Why have pensions lost their social purpose?

social purpose

As a delegate to the conservative party conference, I was invited to submit a discussion topic. I asked that we discussed how we can put Britain’s £2tr pounds of pension wealth to good economic use, whether this money could hold the key to the productivity problem and what steps Government could take to oil the wheels. The debate didn’t happen, l suspect it would have required a higher degree of engagement than that conference could create.

The fact remains however that the shift in the investment of our funded pensions from long-term equity holdings to various colours of bonds is leaving those who manage the drivers of our nation’s wealth with too much short-term liquidity and not enough investable capital. I don’t write with the clarity that John Kay can, I am simply asking questions that come naturally to a long-term saver, “what is going to happen to my savings?”

There is now a substantial body of research from those promoting sustainable investments that suggests this question is being asked by our millennials and with some urgency. My son, who studies Geography, sees the question as critical to his course. Share Action have demonstrated that young people with a clear understanding of the social purpose of their investments are more likely to save and keep saving.

This trend is not unique to the UK, similar work is carried out across continents, the CSFI breakfast briefings that bring together senior bankers are now dominated by discussions on the Paris Accord, Green Bonds and the various initiatives which are linking savings to sustainability, This is the hot topic in the City and it’s not just agitprop!

While it was disappointing that the conservatives hardly mentioned these issues, there is plenty of action elsewhere, The Labour party’s pension agenda is now focussed on transparency and collectivism. Efforts to get the public to understand not just what they are paying but what they are paying for chime with pop-up groupings in the financial services community. The Transparency Task-Force, a populist band of financial free-thinkers regularly earns a place on regulatory committee’s as the FCA and others attempt to capture this new mood music.

So it’s all the more surprising that the cabinet office, the no. 10 think-tank and the Treasury are putting pensions on the back-burner.

We are well aware that Britain has a housing crisis but not perhaps that one of our largest housebuilders is insurer Legal and General, Nigel Wilson, CEO of the insurance behemoth is a vocal enthusiast for the housebuilding his firm funds. Swathes of development in Salford are made possible by money managed by L&G and the insurer is constructing pre-fabs in Yorkshire as if they were part of the war-effort!

The pledge of the Conservatives to commit £2bn of tax-payers money to the Prime Minister’s primary second-term cause is but a pin-prick compared to the weight of institutional money that Legal and General can call on. Ironically, one of May’s first acts when she became Prime Minister was to appoint John Godfrey – Wilson’s policy chief as her senior policy maker within number 10. His departure in the wake of this summer’s election fiasco, appears to have returned the social purpose of pension funds to the arcane deliberations of a few specialist think-tanks. Back at L&G, let’s hope he can make a difference again.

If the Conservative party are seriously considering ways of connecting with millennials, they could do a lot worse than to ensure that pensions are back on the agenda, and with the positive noise of “social purpose”.

Britain we are told is starved of public funds to put right the manifold injustices between a generation of haves and the millennials that have not. Talk is of an upcoming Autumn Statement that addresses intergenerational unfairness through yet another upheaval of pension taxation. Understandably, the prospect of further interventions into people’s financial planning are not going down well in Tory heartlands.

A prudent chancellor, aware of his predecessor’s failure to reform the pension taxation system, might well conclude that a tax-grab on pensions wealth is not the way to encourage the pension poor.

The pension poor, principally the millennials who have not got access to the good quality final salary schemes of their parents, are keen on saving, A recent survey by Ipsos MORI found that the young were not only accepting workplace pension saving as the norm but were voting more than 2 to 1, for their auto-enrolment savings rates to go up.

This enthusiasm to save is even stronger, as Share Action have shown, when people are clear what they are saving into. One brilliant idea that Nigel Wilson talks of, is putting the investments of his savers onto google maps, so that L&G investors can be reminded of the social purpose of their pension pots as they drive around the country.

Putting millennials back in touch with the money that is syphoned into workplace pensions, is simply a matter of technology. Nothing makes more sense to my son, than information appearing on his smartphone.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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3 Responses to Why have pensions lost their social purpose?

  1. Adrian Boulding says:

    Well said Henry.

    We still need to win the argument that long term saving is good for the economy not bad for it.

    I was part of a team 24 months ago that wrote a paper (that the co-sponsors decided not to publish), that showed that long term savings produce a long term boom to GDP. But that’s after a short term down tick caused by the consumption reduction as savers put off buying a new Chinese made television in order to find the cash for their pension contribution.

    We did take the paper to Treasury and it helped the team there understand that Government incentives that drive more long term saving have two benefits – one that the people making the saving become more financially resilient and the second benefit that long term savings that are invested in productive assets in the U.K. deliver long term growth to GDP

    So as citizens we should save not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the wider Society we live in


  2. Hi Henry
    An excellent blog. Summed up very nicely with your phrase, ‘to understand not just what they are paying but what they are paying for…’ We need to connect people to the wider purpose served by their their pension – and the collective power they have to influence how their money works for their longterm and collective interest.

  3. henry tapper says:

    Thanks Mark

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