and charges, the sequencing of contributions and the demographic of the scheme members where dynamic strategies such as lifestyle are in place. No two schemes are the same but they share a common objective, to maximize outcomes.
Practical measures that allow comparisons to be made.
We have proposed a common benchmark , the Morningstar UK Pensions Index, (UKPI), It was designed specifically to represent the average fund but will not represent all funds or all life-stages of a member’s use of the default fund. The UKPI is 80% invested in growth and 20% in defensive assets, most funds will have different weightings , aiming to take more or less market risk. Some fiduciaries will want to measure value per unit of risk taken.
It is possible to measure value for risk taken by analyzing data and we supply this measure to our clients on request. It is a measure of the skill of the designer of the default but it is not as easy to compare as a measure of nominal returns, nor as easy to explain.
We need to accept that any common definition of VFM will be retrospective and will not take into account value for risk taken. but this should be set against an important consideration which in our view outweighs both challenges. The measure proposed , based as it is on outcomes, takes into account all identified risks whether supposed or realized.
For instance, a member insured against the increased cost of annuity purchase by lifestyling into bonds may be insured against a risk he/she will never take while someone invested in equities in the later stages of accumulation may be insured against inflationary pressures if the fund is left to grow. It is simply not possible to get the right benchmark for every saver (unless savers intervene and choose their strategy – as perhaps they will with investment pathways.
We have to start somewhere and the UKPI is that “somewhere”, no doubt it will change, adopting factor based indexes may be such a change, but until it is challenged, it remains the only pretender to a common benchmark and the AgeWage algorithm and score the only pretender to a common definition of VFM.
The UK private pension system is very complex and can only be simplified if simple measures are implemented. Necessarily standardization means losing the diversity of VFM definitions in IGC and Trustee Chair Statements and adopting a standard approach.
Our view is that what Government needs is the VFM framework proposed by the FCA and it needs to be reinforced by a VFM standard that enables VFM to be compared between schemes and indeed between pots. We believe that any pot that can offer an IRR that looks plausible against a benchmark can be assessed for VFM, pots that need to be excluded are those with short durations, those with safeguarded benefits and pots where data is suspect (which may fail the VFM assessment for showing a poor quality of service).
Creating a VFM standard would be easier than establishing prescriptive regulations. Standardization would mean that any employer or individual could apply to know the VFM of their pension pot and we would expect in time, that the standard would be used to create VFM assessments disclosed on pension statements alongside the value of the pot the internal rate of return and the amount deducted from the pot for costs and charges.
Standardization will only happen if people are prepared to accept that simplification is needed and that requires trade-offs between delivering something that can be delivered intelligibly and to scale and ensuring that people are not misled.
It will require bold thinking and bold implementation. Until recently, I thought this could not happen, but I sense a change in Government arising perhaps from seeing how we have coped with the pandemic. Britain needs a strong and stale private pension system capable of not just providing pensions but helping Britain towards its sustainability goals.
We can get there but we need to grasp the nettle and now we have the chance to do so!
We need to sort out pensions and we pensions need to sort out the climate. These are the challenges we face and I’m pleased to see Government is on to them!
Over the weekend , I tried to put the Pension Schemes Act 2021 in some kind of context. Its big ticket items, dashboard, CDC, powers to the Regulator are nuancing what we have before, the mandating of TCDF reporting is new and not introduces the idea of a pension fund as a responsible investor. There really isn’t time for us to have the debate (which should have been had long ago) , the Government has decided that making our money matter (in terms of reducing carbon emissions) is not a discretionary task for trustees, it is what they are gong to have to do over the 30 years leading to 2050.
There is a secondary agenda to the reforms and it sits behind almost all of the measures outlined above. The Government is well aware that pension wealth and pension income are too fractured, complicated and inaccessible to make sense to ordinary people. They are told they need to take financial advice but financial advisers don’t want them as clients. People are told they can see their pensions online but struggle with government gateways, logins and passwords and often the information they need isn’t even online.
There is so much money, so many pots , so many schemes and such little help that many people struggle knowing where to start and how to construct their living wage in retirement.
stats collated by AgeWage
“Targets” miss the point
For as long as I’ve been advising, and it’s getting on for 40 years, we have seen retirement planning as a process where you start by working out what you need , find out what you’ve got , calculate the shortfall and work out what you need to save to hit your target income.
This is still the best way of going about things, but it’s very hard. People’s older pension pots are with insurers under new owners, new names and the chances are they know less about you than you do about them.
Savings you made through your employer need you to trace the employer and often who they gave your money to. If you can remember and locate your pot, you have still to go through the process of finding out what you can do with your money, which is neither consistent or easy. Most employers don’t pay pensions and have little interest in you, if you’ve left them.
Add to this the lack of certainty around defined pension schemes where inquiries are now likely to be met with a barrage of warnings not to transfer and caveats about the pension promise that might be impacted by obscure adjustments to do with “GMP equalisation”
There is too much choice, too many schemes and not enough information and advice to go round.
Will the Pension Scheme Act help?
I predict that consolidation will happen at three levels – “scheme”, “pot” and “retirement income”. The need to combat Climate Change will accelerate this change
Pension schemes will consolidate
The Government seems to be losing its patience with the pension industry that shows no interest in getting its act together and helping the consumer out.
Conversations I’ve had in Whitehall, Stratford and Brighton suggest that the secondary regulations that will follow the Act will make life uncomfortable for those providing pensions that cannot demonstrate they are offering “value for money”.
With the inclusion of the new purpose of saving the planet, that now includes compliance with TCDF and probably a number of further interventions as trustees, fund managers and platform providers are required to steward the assets they invest in with ever greater vehemence. This will drive consolidation of pension schemes.
The proposals in the FCA’s CP20/9 consultation on value for money introduce the idea that employers have the right to know the value they are getting for their and their staff’s money and while the proposals so far focus on employer sections of GPPs, GSIPPs and Group Stakeholder Plans, it looks inevitable that these proposals will spread to the master trusts whose assurance framework is getting tougher. VFM reporting , and especially VFM benchmarking, will drive consolidation of pension schemes
Pension pots will consolidate
And it seems certain now, that we will have the infrastructure in place for pension dashboards to happen. By infrastructure, I mean “open pensions”, that system of data flow that replicates open banking and allows people to see information about their personal assets and future promises from the people who keep your records and manage your money. The question is not whether but when, and when we can see this information, we need a means to act upon it, managing our pots for ourselves, seeing our pension rights in one place and maybe even getting to the point where we can do the shortfall calculations in real time. The pension dashboards will drive consolidation of pension pots
And the Government are looking to the future to create new primary legislation that will reduce the number of very small “micro-pots” through simple ideas like “member exchange” where pots below a certain size are transferred in bulk from one provider to another so that in time , people start thinking of one provider as managing their money.
If this works for micro pots, the Government looks likely to create more ambitious schemes where money moves when people move jobs either to a “master pot” or to the next employer’s scheme. This will drive consolidation of pension pots
Retirement income will consolidate
Most of us spend our working days dependent on income from one or two sources and it’s odd that we expect people to manage in retirement getting paid income from a variety of sources. Those who have a portfolio of DB pensions are few (and lucky!) but those with multiple pension pots are many (and unfortunate).
Pot consolidation is likely to be driven by the need for income from a single source. We see annuity brokers consolidating many pots into a single annuity plan paying one stream of income and I suspect there is demand for this service elsewhere in the system. Typically this is where advisers have scored with their capacity to find , advise on and ultimately manage the income through vertically integrated wealth management.
But there is not capacity for advisers to do this for people with smaller pots which in total aren’t worth more than £100,000 (most people).
So far master trusts have focused on consolidating themselves and more recently consolidating occupational pension schemes. But they have not yet focused on consolidating member pots. This is because master trusts so far have been focusing on building pots up , not on providing pensions to people who want their money back.
But they are uniquely placed to offer scheme pensions (rather than collective drawdown) by pooling people’s retirement pots into one big pot and paying pensions from that pot based on the collective life expectancy of those choosing to be in the pool. This is the most likely application of the CDC legislation , in my opinion.
Curiously this puts master trusts into the same role for individuals , as the new DB superfunds are for DB schemes, leveraging the opportunities to bulk administration, investment and advice into collective arrangements with much lower capital requirements than bulk or individual annuities.
These super consolidators can take advantage of the opportunities they get from being occupational pension schemes rather than insurance companies and become a new kind of mutual, whose principal function is to pay pensions, with varying degrees of guarantees surrounding the pension promise.
The current legislation for CDC and the secondary regulations which are to follow will see DC consolidation at the point of retirement. Meanwhile the emergency regulations for superfunds and the likely primary regulation in the next pension bill , will see consolidation around retirement income
The long term direction of UK pensions is towards a simpler framework where people get a better understanding of what they will get and find it easier to get their money paid back to them as a pension.
Many people will choose to opt out of this simplification and into the flexibility of pension freedom, especially where they have the capacity to afford advice. The wealth market is already fully formed , driven by firms such as SJP and Hargreaves Lansdown and strengthened by a large number of IFAs using platform technology to manage individual wealth to individual specifications.
Mass market solutions will emerge and (as this blog is showing) are emerging with schemes , pots and retirement income all set to consolidate in the next few years.
Right now the mass- market is only semi-formed and the Government’s task for the remainder of this parliament is to create the conditions where consolidation increases to a point that ordinary people get back confidence in pensions.
We will not go back to employer sponsored DB pensions, but scheme pensions paid by master trusts, small pots consolidated by master trusts, wealth management and insured workplace pensions and small schemes , consolidated by master trusts and superfunds, should make for a less complex and easier pension landscape as we move towards 2050.
Footnote; Climate Change is the final driver of consolidation
2050 is the new pension horizon and over-arching everything else is the need to get the trillions in UK pensions moving the dial on climate change. The final driver for consolidation is the need to create leverage on the assets that determine our carbon footprint and this will also drive consolidation – this time around a common desire for change
My spy at the PMI passes me a copy of this month’s Pension Aspect with the finger pointed at this article by David Fairs.
Those versed in current a- Fairs , will have noticed a relaxation in the Regulator’s tone with regards DB schemes that want to stay open.
When David opens an article confirming common ground, his natural balance will pivot him to areas where the Regulator feels (to use a racing term) the ground is becoming “false”.
So in this article, where Fairs quickly moves to a refreshingly candid admission/
It seemed elegant to us that a truly open
scheme could not mature, would not be
expected to de-risk and would be able to
continue to invest in a long-term way.
My friend Derek Benstead has produced an illustration which may not be as elegant as David but puts in pictures what David says in words.
There is a nice irony here. The first time I heard David speak of what we now as the DB funding code proposals, was at a First Actuarial conference, where his comments went down like a lead balloon. Derek was in the audience and so was I.
David Fairs at the 2019 First Actuarial Conference
What has happened in the intervening 18 months has been nothing short of miraculous.
The industry has apparently moved towards the regulator
In Bespoke, we could see perfectly
acceptable scenarios where open
schemes propose to fund and invest
based on their expectation that they will
remain open. But trustees should be able
to evidence to us how they could (among
other things) manage the risk of their
scheme closing or maturing faster than
expected. All part of good integrated risk
Going Bespoke may mean more regulatory
engagement but, in many cases, there
is unlikely to be any (or only minimal)
additional engagement if the thinking has
been done, is clearly explained and well
This is almost exactly what we said, but we
would go further and say that just ‘planning’
is not enough; it needs to be something
more concrete and evidenced. However,
I’m comforted that we may not all be as far
apart as we thought.
This will come as news to the delegation of open schemes that met with the Pensions Minister, to the monstrous regiment in the House of Lords who fought so hard for the Bowles amendment and for the many people who have curated their thoughts on this blog.
They must now be recovering from a waking dream of nightmarish complexion. Like lost sheep they wandered from the fold of the Regulator’s care and collectively struggled with inner demons that caused them to misinterpret the Regulator’s intentions.
But now there is rejoicing in Brighton that the lost sheep have returned and an expectation that they will accept their foolish peregrination.
This interpretation of the last eighteen months is truly elegant, it is also – to use a phrase much loved of my friend Con Keating “utter bollocks“.
Universities’ superannuation fund is accumulating surplus assets – Woon Wong.
19 Jan 2021
Woon Wong1 believes that the valuation of the USS’s liabilities and the call for higher payroll contributions are incorrect. Woon argues that the scheme is entirely viable and indeed accumulates surplus assets even at the pre-2017 contribution rate of 26 per cent of payroll.
In its consultation (the ‘Consultation’) with the Universities UK (the ‘UUK’) on the proposed methodology and assumptions for the Technical Provisions in the 2020 valuation, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (the ‘USS’) reports deficits ranging from £9.8bn to £17.9bn, giving rise to contributions of 40.8 per cent to 67.9 per cent of payroll, respectively.3 Prior to the 2017 valuation, the contribution stood at 26 per cent of payroll.
In sharp contrast to the Consultation, this article provides evidence that suggests the USS is viable at 26 per cent of payroll contribution, and has been accumulating surplus assets with several benefits in waiting for the stakeholders.4 The benefits include (a) surplus assets to act as a further buffer to absorb investment risk; (b) the scheme will be self-sufficient which implies little support is required of employers; (c) future contributions lower than 26 per cent of payroll will be possible; and (d) it offers a cost-effective pension provision for the higher education sector that few other sectors and countries can rival.
The rest of this article is organised as follows. Sections 2, 3 and 4 provide evidence for the positive outlook whereas section 5 criticises the USS’s valuation methodology. Finally, summary remarks are provided in section 6.
2. The falling funding cost
There are two sources of funding to pay for liabilities, namely the contributions by stakeholders and investment returns on assets held by the scheme. Since the controversies arise mostly from the setting of the discount rate (a prudent estimate of rate of investment returns), we consider here the funding cost in terms of the required rate of investment returns, which is defined as the discount rate that equates the present value of liabilities to the asset value. Keeping contributions constant at 26 per cent of payroll, Figure 1 shows that the realised funding cost (based on realised asset value) has fallen drastically since 2011 to 1.2 per cent in real terms as of March 2020.
The first sign that the USS is sustainable at 26 per cent of payroll contribution is to note that the scheme would continue to invest significantly in growth assets, the long-term return of which is estimated by USS as 4.4 per cent, which is considerably higher than the funding cost of 1.2 per cent. Indeed, during the Valuation Methodology Discussion Forum (the ‘VMDF’) that took place earlier this year, the funding cost is projected to continue decline to negative territory in 2040.5
Falling future funding cost implies that assets would grow at a faster pace than the growth of liabilities. This prompted the USS to acknowledge that the scheme is fine in the long-term. To add to the good news, the valuation date of 31 March 2020 happens to be a low point for financial markets due to the pandemic. Since then, the USS’s assets have rebounded from £66.5bn to £75bn, giving rise to an even lower funding cost of 0.7 per cent (see Figure 1), a strong indication that the scheme is in surplus.
3. A reality check on discount rates
The positive message in the preceding section conflicts with the past and current deficits reported by the USS. Figure 2 provides an explanation.
The dotted bars in Figure 2 represent the discount rates used in the 2011, 2014 and 2017 valuations. They are significantly lower than the realised growth rates of the scheme assets (to reach the asset value in March 2020, represented by striped bars). For example, the discount rate for 2011 valuation is set at 4.1 per cent. The £32.4bn of assets in 2011 grew by 6.3 per cent per annum to reach £66.5bn in March 2020. The difference between the discount rate and the realised growth rate in 2014 has increased since, mainly due to a lowering of the discount rate.
The 2017 discount rate has fallen to 0.8 per cent. Despite March 2020 being the low point for financial markets, the realised growth rate of USS assets between 2017 and 2020 is higher than the discount rate. If the latest asset value (£75bn) is used, the realised growth rate (the rightmost bar) is considerably higher. In short, the USS’s assets have consistently grown at rates that are significantly higher than the discount rates. This not only explains the sharp fall in the funding cost over the past 10 years, but also implies that the USS’s past deficits could be due to overly pessimistic discount rates. The next section shows this is indeed the case.
4. Are ever lower discount rates justified?
This section shows that the lowering of the discount rate in both the 2017 and 2020 valuations are far more than what is justifiable by evidence.
For simplicity, suppose the USS invests only in gilts and equities. Let y and rEdenote the gilt yield and expected return on equities, respectively. If the weight of gilts is w, then the expected portfolio return (rp) is given by:
rp = wy + (1-w) rE
A gilt-plus approach to the discount rate assumes perfect correlation between gilt yield (y) and expected return on equities (rE). For example, a 1 per cent fall in y is accompanied by the same fall in rE, resulting in the gilt-plus discount rate declining also by 1 per cent.
Evidence shows that the expected return on equities is broadly stable despite the falls in long-term interest rate in the past few decades.6 The implication is that as gilt yield falls by Δy in recent years, the discount rate would fall by w x Δy < Δy as w is only about 0.35 for the USS.
The USS has repeatedly claimed that it does not use a gilt-plus approach to set a discount rate. It turns out that its discount rate is lower even than that set by the gilt-plus approach. To illustrate, gilt yield fell by 3.5 per cent between 2011 and 2020. Since the discount rate in USS’s 2011 valuation is 4.1 per cent, the gilt-plus assumption would set the 2020 discount rate as 4.1 per cent minus 3.5 per cent = 0.6 per cent, which is approximately the upper end of the discount rates (0.0 per cent to 0.5 per cent) set in the Consultation. Since the proportion of low-risk assets held by the USS is less than half, the 2020 discount rate should be at least 3.5 per cent ÷ 2 = 1.75 per cent higher. A 1 per cent rise in the 2020 discount rate reduces the liability by approximately £16bn.
If readers think the pandemic may make the above example less convincing, setting the discount rate lower than the gilt-plus method is also found in the 2017 valuation. If a gilt-plus discount rate is applied to the 2017 valuation, the liability would be reduced by £4.1bn.7
5. Economically irrelevant methodology and un-evidenced assumptions
The deficits in the 2017 valuation and the current Consultation are driven primarily by the stipulation of a self-sufficiency portfolio (comprising mainly gilts and low-risk securities) in the valuation methodology to manage risks. In the former, the deficit is caused by de-risking the scheme portfolio to a hypothetical self-sufficiency portfolio over 20 years, in order to manage long-term risk. For the latter, the concern of short-term risk requires, among others, the sum of the employers’ affordable risk capacity and assets to exceed the liability of a self-sufficiency portfolio. Because of quantitative easing, the liability of a self-sufficiency portfolio becomes exorbitantly expensive, exceeding the sum of employers’ risk capacity and assets. Consequently, because of short-term risk, prudence is set at 73-85 per cent confidence level (cf. 65-67 per cent in past valuations), lowering the best estimate return by 2.1-2.6 per cent (cf. 1-1.1 per cent in past valuations) to arrive at the discount rates in the Consultation.
However, self-sufficiency is not required by pensions legislation. This is pointed out by the Association of Pension Lawyers in their recent submission to the Pensions Regulator on Defined Benefit’s funding code:
[N]othing in the legislation suggests that a move to minimise dependence on the employer’s covenant will always be appropriate or that trustees should be pushed in that direction… and of course could well be inconsistent with the sustainable growth objective [of the employer].
Moreover, successful risk management requires identifying and measuring risks that are relevant. The self-sufficiency portfolio is counterfactual and economically irrelevant to the USS because
a) It is open, immature, has positive cashflow with last-man-standing employer support.
b) There is no plan to de-risk the portfolio.
Therefore, the Joint Expert Panel (the ‘JEP’) set up in 2018 recommended more risk could be taken and criticised the hypothetical construct of a low-risk self-sufficiency portfolio in the 2017 valuation.
Consistent with the JEP’s view, in the VMDF, stakeholders disagree over the use of a self-sufficiency portfolio and suggest cash flows as a basis for managing risk in the 2020 valuation. For example, the UUK notes that
…[m]aking self-sufficiency the centrepiece of the Trustee’s risk metrics … is fraught with difficulties. We believe other methods — that are more directly linked to cash contributions — are more effective to measure risk.
The need for evidence and transparency
Regulatory guidelines require valuation assumptions to be evidence-based, and evidence suggests the impact of pandemic on valuation is considerably smaller than is implied by the low discount rates in the Consultation. A stochastic simulation finds the impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic on the discount rate to be small. Intuitively, this can be understood by the long-term nature of the USS’s liabilities — they take 80 years to payoff, whereas ‘…[t]he pandemic is unlikely to have significant long-term consequences for the sector as a whole.’ (Consultation).8
Indeed, as financial markets are forward looking, the USS’s low asset value in Mar 2020 has priced in the negative shocks and increased uncertainties caused by the pandemic. The low discount rate imposed on an already depressed market is effectively double counting the price of risk. Since the USS is relatively immature, the cash from contributions alone are sufficient to pay for pension outgoes for almost 20 years. Unfortunately, the USS chooses to disregard such evidence and insists on using self-sufficiency portfolio to justify the high confidence level of prudence. Moreover, as the Consultation remarks, ‘[d]ifferent assumptions could produce lower confidence levels,’ no details are provided on what these assumptions are.9 Also, no evidence is provided by the USS to justify the assumptions that give rise to the high confidence level of prudence.
Finally, the UCU has long complained the lack of transparency in the USS’s valuation methodology, which has been described as complex by both JEP and the Pensions Regulator (the ‘tPR’). Therefore, evidence and transparency are vital for the USS to engage properly with its stakeholders, thereby resolving the disagreements in the 2020 valuation.
6. Summary remarks
Since quantitative easing to lower long-term interest rates is now an established monetary policy, gilts-based funding for pension schemes has become prohibitively expensive. The USS does not seek gilts-based funding; thus, gilts-aligned valuation methodology is inappropriate.
Most economists believe that quantitative easing benefits the economy, especially large institutions such as the USS. It is thus no surprise to find the scheme is not only viable at 26 per cent of payroll contribution, but also on a pathway to achieve self-sufficiency based on surplus assets.
What is concerning about the 2020 valuation is that the deficits and high contributions are due to issues that were neither resolved nor discussed in the VMDF. Indeed, the very low discount rates of 0.0 to 0.5 per cent in the Consultation are based on a methodology that uses un-evidenced assumptions and economically irrelevant input (a self-sufficiency portfolio).
Securing payments for accrued benefits may tempt the trustees to err on the side of excess prudence. On the other hand, an unnecessarily low discount rate using un-evidenced assumptions may render trustees breaching stakeholder trust. For tPR, securing the Pension Protection Fund and ensuring sustainable growth of employers provide similar opposing forces to the valuation. Surely, using evidenced assumptions as required by the regulatory guidelines to carry out the 2020 valuation is the best course of action for all parties concerned.
Woon Wong is Reader in Finance and Director of Trading Room Operations & Development, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University.
No. 185 (April 2019). See aso the subseuent discussions in Nos. 186 (July 2019) and 187 (October 2019).
3. The USS is a privately funded pension scheme for pre-92 universities in the UK and the UUK is a representative organisation for the university employers.
Subject to agreement by the stakeholders, surplus assets may be kept in the USS via a contingent support vehicle.
The VMDF was formed in response to the second report of the Joint Expert Panel, and was participated by the USS, the UUK, and the University and College Union which represents the scheme members.
See Wong (2018) and the references therein.
See the letter submitted to the Pensions Regulator.
In recent weeks we have seen blogs from Professors Emeritus Michael Bromwich and Dennis Leech both addressing the travails of USS. The blogs can be read here and here respectively. Professor Bromwich’s note is a particularly good attempt at piercing the veil of USS disclosures, which once again can best be described as murky.
The irony of the pension scheme, for those leading transparent scientific endeavour and innovation, hiding behind unsubstantiated half-truths and avoiding peer review would be rather funny if the consequences were not so dire. Bromwich’s blog is worth reading on these grounds alone.
Both these blogs come down in favour of a cash-flow driven analysis of the situation, though they differ in detail. It is also clear that neither believes that the position with USS is as dire as the management of USS would have employers, employees, the Regulator, and the world believe. And when two eminent academic economists find something disturbing, it is probably wise to pause and consider.
Rather than attempting to parse the actuarial models and assumptions, a process which would surely get bogged down in the detail, I simply want to answer one question: how credible are the deficits that we are being asked to consider? I will approach this by asking: what is the required rate of return on assets held at the March 31st 2020 valuation necessary to fully discharge the projected liabilities?
USS published the technical provisions projections of the scheme at this date. In total, they amount to £137.5 billion over the coming 82 years. As these are technical provisions inputs, they will be prudently estimated, though we do not know the extent of this prudence. Scheme assets were reported at £66.5 billion. With these benefit projections and the asset portfolio valued at £66.5 billion, the required rate of return on these assets is just 3.22% pa. This is a nominal rate.
In line with avoiding peer review, we are not treated to a full description of the input parameters of these technical provisions. However, we are treated to two tables listing the gilt yield and CPI inputs. Given what we know about inflation and government bond yields, I find these bizarre. I have reproduced them below, together with their difference, as chart 1.The asset valuation above occurred close to the bottom of the pandemic panic. Asset prices have since then recovered. There have been recent comments that the asset portfolio recently had a value of £74 billion – in which case the required rate of return would now be 2.68%
These are nominal rates of return applying for the long term; the final horizon for this return is 90 years from now and the duration of liabilities is 19.8 years. The resultant question to be asked is: how do these required rates compare with USS Investment Management’s published expected returns?To present these in comparable nominal terms, I have used a CPI value of 2.0% as applied on average in the projections estimates.
These are shown as table 1.
Index Linked Gilts
From this it is immediately obvious that a return of 3.22% is easily feasible within USS’s own expectations. This is particularly true if gilts and index linked gilts are only sparsely held (if at all). It is also far below the historic returns of the investment portfolio, which are substantially higher than the expected returns of Table 1. The claim that a deficit exists is therefore on extremely weak ground and this becomes even weaker in the light of recent asset price performance.
If we look to the technical provision liabilities figures published in the UUK consultation in Table 2 below, and require funding to these levels, we see the following required rates of return.
Technical Provisions (bn.)
Required Return on Portfolio
These are, quite simply, obscenely low. It is just not plausible that these low rates will persist for the next 80 years.
At these rates, it would make sense to take the money out and invest it in the universities given the economic value added of the sector!
It is immediately obvious from the projections of one year’s accruals that the scheme is growing, and growing strongly – with new accruals and £6.86 billion and pensions paid of just £2.24 billion, it is growing at 3.36% p.a. Moreover, the duration of these new liabilities is 31.8 years which compares with the scheme’s prior assessment of 19.8 years.
This scheme is not maturing – in fact, it is growing larger and longer. In this situation, it is difficult to see why there should be any meaningful focus on the various de-risking strategies of which USS management appears so enamoured.
More attention should be paid to the economic consequences of the management of USS, both to the sector and the economy. We shouldn’t allow obscurantism to let USS pursue a strategy that is decoupled from these basic realities of investment and pensions.
The DWP’s proposals to insist that pension schemes set targets and use standard measures to report on the impact of the money they invest makes sense. But like the few radical interventions that work (think auto-enrolment), it is likely to be misunderstood. This is already happening.
The Government’s demands on schemes to report with various measures and to set certain sustainability targets are being taken as investment instructions. They are misunderstood by clever people who have not thought through the nuance but assumed big Government is dumb government.
Take my good friend David Harris’ comments on the latest consultation and regulations on TCFD
The Government’s prescription is not on where to invest but on what to measure. A sinful scheme is allowed by legislation but will it be tolerated by an increasingly concerned membership?
The intervention Government is taking is simply about reporting. The DWP assumes that when people start seeing the publication of scheme targets and data on what is measured, they will start to apply pressure. But all that is reported is not always read and the question “how green is my pension?” has yet to become as cogent as “what is the R number?”
The task of Government now is to make sure that people to consider their pension as mattering to the planet with the same urgency as they consider their behaviour mattering to the infection rate of the pandemic.
Making money matter
The Government may take issue with the simplistic approach of “Make my Money Matter” , who do argue for disinvestment from sin stocks, but they need a populist movement to focus attention on the capacity of pensions to matter in meeting climate goals.
My partner, whose pension schemes have over £60,000,000,000 of other people’s money in them, hasn’t any time for what she calls the antics of Richard Curtis either. She is appalled by the MMMM “bandwagon” and berates me when she finds me Zooming with them. But she is adamant that the various pension schemes she runs will enthusiastically adopt TCFD because it measures risk and allows risk to be mitigated.
Put simply, if you can’t measure risk, you can’t manage it and there is no bigger risk to the assets held by her pension schemes than the impact of climate change. Frankly, she too should be grateful to MMMM’s populism, as it will allow her schemes to shine (in time). The end does justify the means and though I share my partner’s dislike of “cheap shots”, I support MMMM and what they do.
That’s because mobilizing people to the message that pension schemes can make our money matter will change the way pension schemes work – for the better.
So what if people do get the message?
There seems to be an assumption that ESG and TCFD and all the measures we are talking about are pension issues and that nobody pays their pension much attention.
So what does happen if people want their money to matter? What happens when people start considering their money not as “financial capital” managed in the City but as “social capital” as a “catalyst for change”?
Might it be possible that the targets adopted by pension schemes and their measures become matters of public interest? Is it possible that trustees and IGCs are held to account for what they target and how much they have contributed to the great endeavor to avert the impact of global warming?
Might the trustees and IGCs wake up to their own importance and take their jobs more seriously?
Engagement has its downsides!
Transparency of reporting on the carbon footprint of the scheme, the value at risk from climate change and even the success trustees have in getting the data they need to do the TCFD stuff will lead to people making comparisons.
If people have access to data and are interested they will use the data to compare sheep with goats and league tables will emerge showing which schemes are making our money matter and which are not. This scenario is where transparency takes us and it will make a lot of pension people very anxious as not everyone will be at the top of the table.
Engagement has its downsides, it leads to people who do not do their job well , being shamed and even sacked. This is what public scrutiny does – ask the politicians!
But without public scrutiny, pension schemes will not change, which is why the Pension Schemes Bill/Act legislates for getting this reporting mandated. We can say this with confidence because, despite the science telling us a crisis is coming, pension schemes have not changed. Even now they are following not leading. To use Ben Pollard’s phrase, pensions are the sleeping giants.
Why I support the DWP’s “measures and targets” approach.
There is a final point that unfortunately needs to be made. There are an awful lot of people who see “Environmental, Social and Governance” as a banner behind which they can open a pension schemes cash register and rob the till. The practice of green-washing, where a half-hearted coat of paint is applied at great expense and to no effect, needs to be discovered and banned.
There is no quick fix to the problem of global warming and ESG is not a marketing gimmick to promote new business. Work on ESG is instead a sunk cost that should reduce fund managers margins and improve the value we get for our money.
The arguments that “all this ESG stuff will put up fund management costs” cuts no ice with me. The business of knowing what is going on inside a portfolio of bonds or equities or property or any alternative asset class is now the core business of any fund manager whether they want to call their funds green or environmental or sustainable or not. All funds are ESG funds because they all report to TCFD and are judged by the same targets.
What will happen is that fund managers will change the way they compete and start targeting a position at the top of the TCFD target tables. No doubt there will be some cheating and some scandals along the way, but what will happen – because of this Governmental intervention, is that the game will change – and change for the better.
DWP calls on pensions to embrace not just comply with tough climate change rules
Pension schemes face a significant challenge over the next twenty years. Whether they see that challenge as complying with a series of edicts from Government , or as an opportunity to tackle the risks of a changing climate, may decide Britain’s contribution to the global threat to our planet.
The long-term nature of pension scheme investment and the weight of money tied up in pension funds, means that our pension system is the key that can unlock a deceleration and eventual reversal of the destructive change brought about by global warming.
There are two schools of thought as to what is meant by “opportunity”. To some, ESG is a speculative strategy that involves ditching stocks with a high carbon footprint and purchasing equity in companies that do the planet little harm.
The consultation makes it clear that this kind of opportunism is not what the Government is after. It quotes Baronness Stedman-Scott speaking in the House of Lords last February
“ This does not mean that it is for the Government to direct schemes or set their investment strategies. The Government never have directed pension scheme investment, and do not intend to. Our clear view is that the amendments do not permit us to do that”
It also quotes Therese Coffey in October, speaking in the Commons
The Bill will bring transparency for the first time about what is happening with individual investments. This Government are not in favour of trying to force divestment of different elements of fossil fuels and similar.”
Guy Opperman , introducing the new consultation on the regulations, makes it clear that the Government’s proposed approach is not about pushing climate risk about and around the financial system but using the system to reduce and eliminate climate risk.
Addressing trustees that are sceptical of the government’s direction or pace of change, he said:
“To these trustees I say that the world is changing, the challenges are changing. You need to change.”
The issue of reducing the fundamental risk (rather than transferring it) is written like a watermark through the various documents published by the DWP yesterday which build on earlier consultations and introduce the regulations which will turn the high level aspirations of the Pension Scheme Act into business as usual.
Opperman insists that meeting this challenge is now part of the fiduciary duty
Failing to ensure climate risk, the most systemic risk facing financial services, is properly considered is – in my view – a failure in trustees’ duty to protect members.
So what does this mean in practice for our pension schemes and those who manage them?
Here is the DWP’s published consultation on climate risk regulations and guidance as well as non-statutory guidance on how to apply the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, following on from its August consultation. The new consultation closes on 8 March, suggesting that climate change is a risk that will not work to the usual timescales of the pensions industry,
Various pension schemes and industry participants had pleaded for an exemption from the climate regulations on the grounds that they are closed or invested primarily in gilts or hedging instruments, or asked for the size threshold to be increased to £10bn.
But the DWP does not mince its words in the response, saying while it notes the view
“that an asset-based threshold is a relatively broad-brush approach to defining the scope of our proposals”
it believes that
“the alternative approaches floated by respondents would likely be as blunt or blunter whilst typically more complex to apply”.
It questions the logic of assuming that government bonds and hedging instruments are not exposed to climate risk and notes that models are emerging to take account of this, concluding
“It is right that large schemes which provide for the retirement of many thousands of savers should be subject to our requirements, irrespective of whether they are open, closed, fully or under-funded and regardless of how they are invested,”
Where there are concessions
The department has given way on a few other points. Among others, trustees will have to select at least two emissions-based metrics, one of which must be an absolute measure of emissions and one which must be an intensity-based measure of emissions, as well as one additional climate-related metric.
“trustees will be required, as far as they are able, to obtain the data required to calculate their chosen metrics on an annual basis – rather than quarterly”, the DWP says.
The change was made because many respondents to the previous consultation had pointed out that underlying companies only report their greenhouse gas emissions annually, and so quarterly reports by investors would add little value. Similarly, trustees will now only need to measure performance targets once a year.
The DWP has also extended its “as far as they are able” provision to the calculation and use of the trustees’ chosen metric, rather than just the collection of data.
Scenario analysis is, compared with the August proposals, now slightly less onerous as well. Trustees will now only need to conduct scenario analysis of at least two scenarios in the first year and then every three years thereafter, instead of annually.
They will in the intervening years have to do an annual review of their scenario analysis and
“carry out fresh analysis where they consider it appropriate to do so”,
which the DWP says is likely to be the case if there is:
a material increase in data availability
a significant/material change to the investment and/or funding strategy
the availability of new or improved scenarios or events that might reasonably be thought to impact key assumptions underlying scenarios; or
a change in industry practice/trends on scenario analysis
Trustee Knowledge and Understanding
Trustees should also prepare for training on climate risk. The DWP has added to the proposals on governance and will require trustees to have
“an appropriate degree of knowledge and understanding of the principles relating to identification, assessment and management of climate change risks and opportunities to properly exercise their functions”.
Elsewhere, the government is now no longer considering consulting on Paris alignment and ‘implied temperature rise’ at this point, the consultation notes, acknowledging that there are methodological challenges in doing so.
“As there is still uncertainty and inconsistency between the methodologies used to measure ITR, it is our view that now is not the time to consult on making it mandatory for trustees to measure and report their ITR… However, we still recognise the potential benefits of trustees working out the ITR of their portfolios. We have therefore included the option of a portfolio alignment metric within the draft statutory guidance accompanying our proposals on metrics and targets,”
The DWP is putting its foot down on the accelerator
The timetable for implementing these new rules looks to be accelerated. The DWP has brought forward the planned review for schemes not yet in scope revisiting whether climate governance and reporting obligations should be introduced for those schemes in the second half of 2023.
Some DB schemes which have swapped managing their own liabilities by “buying in” the insurance bulk annuities, will be exempted from reporting on the buy-in.
And trustees will be please by the decision to require that trustees conduct scenario analysis once every three years rather than annually, although schemes must still do their first scenario analysis in the first year that the regulations apply to them.
Inevitably there are going to be tensions with data availability here, so it is helpful that the regulations acknowledge that trustees may need to take a proportionate approach, although I predict much debate around what may or may not be required in practice.
But the radical change is in the introduction of new “metrics” and “targets”
The most radical sections of the new regulations are the metrics and targets section of the Statutory Guidance
One of the more difficult aspects of the new rules will be the performance targets, even if these must now ‘only’ be reported annually.. Trustees will need to think hard about how the targets they set align with their fiduciary duties and what is in the best financial interest of their scheme members.
Trustees will have to gather information on the total green house gas emissions produced by companies within their portfolio and report on their intensity, explaining why the numbers are as they are.
They will have to choose one of three targets set by the DWP
There is an obscure target that Trustees can adopt known as “climate value at risk” which I profess not to fully understand.
Trustees can also choose to report on the Implied Temperature Rise of their portfolios
Or they can simply report on the quality of the data they are receiving from external sources (the fund managers or directly from companies they invest in)
Will it work?
The DWP reckon these new rules go further than any country has gone so far, to manage climate risk within pensions. So we appear to be in unchartered waters. But there is a comparison that can be made – one that strangely – can be made with France.
Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation has pointed out that the Banque de France has recently published a paper looking at how laws adopted following the Paris agreement affected the choices of French investment firms. Uniquely in Europe, France required insurers, pension funds etc. to report annually on their exposure to climate risks.
Comparing firms within France to French firms based abroad (not subject to the legislation), the research finds that affected firms chose to reduce their investment in fossil fuel companies by 40 per cent.
While better reporting and stewardship (rather than divestment) may be the desired outcome of this consultation, this suggests that the approach being adopted by the DWP, may well be the right one.
This article’s about the payment of child maintenance, something I did for 20 years. To me it is the very first priority of a paying parent as it is the lifeline for the carer and the child. You can read about the various ways that payment can be made here.
Payments can be made (usually where other methods have failed) directly from pay. At this point such payments enter into the world of payroll. I have heard these payments referred to as an employee benefit, they are not. They are deductions from pay about which there is no discretion, they are not a benefit but a right to those who receive them.
Please take a moment to watch the Parliamentary debate from last Thursday, 21st January, regarding the operation of
the Child Maintenance Service during Covid-19 and important plight of many families in such unprecedented times. For many of us the global pandemic, lockdown, homeworking and home schooling has been one cog in a wheel of complexity. It is 45 minutes well spent, drawing on issues that affect our own industry more broadly, as well as the responsibility of employers. Whilst the debate starts at 15.53 and commences with scene setting of the issues, in particular I would draw your attention to Rt Hon Caroline Nokes at 16.05 and Guy Opperman at 16.49 in the footage (link attached) Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
Clearly Caroline Nokes’ is aware of certain live cases where payments are being frustrated by one parent seeking variation orders, by employers not co-operating and by the non-disclosure of the paying parent’s financial resources. I quote a statement from Caroline Nokes also quoted by the Pension Minister.
“There is a special place in hell for parents who go out of their way to hide income”
We should be particularly disgusted with such goings-on at this point in time, when the Child Maintenance Service is so under pressure. Paying parents and parents who care both have responsibility for the child or children. But so do employers – employers have a moral and legal role to enforce payments out of pay.
Not all domestic abuse is physical, some is financial. Deductions from earnings orders need to be honored by employers and should not have to be chased up by parents who are left without maintenance payments. Payroll must not be allowed to be bullied in taking an employee’s side, no matter how senior the employee.
It is good to see Government stepping up powers to protect parent’s who care and those they care for as nobody should exploit this crisis to get out of making payments. It is good to see Guy Opperman report on the DWP’s widening the scope of the CMS’ investigatory powers to include all sources of income. Compliance with “collect and pay” is – according to Guy Opperman is only 74% – and shows a shockingly high level of non-compliance.
I very much hope that no company involved with the payment of pensions is found to have fallen short in its duty to make direct payments where an order is in force.
I will let the final word on this fall to Jay Kenny, a noble man who is consistently on the side of doing the right thing.
It’s nice to get into conversation with Peter Robertson, who I know as the first man promoting Vanguard in the UK but many know as the doyen of Standard Life International. Peter sent me an article he’s written directed at IGCs, who are currently cogitating on the suitability of their provider’s investment pathways. I include it in full as it touches on a long and amiable meeting with the new chair of Vanguard’s IGC, my former boss – Lawrence Churchill.
The Vanguard IGC is all about investment pathways. Much as I enjoyed my conversation with the great man, it made me aware of how little I know about how we can predict where value can be had, when investing in later life.
Will IGCs find alternatives a roadblock on life’s pathway?
A decade or so ago a colleague and I ran a masterclass for a group of journalists on Target Date Funds (TDF). “Masterclass” might have been overegging it but, as few in the UK knew much about TDFs, the one-eyed man principle applied and it gave us a chance to talk about lessons from the USA that might be applicable if UK pensions legislation changed.
The TDF annuity route, or “to retirement” strategy, followed a glidepath much like that used in UK life-styling, 80+% growth assets early on ending in a 75:25 bond:cash split at retirement. The TDF method involved changing the asset allocation within the fund rather than switching between funds as in life-styling.
The drawdown or “through retirement” strategy looks the same early on but sees less de-risking, with an equity allocation of 30-40% at the target date and beyond and does not match the tax free lump sum with a cash allocation.
The unexpected introduction of Pensions Freedoms soon turned our theoretical musings into reality, re-enforced by the recent need to identify appropriate investment pathways.
IGCs need to find pathways, that offer, among other things: value for money, an appropriate investment strategy and a suitable approach to ESG, for the non-advised, particularly those entering drawdown. How the fund is legally structured may have a significant bearing on this last point.
UCITS are the gold standard in retail distribution of investment products and are limited to investing in listed equities and bonds. To make their usage more widespread in pensions they can be wrapped in a life fund (but not vice-versa).
Life funds offer scope to invest in alternatives like real estate, infrastructure and private equity. If a mutual fund holds such assets it will be classified as an Alternative Investment Fund (AIF), which ordinarily cannot be distributed directly to retail investors.
Two existing products in this sector get top marks for value for money, follow well structured, if differing, investment strategies, yet manage to fall either side of this fund structure divide: the UCITS has a higher equity content before and after retirement but, in this instance, no obvious ESG screen while the Life Fund is strong on ESG and includes real estate and infrastructure, offering lower expected volatility and potentially making a given level of income more sustainable and hence more attractive to drawdown customers.
This lower volatility is a direct consequence of the reduced liquidity of its alternative allocation and comes with an explicit risk warning around delayed repayment. Whether its gated property funds or Woodford, the last year has provided plenty of examples of liquidity risks coming to fruition.
Different arms of the FCA oversee investment pathways and mutual fund distribution so the rules could change. Nevertheless, a pathway with alternatives may see drawdown customers without income when they ask for it. So, for all their merits, does use of alternative investments present an impassable roadblock to life funds and mean IGCs can’t deem them to be appropriate?
Thanks for the heads up Peter!
There is some “new stuff” here – well “new” to me anyway. My first question is “what are the merits of illiquids that make them so attractive?”. If the major advantage is in the consistency of valuation, is that because there is no ready market for the asset, meaning it is not being re-valued by the market but by someone putting a finger in the air and giving a theoretical number? That doesn’t sound very transparent and it does sound very open to manipulation. It sounds remarkably like the black box of with-profits.
The valuation of private equity is a particular problem and this blog has featured a number of articles over the past two years , questioning the practices of private equity managers who seem to find every more exotic ways of justifying the valuations that suit their needs. The trouble is whether these valuations are realizable when cash is needed.
As Peter points out, illiquids can sit within a fund that is building up and is not needed for spending, but that’s not what an investment “life” pathway is, as people can call on some or all the money from the fund, when they choose.
Peter’s analysis suggests that Life wrappers may become a way for contract based pension providers to manipulate the marketing of investment pathways so that they are seen to be delivering the absolute returns that guard against the ravages of sequencing risk, until the proverbial hits the fan. We all know what happened the last time that life companies tried that trick and Equitable it wasn’t.
Why can’t UCITS adopt ESG?
While I am with Peter in his caution against illiquids within a life fund, I find his distinction between a Life Fund and a UCIT approach to drawdown confusing.
Life funds can invest 100% into equities, just like UCITS, but UCITS can’t include alternatives and be used for retail investors (using investment pathways). So far so good, obviously life funds are more flexible and look like they will dominate the investment pathways targeting drawdown or an investment roll-up.
But what has this got to do with ESG? Surely the composition of an ESG factored fund depends on more than screening?
To my mind, the ESG in a fund depends on the commitment of the manager to exercising stewardship by publishing its TCDF and exercising direct influence (voting) and indirect influence by letting its views be known to the management of the companies in which equity or debt is held.
In which case a UCITS fund can be managed for ESG in the same way as a life fund. We’ve got to get away from a view of ESG as being something that is exclusive to one set of funds over another, and consider it desirable in all funds. Why would you want to have your fund not managed for Environmental sustainability, Social purpose and good Governance?
Peter here seems to be hinting that not only can investment pathways not risk investing in illiquids, but that they should be avoiding ESG factors too.
Is there an obvious reason to use life wrappers over UCITS ?
It’s very good to have Peter as a correspondent and he’s kindly agreed to answer my questions. I have a number of questions I want to ask.
What advantages do life funds offer life companies compared with offering UCITS directly?
How and who benefit from any differences in taxation?
Can life companies offset illiquidity of assets such as private equity (and if so – at what cost to performance)?
It strikes me that for decades, advisers have taken for granted that life companies ran GPPs and occupational pensions unbundled themselves from life companies. There is still some anti-life sentiment among trustees and a lot of misunderstanding of trust based schemes within life companies.
But investment pathways should be common to both GPPs and trust based schemes and a proper understanding of the advantages of life and UCIT structures is important if we are to get to best practice in this field. In answer to the question that heads this section, I simply don’t know enough and should do!
Time to open the debate?
We need transparency, and we also need the information to formulate opinion on what is best. We can’t allow a small band of “experts” to decide what is done and – even with regulators on the case – we need to be able to decide for ourselves (whether as advisers or informed investors).
So I’m really pleased about Peter’s offer and look forward to following up on this blog very shortly. In the meantime, I will be mugging up with Peter on answers to my questions.
I hope that in airing these issues, I will be helping the Chairs of IGCs, thinking about their impending reports, on how to assess the value for money of the impending pathways.
At around 5pm on the afternoon of 19th January after 4 arduous years, the Pensions Schemes Bill emerged from the House of Lord/Commons “ping pong” ready to be signed by the Queen who will give it Royal Assent. It will then be the Pension Schemes Act and not a moment too soon.
The delays in parliamentary process have had consequences. Further regulations are needed on CDC schemes, dashboards, climate change governance, regulatory powers, defined benefit (DB) scheme funding and pension transfers.
David Everett of LCP told Pensions Age
“Although this feels like the end of a long journey, in reality it is more like half-time…we expect to see a phased implementation of the new Pension Schemes Act, with the scheme funding powers almost certainly not biting until well into 2022″.
Not everything made it. Several proposed amendments, including committing schemes to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and mandatory Pension Wise appointments, were voted down by the Commons. the brave attempts by the peers to reduce the powers of the Pensions Regulator to intervene in the funding strategy of open pension schemes thought to have been snuffed out by the Pensions Minister. However…
Saved at the bell! – BREAKING!
The FT is today reporting that the depth of feeling from many such schemes will impact the secondary legislation now being considered.
Lady Stedman-Scott, said subsequent regulations, to be set out by The Pensions Regulator would “acknowledge the position of open schemes” but had yet to be set out. “I want to make it absolutely clear that they do not need to invest in the same way [as most closed schemes do now],” she added.
Baroness Altmann says the commitment from the Government today “removes the existential threat to Open DB schemes” that was posed in the new funding code proposals.
And I’d agree with Jo, that the change of tone is very much to do with converting the economic capital in our great pensions schemes into social capital.
Three cheers for democracy!
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly
Macbeth’s advice to himself on murdering Duncan must be echoing in the heads of many civil servants and indeed politicians but there is reason for parliamentary process and the year long debate on the Pension Schemes Bill has at least flushed out the problems with new laws.
It is now up to the civil servants in the DWP to get rules on the table and there is something of a rules race going on. If I was to run a book, I would have the rules on TCDF reporting as first to be consulted on, followed shortly after by the CDC secondary regulations. We can’t expect rules on TPR powers till much later in the year as we’re still to hear back on the Funding Code consultation
But one area where there is more need for urgency is on the pensions dashboard. We urgently need progress on the identification process needed to link person to pot and we need progress on the specification of the Application Programming Interface (API), that will enable data to be searched for, found and sent to the dashboard. We also need to find a way to assess the quality of data to establish which schemes are dashboard ready and how close we are to the dashboard available point. Most importantly, we need confidence in timelines of delivery, we have about as much confidence in dashboard delivery as we do of passengers using Cross Rail.
New legislation already backing up.
Like lorries in Kent, new legislation is already being parked ready for a further bill. Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, has said that he expects there to be a further pensions bill in the current parliament, which would include DB pension superfund legislation.
We are already 13 months into the new parliament and if that legislation is not to meet the wash-up process that set back the last bill, civil servants will need to be getting some of the legislation “oven ready”.
As well as superfund legislation, it looks likely we will get legislation permitting small pots to be aggregated into bigger pots. When it comes to speed of delivery, the DWP should look to the small pots working group as an exempla.
We live in a time of quickly arranged Zoom meetings , of digital documentation and electronic signatures. Let’s hope that this feeds through into the completion of the secondary regulationss for the Pension Schemes Bill and that the sequel will be a little quicker to pass into law!
Ping but no pong!
Whatever the frustration for us commoners, the frustration for the ministers, the civil servants of the DWP and the regulators in Brighton, getting the Pensions Schemes Act over the line must have been much greater.
As the van with the parchment paperwork, rolls down the Mall from the Westminster document department, we should congratulate them for their patience and forbearance – the Pensions Minister especially.
Guy Opperman signs off his end of year vale dictum like this
Finally, we’ve made significant strides in terms of introducing collective defined contribution schemes. We’ve outlined a legislative framework for them, which spreads the investment risk, allowing for greater returns to members and improves schemes’ sustainability for employers. (my bold)
Those prone to conspiracy theories will note that this message wasn’t placed in the FT or any of the institutional pension magazines but in Money Marketing, whose readership has little interest in collective defined contribution schemes and less in the sustainability of pension schemes for employers. The conspiracy theorist will and is asking, “just how will CDC improve the sustainability of employer’s pension scheme? “
To which (if I were the minister) I would choose between three answers
The proper answer
Many people in “workplace pension schemes” actually think that by participating, they will be entitled to a pension when they retire. If, these people reach retirement and don’t get a pension, then they will (unless something better comes along) have to follow various investment pathways to annuities, drawdown, cash-out or wealth creation.
The proper answer (if I was pensions minister) would be to declare DC workplace pensions unsustainable as they lead to a bunch of hard choices , none of which are efficient as a means of providing a wage for life. CDC makes workplace DC pensions more sustainable as they provide a promise of what people call a pension – (AKA – “a wage for life”) to participants.
The likely answer
The most likely reason for the inclusion of the claim that CDC improves the sustainability of an employer’s scheme is simply infelicitous phrasing. If this is the case, then this section of the article has been drafted rather more loosely than is usually the case at the DWP. Maybe Christmas festivities had spilled over into work-time and we can overlook a loose claim for CDC (unless you think as I do , that DC workplace pensions are fundamentally flawed to a point where they don’t deserve to be called pensions at all).
In the balance of probabilities, I suspect that the likely answer to what “improving sustainability of employer schemes” means, is that the drafting team were in end of term mode and weren’t too precise about what was said.
The disruptive answer
Ministers aren’t prone to throwing hand grenades into the carp-pond but that’s what this phrase could be interpreted as doing. If we are to consider employer schemes as DB schemes, then it would seem that the Minister is hinting at an easement for employers in the strain of supporting a DB arrangement.
If the minister means that open DB schemes might use CDC for the future accrual of pensions, which is what Royal Mail is doing, then there will be a number of employee representatives, most notably unions, lining up to protest. Open schemes such as much of the Railway Pension Scheme and USS are guaranteeing the defined benefit of an inflation proofed wage for life. CDC was never meant to replace those promises. The small but significant number of open schemes that backed the Bowles amendment should be reading this final paragraph with interest.
The alternative (and much more radical) interpretation of this phrase undermines the existing guarantees in place. If we are to read this phrase as the opening of a door that allows DB schemes to switch to CDC not just for future but for past accrual, we dispense with the entirety of the Pension Regulator’s funding code and swap it for a funding system where members get the best pension available within the constraints of a fixed set of contributions (which is what CDC gives).
I very much doubt that is what Guy Opperman meant, but the fact that several of my readers have picked up on the comment and asked this question proves that such thoughts are in the minds of hard-pressed employers. For many employers the DB funding code (as last presented) looks like the last thing they need when struggling to deal with the costs of the pandemic, Brexit and transforming to meet the challenge of climate change.
The idea that CDC might replace DB has been tried in the Netherlands and it hasn’t worked too well. People don’t take kindly to finding no rise in their pensions when the market goes down, when they believed the promise of inflation proofing. While it is possible to convince members of DC schemes that a pension can go down as well as up, the Dutch have shown that is much harder when a DB pension promise is in place.
Any idea being floated that CDC could replace DB pensions is highly disruptive.
What do you mean- Minister?
It would be helpful if the Minister, or one of his aides would clarify what is meant by the very ambiguous suggestion that risk-sharing improves the sustainability of pensions to employers.
I know of no employers who consider DC pensions unsustainable (that is one of the reasons auto-enrolment is succeeding).
I know of many employers who would be worried if they were participating in a CDC scheme where “risk-sharing” became “risk-reversion” when times got tough (the risk of supporting CDC pension increases through deficit contributions is still considered a risk by many employers).
I know of many employers who would gladly swap obligations to fund DB for a defined contribution into a CDC scheme.
CDC has the potential to transform pensions in this country, which is why it is such a debated topic. It has to be spoken of precisely as ambiguity will lead to speculation. For with CDC, careless talk is dangerous.
If there is a plan for CDC within the DWP – even if it is no more than a ministerial pipe-dream, then it is best it is shared. If – as seemed the case- CDC is simply facilitated by Government legislation and secondary regulations, then loose claims about risk-sharing “improving the sustainability of employer schemes” are best avoided.
After thought (but a good one!)
For those in an optimistic frame of mind, I urge you to consider Derek Benstead’s green line which represents the desirable outcome of any pension scheme, the ongoing payment of pensions to scheme members without any time horizon for closure. As this diagram shows, the enemy of good here is scheme closure, whether we are talking DB or CDC.
IF this is what the Minister is getting at then I thoroughly agree. If that is what he is getting at, then he is casting a cold eye on what has happened to DB schemes in the past 20 years and that gives grounds for optimism that the mania for de-risking at all costs, that underpins the DB funding paper, may finally be receding. That would be a good thing.
The BBC has made an excellent program building on last year’s exposure of problems at Dolphin Capital. At that time alarm bells were beginning to ring for thousands of UK investors in Dolphin’s bonds. The bonds had been marketed to people with pensions and savings in the UK by direct marketing from abroad, as well as authorised and unauthorized advisers in the UK. The 2019 You and Yours program was promoted on this blog in an article I called Grand Designs.
The point of promoting the problem was to alert consumers to the perils of investing in something as intrinsically attractive as these Dolphin bonds; they were marketed to a template based on four hooks which are the template for most unreliable investment schemes
2) Tax related – always a winner. Often mask the fact that the investment itself isn’t sound – but the fabulous tax breaks make it sound like it is
3) High digit returns promise – 10% plus should sound an alarm bell to everyone but the financially vulnerable
and what wasn’t disclosed to investors but which was key to introducers
4) High Commissions – which incentivise people to sell – and to people high risk investments aren’t suitable for.
It was almost possible for an introducer to take a 20% commission and consider he/she had done the due diligence, in some cases introducers were flown to Berlin to see Dolphin Capital’s investments. It should be no surprise that marketing focused on countries (Britain, Ireland, Singapore and Japan) where many people are obsessed by property investment.
Somewhere in Germany
The latest You and Yours makes it plain that while Dolphin started off being open about its investments, those who have invested in the past few years have been given no idea where their money has gone and much of the program was spent on Dolphin sites which had not been developed, had been over-mortgaged or in one case, was claimed to be a Dolphin site but turned out never to have been purchased at all. While early investments may have been in prime sites (in Berlin for instance), latterly investor’s money had been spent on property in the back of beyond , some of it never even visited by Dolphin’s management. In short – what was sold as geographically sound, was anything but.
Geography is also important here, because though it is estimated that over 6,000 people in the UK bought into Dolphin bonds, it looks like most of what was going on fell outside the FCA’s “regulatory perimeter”. Consequently most investors will have no recourse to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and will have to stand in the queue of unsecured creditors awaiting the liquidation of Dolphin’s assets following the bankruptcy of Dolphin Capital.
This despite the You and Yours program in May 2019 and the growing protestations of investors that money promised was not being returned to them. The FCA’s statement confirms that most of what was going on was not on its watch but that it is liasing with the Financial Ombudsman and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme as to what can be done for those who invested through FCA authorised SIPPs and other pension products.
This has prompted former FCA director and consumer champion Mick McAteer to tweet
I agree with Mick, we need our regulators to find a way to pick up on the tsunami before and not after the wave has broken. This wave is likely to be bigger even than LCF and Connaught and more destructive – it is thought that more than £1bn of investor’s money may have been lost to Dolphin.
What you should I do if I am a Dolphin investor?
I did act as an adviser to the program and comment at the end of the program. My advice to those people who have money in Dolphin Bonds is to get in the queue (either for FSCS) or for a pay-out from the liquidators now. If you are such a person and want to know what to do next , you can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service either directly or via the Money and Pension Service.
How to complain to the Ombudsman service if the firm you dealt with is still trading
You should immediately contact the financial services firm that you have dealt with (for example, the financial adviser who advised you to invest in the GPG scheme and/or SIPP operator through which the money was invested) and submit a complaint. This means that the firm must take certain actions within certain time limits.
If you are unhappy with the response received from the firm, or do not hear from them within the relevant time period required by the FCA, the Ombudsman service may be able to help. It is a free and easy to use service that settles complaints between consumers and businesses that provide financial services.
It is important to note that every complaint to the Ombudsman service will be judged on its own individual merits. Further information on how to complain can be found here.
But what of those who did not invest via their FCA regulated pension?
The FCA website can only help those who invested through their pension but I have no “regulatory perimeter” – it is important that someone is helping those people termed “cash investors” who did not use their pension money but paid for their bonds directly.
Although the program did not refer to this, I understand that there is likely to be a criminal investigation about what happened to Dolphin investor’s money. If such an investigation finds against Charles Smethurst and the management of what is now the German Property Group, then there may be further avenues for compensation.
But for now the prospects for cash investors are limited.
These people are now being assailed by a number of claims companies , many purporting to have semi-official status. I strongly advise (if you are a cash investor) you are wary of all of them and direct any correspondence to Goerg – the lawyers in charge of the administration
Peter Crowley is right to make the connection. Bitcoin is the currency of the dark web and it’s used to pay for the requisites of life if your wellbeing is dependent on a regular supply of under the counter drugs. Reading the quoted article from the London Review of Books is like diving down Alice’s rabbit hole into an alternative web with its own rules.
Some readers of this blog will use it regularly but not many. The 21st century version of the dirty-mac brigade, lurk down the virtual allies where sites whore virginity as ruthlessly as the 18th century madams depicted by Hogarth. The means are different but the impact is the same and bitcoin oils the wheels.
So what do we make of the boasts of this man (thanks for two of my readers for independently sending me this press release from the deVere Group.
As Bitcoin hits nearly $25,000, the CEO of one of the world’s largest financial advisory and fintech organizations has revealed that he has sold half of his Bitcoin holdings.
The revelation from the deVere Group chief executive Nigel Green – one of the first high-profile cryptocurrency advocates – comes as the Bitcoin price hit yet another all-time high on Christmas Day.
The world’s largest cryptocurrency by market capitalisation jumped to more than $24,661. The value of all Bitcoin in circulation is now around $452 billion.
Mr Green stated: “I have sold half my holdings of Bitcoin as it hit an all-time high. Why? Because it should now be treated as any other investment –that’s to say, where possible, it’s better to sell high and re-buy in the dips.
“The steady gains in the price of Bitcoin has made the digital currency the top performing asset of 2020, up over 200%. As such, I felt the time was right for profit-taking.”
He continues: “There should be no misunderstanding about my decision to sell. It is not due to a lack of belief in Bitcoin, or the concept of digital currencies – it’s profit-taking now to buy more later.
“Indeed, more than ever, I believe that the future of money is cryptocurrencies.”
As Bitcoin surged past $20,000 for the first time ever last week the CEO noted that as some of the world’s biggest institutions – amongst them multinational payment companies and Wall Street giants – “pile ever more into crypto, bringing with them their enormous expertise and capital, this in turn, swells consumer interest.”
He went on to note that with governments continuing to support economies and increase spending due to the pandemic, investors are increasingly going to look to Bitcoin as a hedge against the “legitimate inflation concern.”
Previously Mr Green observed that inherent traits of cryptocurrencies are ever-more attractive. “These characteristics include that they’re borderless, making them perfectly suited to a globalised world of commerce, trade, and people; that they are digital, making them an ideal match to the increasing digitalization of our world; and that demographics are on the side of cryptocurrencies as younger people are more likely to embrace them than older generations.”
In addition, a global poll carried out by deVere Group found that nearly three-quarters of high-net-worth individuals will be invested in cryptocurrencies before the end of 2022.
The deVere CEO concludes: “Like me, many traders will sell record high prices as an opportunity to sell, so we can expect some pullback on prices in the near-term.
“But the longer-term price trajectory for Bitcoin is, I believe, undoubtedly upwards.”
The dark web is the new wild web
Bitcoin’s value is sustained and increased by high-net-worth individuals speculating on its future price, but the fundamental value of Bitcoin is as a way of paying for things that by-passes the MLRO and the governance of the traditional banking system.
There is nothing illegal about investing in Bitcoin or converting crypto into fiat money. There is no need for investors to “look through” to what is enabled by Bitcoin, nor the consequences of all this activity on the dark web.
When the west opened up to Americans in the 19th century, it enabled unbridled licentiousness , unpunished murder and a general lawlessness that was tolerated since it was out of the sight of those building up the apparatus of state – including the financial services on which platform America has built its global dominion. The expansion of America across its badlands from sea to shining sea, happened because the west was permitted to be wild.
The dark web is our wild west and like the entrepreneurs who made their fortunes from the pillage of indigenous culture and wanton lawlessness, those who work the dark web are furthering the wealth of nations such as the USA and the UK. We can read the article on how to buy drugs, log into the dark web and – buy drugs. But to do so, we need to buy some of those bitcoin- but don’t worry about that last bit, there are plenty of speculators like deVere’s Nigel Green, who are creating the liquidity for you.
Almost as important as its findings, the constitution and delivery of the small schemes working group is an exciting foretaste of a new way of working for the DWP and its pension policy unit. The 86 page report that was delivered to the public by the Pensions Minister this week is the distillation of experience of the past ten years of workplace pension development through a three month virtual alembic.
It’s a triumph of people getting things done by harnessing the new found collaborative technologies that the pandemic has forced us to use and what it means is that by June of next year we will be trialing a solution to one of the most difficult challenges to the long-term success of auto-enrolment. Unbelievably, this initiative was only laucnhed on September 22nd 2020.
Decisive and determined – “pot for life” gets the order of the boot.
A major calamity for payroll has been averted thanks to prompt and decisive action by the DWP’s small pot working group. Proposals put forward by Hargreaves Lansdown would have required payroll to pass contributions to each saver’s “pot for life”. This would be fine if the saver’s pot for life was the employer’s workplace pension, but for new joiners and for pension savers who fancied choosing their own pension, big problems loomed for payroll.
Those who have struggled to clear contributions to one pension provider will appreciate that the prospect of limitless interfaces would simply have been inoperable. My understanding is that the views of Samantha Mann of the CIPP, which chaired the implementation committee of the Working Group were crucial to the group’s decision to ditch the proposal. The Group’s report concluded
A lifetime provider solution would introduce a fundamental change in how workplace pensions operate and could result in losing the benefit of inertia, which AE has been built on, unless an approach was developed that did not rest on new employees having to provide existing pension details to new employers. In addition, it would also be complex and place an increased administration burden on employers and payroll as they would need to deal with paying contributions into multiple schemes.
Grasping the nettle
Small pots can breed nettles that sting
For year, small pots have grown like stinging nettles – dealing with them has been thought too painful . The best way to get to grips with nettles is grasp them firmly (it saves you getting stung and gives you full control). This is how this Working Group has gone about its task.
Happily, the decision to ditch this payroll-breaking proposal did not put the kybosh on reform. the Pension Policy Institute have modelled how auto-enrolment proliferates small member pots meaning that by 2030 we might have 28m pots with less than £1,000 in them , the DWP have previously estimated that by 2050 there will be 50m abandoned pots.
There has been a school of thought that savers would get their act together and consolidate their pension pots -especially once the much-heralded dashboard arrives. However, the Working Group has determined that member action will not on its own be enough. So, to bring people’s small pension pots together, the Working Group is proposing that master trusts and other workplace pensions conspire to exchange members to the benefit of both the members and the schemes they join and leave.
This will be known as “member exchange ” and it will work like those exchanges of prisoners we used to see in the cold war. To use the prisoner exchange analogy, members will be lined up on either side of the bridge and at an agreed time, they will march past each other to their new homes.
There also has to be a universally recognised rationale for the selection of appropriate consolidation vehicles. Crucially, if public confidence is to be achieved, there must be robust safeguards against members losing out. There is not a risk of fraud here – we are dealing with internal processes that are subject to the controls put in place to meet the exacting standards of the master trust authorization process. The issue is one of member detriment, we cannot allow members to exchange a strong and well managed workplace pension for a pot that has slim chance of delivering good outcomes.
The Working Group have come up with a solution to this problem which focuses on the Government’s favorite measure
“In addition to looking at this in the context of trust-based schemes, consideration will also need to be given to contract based schemes concerning transfers without consent. Trustees / Independent Governance Committees (IGCs) would need a common Value for Money (VFM) assessment framework in order to enable pension pot exchanges without potentially creating unacceptable risk to the member or unacceptable burden on the Trustee/IGC”.
But member exchange only deals with the sins of the past
While member exchange has advantages in consolidating the already fragmented service histories of pension savers, it is not a forward-looking policy – it does not stop pots proliferating in future. Beyond the immediate remedy of member exchange, the Working Group is proposing what the pensions industry is calling a Master Pot.
The Master Pot collects small pots as they are left and is allocated to the saver either because it is run by the saver’s first provider or by means of some random selection called “the carousel”. It is proposed that savers would have an override so that they could deem the provider who would automatically pick up their small pots after them.
A paper well worth the reading
There is a lot more to the Small Pots Working Group paper than outlined here. There are good proposals on how multiple pots held by a single provider can be identified and brought together and there are excellent sections looking at (and rejecting) changes to opt-out options and the reintroduction of “vesting periods”. The paper is driven by consumer advantage but mindful of the needs of providers to offer sustainable value and employers to operate pensions. It is mindful of what can be done in the future and not constrained by what has not been done in the past.
It is quite extraordinary that the Working Group has delivered an 86 page paper covering so much ground in only three months. It is (by pension standards) a very good read and if you fancy following the arguments in more detail, you can do so using this link
Reading the Treasury commissioned report on London Capital and Finance by Dame Elizabeth Gloster was harrowing. Reading the FCA’s response was worse – two days after attending a superb event that asked if our primary regulator is doing its job, my previously held belief that the FCA is fit for purpose has been shaken
The dual purpose Lord Prem Sekka spoke of was to both promote UK financial services and protect the public from bad practice. In the case of LCF, the FCA has failed on both accounts, allowing a major scandal to happen in Britain and for its perpetrators to do so , seemingly with the FCA’s blessing. Although the activities that have lost investors around £237m were conducted “outside the FCA’s “regulatory perimeter”, all the financial promotions made by LCF relied on LCF being an FCA regulated business for their credibility. The Gloster report states clearly that the FCA was wrong and that the losses incurred by bondholders would have been much smaller had the FCA behaved correctly,
When whistleblowers tried to warn the FCA , years before the balloon went up, they were dismissed by FCA senior managers and no action taken. When Elizabeth Gloster asked for the papers that the FCA had on the case, she was repeatedly obstructed by being given information which was wrong or by being denied information altogether. This delayed the publication of the report by months. In the meantime, Andrew Bailey, the then CEO of the FCA has slipped away , promoted to the post of Governor of the Bank of England.
The full catalogue of failures by the FCA is listed at the end of this article. But none of these failings matters so much as the failure of the FCA to accept that the blame for this rests with the key individuals within the FCA.
Who was to blame?
Alfred Tennyson’s famous question for the carnage at Balaclava , rings out through the report and is answered by what will doubtless become the report’s defining statement
“Responsibility for the failure in respect of the FCA’s approach to its Perimeter rests with ExCo and Mr Bailey,”
The most frightening section of the whole report comes at the beginning and deals with the objections the FCA had to the report pointing fingers at the ExCo and Mr Bailey.
A number of participants in the representations process asked the Investigation not to make findings about individual responsibility for the FCA’s deficiencies in regulating LCF. For example, the Investigation was asked “to delete references to “responsibility” resting with specific identified/identifiable individuals”.
Similarly, the Investigation was told that criticism of senior managers who were recruited to overcome structural, cultural or institutional difficulties was “likely to have the undesirable consequence of discouraging people from taking on and tackling difficult and vital roles
The findings in this Report are certainly not intended to have that effect. In any case, it is difficult to see why an individuals’ willingness to take on challenging tasks in public bodies should absolve them from accountability.
A further comment was that “it is neither necessary nor… appropriate for individuals to be identified as bearing
particular responsibility for the matters which are the subject of the criticisms in the draft Report”.
The Investigation does not agree with these suggestions for the reasons set out below.
First, it was represented to the Investigation that there was “an inherent ambiguity” in the use of the word “responsibility” For the avoidance of doubt, the findings of individual
responsibility in this Report are not conclusions about the personal culpability of any individuals or groups of individuals.
In particular, the fact that the Investigation has
identified an individual as being responsible for one aspect of the FCA’s deficient regulation of LCF does not necessarily mean that the individual had specific knowledge of the relevant
problem(s), or that the individual failed to take reasonable steps to address them.
The Investigation has not made findings about personal culpability (as opposed to responsibility)
because it has not found it necessary to do so in order to answer the questions put to it. …. It follows that the Investigation has also not made findings about whether there was
any causal connection between the actions or omissions of specific individuals within the FCA and losses suffered by Bondholders.
In this Report, the term “responsibility” is used
in the sense in which that term is employed in the FCA Statements of Responsibility and the FCA Management Responsibilities Map. In short, it refers to a sphere of activities or functions of the FCA for which a senior manager bears ultimate accountability.
Second, it was said that the scope of the Investigation “does not require the attribution of “responsibility” to particular individuals within the FCA, but rather is directed at whether
the FCA (as an organisation)” discharged its functions.
The Investigation disagrees. Addressing responsibility of the senior management of the FCA for its failures in regulating LCF is well within the remit of the Investigation:
(a) The Direction asked the FCA to appoint an independent person to investigate the “circumstances surrounding”
“the supervision of LCF by the FCA”. These
“circumstances” plainly include the role that senior individuals within the FCA played in supervising LCF.
Moreover, paragraph 3(2) of the Direction provides that “the Investigator may also consider any other matters which they deem relevant to the question of whether the FCA discharged its functions in a manner which enabled it to effectively fulfil its statutory objectives”.
For the reasons provided in paragraphs below, accountability of the FCA’s senior management is a matter relevant to whether the FCA effectively fulfilled its statutory objectives in relation to LCF.
Third, it was suggested that since “investigations of this type are generally directed at identifying “lessons learned” following a high-profile financial failure, it is normal for such
investigations to focus on identifying institutional rather than individual failures”.
As to this, the Investigation is required not to identify publicly FCA employees below Director-level. This Report does not do so.
The primary role of the Investigation is not to identify the “lessons learned”…,that is a matter for the FCA. As
explained above, the key question for the Investigation is whether the FCA effectively fulfilled its regulatory responsibilities in respect of LCF.
It is also not correct to say that investigations of this nature are required to focus exclusively on institutional, rather than individual, failure. The following observations of the Treasury Committee in relation to the Davis Inquiry Report’s 100 findings about the FCA are instructive in this regard:101
“Simon Davis reached conclusions about the responsibility of certain individuals for the events of the 27 and 28 March. However, it is not clear from his report where individual responsibility lies for the failures of the FCA’s Executive Committee and Board. Instead, he concludes that the Board and the Executive Committee are collectively responsible for their respective failures.
This is a well-rehearsed and unfortunate mantra. The Committee has heard it often from regulated firms, and particularly banks. One of the key conclusions
of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards was that “a buck that does not stop with an individual stops nowhere”….
Mr Davis should have paid closer attention to individual responsibility in reaching his conclusions.”
Fourth, it was suggested that “no benefit arises (and the… report’s findings and conclusions are not strengthened) by the attribution of responsibility to particular individuals”.102 This
assertion is inconsistent with the FCA’s own approach to the public accountability of its senior management:
In March 2015, the Treasury Committee recommended that the FCA publish a ‘Responsibilities Map’ allocating responsibilities to individuals within the FCA.
The Committee stated that the FCA’s allocation of individual responsibility should be compliant, as far as possible, with the Senior Managers Regime that the FCA and PRA apply to banks
In 2016, the FCA published a document applying the fundamental principles of the Senior Management Regime to the FCA’s senior staff contained the ‘FCA Statements of Responsibility’ and the ‘FCA Management Responsibilities Map’.
It states that the FCA’s “senior management should meet standards of professional conduct as exacting as those we require from regulated firms” and “reaffirm[ed]… the FCA’s commitment to individual accountability”.
The FCA’s policy regarding the public accountability of its senior management is also reflected in paragraph 24 of the Protocol for this Investigation, which states that “[i]t is the policy of the FCA that employees at Director and above should be
publicly accountable for the FCA’s performance…”
For these reasons, the Investigation considers that it would have been inappropriate for it not to have made findings about the responsibility of the FCA’s senior management for the
deficiencies in the FCA’s regulation of LCF.
Having read the FCA’s response to the Gloster report,I get no sense that those on the ExCo or the new CEO have taken responsibility for the failings of the FCA. Some of the current ExCo were members of it through the period though most have now resigned. While the Senior Managers Regime is now in place for all regulated firms, the core principles by which managers (including me) agree to , are still being ducked by the people we’ve agreed them with.
And it’s why my position with regards the FCA’s credibility as my Regulator has been shaken.
The nine recommendations of the Gloster report which found the FCA failed LCF bondholders.
Recommendation 1: the FCA should direct staff responsible for authorising
and supervising firms, in appropriate circumstances, to consider a firm’s
Recommendation 2: the FCA should ensure that its Contact Centre policies clearly
state that call-handlers: (i) should refer allegations of fraud or serious irregularity
to the Supervision Division, even when the allegations concern the non-regulated
activities of an authorised firm; (ii) should not reassure consumers about the
nonregulated activities of a firm based on its regulated status; and (iii) should not
inform consumers (incorrectly) that all investments in FCA-regulated firms benefit
from FSCS protection.
Recommendation 3: the FCA should provide appropriate training to relevant teams
in the Authorisation and Supervision Divisions on: (i) how to analyse a firm’s financial information to recognise circumstances suggesting fraud or other serious
irregularity; and (ii) when to escalate cases to specialist teams within the FCA.
Recommendation 4: the senior management of the FCA should ensure that product
and business model risks, which are identified in its policy statements and
reviews159 as being current or emerging, and of sufficient seriousness to require
ongoing monitoring, are communicated to, and appropriately taken into account
by, staff involved in the day-to-day supervision and authorisation of firms.
Recommendation 5: the FCA should have appropriate policies in place which
clearly state what steps should be taken or considered following repeat breaches
by firms of the financial promotion rules.
Recommendation 6: the FCA should ensure that its training and culture reflect the
importance of the FCA’s role in combatting fraud by authorised firms.
Recommendation 7: the FCA should take steps to ensure that, to the fullest extent
possible: (i) all information and data relevant to the supervision of a firm is
available in a single electronic system such that any red flags or other key risk
indicators can be easily accessed and cross-referenced; and (ii) that system uses
automated methods (e.g. artificial intelligence/machine learning) to generate alerts
for staff within the Supervision Division when there are red flags or other key risk
Recommendation 8: the FCA should take urgent steps to ensure that all key aspects
of the Delivering Effective Supervision (“DES”) programme that relate to the
supervision of flexible firms are now fully embedded and operating effectively.
Recommendation 9: the FCA should consider whether it can improve its use of
regulated firms as a source of market intelligence.
In addition Gloster makes four recommendations to HM Treasury
Recommendation 10: HM Treasury should consider addressing the lacuna in the
allocation of ISA-related responsibilities between the FCA and HMRC.
Recommendation 11: HM Treasury should consider whether Article 4 of MiFID
II or section 85 of FSMA should be extended to non-transferable securities.
Recommendation 12: HM Treasury should consider the optimal scope of the
Recommendation 13: HM Treasury and other relevant Government bodies should
work with the FCA to ensure that the legislative framework enables the FCA to
intervene promptly and effectively in marketing and sale through technology
platforms, and unregulated intermediaries, of speculative illiquid securities and
similar retail products.
Speaking at last night’s Transparency Symposium, Prem Sikka, spoke with authority about the advantages of the German regulatory system where pressure is applied from stakeholder groups to get action in a timely way.
As we in Britain await the report on the LCF mini-bond scandal (where losses are around £260m), news is leaking out of Germany that a criminal prosecution is underway against those at the heart of the collapse of Dolphin Trust (now called the German Property Group). Apparently the simple question was asked “why has nothing been done in over a year?”. The Dolphin Trust collapse now looks like claiming over £2bn of savings (ten times as much as LCF. For the latest news on this you can read Bond Review , Beat the Banks or follow the reporting of the BBC’s Shari Vahl on You and Yours.
Shari Vahl told me that her interviews with those promoting Dolphin suggest that many of the advisers felt they were acting in good faith (despite them receiving commissions of typically 20% of money invested. Similarly , the Times reported sympathetically on Wealth Options Trustees , who were the German Property Group’s representatives in Ireland. There appears to have been no problem convincing previously reputable intermediaries that what was clearly a massive ponzi, had strong fundamentals. This is the challenge facing both the German and UK regulators.
Following the progress of LCF and Dolphin Trust investigations will be a useful test of Prem Sikka’s contention that the German regulatory system is both more responsive to consumer pressure and less influenced by the financial lobby. Having listened to an array of speakers talking at last night’s symposium about issues with the FCA, I read again last night Prem’s work for the Labour Party that found itself into its manifesto in 2019. This work is worth promoting beyond political circles, good examples being linked from this Guardian article
I am pleased to hear that You and Yours will be re broadcasting its recent session on Dolphin Trust having broken the story over a year ago and followed it up earlier this month. It would seem that matters are moving fast in Germany as the scale of the scandal is revealed. Let’s hope that help arrives in times for people like these to get back something from their investment.
Four people interviewed by the BBC with investments in Dolphin
The behaviour of British advisers in actively selling bonds in Dolphin and the supine failure of the pension platforms that admitted these investments into client portfolios is another test for the FCA. But this time we have the opportunity to see how the FCA works with the German authorities (the German Property Group is a German company). This is a chance for the FCA to show – in a post Brexit world – how it compares with its European counterparts.
Smethurst and Lenz – The architects of Dolphin Trust
My friend Henry Tapper has blogged on this topic many times and in fact in one of his recent blogs an ‘anonymous’ contributor said almost exactly this:
“I would suggest that a reasonable alternative would be to allow open schemes to set their funding and investment strategy based on the trustees’ expectation of the future flow of new entrants, but require all schemes to carry out contingency planning regarding the actions they would take if their scheme were to close to new entrants (and even potentially future accrual). This would include consideration of how they would achieve their LTO (funding and investment strategy) and their expectation of how long they would have to get there (ie when they would be expected to become “significantly mature”, if they were to close to new entrants tomorrow).”
This is almost exactly what we said, but we would go further and say that just ‘planning’ is not enough, it needs to be something more concrete and evidenced. However, I’m comforted that we may not all be as far apart as we thought.
David is keeping his friends close – but are there enemies closer still?. This we will find out when the consultation response is published, which cannot be a moment too soon!
Friends – but not that close!
Much as I like David Fairs, I still see there being a fair amount of distance between his position and that of the market (if the responses I have read to TPR DB funding code are representative). The market will be his friend when TPR shows it has paid its consultation responses the attention they deserve!
David’s big boss, the Pension’s Minister has gone on the record saying that the consultation response will include full impact statements. Frankly, the consultation should have done so too. The Pensions Regulator thought it had a done deal but it was listening too much to that part of the DB trustee and advisory which had fallen under the spell of de-risking. It had not been listening to the trustees , advisers and commentators who take the view that there is life in collective pensions yet.
The impact statement that should have accompanied the DB funding code consultation should have made it clear that the cost of de-risking is not just felt in the inferior retirement benefits of those kicked off future accrual, but in the cash-flow implications for sponsors moving to self-sufficiency and/or buy-out.
The belated arrival of some proper disclosures on financial impact will be welcomed as “not before time”; regulators need to be even-handed in consultations – and considerably more transparent than TPR has been thus far!
Friends – getting closer.
Let’s be clear, the Pensions Minister is holding TPR’s arm behind its back till it accepts his dictat that DB and DC pensions use long-term investment strategies that deploy patient capital into UK infrastructure. The alignment of this dictat to the wishes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is surely no coincidence. Our pension funds are important to Government – not just to meet its climate change promises – but to help build back Britain post pandemic.
We will use the regulation-making powers to ensure that the secondary legislation does not prevent appropriate open schemes from investing in riskier investments where there are potentially higher returns as long as the risks being taken can be supported, and members’ benefits and the Pension Protection Fund are effectively protected.
As “my other friend”, Con Keating has pointed out in his excoriating deconstruction of Guy Opperman’s peice, the concept of “risk free”, as promoted by the pension industry’s characterization of investment in Government Bonds is not “political risk” free, RPI is what politicians want to make of it and may not be quite what you were sold.
The same could have been said of “fast-track” and it’s co-joined twin “bespoke” – as defined by the DB funding consultation. These strategies appear to be under review as they will need to be , if their impact statements are to be palatable to the CBI and Britain’s large employers.
It is good that much of this debate is being played out “blog to blog”. The fire is friendly but we are dealing with live ammunition. What is at stake is the capacity of employers to pay the pensions they have promised, the strain on the PPF if they can’t and the impact on millions of people’s financial security over the next thirty to fifty years. The debate cannot be played out within the walls of Napier House in Brighton, it has to be continued on pages such as this and the Pension Regulator’s helpful blog.
Note to Regulator
It is common protocol when cutting and pasting from other’s blogs, to leave a link to the plundered blog , so that the comment can be read in context. Examples of best practice are to be found on this page.
Alistair “@HelloMcQueen “McQueen has the knack of finding insights where others fail to look. Here he is showing us how our behavior has changed radically as a result of a little spikey ball that none but scientists has seen and no one had heard of this time last year.
In a year we have woken up, locked down and found a vaccine for a deadly pandemic. In a year we have (nearly) agreed a data template for a pension dashboard and announced a timeline that (nearly) tells us when we might be able to see our pensions and pension pots in one place.
“Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore”, sang a noble laureate, the dashboard will arrive but in the meantime we must wait to be rescued like Robinson Crusoe – with no signal.
The internet makes keeps those who guard our pensions honest. On-line there is no hiding from the impact of poor pension management. Whether it be in terms of investment, the costs levied on our pension pots, the quality of the record keeping or simply the capacity to show us what we’ve paid others to guard.
Organizations that cannot today, nearly two years after the original “dashboard available point”, make our data available to us online are failing us. But in our recent test in the FCA sandbox, the average time for a provider to satisfy an online data request was 29 days – and even then – only 45% of responses were in a digitally readable format.
Meanwhile, I attend many well-meaning seminars that agonise over “engagement” with pensions as if – by posting another video on another static website, we can rescue Robinson from the sandy margin of his island. I am skeptical about the capacity of any data provider to engage with its membership if it has not made a commitment to be dashboard ready by now; meaning that I am skeptical about all pension providers.
The day that one provider offers an API to me and allows my organization immediate online access to pension data that it holds on behalf of its customers is the day that I will declare pensions officially open. But there is not one- not even Pension Bee or Smart , that offers this facility to a third party adviser.
What we have instead is the online platform, where financial advisers are granted exclusive access to a view of funds held , at their instigation, in a gated community to which only the adviser and the client has access. This is not “open pensions” but the equivalent of an “intranet of things”, where the data is kept within the confines of a closed group. There are obvious advantages to this, not least that it enables data, like money – to be part of the fiefdom of the adviser and platform manager. But this is like Robinson Crusoe being allowed to communicate online with the monkeys and parrots , but having no access to signal beyond the strand.
The failure of the Pension Dashboard Program to go beyond the narrow expectations given it in 2019 is a crying shame for pensions. While the rest of the country has stepped up to the challenge, the dashboard program has hunkered down and accepted that it must wait for the pandemic to end before moving forward.
So back to McQueen’s chart, we are now able to do just about anything online but pensions. We have a timeline that says we may be able to see our pensions online in 2023 but that depends on the capacity of providers to be ready by then. The providers should have been ready by 2019 and have shown no noticeable interest in improving their readiness in 2020, despite the very obvious advances in people’s readiness to go online.
It is time that Robinson Crusoe had a SatNav and some signal to get him home. It’s time that the pensions industry started putting its customers fairly. Organisations like Pensions Bee and Smart who have gone the extra mile are cruelly denied the right to share data via dashboards by the rest of the pension ecosystem that resolutely sits on its hands and debates the arcane detail.
People cannot find their pension, £20bn is lost – that is a scandal that we need to address now!
People have a plethora of pots, that is an inconvenience that we could address now.
People have no way to engage with their retirement income holistically, that – in a time of open finance – is a nonsense.
The Treasury’s announcement that RPI would morph to CPIH while still calling itself RPI was announced simultaneously with the Government spending review, prompting participants to criticize it as a £60bn raid on pension schemes. It is infact a £60bn raid on pensioners who will get lower pension increases but it is not increasing the liabilities of pension funds which promise RPI linking for pension increases. These schemes will still pay RPI but at a reduced rate. LCP’s Jonathan Camfield, wirting in The Actuary Magazine summed up the efforts of pension schemes to float their deficits with gloomy black balloons
The angry brigade
All this makes comments from the purveyors of index linked gilts wrapped in LDI packaging very cross. This is about as cross as an LDI salesman can get (with a media policy guiding him)
The change from RPI to CPIH wipes £100bn off the value of these bonds, according to Insight Investment, a major pension investor. Jos Vermeulen, of Insight Investment, told the FT the firm was “disappointed” with Wednesday’s decision.
“This decision has been made despite substantial concerns being raised during the 2020 consultation, from a broad range of market participants,” he said. “Another chapter in the RPI saga has drawn to a close, but with 10 years until the decision is implemented, we struggle to believe that this is the final chapter, and we will continue to advocate for an equitable solution.”
The broad range of market participants are presumably Insight’s customers who had been sold long-dated RPI gilts as risk free assets. Often they had been buying RPI but promising CPI, a lower returning index than CPIH, banking the difference between what they held and what they had to pay as an asset mitigating deficits elsewhere.
What the Chancellor has done is unwind this artificial asset by narrowing the gap between RPI and CPI. In these cases it is the scheme funding that will suffer, but only because the scheme had got away with CPI indexation in the first place.
More generous schemes, that offered RPI, will see their liabilities decrease in line with the value of their assets, the losers in this case will be pensioners whose pension increases will be less generous from 2030 (but still more generous than if they had CPI).
So why is the pension industry blubbing?
Undoubtedly there is some skin in the game for those at the top of the pensions tree. Those senior pension figures with RPI linked pension promises in payment or soon to be in payment will lose out personally, unless they can find a way to get scheme rules to pay out on “old RPI”. I doubt that even the most brilliant lawyers will be able to argue that the Treasury are in default – as Con Keating points out – they aren’t changing the playing field, they are changing the rules of the game and they make the rules.
The pension industry is blubbing because they trusted the Treasury to be on their side and defend them as they have poured money into Treasury coffers over the past twenty years in the frenzy to de-risk pension schemes. Much of this has been smoke and mirrors stuff playing off corporate accounting policies and trustee funding statements using financial economics rather than common sense.
This has led to artificial funding gains resulting from “gearing” (borrowing to you and me) by buying derivatives of these RPI linked gilts at great expense to the pension funds who have to foot huge bills from the packagers of this “financial engineering”.
But while all this was being sold as “risk free” – it wasn’t. The risk was always there that the Government could change the rules of the game and these tears are the tears of crocodiles.
Those at the top of the tree are a lot more concerned that their reputations are now on the line and that a lot of these risk-free strategies now look a lot less attractive than they did at the beginning of last week.
Jonathan Camfield explains to other actuaries that much of their strategic planning over the past decade has been for nothing will need to be reversed
Does it still make sense to hold index-linked gilts and swaps to hedge CPI pension increases?
Changes in assumptions will lead to changes in member option terms, such as transfer values, pension increase exchange terms and commutation factors for converting pension to cash at retirement.
RPI changes could trigger further reviews of the appropriate index to use for pension increases under some scheme rules.
The knock-on impact on bulk annuity pricing may make insurance contracts more or less attractive to some schemes.
Trustees will need to think about appropriate communications to members in due course.
In short, the strategies were based on tactical plays which will now need to be reversed leading to extra costs to the scheme and little net gain to anyone but the advisers and fund managers
A more balanced view
I prefer the views of the eminently balanced Daniela Silcock, speaking for the Pension Policy Institute
“Some people are losing out but the economy overall should benefit if this is done correctly,” Silcock told Pensions Expert.
The supposed threat to employers (following the proposals in the DB funding code)
The PLSA, who are now funded as much by the fund management industry as their pension schemes told the FT
“We are disappointed the government has chosen to disregard the detrimental impact this move will have on both savers’ retirement incomes. The change will also raise the risk of insolvency for employers as they seek to address the shortfall in funding of their workplace pension schemes.”
Those employers who have been following the advice of their consultants to de-risk with a view to buy out or self-sufficiency, have handed trustees billions to plug deficits calculated on discount rates determined by those advisers. This has been with the approval of the Pensions Regulator which is now proposing an acceleration of these “end-game” strategies to ensure that schemes do not tip into the PPF.
But the cost of these strategies is just what is pushing many such employers into the PPF, as – strong as the pension schemes appear to be, the cash flow drained from employers is leaving them unable to pay the operational bills. The PLSA cannot support the wholesale de-risking of pensions on the one hand , but complain that the adjustment to RPI is damaging employers – on the other. The wholesale rush to “risk-free” assets (gilts) over the past 20 years is the problem – and the risk that some of those gilts were over-valued has always been there.
So where does this leave the Pensions Regulator?
I can hardly imagine the Treasury’s decision went down well in Napier House, Brighton – home of the Pensions Regulator.
The extra costs associated with the decision are going to fall on the schemes that have been following the path advised in the funding code, those schemes that have not locked down into gilts are not the ones that will have to write off their RPI/CPI reserves.
The market new this was coming, the price of RPI linkers actually went up as a result of the announcement (the market had feared that the change would have come in from 2025 rather than 2030). If the gilts market knew, why is this coming as a shock to schemes and why has the Pensions Regulator been proposing schemes buy more of these over-priced gilts – when the risks were clearly understood?
To me, this suggests a fundamental rethink in what pension scheme investment strategies should be about. If pension schemes were set up to pay pensions, they should be investing in the long-term assets that make this country tick – businesses like Astra Zeneca that can do virus-beating things because of the backing of UK pension funds purchasing their equity. Rishi Sunak wants to get the money from the private sector going into his £100bn reflation of industry. That money is going to go into illiquid investment, not into funding more Government borrowing.
All this investment is at odds with de-risking and at odds with the DB funding code. to get Britain back on its feet , after the COVID punch to its solar-plexus, we will need to move towards a more ambitious approach to pension scheme funding and that means abandoning the mantra of “de-risking” and getting our DB pension schemes investing again. The Treasury’s message regarding the new calculation of RPI says just that.
As I’d followed up on the first report, I got asked to speak this time around. Sadly, the timings got mixed up so I’d only just started my carefully timed Spiegel when the program ended and I found myself talking on Facetime with no one listening!
I’d done the research and answered the program’s exam question “what lessons can we learn” from the debacle. The answer, in a simple phrase, is that if it looks too good to be true , it almost certainly is”. Dolphin looked and was too good to be true
Vorsprung durch technik and all that, Dolphin was a group of German property company that had an all too perfect pitch, German companies don’t go wrong and this was based on the Grand Designs model – turning fabulous run down East German properties into desirable residences for the newly minted East German middle class.
Too much easy money
As if German property wasn’t exciting enough, the sauce was spiced with a healthy dose of German tax-payer’s money, lined up for anyone who wanted a “no-brainer” investment.
Too easy all round
Dolphin Trust was formed to provide two and five year bonds, with guaranteed exits and interest payable on terms that were at least four times what you could find on the high street. Investors could feel like savers, they were just smart enough to use the compelling combination of German Property with tax incentivized returns.
So why did this need to be sold at all?
The question that I asked in my last blog and ask in this, is why what seemed like a no-brainer needed to be sold with introductory fees of 20% or more? Surely this could sell itself with the developers taking their slice. What was wrong with German banks – why were the developers seeking crowd-funding in Singapore, Britain and other property mad countries.
The answer is that the developers did not want to develop, even when they got the builders in, they didn’t pay them. According to the joint investigation by the BBC and its German counterpart, what little building work that was commissioned wasn’t paid for.
In July 2020, German Property Group began filing for bankruptcy in Germany. It is estimated to owe at least £1bn to investors worldwide and at least £378m is thought to have been invested by people in the UK.
You can read the sad tales of those who lost out on the BBC website or listen to them on BBC Sounds but you may by now be weary of these stories, for the template is always the same and lessons are not being learned.
What lesson needs to be learned?
The lesson is in the returns you are actually getting on your pension savings. If you ask most people what a reasonable long-term return should be , you will probably get a default of 8-10%. Those numbers are hard-coded into our imagination. They were the numbers we learned from the 1980s and 1990s for that is when most people who Dolphin targeted were first saving into pensions, or PEPs or (later) ISAs.
But the actual returns most people have been getting since inflation was turned off at the turn of the millenium has been much lower. The average pension default fund has been returning around 3.5% pa since 2000 after all charges. Some have done better
Some have done worse
The first data set shows returns from 2004 (where on average people have been getting 3.29% and the latter from 1997 (where on average people have been getting 5.91%.
Returns since 2010 have been comparable, despite our being in a bull market for shares and bonds, people have struggled to achieve an average net return of more than 5% in almost any of the large data sets we have analyzed.
The reality is that generally available 8-10% returns on 2 or 5 year bonds, live only in the imagination and the returns offered on Dolphin Trust bonds are – to those who study the facts – unimaginable.
There is a simple lesson to be learned from Dolphin Trust. When organizations are offering returns above the market rate, even with tax advantages, there is risk involved and if you can’t identify the risk, the risk is you are being scammed.
It’s my privilege to attend the three-weekly sessions of the Pensions NetWork and I’ve found them a welcome relief over this year of lockdown from the trials of the diurnal round. The 80 minute sessions are positive, informative and intellectually creative. Last night’s was no exception which reminds me to include the link to TPNW’s website from where you can apply to attend the sessions yourself. The next session is on December 17th and will be, like last night’s interactive with a number of panelists chaired by the avuncular John Moret, Pension’s answer to Bruce Forsyth.
The Pensions Network
The four green leaves of the clover
The success of last night’s session was in bringing together four distinct and complimentary approaches to responsible investment.
Tomas Carruthers, a risk-taker who has put his money where his mouth is since being a student, to improve transparency and value for the private investor.
Maria Nazarova-Doyle, a force of nature who flattens cynicism that insurance companies see ESG as “extra sales guaranteed” with the weight of her conviction.
Jonathan Parker, a consultant with a keen understanding of how to influence fiduciary decisions for good.
Tony Burdon, the mild campaigner with a tenacious focus on making our money matter.
Green for Go
I cannot report in detail – what was said – nor do I need to, the value of the evening being in the combined impact of four short presentations and questions from the floor from an audience that included many who could have been on the panel.
The big picture from a big-hearted Tomas Carruthers
Tomas’ approach is to clear layers of intermediation and create a 21st century stock exchange that enables people to take direct stewardship of their financial assets.
He sees the big picture, the $210trillion in the global financial ecosystem and considered how this money could convert to hitting Paris goals by 2030 and 2050. His estimate was that it would need to convert at $1.5tr a year over the next ten years for our financial assets to be on track for 100% carbon neutrality by 2050. There is £6.2 trillion tied up in the UK pension system, which is as good a place to start as any. He gave us three general insights to underpin what was to come
Transparent governance works
Don’t treat people as fools
Respect the power of technology
Greta Thunberg in her thirties
Maria Nazarova-Doyle started turning up at Pension PlayPen lunches maybe 10 years ago. She was new to pensions then , finding her way as a transition analyst at Capita. She is now running the investment proposition for Scottish Widows and her presentation showed what intelligence, dedication and emotional intelligence can do. It is not for nothing that I liken her to Greta Thunberg. It’s greatly to Scottish Widows credit that they have given the responsibility of transforming their investment proposition to someone who fits none of the characteristics of a senior manager role within an insurance company.
The power of influence
Jonathan Parker has moved from being a senior manager within an insurance company to consultancy in a mirror image of Maria’s recent career path. His strength is in his capacity to influence while Maria’s is in transforming the environment directly. Both approaches are needed if we are to hit our Paris goals with the wealth of the nation.
We have to accept that the fiduciaries who look after other people’s money are not going to adopt new investment beliefs because of the noise of the market. They are rightly skeptical about “green-washing” and struggle to see through the complexity of different approaches to ESG, the wood for the trees. Jonathan Parker put forward a compelling case for using clear analytics and patient explanation to influence those with their hands on the levers of change.
Leading the campaign
What the responsible investment movement has lacked so far is a focus for popular support. Make My Money Matter is that focus and Tony Burdon is the CEO though not the poster-boy! There needs to be a backroom to any front room , and while we all know Richard Curtis, Tony is less of a household name.
But he brought to last night the perfect conclusion, a mild-mannered passion that left us in no doubt that what the transformation of pensions means is a better place for us to live both in terms of our planet and in terms of our social goals and the way we govern ourselves. The popular campaign for change makes influencing those with the hands on the levers and transforming the financial institutions a whole lot easier. It makes the big picture laid out by Tomas- happen.
The Four Green leaves of a clover
Clover is good, it makes honey and four leaf clovers are especially good, they bring good luck and they are exceptionally green.
Last night felt good, I felt lucky, I felt exceptionally green and in such good company saw a way forwards to the green goals we have set ourselves.
Learning about how financial services (and pensions in particular) are adapting to the challenge of a burning planet is an education devoutly to be wished for. I am looking forward to attending another such panel session hosted by Chatham House’s Hoffman Institute. , the IFOA and FiNSTIC We are fortunate to be able to get this education online and with minimum logistical difficulty, this will not always be the case, I urge you to access to such learning , while we can.
Thanks to the actuaries for transformational change for bringing this to my attention.
Wednesday will be a day or reckoning – DIES IRAE, DIES ILLA, that day is a day of wrath. We have paid a high price for less productivity and less enjoyment. If there is such a thing as a lose-lose, the pandemic is it for there is no economic silver lining, unless you consider the Oxford vaccine a game-changer for our economy – which is optimistic in extreme.
SOLVET SAECLUM IN FACILLA, the earth is in ashes. For the second time this century, the prospect of progress has receded and we are shaping up for a second sharp intake of breath as we contemplate who will pay not just for what has happened in 2020, but for the cost of vaccinating us in 2021.
The question is both how we’ll pay and who will pay. Following the financial crisis (the first sharp intake of breath) it became clear that those without money would pay more tax , get less services and receive no pay-rises. This was austerity. It was deeply divisive, not least because the finger of blame could be pointed at those who had created the crisis, for whom austerity was just a fancy word.
The pandemic has hit the poor hardest. The second wave is repeating the first, hitting those on low incomes, in cities and in poor health . But will the poor have to pay the economic price of COVID as they paid the price for the breaking of the banks?
What of the future?
While Wednesday will be about spending and borrowing, at some point the chancellor will have to decide how it will be paid for. He will start to address this in next March’s Budget, although most economic commentators feel the economy will still be too fragile for major tax rises.
It is possible that, with the success of a Covid vaccine, the economy could bounce back, limiting the need for big rises. However, Paul Johnson expects that four or five years down the road he still expects the economy to be about 4%-5% smaller than before the pandemic.
Rein in spending and raise taxes too early, and recovery will be choked off. Leave it too late, and the public finances will spin out of control.
It is possible that the austerity program that was introduced in 2010 could be repeated ten years on, but both Sunak and Johnson have publicly stated this is not the way they will go.
If the price for the pandemic is not dumped on the poor, then it must be paid by the affluent and that will mean taxing us (and most readers of this blog are affluent) on our income and on our assets. Higher marginal rates of income tax, higher taxes on capital gains, lower reliefs on pensions and investments and a reduction in the privileges of those who have the means to pay more . This may not sound very Conservative, but it is the price that will need to be paid for national unity. DIES IRAE
A fair price for us to pay.
I live in the City of London, we have some of the least infected postcodes in London. But I do not have to cycle more than five minutes to be in Lambeth, Southwark, Hackney or Islington where infection rates were amongst the highest in the country earlier this year.
I cycled through Dalston last night and it struck me how huge the gap is between the lives of those I talk with on business calls and the daily lives on the Roman Road. The street that I live on has a hostel for the homeless, it is full and those who cannot get in are in tents along the embankment. Wherever I go , to exercise, I see affluence and destitution living alongside each other.
So my message to Ricki Sunak, as he prepares for DIES IRAE tomorrow is in the great chant.
Or , to put a 21st century slant upon the subject, here is the inimitable Jonny Cash with what Springsteen called the “Momentous – ‘The Man Comes Around’.”
David Fairs – speaking last year at the First Actuarial conference
David Fairs and I were born within a couple of months and have both spent our careers in pensions. We enjoy each other’s company so when David suggested that we spent the last 90 minutes of the business week on a Teams call, I cleared my afternoon. Whereas I have spent the last 37 years thinking about how to get better member outcomes, David has approached pensions from the employer’s perspective wrestling with the difficult questions of affordability, security and fairness that underpin “integrated risk management”.
But whereas the beaten track for policy-makers tends to start at the Pensions Regulator and end in consultancy, for David has been the other way round. After 23 years as a partner at KPMG, David chose to move to Brighton to work for the Government, forsaking a much more lucrative end of career move in the private sector. Few people would call David a career regulator, his strength is that he sees issues with the benefit of a commercial career behind him.
A conversation focused on the corporate (not saver’s agenda)
Although TPR has recently set out its strategy for the next 15 years in terms of protecting savers, we scarcely touched on DC in the hour and a half we spent together. Where DC entered the conversation it was in relation to big data issues, especially the data-readiness of DC schemes to meet the challenge of the Pensions Dashboard. TPR are clearly interested in any information they can get on the quality of data in the DC schemes over which they have oversight, the speed at which the dashboard is delivered and the value people place upon the dashboard will depend on the capacity and willingness of these schemes to share data.
It was typical of the conversation that we focused on the challenges to schemes and scheme sponsors in releasing this data (not on the the engagement with members). My take is that TPR will continue to focus on DC from a corporate perspective (AE compliance, dashboard compliance) and is a long way from the FCA’s stronger consumer perspective. Despite TPR professing to be strategically moving towards protecting savers, there is evidence of this consumer focus. Even work on scams is focusing on employers adopting Margaret Snowden’s Pension Scams Industry Group.
Fairs on funding
As TPR pours over 130 submissions to its consultation on the DB funding code (and I hope the points raised by Keating, Clacher, Compton and others on this blog), it is not surprising that our conversation quickly moved to the funding of the guaranteed pensions that many in pensions seem to want to consider “legacy issues”. I asked whether the maintenance of schemes that remain open to future accrual and indeed new entrants was an irritant or (as Guy Opperman has stated) , something that should be encouraged.
Fairs was keen to point out that within the definition of “open scheme” were schemes that had to retain a section for future accrual and new entrants and those who saw the provision of pensions to future generations as what they did. For the purposes of the long-term objective of a scheme, those that sort to pay pensions from within the scheme (as opposed to buying out) might share a similar investment strategy with an open scheme. This point came out of a discussion over the capacity of defined benefit schemes to embrace “patient capital”, the illiquid investments into which everyone in Government from the Prime Minister down, is keen for pensions to invest. The conflict between fast-tracking pensions into risk-free strategies and the broader policy issues around re-funding Britain through its pensions is a live topic for TPR.
Fairs was keen to differentiate the investment strategies linked to funding from the disclosure requirements from the DWP’s TCFD initiative (where the emphasis is on mindfulness of the impact of the scheme’s investments on environmental sustainability). I was surprised that TCFD was not seen as a part of the Long Term Objectives of the scheme and separate from the funding debate, TPR are clearly wary of getting dragged into debates on the impact of ESG on returns (and so scheme funding).
Fairs on push back from open schemes
Guy Opperman has openly stated that the DWP were surprised by the vehemence of opposition to the powers being conferred on tPR to enforce the DB funding code (as evidenced by the debate on amendment 123 or the Pension Schemes Bill- the Bowles amendment).
We talked about the position adopted by Guy Opperman during the debate which appeared to point to greater flexibility in the use of the bespoke option within the DB funding code.
Trustees and sponsors have been concerned about of open schemes having to get tPRs blessing when moving away from “Fast-track”. For them, this sounds like more of a pre-requisite than a cross-check on trustee and sponsor plans. Schemes feel they may be treated as guilty until proven innocent and that the Pension Scheme Bill’s powers will give tPR way more leverage in agreeing investment and funding plans.
In practice, the industry seems to be dubious as to whether tPR has the capability or resources to agree bespoke solutions for all who want to go that way. One multi-employer has written to me on this
We handle over 100 sponsors … and agreeing with some of these can be a lengthy and protracted process. The Scheme specific funding regime that the Minister is looking to build on is more of an art than a science. TPR would need a deep understanding of sponsors business, it’s barriers to entry, capital and debt structure, opportunities and threats as well as the nature of benefits offered and scheme membership characteristics.
The question of whether the Pensions Regulator has the capacity to enforce its powers , if bespoke becomes the predominate route for schemes, seems to go the heart of the matter. There may be flexibility within the code for a thousand flowers to bloom, but who will keep the beds weed-free?
Fairs on impact assessments
David Fairs has clearly got his hands full with the 130 responses to the 58 questions of TPR’s recent consultation and he was giving nothing away with regards any changes in position from the regulator. However, he did drop a broad hint when confirming that the consultation was the product of a pre-pandemic world, that changes might be afoot.
He was keen to push back against criticism that TPR had provided no impact-assessment of the proposals within the code arguing that TPR could not pre-judge the outcomes of its proposals before the proposals had been finalized. Here he seems at odds with many of the consultancies who have been keen to tell their clients and the world the cost of the Code on sponsors. We discussed the specific numbers published by LCP, which Fairs was keen to downplay. Here at least, I felt that we were moving into an area about which the Regulator felt uncomfortable. It will be interesting to see whether TPR approach any concessions on fast track and bespoke as resulting from local conditions (Covid) or from a more fundamental re-assessment of its role.
Fairs on transparency
That this conversation could be had , suggests that David Fairs is prepared to put his views into the open, even as the consultation responses are being absorbed. This is unusually transparent in itself, though Fairs is far too accomplished a spokesperson, to drop hints to an amateur blogger.
There were points our conversation when I sensed engagement with genuinely difficult issues but for the most part, David Fairs gave the impression that what we saw in the consultation , was what we were going to get.
With no hint of any major changes in position by TPR, the debate moves from the substance to the nuance of the regulations and here Fairs is at a great advantage holding most of the cards and being an accomplished player.
I suggest that what we get from this consultation will be nuanced change resulting from what Fairs referred to as “some interesting ideas”. But what we are unlikely to see is any major changes in the direction taken by the Pensions Regulator, the regulator’s not for turning.
I am 59 and using (the largely discredited) 4% rule, I could draw down at 65 £25,000 pa or Simon’s 3.5% (safe rate) £17,500. My ears prick up at the thought of a whole of retirement pay rise from £17,500 to £27,500 pa.
Is Simon Eagle a pension scammer?
If your common or garden pension salesman offered me a 57% whole of retirement pay rise , just for switching to his pension plan, you would give him the bum’s rush. I know a few tweeps (and the bearded wonder) who would need no second invitation.
But here are the five reasons why I am looking to CDC to provide me with a pension.
I need more from my pension pot than I can get from an annuity or a safe rate of drawdown
I want a wage that lasts as long as I do and has built in inflation protection
I’m prepared to take my chances that pension increases don’t come through and am not afraid to take the odd pay-cut.
I do not want to be worrying about pension decision making – especially as I get into the later stages of retirement
I understand and accept the basis of Simon’s bold claim. Unlike DB pensions and annuities, CDC pensions don’t have to be subject to locked down investment strategies and unlike drawdown pensions, they aren’t subject to the ruinously expensive advisory costs and wealth management fees that make drawdown so risky for all but the experts,
Salesman Simon Eagle is no scammer – he’s just a very bright man who has integrity in spades. Thank goodness we have actuaries like him who have the courage of their conviction.
Putting our money where your mouth is….
There is a sixth reason which I will admit to. By wanting it, I hope I can influence some of the people who are in a position to me getting it. Among them I include Simon, who works for a consultancy that provides Britain with one of its most successful master trusts – Lifesight. Willis Towers Watson could soon be one company with Aon. Aon offer the Aon Master Trust, which like Lifesight , has over £2.5bn in assets and carries the retirement hopes of hundreds of thousands of savers.
I am waiting for both WTW and Aon to announce firstly that they will be opening a CDC section of their master trust as soon as regulations allow. Simon told the Corporate Adviser master trust conference that he expected to see the regulations for master trusts in place by 2022. In a conversation with TPR’s David Fairs yesterday, I gathered that CDC secondary regulations are “in plan” for the spring of 2021. On a Friends of CDC call on Thursday I asked salesman Simon and Aon’s CDC-guru Chintan Ghandi if they were thinking about CDC pilots. Right now the answer is “no”, but that won’t stop me asking (again and again and again).
The second question I’ll have for them – once they’ve got the CDC pilot agreed, is how I can transfer the AgeWage workplace pension from its current provider – to the new CDC offered by WTW-Aon.
And in case anyone from Aon or WTW are worried about over-promising, I will emphasize that nothing – nothing – has been promise by salesman Simon or guru Chintan to me or any other friend of CDC – yet!
This is nonsense. If universities can’t pay the required #USS DB contribution, then simply move to DC, which was of course the original plan. Universities backed down in the face of strikes https://t.co/rYtU1azGjM via @timeshighered
The image of two grizzly bears fighting each other is both eye-catching and appalling, we know this will not end well but we are drawn to the spectacle. As an image of the ongoing struggle between university teachers and their employers over pension rights, it is spot on or “apposite” to use the language of academia.
The problem for the public is that we are tired of the argument and want some resolution. We do not want the teachers to compound the damage of current distance learning with another wave of strikes, but that is where this dispute is heading.
Nor is the problem as easily solvable as John Ralfe would suppose. Though university teachers may not think of themselves as like postal workers, in terms of retirement planning, they are not that different. The average don has neither the inclination or the financial capability of managing a DC pot to pension and would certainly be shocked by the meagre fayre offered by an equivalent annuity from a DC scheme, relative to the benefits available from USS.
A wholesale shift to DC would cause the kind of industrial unrest that would have crippled Royal Mail. What is needed is the kind of leadership displayed by the UCU an UUK as occurred at the crisis point of Royal Mail’s negotiations at ACAS with the Communication Workers Union.
What happened there was that the heads of the two sides, Jon Millidge and Terry Pullinger, agreed that for the greater good , a compromise solution could be put together. Royal Mail gave up its insistence on a DC solution while the CWU gave up their demand for guaranteed pensions.
The key is guarantees.
As we move towards the next round of negotiations over the future of the University Superannuation Scheme it seems inevitable that guarantees will have to be discussed and negotiated. The perilous position facing many individual universities with falling revenues from the loss of overseas students does not suggest they will return to the table better able to afford massive hikes in pension funding costs.
The University and College Union, under the capable leadership of Dr Jo O’Grady now find themselves much as the CWU did, with a new way of teaching threatening the livelihoods of its 120,000 staff. If things have got to the point where students have to distance learn, why should they support the infrastructure of universities and colleges and the massive pay and pensions bill of lecturers when the teaching and information they need is readily available on line.
Universities are going to have to radically reinvent themselves post pandemic as the current tuition costs to students and tax-payer do not give value for money. In the wake of the pandemic , it is inevitable that the cost of guaranteeing funded pensions to academic staff will have to be revisited.
Mike Otsuka – speaking sense
I very much hope that the three lectures being given by Mike Otsuka have been well watched. I could not make the first two and can’t make the third either (clashing work commitments).
As these lectures were delivered on Zoom I hope that there will be recordings which can be distributed to the wider public. For those who can attend, the third lecture (on the role of unfunded Pay as you Go pensions, goes ahead on Tuesday 17th.
Index👇of my Twitter threads on USS, UCU, pensions, inflation, and higher education, with recent focus on re-opening university campuses during the pandemic. I’ll retweet whenever I update the index. 5/5https://t.co/7ExXInNJhG
On any sensible approach to the valuation of a DB scheme, ineliminable risk will remain that returns on a portfolio weighted towards return-seeking equities and property will fall significantly short of fully funding the DB pension promise.
On the actuarial approach, this risk is deemed sufficiently low that it is reasonable and prudent to take in the case of an open scheme that will be cashflow positive for many decades.
But if they deem the risk so low, shouldn’t scheme members who advocate such an approach be willing to put their money where their mouth is, by agreeing to bear at least some of this downside risk through a reduction in their pensions if returns are not good enough to achieve full funding?
Some such conditionality would simply involve a return to the practices of DB pension schemes during their heyday three and more decades ago. The subsequent hardening of the pension promise has hastened the demise of DB.
The target pensions of collective defined contribution (CDC) might provide a means of preserving the benefits of collective pensions, in a manner that is more cost effective for all than any form of defined benefit promise. In one form of CDC, the risks are collectively pooled across generations. In another form, they are collectively pooled only among the members of each age cohorts.
Mike is putting forwards the solution that Royal Mail and its union found. If the UCU and UUK could come to a similar compromise on guarantees and future benefit structures then many students would not lose more face to face or remote teaching times in the months and years to come.
But there are headwinds, and they come from entrenched positions both within and without academic circles. Take this tweet from Norma Cohen, representing a “no retreat – no surrender” position on DB pension guarantees.
If employers make pension promises that they won’t stand behind, they no longer deserve the tax breaks on contributions and investment returns.
The reality is that most employer with DB schemes are no longer honoring the offer of future accrual and are piling in money to meet deficits (which is getting tax-relief). The DB system is soaking up resources otherwise needed for Britain to bounce back. Both these deficits and contributions into DC schemes are tax-deductible for employers. Why do some people prize guarantees so highly?
I suspect for universities to bounce back, they too will need to dishonor their offer of future DB accrual. Now is the time for UCU and Government to think seriously about CDC as an alternative.
Let’s hope that Mike’s second lecture can be watched by all those with an interest in resolving the long-running dispute over the USS and lecturer’s pensions. Otherwise we will continue the argument from entrenched positions and miss the big picture.
I would refer those debating university pensions to look again at the work done by Royal Mail and CWU and learn from it.
Rishi Sunak is keen to see pension schemes invest to get Britain to its climate change commitments. This week the Treasury set out its financial services policy which ended with a promise
to encourage investment in long-term illiquid assets, such as infrastructure and venture capital, the Chancellor announced his ambition to have the UK’s first Long-Term Asset Fund (LTAF) launch within a year.
We know the DWP are taking steps to enable DC schemes to invest in such a fund and have issued a consultation on how to create larger DC schemes which can invest in less liquid funds. The DWP is also looking to tweak the charge cap rules to enable notoriously expensive illiquid asset classes to be used within the charge cap. Success for DC schemes is far from certain as liquidity in DC is a lot less certain (who knows when people will want their money?). Successfully embedding long term illiquid investment in collective defined benefit schemes sounds easier but will trustees commit to long term investment strategies if they are being regulated using short term measures?
Josephine Cumbo took to the tweets, to quiz the Pensions Regulator on how it might be resolving the seeming conflict between improving member security while supporting the Chancellor’s green objectives.
NEW: The UK’s Pensions Regulator has set out its position on Government efforts to encourage pension schemes to help the nation rebuild. (1/)
On Monday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “To encourage UK pension funds to direct more of their half a trillion pounds of capital towards our economic recovery I’m committing to the UK’s first Long-Term Asset Fund being up and running within a year.” (2/)
I asked The Pensions Regulator how Trustees should respond to this drive by Govt to invest in infrastructure, like roads and bridges. Trustees have a duty to act in the best interests of members. Should nation building be prioritised over over maximising returns? (3/)
TPR: “Many trustees already consider Environmental, Social and Governance matters as part of their investment strategy, and invest in infrastructure as part of a diversified investment portfolio, seeking innovative ways to do so.” (5/)
Outside of the UK, some countries are deterring pension schemes from investing in illiquid assets, like infrastructure (roads, bridges and airports) if better returns for members’ retirement funds can be achieved elsewhere. (7/)
Australia is introducing a tougher requirement on trustees to act in the best *financial* interests of superannuation scheme members – which means schemes can still invest in infra but will have to explain to the Regulator if better returns could have achieved elsewhere. (8/)
This new requirement is controversial, however, as schemes investing in infra do so for the long-term, with returns not immediately realisable. The decision to invest in infra may be sound but hard to justify to a Regulator assessing on yearly performance benchmarks.(8/8)
Whether the Government wants to get DC or DB pensions investing in the LTAF , it is going to need to provide different messaging about the duration of pension liabilities. If trustees are planning to buy-out or transfer assets into a superfund then they are going to need assurance that any investment in the LTAF will be transferrable to whoever buys their liabilities out. Assets will need to be transferred in specie and its far from clear whether commercial organizations will want assets within the LTAF wrapper or indeed the assets at all.
Ironically, those DB schemes not looking to get bought out but which are either open to new members or future accrual are likely to be subject to the Pension Regulator’s “bespoke scheme guidance”. There is considerable concern in and outside parliament that these bespoke rules offer little more opportunity to invest in “patient capital” than the TPR’s fast track. This is why there are attempts being made to carve schemes that want to stay open from being subject to the strictures of the DB funding code. By escaping “bespoke”, these schemes would be much more free to invest in the LTAF (it is supposed).
Josephine Cumbo’s questions pose salient challenges for TPR’s DB funding code as well as to issues of member security they address directly. It is good to see invites coming out of TPR to attend briefings and even one on one meetings, this suggests that what appeared to be a slam dunk DB funding code consultation, may yet offer hope to schemes with longer time horizons to do as Rishi Sunak wants them to.
Bob Compton MD of Arc Benefits is quietly spoken but an acute listener. He wrote to me yesterday this mail which provides a fascinating insight into the debate over how we fund our open and closed DB schemes and the alternatives we can offer to employers for whom providing a DB pension presents insuperable challenges.
Email sent to Henry Tapper 10/11/20
I listened to the Pensions Bill committee reading as it happened on Thursday. As a result I have a few comments to share with you.
Guy Opperman was very impressive in his grasp of the issues debated, with one exception.
There appears to be all party support for the majority of clauses in the Pensions Bill, other than some would like to hard code legislation in a number of areas to a tighter degree.
Guy Opperman has committed to taking action to legislate on CDC within this parliament, but this will take 3 to 4 years to become reality. As we have seen from the speed of policy changes from the current government, this could easily be conveniently forgotten in the coming months ahead if more pressing post EU jurisdiction problems arise.
Guy Opperman has unbelievable faith that the Pensions Regulator DB funding code consultation will not lead to closure of ongoing DB schemes, and as a consequence has squashed proposed Bill amendments which would have ensured TPR could not create an environment where DB schemes have no option but to move to an end game faster than previously anticipated.
In point 1 above the one exception is this:
TPR has gone into print as follows:
“We propose that Bespoke arrangements should meet the key principles and be assessed against the Fast Track standard.” …..“ They will submit their valuation, along with supporting evidence, explaining how and why they have differed from the Fast Track position and how any additional risk is being managed.”….. “Bespoke arrangements may receive more regulatory scrutiny..”
Guy appears to have been persuaded by the Regulator that this means Trustees choosing the bespoke route will be free to adopt Scheme specific assumptions without hindrance.
However TPR’s Fiona Frobisher has on 2 October at an FT webinar stated Bespoke
will be benchmarked against Fast track assumptions
will be have a greater evidential burden
will face greater Regulatory involvement.
When challenged on the implications for open DB schemes in terms of increased governance cost, the pressure to conform to a gilts based investment strategy based on comply or explain, Fiona made a telling statement (summarized as) TPR is only concerned about securing accrued pension rights, not about future accrual, and that if TPR’s remit were to consider future accruals, i.e. open DB schemes that is a policy matter best left to government.
The implication being, TPR is more concerned about its remit for PPF preservation, than ongoing Pensions accrual.
This is further reinforced when Charles Counsell at a later PLSA event stated TPR’s future policy was all about looking after “Savers” with no mention of “Pensions”, leading me to question should TPR change its name to “TSR” The Savers Regulator.
AE has been successful in increasing the numbers saving for retirement, but has a long way to go to match the success of past DB schemes in delivering quality of life in retirement. DC is not a pension, merely a means to have the option to purchase an expensive annuity which the majority will not take up.
So to sum up Guy Opperman has and is doing a great job, but he has a blind spot, which if not challenged will lead to the hammering of the final nail in the coffin of open DB schemes.
Ricki Sunak’s first speech on financial services in the House of Commons came on the day we absorbed a Biden and a vaccine win. It was a bad day for viruses but a good day for the markets which bounced about with irrational enthusiasm. While all this was going on, Sunak’s plans went largely unreported – only the FT has given his speech much coverage.
The headline shows how complex Government messaging has to be over the weeks ahead.
Sunak sets out ‘green’ post-Brexit financial services regime
The content of the speech needed to address the three immediate priorities for the Chancellor
Bounce Britain back after an appalling year of Covid-lockdown
Maintain “equivalence” with the EU after December 31st to ensure BAU for UK financial services
Ensure that investment both in Government debt and in UK equity promotes Britain’s commitment to be carbon-neutral within 30 years
There are many people who see Brexit, Covid and climate change as unmanageable problems and adopt a fatalistic approach to the future, Sunak doesn’t appear to be among them.
The speech sounded more like the autumn budget we never quite got. Sunak told MPs…
he will grant equivalence to EU and European Economic Area states on financial services,
pledged the launch of Britain’s first “green gilt”
launched a review of the listing regime to attract fast-growing technology companies to London
proposed a new regulatory approach for “stablecoin” initiatives — involving privately issued digital currencies
announced plans to launch the country’s first green gilts
announced that Britain would become the first country in the world to make large listed and private companies disclose the threats to their business from climate change by 2025, including pension schemes.
hoped to have the UK’s first long-term asset fund launched within a year to encourage investment in illiquid assets such as infrastructure and venture capital.
If some of this sounds familiar it is because much of this policy is in the Pension Schemes Bill and forms the heart of the DWP’s agenda for UK pension schemes. With DB pension funds de-risking , green gilts will immediately attract the attention of consultants and trustees keen to work out how a shift to Government bonds can improve their commitment to E,S and G factors.
Those schemes with headroom to invest into growth assets (sadly mostly DC schemes) will be looking with interest at opportunities from exposure of the long-term asset fund, while trustees contemplating TCFD reporting will have the comfort of knowing that they are not alone- it will be a reporting requirement for insurance companies banks and large companies as well.
In the context of the Treasury’s agenda for financial services, it is now possible to see why Guy Opperman is so adamant that pension schemes should play a part in building back better. Opperman, unlike Webb and Altmann, plays to a gallery of those “above his pay grade” ( a phrase he uses regularly). This sense of being a part of a wider political enterprise has been lacking from pension ministers and those lobbying for amendments to the Pension Schemes Bill and TPR’s DB funding code should be mindful of that.
He should also be aware of his boss’ expectations!
Our pension funds are key to making this happen alongside our asset managers. UK is in a great place to make this happen and bring other countries with us https://t.co/yHrAYcALR4
— Therese Coffey #HandsFaceSpace #DontPassItOn (@theresecoffey) November 9, 2020
Pensions a part of building back better
Pensions are governed by old men who have served their working lives within the EU, without the mental and physical stress of a global pandemic and without fear of a broken climate. Sure there have been other threats, but never such a triumvirate of significant headwinds.
To meet these three threats to our long-term financial well-being, the old men will need to change, many will need to step down and make way for younger ,gender diverse and more attuned successors. Those that remain will have to adapt and adopt new ways to invest, report and consider risks and reward.
The financial crisis of 2008-9 was relatively easy to fix. The legacy of the pandemic and the economic consequences of Brexit will take longer to work through. But we have to address the changes they bring. Most of all we need to recognize the paradigm shift in behaviours we need to display and encourage if we have any hope of averting climate change and building a society where social fairness and governmental standards improve.
Pensions own a great slice of Britain and have a critical part to play in transforming financial services so that it plays a part in resolving the crisis we are currently in. We cannot stand by and await a bad fate. We need to rise to the challenges , as Rishi Sunak and other Government ministers (Opperman among them) appear to be doing.
But no matter how well intentioned we may be, open pension schemes cannot invest pension funds into patient capital and be subject to the proposed DB funding code. Something has to give and let’s hope it’s the intransigence over Clause 123 of the pensions bill, of TPR’s senior management – or both.
The DWP is in an awkward spot over the funding of defined benefit pensions. The 130 responses to its regulator’s consultation paper are likely to be making uncomfortable reading to those scrutinizing them in Brighton and the Pensions Minister is hearing on all sides that the DB funding code , far from protecting DB schemes, could so undermine the sponsor covenants as to risk losing retirement income and current jobs.
For a minister for “work” and “pensions” , the messaging is pretty grim. Having listened to the audio and now read some of the Hansard transcripts of the Committee stages of the reading of the Pension Schemes Bill, DB funding is the one area about which Guy Opperman appears defensive.
We will debate DB schemes, which I think have a great future. We have gone to great efforts to support the future of DB schemes.
This is an alternative way forward that some organisations—Royal Mail is the classic example, but there are others who are looking at this—will welcome. Under no circumstances should it be implied or in any way taken that the Government will do anything other than support DB schemes on an ongoing basis.
We do not want good schemes to close unnecessarily, or to introduce a one-size-fits-all regime that forces immature schemes with strong sponsors into an inappropriate de-risking journey.
Opperman continued to acknowledge the risk of the one size fits all strategy (termed fast-track by TPR)
Open schemes with a strong sponsoring employer that are immature and have managed their risk appropriately should not be forced into an inappropriate de-risking journey.
Opperman tried hard to give assurance that the proposals within the DB funding code would do just that. MPs were asked to accept that they would be giving tPR powers to enforce secondary legislation which were it to follow the proposals in the Code , would put such strain on DB sponsors as to imperil both work and pensions.
I make it clear that the Government can commit to using the regulation-making powers available to ensure that the secondary legislation works in a way that does not prevent appropriate open schemes from investing in riskier investments where there are potentially higher returns as long as the risks being taken can be supported and members’ benefits and the Pension Protection Fund are effectively protected.
This would sound more credible if the conciliatory tone was shared by the Pensions Regulator, but recent pronouncements from David Fairs and Charles Counsell do not acknowledge the need to move from the “scorched earth” proposals of the code.
I hope that the Pensions Regulator will be reading the Minister’s statements and recognizing they cannot have their code which eats what it seeks to protect.
I say this because the Pensions Regulator (through the aforementioned spokespeople) has relied for its positioning , not on what the pensions industry wants, but what parliament wants.
What does parliament want?
On most subjects in the Pension Schemes Bill, there is cross party support for the Government’s position, but with regards clause 123 of the Bill, which seeks to offer open pension schemes a carve-out from the DB code, there is not. Here is the position of the SNP put succinctly by Neil Gray
There is a problem with encouraging good open schemes to de-risk. We know where the bond market and gilts market is right now; we know that that puts them at risk. Baroness Altmann has intervened this week to say:
“If you decide to ‘de-risk’, then you are also deciding to ‘de-return’, taking away the upside potential that is so vital for making DB affordable. Deficit schemes just keep getting worse and contributions keep on rising. QE”—quantitative easing—“has undermined funding of all DB schemes”.
At which point Guy Opperman has to accept that Ros Altmann, who sits on the Conservative benches in the Lords, is indeed supporting the Liberal peer (Sharon Bowles)’ amendment.
Nor can he enjoy the usual support of Labour , who join the debate through Seema Malhotra (deputizing for Jack Dromey
We regret that the Government seek to remove the amendment made to clause 123 in the Lords. As the Minister is aware, there are grave concerns about the impact of the provisions in the Bill on open DB schemes, which includes many public sector schemes. Labour has been clear all along that we do not accept the premise that good DB schemes are not worth protecting.
And as Neil Gray reminds him, he can’t rely for support from employers or trustees with large schemes.
It is not just me or Baroness Altmann saying this. The schemes are saying that following this path puts their own good and open schemes at risk for members to continue to enjoy.
Faced with a considerable array of opposition, Opperman may have thought he had survived , only to be hit in the solar-plexus by Richard Thomson (a former Scottish Widows corporate account manager and now another SNP pension expert. Thomson pointed out to the Minister that the unintended consequence of squeezing open schemes into the DB funding framework would be to prevent them investing in the patient capital that Opperman has so promoted.
At this point Opperman’s hard line stance showed a crack (if not a crumble).
There is a legitimate and relevant point, although I will resist the amendment, that this is a perfectly valid debate to have in this place. It will definitely influence the regulator’s approach and ensure that, if there is any doubt whatsoever, not all schemes will be treated the same. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. If anyone is proposing that that is the case, it simply is not. Every scheme should be looked at on its own merits and in its own particular way, because, as all colleagues have rightly identified, schemes have different profiles, different amounts and different objectives. That is what the regulator is trying to do—to build on the current approach.
The main theme of TPR’s DB funding code is that most schemes should not be looked at on their merits but be put on a fast-track conveyor to self-sufficiency and buy-out. This will mean wholesale investment in gilts and the kind of high-grade bond that puts liquidity at a premium (and is quite the opposite of patient capital.
If Guy Opperman believes that the DB code should allow open schemes to continue to take risk as part of their funding strategy then he is either going to have to change TPR’s view on what kind of investment risks are “supportable”.
Alternatively, he may give up the fight and accept that what parliament is calling for, as many schemes are calling for, is the right to determine their own investment strategy based on their time horizons. I make no apology for once again showing why it is economically more efficient for schemes to remain open.
For schemes to stay open , the sweet spot of the “infinite time horizon” must be rewarded. The Bowles amendment to clause 123 ensures that that reward is available. I am quite sure that Ros Altmann, Sharon Bowles or the other supportive peers, are not ready to give up their amendment yet.
Crikey, that’s some chart.
But, what does it mean for future of credit etc?
1. Those who are attractive to lend to don’t need or want credit
2. Those who need credit most are not attractive to lend to.
This will be interesting https://t.co/PaUhTg8qoJ
It would seem that Britain has used the 9 months to pay off its consumer debt. Have we simply dumped our personal borrowings on our Government?
With so much public debt and so little interest available, it’s no wonder defined benefit pension schemes are fast becoming the nation’s bankers- is this why TPR are so keen on de-risking? What but pension schemes could pick up the cost of furlough without anyone seeming to getting hurt?
What will be interesting, and here I will be relying on the Office of National Statistics, is to know just how interested private individuals have been in sinking cash saved on commuting , meals out, holidays and general jollification into long term savings and how much into the rainy day fund (codenamed “second wave”).
All the signs are that this Government, while it was comfortable with lockdown I, is not so sanguine about Lockdown II. I suspect this is for financial reasons and this is both about personal and public finances. What is needed is a whole lot of work (or as economists would have it – productivity). What is about to happen is that the work equivalent of quantitative easing – the furlough – will end on Saturday night.
These are not easy thoughts, my fellow Brits. We work to pay the bills and if we do no work, we rely on those who do to pay them for us. The alternative is the kind of problem we last saw in the great depression (before we had fancy banking).
This very fundamental issue looks like what’s behind the sharp intake of breath we’ve seen from world markets this week. The elephant is poking his head out of the window and waving his trunk about and people worry about the state of the room!
Who pays? Why the vulnerable* of course!
Pension schemes aside, the other easy target for those selling credit is the derelict borrower.
As Mick’s tweet points out, the people left with consumer debt are the people least likely to afford it, which means – the way credit markets work – that the cost of their debt is higher. The banks have found a way to balance their books and it’s at the expense of those who haven’t got their debt under control. This is from the Bank of England report Alistair is promoting.
The effective rates – the actual interest rate paid – on interest-charging overdrafts continued to rise in September, by 3.52 percentage points to 22.52%. This is the highest since the series began in 2016, and compares to a rate of 10.32% in March 2020 before new rules on overdraft pricing came into effect.
Someone brighter than me will tell me just what happened to make personal credit so much more expensive, I’ll just ruminate on how the cost of unsecured borrowing is sky-rocketing and how this isn’t called profiteering (when we are facing the prospect of negative interest rates). The problem first came to my attention with this article from June this year from MoneyExpert.com
The uptick primarily comes from an increase in rates on subprime credit cards, which are targeted at households which can’t pass credit checks and can’t qualify for credit cards from mainstream banks.
* “vulnerable” in this context means “financially vulnerable” – people we used to call “poor”.
Do credit markets have to dump on the vulnerable?
I ask this question of friends like Con Keating, who I invite to comment on this blog and the BOE numbers.
If they do, then all the sidecars in the Nest car-park can stay there. If those who are borrowing unsecured are seeing their interest payments rocket to over 22.5% , then what are we doing prioritizing their saving more?
And why are organizations calling for an increase in auto-enrolment rates , especially the recommendation that we contribute from pound one of our salary?
And why are we charging 1.7m low earners 25% more for their pension contributions, just because they don’t earn enough to pay income tax?
I am a 58 year old investor whose pension pot is invested mainly in equities which are managed with ESG factors. I have invested this way for a few years now and am beginning to see the fund I use providing me with a better return than my previous strategy, which did not employ management to environmental , social and governance factors – to the same degree.
I took the view when I found I could use the L&G Future World fund, that though all funds would naturally move to ESG, because the underlying assets would be required to be managed that way, accelerating that process would pay dividends to me and make my money matter. This approach is criticised by Robert Armstrong, the author of the article Jo refers to – on the basis that you can’t have your cake and eat it.
The article makes a few assumptions which for me are just plain wrong. Chief among them is that retirement savers suffer from short time horizons.
There are no investment returns at all on a planet left uninhabitable by climate change. But that is not the time horizon individual investors operate over (they might have just 20 years between acquiring significant assets to invest and retiring). And it is far beyond any corporation’s planning horizon.
There are two reasons to challenge this statement, firstly because it is much more widely held than many liberals (like me) would care to admit and secondly because it is plain wrong.
The saver’s perspective
Looking at the subject from the pension saver’s perspective, people do not stop investing when they reach retirement. Unless they choose to put their savings under a mattress , they keep investing whether the decision is taken by them (DC) or by fiduciaries (DB and CDC) most people’s pension savings rolls over into retirement in broadly the same assets as prior. Even annuities are now backed by investments into social enterprise (see my blogs on the capacity of annuity books to invest in patient capital).
2. The corporate perspective
People’s time horizons are long and so are companies, at least when long term investors in them demand it. The second fallacy of Armstrong’s statement is that the management of the companies to whom we lend money or invest in equity can behave as they please. They can’t; the management of a listed company is subject to the scrutiny and to a degree the control of shareholders- this is what is called stewardship and it is not some tree-hugging concept that doesn’t exist in real life. It is a reality of running a modern company. Corporate time horizons are having to merge with their investors whatever the past tells us about short-termism.
3. The global perspective
The third perspective trumps the first and second and is absolutely conclusive. “There are no investment returns on a planet uninhabitable”… to suppose that a generation like mine can consider that those living in our shoes at the back end of this century will have to pay the price of our behavior is shocking. Can we really have become so carnal in our pursuance of immediate gratification that we can accept that our actions are condemning another generation to an “uninhabitable planet“?
I can think of no sentient parallel in nature, Within the DNA of the species that live on this planet is the capacity to mutate. The purpose of our mutation is to perpetuate the evolution of the species as it faces up to future challenges. Of course there are failures and they are known as “dinosaurs” because we know that dinosaurs couldn’t adapt! Are we really choosing to be dinosaurs?
it is the goal of the ESG movement to push investors away from “wicked” portfolios — making their prices cheap, and setting them up to outperform “virtuous” portfolios over time!
This allows him to suggest that there will come a time when cheap “wicked” stocks become valuable enough to reinvest in, meaning that we revert to mean – mean being a return to the ways of the past 200 years.
But this is not the reason for ESG. ESG is about changing the way that wicked stocks behave so that they become virtuous stocks and in so doing, avert the impending issues surrounding inhabitability.
There is nothing that says that the market is any different from the components of the market. If the weight of investment is so behind ESG that fundamental change happens, arbitrage against change will be swept away. There is no fundamental reason for financial markets not to be aligned with general good, indeed the converse is likely to be true.
ESG is more than an investment approach
My final beef with Armstrong is that he considers ESG investing a style , rather than a fundamental principle. In this he is currently right, we still hear trustees talking of the need to include an ESG factored fund into a range of investable options. But that is becoming rarer and what is becoming common is the shift of defaults to be managed along ESG lines.
Armstrong compares his adoption of “value investing” in the first decade of the millennium, to the current adoption of ESG factors. This is an introspective and myopic view of investment that sees the purpose of investment purely as a means to provide short-term in-flows of money into funds through marketing gimmicks.
But the demand for ESG in funds is coming, not from “experts” but from the general public and it is based less on investment theory than on observation of what is going on – both on the planet and in the boardroom.
We are now faced with the task of living in a world where Coronavirus is likely to inhibit economic growth, setting about making fundamental change to the way we manage our financial affairs does not seem so daunting , now that we have found ourselves adapting to a new way or work and living.
Within this new paradigm of circumstances, the arguments of Armstrong hark back to the old normal, to which few of us either expect or want to return. The world is moving on and so should Robert Armstrong.
Submission to the Committee scrutinising the Pension Schemes Bill
1, This submission from Henry Tapper in his capacity as CEO of AgeWage and Chairperson of the Pension PlayPen. These private companies are digital resources for individuals and employers to make informed decisions on their workplace pensions and non-workplace legacy DC schemes. AgeWage is currently exploring whether guidance can be given individuals on choosing pensions, consolidating pensions and spending pension pots. It is doing so with the assistance of the FCA in the FCA regulatory sandbox. Our view is that technology can help consumers take informed decisions but that guidance (like advice) needs to be delivered in a regulated way.
2, We believe that the amendments in the name of Baroness Drake will be against the interests of consumers who need a pension dashboard to find lost pensions and have access to their providers to make decisions about choice, consolidation and the spending of benefits.
3,There is evidence that MaPS is extremely good at delivering high level information about options but are not able to give detailed guidance at the granular level of individual policies. If the MaPS dashboard has no transactional capabilities and commercial providers operate on a T+1 basis where T is the yet to be communicated launch date of the MaPS dashboard then the public will be denied the detailed guidance they need to manager their retirement affairs.
4, The main reasons given for preventing transactional capability on the dashboard is concern over people taking decisions without advice. This is certainly a concern where there are safeguarded benefits within the ceding scheme. But most pension pots since 2000 have no safeguarded benefits and have been set up if not as stakeholder pensions, in the spirit of stakeholder pensions (which were designed to provide portability without need of advice).
5, What is needed for pension dashboards to operate successfully is to recognise the vast majority of pension pots that are not carrying safeguarded benefits and legislate around them. It is up to regulators, especially the FCA, but also tPR, to ensure that member’s benefits are protected. The Drake amendments close the door on innovation and good practice to shut out poor practice and indeed scamming. However, poor practice and scamming focusses on larger pots and especially on defined benefit rights where the FCA report, the average loss to members is £82,000 per victim. There is no evidence that scammers are targeting smaller pots and we recommend that the Government sets a limit below which pots can be transferred not just without advice, but at the click of a mouse from the pensions dashboard.
6, The amendments in the name of Baroness Drake would have a second impact which would be systemic and negative. There is a reluctance amongst many pension providers, about which AgeWage has considerable evidence, to provide data to enable transfers and to accept legitimate data and transfer requests from consumers. They argue that by offering their customers a poor service, they are providing the “necessary friction” to prevent self-harm. This is giving inefficient providers an excuse not to upgrade systems and adopt better technology. It is giving them reason not to participate in the pensions dashboard project and is counter to consumer interests.
Finally we would like to address the question of consumer confusion resulting from multiple dashboards. This same argument was being made prior to auto-enrolment when it was thought that only Nest should be able to participate in AE. This turned out to be a false alarm, competition has and will continue to improve value for money from workplace pensions. Nest competes with a variety of providers because the Government resisted calls, not least from within Government to grant Nest a monopoly. Consumers have not been confused and the system is working well.
8, It is often thought by those who are in the public sector that the private sector is predatory and trending to bad practice or worse. When the worst recent case of pension scamming occurred in Port Talbot and other British Steel towns it was private sector advisers who were on hand to give immediate support to those who had been scammed and the public sector regulators who were absent. Latterly, history has been re-written. There is a strong moral backbone to many financial advisers and to organisations like my own who often go where others regulators fear to tred. We should recognise a lesson from British Steel is that where good quality information and guidance is not readily available on transfers, poor quality information will be given much greater credence.