What will this “investment big bang” mean for our pensions?

This u-turn comes 6 months after the publication of its draft DB funding code of a suggested cap in investments in private markets,  explained in a blog from the Pensions Regulator.

Jo goes on to consider what might be the Regulator’s next steps.

So why has the Pension Regulator changed its tune?

Hours before TPR’s announcement , a “challenge” letter appeared on the Government website.  It challenged  UK pension funds, both DB and DC to

To seize this moment, we need an Investment Big Bang, to unlock the hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in UK institutional investors and use it to drive the UK’s recovery. It’s time we recognised the quality that other countries see in the UK, and back ourselves by investing more money into the companies and infrastructure that will drive growth and  prosperity across our country

It explains the Treasury’s efforts to make this happening , pointing to the issuance of the first green gilts in September , the launching of the Long Term Asset Fund as a new investment vehicle in the autumn and relaxation of solvency II rules to let insurers participate.

The letter says that the Government were under pressure to mandate investment in these areas but chose instead to encourage a “change in mindset” among institutional investors.

Choosing which assets to invest in to secure the best outcomes remains a matter for pension fund trustees, and other custodians of institutional capital. We recognise that there is no single ‘right answer’ for the amount that should be invested in these long-term asset classes. Some funds are already highly active; some – for good reason – are not. You will know best what is right for your business– whether that is committing to invest a greater proportion of your capital in long-term UK assets, establishing the vehicles to allow others to do so, or
providing the necessary specialist advice. But we strongly believe this is a question that all institutional investors should be considering.

It looks as if that change of mindset has applied to the Pensions Regulator too.

Understanding the DWP’s position on consolidation

Many  have questioned the motivation of the DWP to accelerate the consolidation of smaller DC schemes into master trusts and other multi-employer schemes.

The language used by the DWP is the language of the Treasury, it is about removing barriers to change, changing mindsets and building back better.

The investment big bang, envisaged by Johnson and Sushak needs to be not just in the interests of the larger British economy, it needs to be in the interests of DC savers and the funders of DB plans. It needs to result in higher inflation adjusted returns on the way up and better pensions in retirement.

The investment big bang is likely to accelerate a move towards collective pensions arising from DC saving – aka the use of Collective Defined Contribution within master trusts. The long-term nature of the illiquid investments envisaged is aligned to the long term time horizons of pension schemes (as opposed to retirement savings schemes)

How does this change our view on value for money?

To date, the value for money equation has centered on costs , charges and the features of a pension scheme.

If we are to have a change in investment mindset, it needs to include a change in how we value our pensions.

It appears that the FCA have pushed back its publication of its response to its consultation of CP20/9 (on value for money) and I fully expect it to include a measure of value that reflects the change of mindset. Will the FCA go so far as to say that DC Pension Schemes that do not invest assets in private markets are not offering their members value?

Stranger things have happened, including the U-turn from the Pensions Regulator.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Webb and Snowden on the state pension and scamming

There are no better people to listen to on the problems people have getting their pension entitlements than Steve Webb and Margaret Snowden.

To get an invite to the coffee morning, login to http://www.pensionplaypen.com or register (it’s free). You’ll find registration using the “event” tab.

There will be loads of great content coming your way if you do.

It’s great to see Pension PlayPen hosting this online coffee morning and I hope that plenty of  us will be signing up for the session.

The Pension PlayPen is a great forum for discussion and I’m very proud the work that’s been done to restore this site to former glories.

If we are to “confidence in pensions”, then we need Steve and Margaret to be listened to.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Does Britain need an Aussie style “Retirement Income Covenant”?


The Australian Treasury has recently consulted with its citizens on how to oblige Trustees of its huge Super funds to provide them with retirement income.

There are parallels in the UK. Over the autumn and winter, the DWP will be talking with our master trusts about what they would need to offer in-house pensions (as part of the CDC initiative). Some DC schemes already offer investment pathways and some signpost pathways of other providers. However, there is no obligation for them to do so, and the discretion of trustees is often used to protect the scheme and sponsor from the liabilities arising when people get their later life finances wrong.

A Retirement Income Covenant

The Australian Retirement Income Covenant ; “will place a key obligation on trustees to formulate, review regularly and give effect to a retirement income strategy outlining how they plan to assist their members to balance key retirement income objectives.”

The strategy will be a strategic document developed by the trustee, outlining their plan to assist their members to achieve and balance the following objectives:

  • maximise their retirement income
  • manage risks to the sustainability and stability of their retirement income; and
  • have some flexible access to savings during retirement.

In the UK , savers have access to 25% of their pot at any time after 55 as tax-free cash. However there is little obligation on trustees to maximise retirement income on a stable and sustainable basis.

There is a strong case for the UK following Australia down this route. Requiring trustees of the fast diminishing stock of sole-occupation and multi-employer DC schemes to spell out the service they offer their members will help determine whether the scheme is providing value for members. Trustees who cannot offer answers to the questions posed by a Covenant Assessment are the trustees that the Pensions Regulator should be asking to consider their and their scheme’s future.

Why does Australia need to introduce this measure?

Despite being held up as a model for other countries, the problems facing members of Aussie Super Schemes sound remarkably like those approaching the close of their working lives in the UK. They struggle with decisions on how to spend their savings

The long-term implications of these decisions, and their complex interactions with other systems like tax, social security, aged care and housing, make it very challenging for retirees to determine an optimal retirement income strategy on their own.

And as with their UK counterparts, Australians are reluctant to take advice

Yet most people do not seek financial advice at retirement to help navigate this complexity.  Rather, in the face of this complexity, evidence shows that Australians currently follow others, disengage, or fall back on rules of thumb and defaults that are not fit‑for‑purpose

The consultation suggests that Aussie savers struggle to spend their pots (clearly as much a  problem for the Treasury as for ageing Australians.

The ‘nest egg’ framing of superannuation compounds the complexities around deciding how to manage their superannuation in retirement. Partly because they have only ever been primed to save as large a lump sum as possible, retirees struggle with the concept that superannuation is to be consumed to fund their retirement.

Because retirees struggle to develop effective retirement income strategies on their own, much of the savings accrued by members through the superannuation system are not used to provide retirement income. Rather, they remain unspent and become part of the person’s bequest when they die.  By 2060, it is projected that 1 in every 3 (Aussie) dollars paid out of the superannuation system will be a part of a bequest

All of this resonates with the UK experience of pension freedoms so far. Retirement living standards in the UK are requiring massively more than the average DC pot can bring, yet there is evidence that many DC savers are starving their lifestyle’s for fear of running out of money later on.

And of course there is the risk of doing quite the opposite and spending your savings too hard, which appears to be equally a problem

So what will these strategies look like?

The consultation document makes it clear how a strategy should be created

In effect, the strategy is a strategic document developed by the trustee that:

  • identifies and recognises the retirement income needs of the members of the fund; and
  • presents a plan to build the fund’s capacity and capability to service those needs.

The retirement income needs of members, and the plan to service those needs, may be different from fund to fund, or from cohort to cohort within a fund. There is significant flexibility for trustees to identify the particular needs of their members and develop a retirement income strategy that is suited to those particular needs.

Knowing your members

The consultation makes it clear that trustees should not be getting involved in providing financial advice individually, introducing soft defaults (such as an option from which you have to opt-out) or a “one size fits all approach”.

Instead the Trustees of a Super Scheme are expected to gather data about their membership and organize them into cohorts who can be offered support as a group

The factors used to identify cohorts of their members are at the discretion of the trustee, but could include consideration of:

  • the size of a member’s superannuation balance
  • whether a member is expected to receive a full, part- or nil-rate Age Pension at retirement
  • whether a member is partnered or single
  • whether a member owns their own home outright, owns their home with a mortgage, or is renting at retirement;
  • the age a member retires and/or starts to draw down from their superannuation.

Clearly some of this  information is not available to UK trustees (and GDPR will make it hard to find it out without member consent).

However, there are interesting thoughts here for UK policymakers to consider. This is the kind of thing, I’d like Nest Insight to be pursuing.

Balancing three objectives – (returns, risk-reduction and flexibility)

The toughest decisions for trustees look like being around trade-offs between mazimising returns, minimizing the risk of money running out and providing the freedom to take cash when needed.

Frankly, this is where I start getting concerned.  There are many good points made in the consultation, not least the recognition that on average income needs fall as people get into extreme old age, but can trustees really manage these trade offs without either financial advice , a soft default or a one size fits all approach?

It strikes me that a strategy that simply highlights the problems isn’t much of a strategy, more another guidance document that leaves members not much better off.

Even if the guidance documents are presented to different cohorts in different ways, this kind of approach still relies too much on members working out the trade-offs. Put simply, members cannot take financial decisions in four dimensions (time being the fourth).

The solutions being put forwards focus on “more products”.

I suspect that in the UK, “attractive products” will be slower to emerge and depend on a highly regulated approach to product development (see CDC regulations published earlier this week)


Does Britain need an Aussie Style Retirement Income Covenant?

My answer is “yes”. However I think that the Covenant needs to be better defined than in Australia, where the trustees are in danger of just adding to the noise with glorified decision trees.

Trustees may consider it perverse to be providing people with guidance towards pensions, but I consider trustees as perverse for running a pension plan where the pension option isn’t at least the soft default.

We have investment pathways but we have no soft option default and (other than Royal Mail) no one size fits all solution.

We should be thinking hard about what a Retirement Income Covenant could do in the UK and how it might be introduced. Put this on your shopping list Mr Opperman!

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Freedom – at what cost?

Rousseau’s famous phrase “man is born free but everywhere is in chains”, will be to the front of many people’s minds today. The true liberal reaction to the pandemic is herd immunity and early blogs from the Covid actuaries explored what that might look like in terms of infectivity , hospitalizations and deaths.

In early April 2020, Joseph Lu wrote for the Covid Actuaries

With a high proportion of infected people displaying little or no symptoms, the lack of a blood test to confirm how many people are indeed infected is problematic to modelling.

For example, without the number of people infected, we would not know if the proportion of infected at risk of severe disease is 1 in 10, 100 or 1,000. Lourenco and colleagues (2020) showed that this uncertainty could lead to a wide range of estimates for the percentage of people infected and immune in the UK, ranging from 5% to 70% by around mid-March.

This has an important policy implication. If the population is, say 70% infected and immune, no stringent measure is needed because we have achieved herd immunity. If it is only 5% immune, then the UK has challenging days ahead and the lockdown is essential. 

15 months later we remain divided as to whether we have got to a stage of herd immunity and whether further lockdown is necessary.

If not now-when?

The question is being asked the world over. If not now- for the Tokyo Olympics – when. The surreal spectacle of a huge air balloon shaped as a human head, now hovers over the city , suggesting that the success of the games is down to our cerebral reaction to what we see.

Over the weekend, I went out twice on Lady Lucy, most of the people who came on the boar had had Covid , all of them had had two jabs, no-one wore face masks, except where required and life seemed pretty normal.

We were outside and the river and locks were full of those like us.

But many people, including one couple who cancelled their cruise,  spent the weekend in isolation as a result of being pinged. We have at last found a way to warn each other that we have been in the company of those infected, precisely when that no longer seems so dangerous. The  danger of scanning a QR code is now obvious, your future plans are dependent on the company you keep.

The idea that you should voluntarily submit yourself to “chains” is an odd way to celebrate freedom. If my experience of the weekend is common, most of us will find freedom by celebrating this amazing country and its natural beauty

Slipper launches in Freebody’s yard

One elderly boater dived from the roof of my boat into the pool outside George Clooney’s house and declared that this was because having had a stroke , lost most of his eyesight and having been hospitalized by Covid, he needed to stay free of fear.

We pulled him out with a sling and a rope ladder and he delighted in his feat of bravura. I suspect that he is not the only 75 year old who feels and behaves this way.

As his wife told me “this is his way of keeping going“.

Our way of keeping going

I know that many people have lost momentum in their lives. It is as if they have furloughed everything and now contemplate a return to freedom as a challenge they do not want to take.

I hear these people talking on the radio in all night shows which have become a place they can share their inhibitions.

We must allow them  the freedom to remain in isolation and not impose freedom on them. The challenge facing our society is to keep going and be tolerant of those who have withdrawn. We must be kind to each other.

The trauma of the pandemic for many people has not abated and is made worse by the sight of millions of Britains who don’t feel traumatized. The inscrutable Japanese head looks down on us all without emotion as if to say “how you go forward is a conscious decision”.  

I worry that many people are not mentally ready to move forward and are struggling to stay still. We need to be very careful how we go, for freedom is being won at a cost.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The proof of SJP’s self-confidence is in customer outcomes.

From Boring Money’s “SJP – value of financial advice”.

My friend Robin Powell who speaks for the evidence based investor has republished my comments on SJP’s Value Assessment (it’s nice to see my words properly set). I agree with Robin’s title,


But maybe for different reasons!

Tim Simpson offers an interesting perspective as an SJP customer

SJP talk to their happy customers – should they talk to us all?

..like last year, the first I knew of it was when someone in Citywire recommended your commentary for the previous Assessment. I then checked my SJP Client login: nothing. I had to request it. Yet again this year I still have had no notice of it, so presumably I will have to request it again unless it’s just on their website for anyone to see. Interesting that all their weekly notices that are circulated never mention these or similar publications available. I assume, to use an SJP word, that would be a ‘distraction’. Yes the Contact does quickly reply and is reasonably helpful but, nowadays, they aren’t even SJP staff.

So, in answer to your question, unless your investing over eight figures, I doubt that it will ever be likely..

Actually, the report is on SJP’s website, you can access it here, but Tim’s comment opens up an important question.

“Who owns the client relationship, the platform or the partner?”

As platform manager, SJP reports to the FCA and is responsible for reporting to  client/customers such as Tim. But in reality, the relationship is primarily with the SJP partner/adviser who is self-employed and effectively a franchisee.

This most delicate balance has been preserved over five decades since Mark Weinberg set up independent distribution at Abbey Life and then Hambro Life (Allied Dunbar). Owning your own distribution is nothing new, nor are the issues it brings.

SJP’s partners are of course restricted in the products they advise on and responsible to SJP as well as their customers for the advice they give.

SJP have argued to me that the partner is responsible for distributing the Value Assessment but that many partners do indeed see such formal documents as a distraction to their clients.

I would hope that SJP can break down this perception over time. If Value Assessments are to be worthwhile, they need to be high-class documents that tell the truth and that is what the SJP 2021 Value Assessment is. SJP Partners should be proud of their value assessment and Tim should not be having to ask where to find it (psst…here)

I would like it to be talking to a wider public than just its internal stakeholders, as SJP is the largest financial adviser in the land. It has over 4000 regulated advisers meaning that more than one in five advisers are working for them. It is the single largest contributor to FSCS, it pumps £30m a year into training and has its own academy. It is the breeding ground for the next generation of financial advisers. It should talk for financial advisers.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Nor does it talk of its own experience to a wider public. Bearing in mind it owns data on the behavior of around half a million  Brits over the age of 55, SJP has the capacity to be authoritative on how the mass-affluent are arranging their financial affairs in later life. If the average drawdown on our Sipps is 8% pa, SJP may be able to show us that with advice, we can do better!

The value that is sunk into paying for advice, comes from the funds people own and the fees that many complain of, are used in part to ensure customers do not overpay tax, do not invest inappropriately for their needs and that cash flow is managed so money is in the right place at the right time for the right people.

I was educated as a financial adviser in the 1980s to focus on adding value this way and it seems that people value financial advice delivered by real people as much today as they did when I worked at Hambros and Allied Dunbar.

Where I differ from Robin is that I am not opposed to the advisory regime or indeed the fees charged by SJP partners if they can be seen to be value for the money they cost. What SJP appear to be defensive about is whether all the money that flows to partners, platform management  and shareholders, is delivering value in terms of outcomes.

Bearing in mind the encomiums from those who pay the fees, it could be argued that the value is in the sense of financial security that the client/partner relationship brings. This is well brought out in this study by Boring Money. But the b-side to the Holly’s hit single is the financial proof in the pudding. Are the Partner’s clients and SJP’s customers getting good outcomes?

For all the assessment of value, there is very little hard data in what SJP produce to show that the platform and funds are delivering what Partners promise.  And its this that justifies my and Robin’s criticism of SJP falling short. It is not enough to deliver financial well-being today, you have to deliver on expectations tomorrow, expectations that you as an adviser and platform manager have to set.

There is nothing to say that SJP aren’t delivering on these expectation, but there is nothing to say that they are. SJP in the past have told people like me that this is none of our business and that is right, I am not a customer or client and my status as a “commentator” is based entirely on this blog. Nonetheless I will keep asking the question, how are your customers doing to SJP because I can’t ask Partners how their clients are doing.

And if we don’t know how half a million of the nation’s affluent oldies are doing, then it’s pretty hard to judge what can be done for the rest of the nation.

My call is to the management of SJP and to its Partners to be more trusting with the wider public, to get on the front foot and share information that is important for us to know. Principally I think we should know about the outcomes of saving within the SJP Sipp and about how the Sipps are being used to provide income or capital in later life or on death.

This high level information, presented in ways that make sense to the financial services industry and the general public, would be the ultimate Value Assessment and proof that SJP are as confident in delivering on their promises as I believe they are.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What is consolidation doing to DC contribution rates? WTW’s surprising results!

The collapse in confidence among small pension schemes gathers pace as Corporate Adviser reports.

Two-thirds of employers who currently run their own trust-based pension plans are considering switching to a master trust within the next two years, according to new research from Willis Towers Watson.

Its annual FTSE 350 DC pension study shows that on top of this 12 per cent of employers who already use a master trust are also considering reviewing their provider within this time scale.

Corporate adviser  reports Gemma Burrows, director in Willis Towers Watson’s Retirement business, as saying:

“For many employers that moved to a master trust five plus years ago, the options available in the industry have changed dramatically. Some of those employers are now starting to look around and consider whether there are more suitable, alternative providers that could offer better value or service to members.

Master trusts now represent the chosen method of delivery of nearly 1 in 4 companies in
the FTSE 350, given it is only a little more than 7 years since they entered the mainstream
market – that is amazing!

Contributions matter  and it matters who you work for.

With every member having the option to take their benefits from their DC scheme to wherever they like, WTW are right to emphasize the importance of a healthy employer contribution

If you are working for a FTSE 100 or FTSE 250 company, you are likely to have contributions well above the AE statutory minima. I suspect that WTW’s results are biased towards employers who care about pensions (and are prepared to pay for good consultants). Nonetheless, you have to look at these improving numbers with satisfaction as Gemma Burrows does

“Clearly it’s good news for employees that DC contribution rates held up during the recent challenging financial circumstances for many employers. However, we can see that from a retirement savings perspective less than 20 per cent of companies enrol at a default contribution rate in excess of the minimum level on offer. Therefore, there may still be work to do to overcome inertia in decision making so individuals understand and take advantage of the more valuable contribution rates that could be available to improve their own outcomes.”

It interests me that WTW report on the move to master trusts and the increase in sponsor contributions on the same slide. I am hoping that this is sending a subliminal message to sponsors that money spent on maintaining their own trust is money not being spent on improving the contribution rate. Let’s hope that consolidation improves contribution rates as WTW infers it may be doing already. I’d be interested to hear more from WTW on whether savings in scheme management costs are being passed on as improved contribution rates or whether consolidation is leading to a further dumbing down of pension sponsorship

WTW are right to point out that where there is an employer match available, take up of that match will settle at the default rate. So the question for reward and pension managers is to what extent they want to set the match low and target those people who have the sense and financial capability to opt-in to higher contributions and to what extent they want matters the other way round. Inertia will determine the take up of the match and the default is the “inertia setting”.

A final point worth making is that the vast majority of employers do not contribute to workplace pensions at anything like the rates advertised above. Can Government find encouragement in these numbers to nudge up the AE rate for all employers with workplace pensions as they have promised to do by the middle of this decade? Levelling up is devoutly to be hoped for.

Hope for CDC?

Willis Towers Watson are principal consultants to Royal Mail and have been firm supporters of legislation allowing that employer to sponsor CDC. For the first time in a WTW DC survey, I have seen mention of CDC as an option for other employers.

I doubt we will see many employers engage with CDC directly, but I suspect that master-trusts that offer CDC scheme pensions as a default  option for members in retirement – will be working at a commercial advantage in the consolidation process. Willis Towers Watson offers the market Lifesight, a commercial master trust which could take advantage of CDC.

Perhaps the title page of the report offers another subliminal message. Is this WTW’s view of investment pathways?

WTW’s perception of investment pathways?

With Guy Opperman intent on introducing legislation for multi-employer schemes like Lifesight, to use CDC rules from 2022, we ought to watch this space and look forward to next year’s report!

Thanks to the WTW team for an excellent paper , which I will return to in future days.



Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

TPR – publish your pension scheme register – or be damned!

£400m now thought to be £20,000m – big numbers

Following yesterday’s blog moaning at the Pensions Regulator for not getting its act together and publish a register of scheme URLs I have been informed of regulations changes that have the potential  to make this happen. 

DWP’s climate governance regulations which, subject to parliamentary approval, will come into force in October have put TPR in a position to be able to publish central repositories of a number of scheme disclosures.

Regulation 3 of the draft Occupational Pension Schemes (Climate Change Governance and Reporting) (Miscellaneous Provisions and Amendments) Regulations 2021 amends the Register of Occupational and Personal Pension Schemes Regulations 2005 so that TPR must require, via scheme return notices, that trustees provide the website address where their most recent TCFD report has been published as well as the website address of their published Statement of Investment Principles, Implementation Statement and excerpts of the Chair’s Statement. Trustees will be under a duty to provide this information in their scheme return to TPR.

As part of their Climate Strategy, TPR have already committed to publish on their website an index of the web addresses of schemes’ SIPs and will be able to replicate this for TCFD reports also.

This compares with the aforementioned TPR’s statement on launching a register of  the 1200 DC schemes facing consolidation…

The only trustee details we publish are those of the ITs on our register of trustees that we appoint to schemes in certain circumstances – it’s not available on line but a copy can be requested (About the trustee register | The Pensions Regulator). We don’t currently hold website details, though we are hoping to start collecting the urls for the VFM, charges and investment information that trustees are (or will shortly be) required to publish on line, via the annual scheme return. We have not yet taken a decision on whether we will publish that information

The URLs for  TCFD and SIP statements is the URL for value assessments and most pressingly for consumers, a searchable address to find people who can trace lost pensions.

So let’s hope that the tPR will join hands and adopt a single approach to all occupational schemes that allows us to research companies and create a new more dynamic approach to finding out who’s looking after our money.

If they feel constrained , pass the information to the DWP who seem more confident in listing and sharing websites already in the public domain.

If big Government wants us to move faster , we can do, but we need its help too!

Publish – or be damned!

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What if your pension is being consolidated?

Over the past five years, millions of people have found their money , locked into company pension schemes , under new management.

The trend for company pension schemes to close and transfer people’s savings into multi-employer schemes (known as master trusts) looks set to increase as Government announces new tests for the viability of company schemes which may encourage or even force trustees to “consolidate”.

Even  large employers such as Vodafone have decided that the cost of managing their own staff’s money is not worth the kudos and effectively outsourced pension arrangements. It’s understandable that staff who may have felt loyalty to their company of former employer, may not be so happy having their money managed by the trustees of  an insurance company or a pension consultancy.

What then are the the options for employees as they face the future?

Option one – roll with it.

The people responsible for making the decision to move your money to new management are trustees. If you are in a group personal pension, only you can pull the trigger. So if your money is moving it is because your  trustees think that at worst you won’t be worse off and at best you could benefit from being in a larger scheme with better resources to manage your money.

The option of “rolling with it” and letting the money move across is usually a good option. Multi-employer schemes usually have better retirement options because they are set up on a commercial basis and want to manage your money to and through retirement. If you want to find out what your new pension managers have on offer, you can usually find out online or by speaking to its support team. Your current employer may not resource its trustees to offer these options and may feel uncomfortable taking on responsibility for the outcomes you get. In general, the commercial master trusts into which you are likely to be consolidated will be safe havens for your money for longer and may even be able to pay you a pension in years to come if they adopt a collective approach to turning member’s pension pots into an income that lasts as long as you do.

Option two –  manage your pot yourself

For many people, money management is a hobby which they pursue enthusiastically. For such self-confident people there are a range of self invested personal pensions (SIPPs) which are looking for you to transfer your company pension pot. If you have such a SIPP already, the chances are that it has a tiered charging structure that means the new money you bring to it should be managed at a lower rate than your existing money. SIPPs  are typically  on-line and user friendly for the tech-savvy. They can also offer a range of investment options including a facility not to use funds but to invest directly into the markets.

The well known names in this space include Hargreaves Lansdown, AJ Bell and Pension Bee.  If you are looking at SIPPs , you don’t need me to tell you how they differ, you will be able to work that out for yourself and if they baffle you, don’t use them. I have to say I find Pension Bee very simple while some of the more technical SIPPS scare the life out of me but this really is an “each to their own” market where you pays your money and you makes your choice.

Option three – you give your money to your adviser to manage

Many master trusts are managed by pension consultants and could argue that they are “adviser managed”, but you may feel that kind of management a little remote and not what you want.

If you have a financial adviser, the chances are that he or she offers a pension management service which either watches over decisions you take or offers a discretionary management service which takes decisions for you unless you look to over-ride and take back control.

Financial advisers are able to manage your money with you in mind. Investment decisions can be tailored to your chosen level of risk and advisers can advise you of the tax consequences of what you pay into and take out of your pension. They can also help you with the paperwork involved with consolidating small pots and the best ones can also manage the transition of money to reduce out of the market risk and take some assets “in specie” meaning transition costs are kept to a minimum.

Of course all this personal attention is expensive so this kind of option is really the preserve of the wealthy. Few advisers want to manage portfolios of less that £250,000,  which is just as well, as the fees for small pots can make this kind of service uneconomic.

What everyone could and should do!

The movement of your money from a company pension to a master trust is an event which you can use to review your plans for the future, even if retirement feels a long way off. It will probably be in your interest to take the line of least resistance and roll with it, but it could be the time you decide to go it alone or employ an adviser to do the work of managing your money for you.

If you’re about to make important decisions about your work and retirement savings, you should consider taking professional advice.

But a good starting point is the free information and guidance available from a number of online tools and resources. If you are among the millions feeling extra financial pressure, consult the Money Advice Service. If you’re 50 or over,  phone Pension Wise for free to talk about what you can do. If you’re worried about the movement of your money derailing your retirement plans, contact the Pensions Advisory Service.


Want to know more about pension scheme consolidation?

If you are interested in the dynamics of the retirement savings market , you may want to spend some or all of next  Thursday  afternoon (17th June) at a pension master class I am helping to organise.

For those who would like to register an interest, here is the link:

Register Interest to Attend Consolidation Masterclass — SG Pensions Enterprise

Here’s the agenda


Thursday 17th June 2021



Consolidation is the name of the game in UK pensions.  In the DC space, employers are increasingly rolling their plans into master trusts, in pursuit of efficiency gains, scale economies and wider investment opportunity sets, and are strongly encouraged by the authorities to do so.  Similar arguments pertain for DB plans, especially smaller ones, though the rush to consolidate is less pronounced to date.  LGPS plans have already implemented asset pooling across the entire sector, of course, with the streamlining of administrative activities a possible next step.  Delegates to the Masterclass will examine the actual state of consolidation across the pensions industry, whether it is really delivering on its promises, and what further developments need to take place in order to deliver significant and measurable improvement to the health of the industry and to overall member outcomes.


13.30 – 13.50

Meet and Greet

13.50 – 14.00

Welcome and Introduction

Chair                                                                                                        Programme Director

Robert Branagh                                                                                     Stephen Glover

Chief Executive Officer                                                                         Director

London Pensions Fund Authority                                                      SG Pensions Enterprise

14.00 – 14.25

Presentation and Q&A:  The State of Consolidation Across the Pensions Industry

Magnus Spence                                                                                     Hal La Thangue

Managing Director                                                                               Associate Director

Broadridge                                                                                             Broadridge

Our speakers will set the scene with the historic context for consolidation in UK pensions.  They will discuss the drivers of consolidation, among them the current low return environment, the increasing burdens of reporting and regulation and the demand for better services to members of pension schemes.  This will be explored in relation to trends and projections for the 3 main pensions sectors in UK pensions:  LGPS, private DB and DC schemes.  He will posit that there is a minimum level of AUM to achieve scale benefits, and discuss the significance of the emergence of new players in the pensions marketplace, including fiduciary managers, transition managers and master trusts.

14.25 – 15.05

Panel Discussion:  The Big Consolidators Account for Themselves


Robert Branagh

Chief Executive Officer

London Pensions Fund Authority

Adam Saron

Chief Executive Officer

Clara Pensions

LGPS and Master trust executives to be confirmed

Senior executives of three large consolidators, representing an LGPS Pool, a Master Trust and a DB consolidator, will describe and justify their approaches to consolidation, and how well they are working.  The themes they will explore will include the correlation between size and investment performance; the governance challenges imposed by scale and how to manage them; whether consolidation is necessarily better for members; the pitfalls and drawbacks of rapid growth; and the optimal limits of consolidation on an industry-wide basis.

15.05 – 15.25

Sponsored Presentation:  Best Practice in Transitioning Assets

Graham Dixon

Director of Transitions


As consolidation trends develop further across UK pensions, this will translate into an enormous volume of assets on the move between funds, between institutions and into new investment vehicles.  The importance of managing this process efficiently can hardly be exaggerated, given the great costs involved and the need to mitigate significant out-of-market and operational risks.  Our speaker will discuss how best practice in transition management is evolving in light of these circumstances and the steps involved in getting this critical process right, including the vital criteria for identifying the right transition manager.

15.25 – 15.45

Coffee at home and Online Networking

15.45 – 16.05

Sponsored Presentation:  A Special Case – The DC Small Pots Problem

Adrian Boulding

Director of Policy

NOW: Pensions

It is well documented that the proliferation of small pensions savings pots will continue to grow almost exponentially if left unchecked.  This gives rise to a huge administrative burden, rendering many pots totally uneconomic, both to the saver as well as to the pensions provider.  Various solutions have been proposed, among them raising the bar on flat rates; transforming the general levy; nudges and pushes to members to consolidate their pots; legislative measures; and various technological solutions, not least the pensions dashboard.  Our presenter will outline the scale of the problem and propose a personal view of the best way to resolve it.


16.05 – 16.55

Expert Discussion Groups:

Group 1)       Predator or Prey?:  Consolidating Smaller DB and DC Schemes

Facilitator:               Henry Tapper, Chief Executive OfficerAgeWage

Lead Discussants:  Andrew Blair, DC Investment and Governance Lead

Department for Work and Pensions

Paul Budgen, Director of Business Development, Smart Pension

Louise Sivyer, Policy Business LeadThe Pensions Regulator

Further discussants TBA


Savings to employers

Improved contributions to members

Wider investment opportunity sets

Exorbitant costs per member for small scheme administration

Barriers to consolidation

Why even big schemes could shed a bit of weight



Group 2)       Next Steps for LGPS Pooling

Facilitator:               Mike Weston, Chief Executive Officer, LGPS Central

Lead Discussants:  Anthony Parnell, Treasury & Pension Investments Manager, Carmarthenshire County Council

Abigail Leech, Finance DirectorLocal Pensions Partnership

David Rae, Head of Strategic Client SolutionsRussell Investments

Further discussants TBA


Achievements to date on asset pooling  –  is it working?

The LPP model:  consolidating admin activities as well as assets

Lessons from overseas public schemes

Future legislation and outlook


16.55 – 17.00

Return to Plenary

17.00 – 17.30

Panel Discussion:  Feedback from Expert Discussions and Lessons from the Conference


Robert Branagh

Chief Executive Officer

London Pensions Fund Authority

Henry Tapper                                                                                         Mike Weston

Chief Executive Officer                                                                         Chief Executive Officer

AgeWage                                                                                                LGPS Central

Discussion group facilitators will report back on their main conclusions, followed by a debate on the main takeaways and action points from the conference this afternoon. This will include who will be the significant winners and losers of consolidation trends, the further step changes that will need to take place and, as a consequence, what the future pensions landscape will look like.

17.30 – 18.00

Final Thoughts and Open Networking

Posted in pensions | Tagged , | Leave a comment

FCA delivers tardy providers and their IGCs a sucker punch

In a surprise statement, the FCA has accepted it my not given providers of workplace Group Personal Pensions (GPPs), sufficient clarity on what the FCA is looking for them to disclose.

Some stakeholders think that costs and charges data should be published at the level of the overarching HMRC registered scheme, with the data indicating a range of charges paid by members in different employer arrangements within that overarching scheme.

We don’t consider that aggregation of costs and charges at the level of an overarching scheme would promote meaningful comparisons, however. Instead, comparisons at the employer level could play a useful role in helping to improve value for money in workplace pensions.

However, some firms have told us that they were unclear at what level disclosures were required and have been preparing disclosures at registered scheme level.

It is more surprising that the handful of firms who have workplace GPPs to report on, had not sought clarification (the consultation has been open nearly a year). It sounds to me that either they are bad at reading consultations or they decided to put the original proposals in the “too hard” box.

The FCA’s sucker punch

Despite the FCA saying they are offering an easement, some employers can now look forward to some even more interesting disclosures over the summer, not least – an understanding of what other employers participating in the same “HMRC scheme” as them, are getting by way of a deal.

The disclosures that will be published by the IGCs this scheme year (by July 31st) go considerably further than any information previously published. The workplace pension Independent Governance Committees (IGCs) will need to either comply with the existing requirements laid down last summer

  •  To ‘pick a small number of reasonably comparable schemes or investment pathways, including those that could potentially offer better value for money (against the factors set out in the rules), to conduct their assessment.’
  • When selecting these schemes,   ‘take into account the size and demographics of the membership. This comparison with other comparable options on the market applies to the extent that information about those options is publicly available.’


  • disclose each set of costs and charges that they levy (and the number of employer schemes which have these costs and charges), or

  • show the distribution of costs and charges by employer arrangement in some other way, for example by dividing the range of charges into deciles (ie without also disclosing the relevant employer or scheme details against the particular costs and charges)

The  second option  appears an easement but may prove even more disruptive. It is infact a sucker punch to insurers and IGCs.

It will be interesting, reading this summer’s IGC reports , to find out which route each IGC takes and whether they and their providers consider the original disclosure the better of two evils.

That some IGCs and their providers have struggled to disclose benchmarking information is no  credit to them. That the FCA needed to publish this “easement”, suggests a growing frustration with the IGCs inability to act for savers rather than their sponsors.

Impact on provider margins

In my experience (I was head of sales at Zurich/Eagle Star 1995-2005), employer scheme pricing was based on what margin we could agree with the gatekeepers – the employee benefit consultancies.

These gatekeepers worked on “leaving something on the table for the next man“, which added up to providers getting deals at pretty favorable prices to the insurers.

The schemes which were set up at the turn of the century with no assets, are now looking very healthy, if your employer pension has £100m in assets, the provider is earning £1000 pa for every basis point (0.01%) of charge they are making. The range of charges is between 10 and 75 bps (0.1% to 0.75%) so there is considerable scope for negotiation and the FCA know it.

Indeed, the statement that the FCA put out early in June shows that they are now on top of this subject and have grasped how important it is that employers are empowered to understand their costs. The FCA sees the disclosure of charges at employer level as meeting three statutory objectives;

  • competition – scheme members and others can access better information about costs and charges, promoting more effective competition between firms in the interests of consumers.

  • consumer protection – better information about costs and charges should enable scheme members to decide if their scheme is giving them value for money and if it will meet their future needs.

  • market integrity – workplace pension schemes should be better held to account by their members, which would improve the orderly operation of the financial markets.

I think it ambitious to expect members to be picking up on costs and charges they are paying, through disclosures from the IGCs. However employers have the capacity to be more assertive.

And I see an opportunity for HR, reward and payroll departments to benchmark themselves and renegotiate charges for staff either with the existing provider, or by switching to a rival.

The problem for employers was correctly identified by the Office of Fair Trading in 2013 when it wrote in its market study.

“The buyer side of the DC workplace pensions market is one of the weakest that the OFT has analysed in recent years. Part of the reason for this is that most employees do not engage with, or understand their pensions. Pensions are complicated products, the benefits of which occur a long time in the future, for many people”.

Consumerists have long argued that employees did not have the information to make sense of their pension pots. But moves are afoot at both the FCA and the Pensions Regulator to make sure savers in workplace pensions have simple statements that tell them both the costs they are paying on simple pension statements published by law. So, both employers and members will be better empowered to take decisions – and soon!

Of course, employers should not be making purchasing decisions just on price, (value is the other part of the equation), but this move from the FCA should be picked up on by every employer that runs their workplace pension as a GPP (and many who participate in master trusts and have their own company workplace pension).


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

TPR/FCA and Government – shining light on value for money

There is a crack in everything , that’s how the light gets in

TPR’s Corporate Plan  for the next three years is for the most part solid and uncontroversial. Where it extends beyond the 2020 plan is in a long section on value for money which I have quoted in full below. The pensions industry has yet to get the message but “value for money” now informs every aspect of the Government’s DC agenda. Put another way,  if a measure does not improve value for the saver, what is it’s point?

Thankfully the artificial and divisive phrase “value for members” has been dropped and it is clear that where tPR speaks , they speak with the FCA. It looks like what will come out of CP20/9 (the FCA’s VFM consultation) will be a discussion paper published shortly by both regulators

As someone who has pioneered the benchmarking of performance and the scoring of value for money, I am encouraged by the statement

Our exploratory work around value for money will include considering the merits and practicalities of a common, cross-industry standard and the development of benchmarks

This standardization is long overdue. The over-elaborate value for money frameworks established by IGCs and Trustees are so diverse they provide no means of comparison and the saver has no idea what value he/she has actually had.

Reference is made to the DWP’s work on “improving member outcomes” which I understand will be providing us with more detailed guidance next month. It is absolutely right that the focus of improvements is on the outcomes of members, too much talk to date has been about the characteristics of a good DC scheme and too little on what such schemes have provided by way of pounds in their saver’s pockets.

As such a saver, I want to know who has provided value and make informed choices based on evidence.  The longer-term work coming out of the FCA/TPR discussion paper is focused on the saver and focused on “cross-industry” standards, this is absolutely right.

Here is what TPR is saying , I have emboldened those statements and headings that I consider particularly important and I’d welcome comment.


Value for money

We believe savers’ money must be suitably invested, costs and charges must be reasonable and good quality services and administration are provided to all.

Savers in DB schemes have the promise of a certain level of income at retirement. However, significantly more people are saving into DC schemes where the retirement income amount is dependent on the level of contributions and the performance of investments – as well as the decisions made on approaching retirement by the saver.

Value for money was one of two priority areas in our joint strategy with the FCA published in October 2018. We will be using our powers to help drive value for money for savers and this includes setting and enforcing clear standards and principles where relevant.

Our research indicates that smaller DC schemes are often less able to meet standards of good governance and administration. The economy of scale of bigger schemes often means savers will benefit in a variety of ways, and therefore we encourage consolidation as a means of improving saver outcomes. Further to the introduction of the regulations from October this year, we will seek to ensure that schemes consolidate where they are unable to achieve value for money.

Savers are also less likely to receive good value for money when they have multiple small pots with varying performance and charging structures. Improved saver engagement through tools such as the Pensions Dashboards could help to address these issues in the longer term by putting the saver in control of consolidating their savings. However, there is more that industry can do now to address the existing stock of small pots and to prevent the problem continuing, and we support the DWP’s Small Pension Pots Working Group.

Figure 2 below depicts an activity timings plan for the work under Value for money. There is a date range across the top of the chart from left to right showing three consecutive financial years: 2021-22; 2022-23, and 2023-24. This date range is used to show where the activity (shown in swim lanes below) starts and ends.

Year 1 (2021-22)

A focus on developing a broader understanding of value for money

In year 1, we will increase our focus on this strategic priority, developing a broader understanding of value for money: its components, risks, and opportunities. This development will build on our current joint work with the FCA and ongoing dialogue with government.

Our exploratory work around value for money will include considering the merits and practicalities of a common, cross-industry standard and the development of benchmarks and we will publish a joint discussion paper with the FCA. We believe value for money assessments will be key to ensuring DC pensions deliver the best possible retirement outcomes for savers, and we have been guided by our stakeholders and industry on the importance of this work.

Following the DWP’s 2019 consultation ‘Improving outcomes for members of DC pension schemes’, regulations in relation to value for money assessments and consolidation of smaller DC schemes will come into force in October 2021. Statutory guidance in this area will be updated to help trustees and advisers ensure they understand what is required of them and that they are able to take the necessary action to comply with the law.

Years 2 and 3 (2022-23 and 2023-24) Continuing to work with trustees and our regulatory partners to establish cross-industry standards

During years 2 and 3, we will continue to work with the FCA to deliver common standards across the market. This will follow the joint discussion paper with the FCA on value for money, which invites discussion from the industry but does not set out a finalised framework. Clear, cross-industry standards would help drive positive change, particularly in the context of a smaller number of DC occupational schemes with large numbers of savers.

Continuing our work from year 1, we will work with trustees so they can assess value for money in relation to their scheme, and in accordance with the regulations.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can Pension Wise deliver a financial vaccine?

a financial vaccine?

Yet another consultation (the 11th this year) arrives from the FCA, looking to nudge people of my age into the arms of Pension Wise and away from scammers.

This looks sticking plaster on a wound that will continue to bleed our savings for some time to come. Take up rates for Pension Wise remain low and the dial is not likely to move much once the proposed changes come into place.

I have read the paper but it was heavy going …..

Click to access cp21-11.pdf

I’m not quite sure how I managed to insert the paper as I did, but I’m keeping it on display because it shows just how long-winded these papers are getting.

In practice, the 39 pages boil down to this

we propose that, when a consumer has decided, in principle, how they wish to access their pension savings, or transfer rights accrued under their existing pension to another pension provider for purposes of accessing their pension savings, pension providers must:

  • refer the consumer to Pension Wise guidance
  • explain the nature and purpose of Pension Wise guidance, and
  • offer to book a Pension Wise guidance appointment.

This is the big idea to get the guidance points illustrated at the top of the page- into play.

Financial vaccination

There is an obvious comparator, it is what the NHS is doing in getting us to go and get vaccinated, where there is pretty well universal take up (see C10-arg blog The public response to vaccine hesitancy – Joseph Robertson)

The way to win people’s hearts and minds is to present a clear counter-factual. If you don’t get vaccinated you run the risk of getting Covid whenever your third wave arrives and what’s more you’ll be limiting your capacity to join into the new normal (as you won’t get a covid passport). I know that isn’t exactly what the Government is saying, but it is what the public is hearing.

For Pension Wise to become as relevant as a vaccination, it is going to have make a promise as compelling and  that is a very long way from what the public are seeing. Pension Wise is not going to vaccinate us against scamming , nor is it going to provide us with a definitive course of action about what we should do with our retirement savings. Instead, it is seen by the majority of people I speak to as extremely worthy, very boring and rather ineffective. A bit like going to a vaccination center and not getting the vaccination.

The alternative

Rather than putting people in financial harm’s way, which is what pension freedoms do, why not turn the question round and provide people with a financially healthy way forward that pays them a pension with them having to buy an annuity?

Ensuring that every DC pot has as its default a scheme pension paid from a collective retirement fund is not fanciful. It simply requires any provider, whether the funder of the trust or the supplier of the contract, to offer directly or through a third party, a properly managed collective pension scheme set up and managed to pay a wage for life in exchange for the pension pot.

This doesn’t mean that the current choice architecture of investment pathways should be disposed of, but the variants – cash, annuity and DIY drawdown would be self-select options and only accessed where an individual wanted to make a positive choice.

This may seem like a return to the bad old days of compulsory annuitisation, but it is not. The annuity was the only option unless you could prove you had adequate income elsewhere. The opt-out proposal I’m mooting simply follows the tried and tested approach to pensions which is to put the onus on people to opt-out and not opt-in to the right decision.

The “right decision”

We are of course a long way from having consensus that a CDC scheme pension paid from a collective pool and insured by the collective pool is preferable to the investment pathways.

We are looking for a financial vaccine to protect people at retirement. In my view CDC will pay most people what they want better than any of the investment pathways – it is our best hope going forward.

A CDC pension could be paid from any existing DC trust that was willing to convert to CDC and could be authorised as one by the Pensions Regulator.

I see – within  a decade, CDC sections existing as the “wage for life” default option, of all the master trusts and it may be that one or two large employers decide to commercialise their existing DC trust based schemes. Put simply, if I wanted to defray the cost of providing a DC scheme to my members “to and through” retirement, I would offer the facility  admit the public to my CDC provided they were transferring benefits from elsewhere and I would admit these savers on commercial terms.

This should not prove a problem for the ABI, whose members are prominent either as funders of master trusts or suppliers of investment platforms and funds that will sit within CDC arrangements. Nor should it be a problem for the PLSA, for whom CDC should be a lifeline for ongoing relevance.

Where these proposals will meet with most opposition will be from scammers who will have to justify the arrangements they propose as opt-outs of collectives – on a value for money basis.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The FT moves the needle on CDC

As I predicted, yesterday turned out to be a day of pension debate and what started as an editorial in the FT , was continued in an excellent seminar where Claer Barrett , Jo Cumbo and Sebastian Payne explored the idea of a “new pension deal for the young”.

Unequivocally, the FT put forward as its preferred solution a collective approach driven by defined contributions but providing non-guaranteed schemes pensions – like the state pension.

This is perhaps the most radical endorsement of CDC from outside the small fraternity of enthusiasts known as the Friends of CDC – to date. It is an endorsement based on improving the outcomes of the 10m new savers for retirement introduced by auto-enrolment and not a solution to the issues surrounding the employer covenant behind defined benefit schemes.

For once, the focus was on the hapless saver, a role for which Sebastian Payne had volunteered.

I’m not sure that Sebastian fully represented the “pension lumpen” but he showed a representative disinterest in any of the “solutions” being put forward to become a self-investing pensioner. Like most people I know, he wanted pensions done for him and was prepared to take a non-executive role in his own retirement.

Most of us, when it comes to personal decisions, find it hard. We can be convinced when shown the economic advantage to us of an employer match on what we put in, to put more in. We can be convinced not to opt-out of our pension saving  even if it means slowing our saving for a house deposit and we can even grasp the fiscal advantage of salary sacrifice, when that advantage is passed on to us. But beyond that it’s hands off – both in terms of investment and – so it seems – in retirement decision making.

Which of course is not what DC is supposed to be about. The FT seminar spelt out the alternative to engagement , an awareness of what needs to be done and a willingness to trust others to do it. Which is how CDC works (and why for many, DC doesn’t).

The pension industry response

I was frustrated to see response to the FT’s initiative being so feeble. Far from engaging with the issues that Jo, Claer and Sebastian were grappling with – issues of everyday people. The debate moved to discussions over whether the University Superannuation Scheme would move to CDC and was quickly mired in politics.

Jo Cumbo had to intercede and explain that what she had written and what she would be discussing was not to do with USS.

What the FT seminar was saying is that CDC , despite it being received as a political solution to the Royal Mail industrial dispute, is not a tool for employers to de-risk liabilities , but a means for those saving for retirement to make sense of that saving in terms of pensions.

It is a shame that in the febrile hot-house of USS politics and in the pension industry’s debate with itself over guarantees, the wider DC picture is being ignored.

A word about the LCP conference

I was a little disappointed that LCP ran their DC conference with no dedicated session on DC. This may be pragmatic as it focused very much on what employers and trustees can do right now (and clearly we still await the roll out of secondary regulation allowing multi-employer schemes to incorporate CDC).

What was said about CDC, was said with little enthusiasm or passion. It is clear that even a consultancy as progressive as CDC , still struggles to understand what it is like not to be a pension expert!

This conference comes round but once a year (and we missed last year). Which means an opportunity lost to consider the alternative to setting up investment pathways – or whatever the PLSA’s variant might be.

I would urge Laura Myers, Steve Webb, Dan Mikulskis and the many blue-sky thinkers within LCP to think of alternatives to engagement. Whether we think of everyday people as “lumpen” or “non-exec”, we have to accept that most people do not want to make strategic decisions about how they invest or how they disinvest their retirement savings.

Most people, like Sebastian , want things done for them – so they can get on with their lives without having to worry how to pay the bills in retirement. If we can focus on that simple truism, then we can start making sense of CDC.

The FT moves the needle on CDC

The last word goes (in this article) goes to Jo Cumbo.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It’s time we tested the value we get for the charges we pay

If I had read the PLSA’s response to the DWP’s proposals to flex the pension charge cap, this time last year, I would have applauded it. I told the Pensions Minister to his (virtual) face that I saw no demand from the funders of commercial master trusts or employer DC trusts. I was wrong, while the barriers that the PLSA are still up for smaller schemes (and even the cash-starved People’s Pension), those master trusts moving to scale and those few employer trusts at scale are looking to allocate to private illiquid markets.

We learned this week that Nest has appointed CBRE Caledon and GLIL Infrastructure to invest £3bn into infrastructure equity by the end of the decade. This is on top of its initial allocation of £250m of its default fund to a partnership with Octopus energy to invest in renewable energy.

Stephen O’Neill, Nest’s head of private markets, told the FT :

“Nest’s investment strategy is evolving at pace in line with the growth in our assets under management, opening up new assets classes in the pursuit of the best risk-adjusted returns for our members.

We believe direct infrastructure equity investments can offer diversification benefits and a return premium to public market equities, at lower levels of risk.”

So when I read in the PLSA’s response to the DWP

we do not believe that the alterations will lead to a material change in investment in illiquids as there are a number of other important reasons why schemes do not invest in them. In particular, a focus on low charges in a competitive market, the prudent person principle which requires schemes to take careful consideration of risk and reward and this
is likely to always result in only a very low proportion of scheme investment in such assets and operational barriers, such as the flexibility to move pots when requested and daily dealing….

I have to question who the PLSA is speaking for.

It is not just Nest, there are a number of large DC pension schemes who are looking to invest from their margin, in more expensive assets, this can only be in the hope of improving member outcomes.

The PLSA may consider Nest misguided in putting outcomes above profit but they cannot deny that Nest have a plan in place and Nest is a member of the PLSA.

Is Nest a special case?

It might be argued that Nest is special because it enjoys the benefit of cheap Government debt and does not have the cash flow worries that beset many of its commercial rivals. It can better afford to take a long view and has a public obligation to tow the line. The line is being set by the Treasury and its agent the DWP.

The PLSA actually agree with the Treasury that investments such as those Nest are committing to, are in the long term interest of default investing savers.  So what are they caviling about?

It would seem they are assuming that DC pension schemes going forward look like DC pension schemes in the past. The DWP do not and make it clear that they want small DC schemes (by which they say schemes <£100m but really mean schemes <£1000m should not be investing at all, but folding into larger schemes that can afford to run illiquids in their defaults.

This is where the disagreements between the PLSA and the DWP/Treasury’s position seems to spring from. I can understand from a membership organization’s point of view, the collapse of small schemes into large schemes is not good news. A founding member of the PLSA’s Pension Quality Mark club – the Vodafone DC scheme- has already collapsed its assets into WTW’s Lifesight plan and if such a large scheme can go, what mightn’t. The PLSA are necessarily  concerned that we may find their role representing DC members limited to a few large schemes but that is what the DWP clearly sees the market offering them.

Nest is only a special case if you think its current size (£16bn+) will be exceptional within the time horizons the DWP have in mind. My feeling is that by the end of the decade there will be several large schemes with more than £30bn in them and that Nest will be challenging the largest DB schemes to be the largest funded pension in the land.

A changing landscape not a changing need.

The need for growth and income in the accumulation and decumulation of pensions does not change over time. The means of delivery changes, schemes in the future will no longer offer the sponsor’s covenant that defined income levels will materialize. So it is strange that the PLSA respond to the DWP that

“having a 5 per cent allocation to venture capital in the most popular “default” pension funds could “effectively double the total cost” of the investment portfolio. For this reason, private equity costs are not affordable within the default, and from a scheme perspective, appetite for this type of investment will also be tempered by the fact that higher costs, resource scaling-up and management will not guarantee higher returns”.

There are no guarantees on investment and you certainly don’t get certainty of better returns for paying a fund manager higher fees. But the risks of over concentration of capital in the most liquid markets suggests that value by continuing to rely on a single source of growth (passive equities) may be a false economy.  The need for reliable returns and the risk of not achieving them rest with the trustees who act on our behalf. The PLSA need to discuss with Nest and others why they are not relying on low charges to deliver to member’s needs and expectations.

It’s time we tested the value we get for the charges we pay

I agree with Con Keating that there is no reason for performance fees to manage most of the illiquid investments being considered by DC funds. Con suggests that many of the investments can be managed within investment trusts where the trust itself can declare a charge within the scope of the cap.

I also agree with Mick McAteer in considering the motives for industry pressure on the charge cap – self serving

However, I am also a pragmatist and I recognize that what the Government is really saying, by relaxing the charge cap to accommodate the smoothing of performance fees is a means of bringing alternative managers to the table.

So I am not against the flexing of the charge cap. I neither see it as necessary or deleterious. It is a sop to the hedge fund managers but no more than that.

What is needed is vigorous testing of the efficacy of the strategy being propose and this testing needs to be a field test, with real charges and using real DC member data. We know that the strategies of the managers touting for business have been back-tested, but have they been back tested in the context of the funds into which the managers want them allocated?

For the public to feel comfortable with these new illiquid strategies, it would be sensible for trustees and managers to abandon the usual non disclosure agreements and tell us what the strategies are, how they have worked in the past and what their impact will be on member outcomes. It’s important for people like Mick McAteer and Chris Sier. but even more for those invested in the defaults of schemes such as Nest.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How DC consolidation can benefit DC members


Like Climate Change, Pension Consolidation isn’t something theoretical, it’s happening and at a great pace. I remember when DB transfers were at their peak (2018) people talking about what was to come. It had come and before the regulators had worked that out, the horse was cantering off into the distance.

Unlike Climate Change and unlike the tsunami of DB transfers in the late part of the last decade, the consolidation of pension schemes is not a threat but something to be devoutly encouraged. Most of the sub-scale DC schemes in the UK know they are likely to offer inferior outcomes to members and trustees are not holding their members or their employer sponsors to ransom. They are freely handing over their pensions to consolidators.

In this blog, I focus on the commercial advantages of consolidation and question whether they are currently benefiting members as they should. There are of course other advantages , than the economies of scale (specifically the capacity of large schemes to broaden and strengthen investment strategies. But consolidation should also bring lower charges to members and better facilities (such as retirement options).

I fear that much of the value is being too freely given to commercial master trust funders by employers who don’t fully understand the value of their gift

“Freely given”

I do not fully understand this phrase. The employer sponsored trust is in essence a mutual structure, it has no objective other than to provide benefits to members. In the past it was financed by employer contributions and where the trustees incurred expenses, these were met by short service refunds (if you left within the first two years of service, the employer contribution returned to a pot which paid the trustees and their advisers.

The abolition of short service refunds has meant a lot more small pots but it has also cut off the oxygen supply to the advisers who now have to bill the trustees who pass on these bills to the employer. Very few trustees now  have their own budgets and can take decisions autonomously. This has changed the market – especially for consultants who are find it harder getting paid.

The consultants have moved from a pure advisory role to become the funders of DC master trusts, arguing that this is the most cost efficient way for employers and staff to get the benefit of their administration skills, communication expertise and best investment ideas. It probably is.

But what consultants offer is not is an employer mutual, it is a commercial master trust which is freely given assets by employers who – with the consent of their trustees, decide to wind up the employer trust.

Outside of pensions , this would be considered “de-mutualisation” and the owners of the mutual – the employer, might reasonably expect to be paid for the transfer of the asset. In this case the asset is the fund value of the scheme and the ongoing covenant from the employer towards the staff’s pension. This could be valued and paid for as a premium for consolidation paid to the employer, who could choose to pass this money on to staff or keep it for shareholders.

Inside of pensions, this premium is reflected not in a cash payment to the employer but in enhanced terms to the transferring members. If the RRP of a workplace pension is 0.75% pa as an AMC, any discount from that amount could be considered a premium. In practice , the “going rate” for AMCs is well below 0.75% and commercial master trusts compete for consolidation at much lower rates.

On the face of it, the competition for consolidation is benefiting members because employers are not demanding cash for their schemes. But I wonder if most employers are aware of the valuable asset they are giving away in the consolidation process and whether they should be driving a harder bargain. Just as I wonder whether employers who participate in multi-employer workplace pensions (to comply with auto-enrolment) realise the value of these contributions.

The value of the bargain

The employer is potentially ill-served by a consultant who is both adviser and purchaser. Where the consultant is bidding to become the fiduciary manager of the employer’s DC assets, it is in the consultant’s interests to downplay the value of those assets and the future income stream from ongoing contributions.

Smart employers, engaged with “selling out” their trust based scheme, should consider getting the scheme independently valued , prior to entering negotiations with consolidators. It makes no sense putting this negotiation in the hands of the one of the bidders for the value of your scheme.

But I fear many of the master trusts that are run by consultants have done just this and have found they have sold their birthright for a mess of potage.

Should  commercial Master trusts  be considered  “fiduciary managers”?

The rules on the competitive tendering of fiduciary management are laid down by the Pensions Regulator and are explicit in what they cover. Fiduciary management does, under these rules, extend into DC trusts but only where the trustees are offering an investment mandate to a fiduciary manager.

But the consolidation of an “employer mutual” into a commercial master trust is akin to the granting to the funder of the commercial model, a  grant of fiduciary management. After all, members are given no choice in the matter and are simply seeing one set of trustees replaced by another.

The ceding employer , even when in future participating in a master trust, retains some control. It could be over the charges paid by staff who are members, it may even be the employer retains control of the investment of their money (with the help of consultants).And the employer retains the right to withdraw further sponsorship of the master trust and transfer future contributions to  another scheme.

But generally, the ceding of a single occupational trust in exchange for participation in a master trust , signals the end of employer control over the fiduciary management.

I don’t think that sufficient attention is being given to the commercial consideration to employers in this ceding of control and I sense that this is an uncompetitive market where employers, who the OFT consider “poor buyers” are being led by the nose.

Office of Fair Trading market study 2014.

Call to action

The table above and the chart below shows the state of the master trust market. It is at least a year ago as we know that Nest’s assets are £16bn today (rather than the quoted £12.7bn).

It shows how the market is dominated by a few large funders (mainly consultants and insurers) . Nest and Now , Smart and People’s Pension are the main providers to smaller employers operating Auto-enrolment.

Lifesight (Willis Towers Watson), Atlas (Capita), the Mercer and Aon master trusts plus Nations Pension (XPS) are the main consultancy funded schemes. These schemes are primarily consolidators and don’t depend so much on auto-enrolment (employer covenants are AE+).

Legal & General, Aviva , Standard Life and to a degree Aegon and Scottish Widows are operating in both spaces and working with consultants to offer bespoke sections of their schemes to consultancy driven bespoke defaults.

My concern is that the regulators will only pick up on the implications of this transfer of value to master trusts after it has been completed and that many master trusts will  have grown fat on poorly negotiated deals with employers. Some of these deals may need to be considered for conflicts (especially where consultancies take over the management of assets without a proper tendering process).

However, all is not lost. The ongoing role of employers in funding master trusts means they can and should have insight into the management of the schemes they fund and here “value for money” considerations can and should be strengthened. Mandates to asset managers need to be tested periodically, administration similarly. We can’t go on measuring value purely on the asset manager’s reporting, it needs to be tested at member level with reference to internal rates of return achieved. There needs to be proper benchmarking against a standard (a replacement of caps median) and there needs to be commonality of reporting.

All this needs to happen fast and needs to be driven by Government and its regulators.

The consolidation of the workplace pension master trust into a few mega schemes is good news for consumers, but only if it results in value  being passed on to members.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MaPS – this is not the way to buy investment pathways!

I wonder how many of the 60,000 people who each month decide they want to “get at” their pension money, are finding their way to MaPS website set up for people to understand and compare their investment pathway options (for pension drawdown).

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.

Clicking on “more information” does not lead to any objective assessment of the value of the product purchased. It just gives the marketing departments of the various providers an opportunity to show off their compliance with FCA strictures. I have written at length about the inadequacy of this approach

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.

We deserve better.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Can the “cost of lifestyle” be measured or managed?

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!

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“The new bargain” – in conversation with Ros Altmann

This is our chance to speak with the bosses!

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.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fair shares from the state pension


In her recent article on the state pension in the FT, Sarah O’Connor reminds us

“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

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.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

It’s not just what you save, it’s the way you invest it – that’s what gets results

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.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Pensions without purpose have gone wrong

I read two articles this morning on the sustainability of pensions, both are short and are free to read. If you have a few minutes read Richard Butcher’ “The future is… consolidation?” in Pension Expert and then read  “Social factors must be at the heart of pension schemes’ ESG strategy”, by Guy Opperman and Nimco Ali in City AM

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.

You can contribute to the call for evidence via this link



An answer to John Ralfe



If we believe in protecting ourselves we should believe in protecting our society and thus investing responsibly.

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarita”.   Dante
Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Chancellor’s listening – are you? (a shouty blog)

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?

APIs first!

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!

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Auto-enrolment’s difficult second album

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.


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The politics behind extending auto-enrolment

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!

I should have mentioned that today’s session at the TUC is on CDC and I hope that this point will be raised there. You can book tickets for each day here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/tuc-pensions-conference-fair-pensions-for-all-tickets-141667161293 It’s free but tickets do get sold out

Check out Derek Benstead’s comment
Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Is now the union’s time?

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?

There is certainly an agenda for change. Over the next few days, the conference will be debating

  • 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.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The money behind annuities “matters” too!

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.

In 2020:

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.


Big Yellow

Aviva lent £35m to support the Big Yellow self-storage company, including an agreement that they would add solar panels to their facilities.


Coastal Housing Group

Aviva entered into a corporate debt facility for a, not for profit housing association with 6000 homes under management




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.






Canada Life

The link below that provides some info.


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


and the following links are to LGIM’s ESG policies

  1. LGIM’s approach to Responsible Investing


  1. Corporate Governance and Responsible Investment Policy



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.


Scottish Widows

  • 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….



Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pension comparisons need not be invidious.

In two recent posts I took a helicopter view of the new pension legislation that received Royal Assent earlier this month. I look first at how the Pension Schemes Act 2021 will be remembered by pension historians and what it sets out to do – consolidate and simplify our private pensions.

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.

In its consultation paper “Driving Value for Money in Pensions” (CP20/9), the FCA make a tentative attempt at the definition

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.

Opposition to comparing different DC pensions.

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

  1. It offers a view of the past which cannot be relied upon to be mirrored in the future
  2. 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.

Towards standardization

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!


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Too many schemes, too many pots, too little pension!

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

In Conclusion

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

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

There is more rejoicing in Brighton….

From PMI Pensions Aspect

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“.

Is she amused or bemused?

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Another expert – Woon Wong- finds USS accumulating surplus assets.

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. 

Following yesterday’s blog from Con Keating (which references Woon’s work), I am pleased to re-publish a piece first published by the Royal Economic Society here

1. A contrasting, positive, message

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 rE denote 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-wrE

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 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.


  1. Woon Wong is Reader in Finance and Director of Trading Room Operations & Development, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University.
  2. 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.

  1. Subject to agreement by the stakeholders, surplus assets may be kept in the USS via a contingent support vehicle.

  2. 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.

  3. See Wong (2018) and the references therein.

  4. See the letter submitted to the Pensions Regulator.

  5. See page 63 of the Consultation.

  6. See page 26 of the Consultation.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Con Keating calls the “obscurantism” of USS

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.

Table 1.


Expected Return
Equities 6.39%
Property 3.80%
Listed Credit 3.68%
Index Linked Gilts 0.43%
Gilts 0.86%

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.) 76.3 78.8 81.4 84.4
Required Return on Portfolio 2.53% 2.37% 2.22% 2.05%

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 impact of obscurantism

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Why mandating TCFD reporting is a game changer.

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.



Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Comply or die” – the DWP gets tough on climate change

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

  1. There is an obscure target that Trustees can adopt known as “climate value at risk” which I profess not to fully understand.
  2. Trustees can also choose to report on the Implied Temperature Rise of their portfolios
  3. 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.

Posted in pensions | 4 Comments

Maintenance payments are not a benefit, they are a carer’s and a child’s right

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.

I came across this post on linked in and it made me think- think a lot.

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.



Posted in DWP | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Some thoughts for IGCs and Providers on investment pathways.

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.

  1. What advantages do life funds offer life companies compared with offering UCITS directly?
  2. How and who benefit from any differences in taxation?
  3. 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.

Posted in investment | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Ping but no pong – we have a Pension Schemes Act ready to go!


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.

TPR has still to properly report on the first consultation and the interim consultation response has drawn some sharp criticism, not least from Con Keating in yesterday’s blog

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.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Opperman – CDC makes pensions “more sustainable for employers”

From the office of Guy Opperman

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.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

I’ve lost my pension pot – somewhere in Germany – what should I do?

I’ve lost my pension pot…

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

1)    Plausibility. The Dolphin investment sounded plausible – it’s German, therefore reliable. It’s property, therefore tangible.

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.

As with the recent scandals surrounding the regulation of LCF and Connaught investments and the mis-selling of pension transfers, the FCA have been slow to the case. The first notice on its website was posted in October of this year

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

The person to contact is Tim Beyer, whose details are here

Tim Beyer – insolvency partner at Goerg





Posted in pensions | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Bitcoin is the currency of the wild web

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.

Nigel’s power profile on Linked In


“I sold half my Bitcoin holdings over Christmas”: deVere CEO 

December 26 2020

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.


Nigel J Green – making my money matter

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The small pots working group find a progressive way to grasp the nettle


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.

While the concept is easy to grasp, there are some hurdles to leap before next summer when a pilot is due to be launched. Firstly, there needs to be a reliable member identification system to allow pots to be accurately allocated to members. Here there is an opportunity for workplace pensions to adopt in advance, the simple processes outlined in the find and view processes laid out by the Pension Dashboard Program.

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


Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So who is accountable for the FCA’s failures over LCF?

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.

This is why I wrote this tweet yesterday

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
business holistically

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
FCA’s remit.

 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.

Posted in pensions | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Dolphin Trust and LCF – it’s Germany v England but will it go to penalties?

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.