My first blog was in January 2009.
Has there ever been such a start to the year. Freezing temperatures and frozen bank accounts. May I start my blogging career by wishing anyone who reads this a little warmth!
It was only a headline as I hadn’t learned you had to add text.
10 years on and with well over a million reads, it’s time to take a step back and work out what my blog is actually about.
The masthead says it’s the blog of the Pension PlayPen and it’s about restoring confidence in pensions. The Pension PlayPen was something I devised with Marianne Elliot (now MD of Redington) back in 2007 and was conceived as an online club for people who wanted to pay their own way in corporate entertainment.
In the meantime, the Pension PlayPen has become a means for companies to choose workplace pensions, has entered into t tripartite arrangement with Sage (along with First Actuarial) and has built into a linked in group of some 10,000 of us – interested in making pensions better.
I’m asking myself two questions, whether independently of Pension PlayPen , people have the prospect of better pensions now , than they did ten years ago. I don’t think there is anyone asking that question in academic circles – perhaps one for a PHD or maybe best left to the PPI. The second question , which is one to ask myself, is whether the blog and the activity behind it, has restored any confidence – made things any better.
What has got better?
There are a whole lot more savers today than there were at Christmas 2008 – auto-enrolment has seen to that. The current AE saving rate isn’t great- still not much more than the contributions we made to SERPS. The rate will go up in April when most of us will pay 4% – about 1m of us will bay 5% because they have low earnings and won’t get the promised tax incentives. Clearly that kind of economic injustice is acceptable in 2018, which shows that while coverage is better, the taxation on pension contributions remains the same – pretty shabby.
We have a genuine alternative to annuities for those who don’t have the money for income drawdown. A great number of the blogs I wrote in the first five years were about the fate of people who were buying into annuities at artificially depressed rates. I contributed to several radio and TV programs which insisted on calling this an annuity rip-off – it wasn’t. The large annuity providers opened their books and showed that margins on guaranteed annuities weren’t high (in fact value for money on annuities was good). The damage came from negative real yields which people were buying into as the default.
The major change in taxation did not come (as expected) on contributions, but on claim. We can now spend our retirement savings as we like and we have a strengthened Government guidance system to help us do this wisely. The apparatus that was put in place over the period to give people help – is bing merged in the new year into the Single Financial Guidance Body. The major task for SFGB- other than integrating the disparate parts of Pension Wise – will be to deliver a pensions dashboard to people’s expectations.
The change in taxation and the introduction of auto-enrolment have both been policy successes. The delivery of the Pensions Dashboard has so far been an unmitigated disaster, though we now have a chance to turn things around.
One area where we have seen genuine improvement is in pensions governance. The Office of Fair Trading Report into workplace pensions published in 2014 painted a picture of poor governance among insurers, if they had looked harder – they’d have seen poor governance among occupational DC schemes – including master trusts.
Over the past five years we have seen a number of initiatives that have improved governance
- The establishment of IGCs and GAAs to oversee the behaviour of insurers and the managers of SIPPs active in providing workplace pensions
- The extension of the Master Trust Assurance Framework into what now looks like a proper governance framework for occupational DC schemes.
- The work of the IPB in getting to grips with legacy charges
- The consultations on cost transparency leading to the delivery of reporting templates by the IDWG
- The CMA study into the working of investment consultants
What has deteriorated?
Apart from calling for an alternative to the annuity trap, a change in contributory tax relief and promoting auto-enrolment, this blog has also been concerned with the state of defined benefit pensions. I come from a DC background, I was self-employed for my first 10 years as a financial adviser and the hansom pension I get from Zurich is a fluke.
I have held since I took out my first savings policy when I was 17, that long-term saving is best. I cashed in that policy to pay for the deposit on my first flat when I was 25. When I started this year I had around £800,000 in retirement savings, around half a million in pensions- I finish the year down around £200,000 but still cheerful. Because I have the security of a DB pension in payment and the prospect of a state pension in only ten years, I am comfortable to ride out the financial storm of 2018.
I would not be so comfortable if I’d taken a transfer value, as I thought of doing before taking my pension in November 2017. I could have added to the £36.8bn transferred out of DC. DB schemes have deteriorated in the past ten years. Whether through employer sponsored “de-risking” or through member initiated transfers, much of the benefit has been exchanged for what Steve Webb used to call “sexy-cash”. I don’t think there is anything sexy about what is happening to defined benefit schemes and I see problems piling up down the road for the transfers taken in the past three years. The majority of those transfers should not have happened. There has been a sustained failure by the Regulators to get to grips with defined benefit pensions, the current plans to slice and dice benefits so that we can have super funds – looks a pretty feeble response to the demise of our once proud pensions industry.
Where there is hope is in the prospect that we may be able to convert some of our DC saving into non-guaranteed scheme pensions through a mechanism we call CDC. Though the first CDC scheme will actually replace both a DC and DB scheme (Royal Mail), I see hope for savers down the line – especially if schemes can be set up to exchange DC savings for CDC scheme pensions. While these scheme pensions won’t be as secure as annuities or defined benefit pensions, they’ll be a lot more secure than DC drawdown.
Right now the deterioration of DB schemes (other than in the public sector) has not given rise to the expected innovation for DC savers – certainly in how they spend their savings.
Despite attempts (thanks Aon) to turn off the Tapp, no-one has been able to shut me up and I’m not done with blogging yet.
But I will be moving my AgeWage related blogs to my new website www.agewage.com – which is going to be much more about helping people with pension problems (we call it our digital TPAS).
In terms of changing the world, I’d like to think that this blog has supported what I have been doing at First Actuarial, Pension PlayPen and latterly at AgeWage. I hope that it may have nudged some policyholders and regulators into better places – especially regards the taxation of DC claims (freedoms), the impending legislative changes on CDC, the coverage of AE and the improvements in DC governance.
We can look back and see genuine improvements – the abolition of active member discounts, the adoption of the 0.75% charge cap on workplace pensions and the introduction of the RDR have all given consumers a better deal from their pension savings.
But there are still big holes in pensions policy. The central questions of the FAMR and the Retirement Outcomes Review remain unanswered. The SFGB will not fill the gap in advice that leaves 94% of us unadvised on what to do with our pension savings.
We have no answer to the disqualification of over 1m people from promised savings incentives due to the “net-pay anomaly”. We still have a system of contingent charging for transfers which results in advisers being incentivised to say “yes” to pension transfers that shouldn’t happen.
Defined Benefit schemes continue to close and to set their sights on buy-out (or the PPF) when they should be staying open. The system of best estimate based funding promoted by First Actuarial is largely ignored in favour of gilts plus valuations marking liabilities to market and creating phoney pension deficits.
In conclusion there is still much to do – and far too little done. We have an opportunity in 2019 to nail pension dashboards and deliver better information to people sorely in need of proper help in sorting out their pension arrangements.
We have the opportunity over the next ten years to stem the tide of closing defined benefit schemes and we can start re-building collective pension schemes from the money invested into DC workplace plans through auto-enrolment and properly funded employer schemes. We can stem transfers by banning contingent charging and we can start building on the great work done by TPAS in the past ten years in providing proper mass-market pension advice.
All this is yet to come. Keep reading – and I’ll keep writing.