This week has seen a Pensions Bill make it into the Queen’s Speech, the Pensions Regulator’s Stakeholder Conference (Monday) , the Owen James Meeting of Minds (Tuesday) and the PLSA conference (Wednesday to Friday).
And then there’s the minor political and sporting events rolling out this weekend.
It was an enervating week for me that included a trip to Media City in Salford to talk on radio 4’s you and yours program (you can listen here). It was a real privildge to see the PLSA event with a press pass and I had insights into the worlds of TPR and of senior IFAs which I have hardly earned.
But being close to the action is not the same as being part of the action I realised when talking with Chris Curry just what being part of the action means. Look at this picture and you get an idea of the part Chris has had to play this week.
Chris is the bloke with blond mop next to Pensions Minister Guy Opperman, Terry Pullinger sits on the other side (a key player in CDC’s inclusion in the Bill).
Neither Terry or Guy made it to Manchester but Chris did and he carried the torch for the Pensions Dashboard. To me – he was the star of the PLSA, not just carrying the Pension Minister’s message but acting a stabilising influence in a number of sessions where frustrations with the (lack of) progress made on the dashboard so far, could have made news for the wrong reasons.
It wasn’t just Guy Opperman who had to miss the PLSA, so did Laura Kuenssberg (replaced by Nick Robinson) and we saw nothing of the main CDC protagonists – including Shadow Minister Jack Dromey. The reason for absentees was of course Brexit, though the impending industrial action at Royal Mail may have made it and CWU’s absence equally political.
So what were the key debates?
The PLSA were never going to cover all aspects of what’s going on in pensions today. The Conference pretty well ignored CDC and its implications for both DB and DC pensions – maybe that is a debate for next year but I felt it was an opportunity lost.
The FCA’s key pension issues surrounding the provision of advice and guidance, how we measure and communicate value for money and the implementation of investment pathways never got into a session. There was an informal discussion of VFM with PLSA luminaries which included a statement from a senior pensions director that the Trustee Chair’s VFM statement was an exercise in Governance and of no importance to members.
As regards pension taxation, I heard a lot of whingeing about rich people’s problems (AA, MPAA and LTA limits) but the issue of 1.7m savers paying 25% too much in pension contributions barely got a look-in. I found myself violently agreeing with Australian Martin Farhy who described the sidecar as a distraction. If we really care about the cost of pension savings for the low-paid, we need to get them the incentives they’ve been promised. The lack of interest in this topic at this conference was shameful.
Similarly, the issues of cost- transparency was given little prominence. The one session on the PLSA’s CTI initiative competed with three others. The handing over of the baton to the PLSA’s CTI team seems to be yesterday’s news. The concept of transparency was much lower down the debating priorities than I would have expected. There was nothing in this conference from the CMA and it was as if the asset management market study had never happened.
Relative to a decade ago, when I last attended , the number of debates on the funding, governance and investment of DB plans , was well down. They were replaced by an exploration of the social purpose of pensions. For me – the key speech of the week was from Nigel Wilson on the Power of Pensions to fulfil social purpose. The debates on engagement tended to focus on responsible investment and this is where views were most polarised. An early trustee event on “the parameter of trustee investment duties” saw trustees refusing to co-operate with the ESG agenda, one pension manager in a debate on DC default design told the audience that young people were only interested in financial advantage and had no truck for ESG. This debate continued throughout the conference and climaxed in a head on twitter feud between Iona Bain and Rebecca Jones on precisely the same point.
Again, I did refer to Mark Carney’s comments on how different types of environmentally-friendly growth are possible! 🙂
— Iona Bain (@ionayoungmoney) October 18, 2019
Paul Lewis joined in
I know. Pressure is good. Opting out not so good. But has it resulted in one less barrel of oil being pumped? Is it really clear what change will achieve? I drive a part electric car and have not bought hundreds of litres of petrol. I feel better. But what has it changed?
— Paul Lewis (@paullewismoney) October 18, 2019
Clearly the issues of individuals choosing to engage with pensions were of interest but there was little consensus as to how we were to achieve it.
Most people will never engage. Of course those that do may benefit. But what we need are safe, adequate pensions for the vast majority who do not.
— Paul Lewis (@paullewismoney) October 18, 2019
What solutions were on offer?
If the key debates were around engagement, so were the proposed solutions.
PLSA is at its best when conducting research and delivering standards, the standards aren’t always worthwhile (see the degeneration of PQM) but many have stood the test of time and become embedded into pensions culture. I hope that the CTI standards will be part of the way we do things.
So the New Retirement Living Standards that I reported on yesterday should be this conference’s lasting legacy.
The standards should succeed but they will need delivery. Over the three days of the conference, I attended a number of sessions on technology. They were all pretty ropey. With the exception of Smart’s Martin Freeman, I did not hear anyone talk of Fintech in a meaningful way. Frankly the PLSA and the occupational world lag – and this is a big worry for the pensions dashboard. The Exhibition was – in terms of technology on show – a big disappointment.
Ideas using the new technologies brought to us by the distributive ledger were thin on the ground and data was consistently referred to as a threat to progress not part of it. Margaret Snowden claimed it would take £25m to clean data ready for the dashboard, I suspect that this is a spectacular low-ball.
Until pension schemes can be proud of their data and its management, the fully inclusive dashboard looks a long way away.
The PLSA conference showed me an occupational industry divided as I have not seen it before. I saw little common purpose and a lot of self-examination. The PLSA has woken up to the change in its role but it has yet to find its new identity.
It is groping its way towards its new purpose and that is surely as the standard setter for issues such as target incomes, cost measurement and the governance of ESG. The PLSA should be where we go to understand value for money and the FCA and other Government agencies such as MAPS and GAD should be part of next year’s program.
The PLSA are not going to drive forward Fintech as Pentech. That is for entrepreneurs, some of whom are happily on the pensions dashboard. But Sam Seaton, Will Lovegrove and Romi Savova were not at this Conference. They should have been.
This has been a week when I have seen pensions through many people’s eyes and I hope that as time goes by, the two major initiatives that took a step forward this week – CDC and the Pensions Dashboard, will help bring those worlds together.