The price of trusting people with their own money

pensionsThe world of the private “Defined Contribution” pension is one that sees so many hidden fees it has been described as generating a greater return for the financial services industry than it does the saver. A large bite of this comes with the annuity purchase, where the pension pot, built up over the years, is spent on an annuity, converting a cash sum into a fixed (or index-linked) income for life.

Annuity purchase represents a kind of insurance against getting too old and running out of money. However, like any insurance, it will pay out on average less than the premium, so unless the risk would cause you hardship, or unless you believe you are a much greater risk (i.e. have higher life expectancy) than other buyers, it may be prudent not to buy. The state pension represents another kind of insurance, and with the new single tier state pension being above the poverty line, the need for annuities diminishes.

However for many years the structure of the industry and the regulations governing it have pushed retirees into annuity purchase, often without shopping around for the best annuity. And even the best value annuities will eat up a large chunk of the pension pot in profits and overheads.

The picture has been particularly bleak during the recession, with low interest rates pushing down annuity returns, and weak share prices hammering the pension pots. Sound investment advice, which I am not qualified to give, might suggest that it is better to hang on to the shares until they recover, and not buy an annuity at all or at least not until interest rates rise.

It is already possible for many savers, subject to regulations and charges, to delay annuity purchase and draw down their pension pots. The budget announcement serves not only to remove these obstacles, but to ensure that retirees are aware of the alternative.

These reforms come at no cost to the taxpayer, but have wiped £3bn off the value of annuity providers and we should expect a rearguard action by the industry to attack the changes and convince us that annuities are essential. So far Labour are making these kinds of noises, whether is that people can’t be trusted with their own money (video), or, less contemptuously, that there is a risk people will run out of money.

Our economy needs a competitive financial services sector, not one that extracts large returns from savers due to an uncompetitive marketplace [OFT study pdf] and a regulatory framework that insists on particular types of product being bought at particular times. Steve Webb has form in tackling excessive and hidden fees in the pensions industry, and we are clearly moving in the right direction.

Labour are in danger of finding themselves again on the side of corporate interests, protecting windfall profits in financial services that come at the expense of pensioners.

Yes, the annuity can serve a useful purpose. But only by giving pensioners a choice will there be any pressure on the industry to provide good value annuities or similar products. Perhaps this move will even promote some innovation: for example it would be possible to share longevity risk between a few dozen or hundred pensioners in a mutual insurance (mutunnuity?) concept.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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52 Comments

  • I posted this in a previous thread, but it probably sits better here.
    This freeing up of ‘the pension pot’, appears a good idea on the surface, but what needs to be clarified is whether someone of age 55+ who loses their job, is denied means tested benefits because they are considered to have ‘savings’, which a few days ago was considered to be an inaccessible pension pot?
    (In short ~ is the state going to say to an individual who finds themselves in financial difficulties, “…you must burn through your pension pot/’savings’ first, before you will get state help?”)

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '14 - 5:27pm

    Thanks for the article. As a qualified financial adviser I have some things to say about it (pros and cons):

    Since Jan 2012 all “commission” on investments , pensions and annuities has been banned, so it is unfair to still talk about a world of hidden fees. There are some ways around this, but all have strings attached and the industry is now much more regulated than most. I welcome any more attacks on “hidden” fees, but weary about price controls.

    One example of a hidden fee is taking the compound interest and only giving the simple interest to the client. I kicked a salesman out for trying to blur this line with me by just using the word “interest”. I only questioned him on this because my experience told me his “interest” figure was too good to be true. Not everyone reads the small print.

    I’m strongly against state backed collective pensions. These would kick lots of SMEs out of the market and replace them with a state funded provider on the justification that it is “more efficient”. If this product is more efficient then suggest it to the private sector. We already had something similar to these with “With-Profits” products, aimed to smooth returns, which have largely been deemed a failure. My position on this is that the state should help the poor and get rid of rogues, not try to take over.

    Regarding the debate on “can you trust pensioners to look after their own money”. Yes you can, but I agree with what Ed Balls has said which was to question the fairness of providing huge tax reliefs to pensions, if the state doesn’t know how they will spend it. My solution to this is not to get rid of marginal tax reliefs (the 40 and 50% reliefs, because this would make pensions net tax losers for many higher rate tax payers), but to get rid of or cut the 25% tax free lump sum.

    Regards

  • Graham Evans 20th Mar '14 - 5:29pm

    Joe is in general right in what he says, but those who do buy an annuity in future will find that it is even poorer value than at present. The government could have solved the problem of poor annuity rates by offering state backed annuities to everyone using the same discount rate as they use for pensions to civil servants, teachers and NHS staff. That would have been fair to everyone but would of course have been far too radical. It would also have exposed how generous the public sector still is in pension provision. In fact a little reported aspect of the Budget statement is that departmental cuts will have to be greater than originally anticipated in order to fill the big hole identified in unfunded public sector pension finances.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '14 - 5:49pm

    Graham I wouldn’t worry about annuities becoming “even poorer value” because this is a reflection of Bank of England policy, rather than government policy. The IFS have damaged their credibility in my eyes by criticising a fiscal budget with what is essentially a monetary problem. Yes again when it comes to state backed annuities, I would prefer for the government to focus on looking after the poor rather than shifting money around the middle classes or age groups.

  • John Broggio 20th Mar '14 - 7:18pm

    @ Eddie

    re “My solution to this is not to get rid of marginal tax reliefs (the 40 and 50% reliefs, because this would make pensions net tax losers for many higher rate tax payers), but to get rid of or cut the 25% tax free lump sum.”

    How would that help?

    If someone isn’t taking their pension fund as income (if one was doing so, the prudent thing would be to purchase an annuity to cover the various financial risks), then what tax will they pay on that portion of their (deferred) income? Unless I’m missing something, that opens a massive hole in the already precarious finances of this country.

  • Philip Rolle 20th Mar '14 - 7:20pm

    An excellent reform and one of the better Budgets of the last 25 years.

    But get your money in pensions now because Labour or a Labour coalition will almost inevitably abolish higher rate relief on contributions ( they won’t dare restore the exit cap ).

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '14 - 7:36pm

    Hi John, getting rid of the 25% tax free lump sum (whilst still allowing the lump sum) would be a tax raiser, not open up a new whole in the country’s finances. The idea of this was to make pensions desirable, but with these new reforms the justification for it reduces. Pensions would still grow free of capital gains and most income tax.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '14 - 7:59pm

    To save a barrage of pension holder anger, which would also derail the debate, we could just cut the 25% tax free lump sum for new pensions set up, so the government isn’t changing things retrospectively. It is just an idea to kill much of Labour’s criticism.

  • @ Rebecca Taylor
    I hope you are right, and it may be the cynic in me, but I see this policy as being conveniently sold as an unlocking of the ‘pension pot’ to the individual (which is good), but that same ‘unlocking’ could be considered by a future government as available as savings, in order to fund elderly care, in the same way that equity in the home is treated? In short, is this pot of money being unlocked for the benefit of the individual, or the state’s sticky fingers for elderly care?

  • My first thoughts on this were the same as those expressed by John Dunn. Based on past performance, I expect a Labour government to be the first to take advantage of the changes to raid from places they shouldn’t…

    >It’s an argument for spending and not saving.
    We shouldn’t forget that savings are in fact spending! the only difference is that with spending I go out an buy good, whereas with savings it is the financial institutions that do the spending…

  • The reason we, as a country, choose to provide tax relief to pension pots is so – ta da! – they pay out a pension. I have no issue with a freer model as to how the money is invested to pay for the pension but it should be expected to be spent on a pension of some sort. I see no reason at all that we should help fund someone to buy a Lamborghini just because they happen to be buying it at 65.

  • Paul In Twickenham 21st Mar '14 - 1:12am

    I will be delighted to consider the prospect of using the accumulated value of my pension to purchase an annuity when weighed against alternatives that have previously been denied me.

    I agree with Joe Otten: the notion being mooted by Labour that people would simply take the money and blow it all on a mad spree seems wholly implausible: we’re talking about people in their 60’s who have carefully set aside money for a pension over 40 years or more. Are such people really going to take the whole lot and go out and buy a banana yellow Lamborghini? No, I don’t think so either. The annuity industry is a rip-off. A bit of real competition will work wonders.

    If this is Steve Webb’s idea then well done, Prof. Webb.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 21st Mar '14 - 9:17am

    @ Graham Evans
    “to fill the big hole identified in unfunded public sector pension finances.”

    As many people do who are antagonistic to the public sector you use the term “unfunded” misleadingly. “Unfunded” does not mean that public sector workers do not “fund” or contribute to their own pensions, it means that those workers do indeed contribute to their pensions but their hard earned money is not paid into a “fund” which is invested but instead goes straight down the throat of the Treasury. Conversely with “funded” public sector pensions their money is paid into a “fund” which is invested. The technical, recondite difference between “funded” and “unfunded” is always used by those on the right to create the perception that public sector workers get huge pensions for which they pay nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth: just ask teachers and police officers!

  • No, pensioners with big pension pots are not going to buy Lamborghinis. They’re going to buy houses – further charging up Buy to Let. Thus solving the Cons problem that the housing bubble might burst while they’re trying to win a General Election … by carrying on inflating it.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '14 - 10:14am

    If Lib Dems “trust people with their own money”, why have they introduced auto enrolment?

  • Ian Sanderson’s two thoughts deserve attention. Pension policy can take a very long time to put right if you make a mistake.

  • Stuart Mitchell – could it be that as a society we have shown we are pretty poor at making sound financial planning decisions in our 20s and 30s (hence auto-enrolment) but are generally much more prudent as we hit our 60s (hence freedom to invest)?

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '14 - 11:04am

    @Joe Otten
    “Mack, interesting. It had never occurred to me that this is what anybody meant or understood by ‘unfunded’. How should we discuss funded, unfunded and underfunded pension schemes without causing this confusion?”

    Funny you should say that. It probably never occurred to the author of Labour’s now-infamous report on apprenticeships that using the word “deadweight” – a word that has a precise technical meaning in economics – would lead to him being quoted out of context by Lib Dems (as gleefully retweeted by a certain Cllr Joe Otten just last week) who wanted to make it sound like Labour were throwing some sort of insult around.

    How could Labour have analysed allocative inefficieny in apprenticeship provision “without causing this confusion?”

    You are right that people should be able to use technical words without being misrepresented – however you need to practise what you preach.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '14 - 1:06pm

    @Joe Otten
    “Stuart, I would be more chastened if I heard Labour welcoming the apprenticeship programme more strongly. As they are routinely dismissive of it, that lends context to the use of ‘deadweight’.”

    It lends no context whatsoever – the word was used once in the report, in inverted commas, and they even provided a brief definition of what it actually means just in case anyone was in any doubt that this was a technical word with a precise meaning and was being used strictly in that sense. Misquoting it the way you and other Lib Dems did last week was sneaky and wilfully misleading. You should be embarrassed.

    The government itself publishes reports on the issue of “deadweight” within apprenticeships and other provision. Either Nick Clegg is extraordinarily ignorant about what the word means, or he has invented a novel new way of smearing opponents.

    As far Labour being “routinely dismissive” of apprenticeships, you might want to look at the first page of their report which, er, calls for the number of high quality apprenticeships to be doubled within five years. Or you could Google for Labour’s views on apprenticeships, the first result being the following news release by Chuka Umunna :-

    “We are proud to be celebrating National Apprenticeships Week, launched by Labour in government and now in its sixth year. Barclays’ announcement of new apprenticeships to coincide with National Apprenticeships Week is welcome news. We need to do all we can to boost quality apprenticeship opportunities, particularly for young people at a time when almost a million young people are out of work.”

    If Labour’s apprenticeships policy is so rotten, why do you feel the need to misrepresent it so?

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '14 - 2:48pm

    @Joe Otten
    I’m not sure this is the right thread for you to open a big debate about apprenticeships. So I’ll keep this brief.

    It seems to me that Labour have been pretty consistent in voicing approval for high quality apprenticeships – they did, afterall, revive apprenticeships when in office after the Tories had all but wiped them out.

    The coalition has been obsessed with quoting headline numbers of apprenticeships as if this is the only thing that matters. Never mind the fact that over half the apprenticeships created since 2010 are of such low quality that they would not be recognised as apprenticeships in other countries, that 20% of apprentices report they are receiving no training at all, or that a huge number of the new apprenticeships have simply been rebadged low-quality workplace training programmes, many of them for adults who are already employed. No, let’s ignore all those issues and simply quote the headline numbers. That’s the coalition approach.

    If you’re really bothered about the prospects of young people, you should welcome suggestions to make apprenticeships better, not dismiss them out of hand and tell us to just feel the numbers.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '14 - 4:10pm

    @Simon Shaw
    ” You are missing the point that no-one on the Lib Dem side has complained that that they have been ‘misrepresented’ in referring to unfunded public sector pensions ”

    You seem to have missed Joe’s post from 9:56 a.m.

    “It had never occurred to me that this is what anybody meant or understood by ‘unfunded’… I don’t think Graham was using the term in the way you describe.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '14 - 4:32pm

    There’s another problem with the IFS saying this could increase annuity prices because people who are likely to live longer will be more likely to buy them. I mean, what kind of logic is this? First of all the requirement to purchase an annuity at 75 was ended at last year’s budget, but the decision to buy an annuity or not is overwhelmingly about risk tolerance, not about whether people think they can game the system and beat the medics and actuaries on a game of life expectancy. Also, if demand for annuities will fall, then there can hardly be much pressure for price increases. It was shoddy logic from the IFS. Maybe all the good people have gone to the OBR…

  • Graham Evans 21st Mar '14 - 5:35pm

    @Eddie Sammon “Also, if demand for annuities will fall, then there can hardly be much pressure for price increases. ”
    The problem with a significant fall in demand is that many existing players in the market may conclude that the annuity business is either no longer profitable, or that resources could be more profitably used in other sectors of the business. If this happens the few players who remain will be able to charge higher rates than at present. (We already know that one of the problems with the insurance market for care of the elderly is that there are so few players that rates are high. Moreover this means that few people consider this sort of insurance so even the few insurance companies that do offer cover find it difficult to balance off the costs of those elderly people who spend a relatively short period of time in a care home before dying against those who live much longer than expected.)

  • Graham Evans 21st Mar '14 - 5:48pm

    Funded and unfunded schemes: As others have suggested, my point regarding unfunded public sector schemes had nothing to do with whether or not there were employee and employers contributions, For unfunded schemes there is a notional asset pool comparable to the asset pool of funded schemes. Both schemes are therefore subject to periodic actuarial valuation which is used to set the future contribution rate. However, my understanding is that that a notional black hole has been found in the unfunded schemes – why this has only just been discovered, I do not know. It could simply be that they have only recently undertaken an actuarial valuation. However, to fill this black hole departments will be required to make increased employer contributions, which means that the money spent on the actual services these departments provide will be reduced. In effect the Treasury has imposed further cuts on these departments, which is why this change actually reduces the budget deficit.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '14 - 6:22pm

    I see Graham, but my main point is that it wasn’t fair of the IFS to criticise Osborne for what is mainly a result of low interest rates, whom annuities compete against. They must have been rolling in it with a tax system that provided an effective requirement to purchase an annuity, low interest rates and a high performing stock-market.

    The editor of FT Adviser agrees with my take: “a sector that has grown fat and lazy on the back of a product whose rising profitability is correlated to the decreasing value offered to hard-pressed savers.”

    https://www.ftadviser.com/2014/03/20/opinion/ashley-wassall/is-public-market-annuities-annihilation-justified-8jQbAe8nrS6oo2GcFMmZnK/article.html

    This also sums up the situation succinctly: “Reports of annuities’ death are greatly exaggerated”.

    http://www.ftadviser.com/2014/03/21/opinion/jon-cudby/reports-of-annuities-death-are-greatly-exaggerated-66S2mbMMFPhbeDEvsMktRP/article-1.html

    Best wishes

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '14 - 6:26pm

    But Simon, we have medical underwriting and enhanced annuities, so the people who are less likely to live long are just as likely to still purchase an annuity because of the attractiveness of the enhanced rates.

    As I said to Graham, my main point is this is mainly a result of monetary policy and therefore not in the IFS’s remit. My article above also provides two opinions (mine and someone else’s) that says annuity providers have been raking it in from low interest rates. I am sure we both agree that the new freedom is a good policy anyway, regardless of the consequences for annuity providers.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '14 - 6:29pm

    Small pots, those who often couldn’t access a drawdown service, will take the cash rather than buy an annuity, which is really the big killer for the market, but this has nothing to do with life expectancy.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '14 - 6:34pm

    It’s the consequence of the fourth option opening up too. Apparently 75% buy an annuity, but rather than having a choice of “annuity, drawdown or hybrid” then you now have a “take the cash” option as well. As I said I think the decision to buy an annuity is mainly about risk tolerance (and capacity for loss to get technical), rather than life expectancy, because we already have enhanced rates.

  • Stuart Mitchell 22nd Mar '14 - 12:22pm

    @Simon Shaw
    “The word ‘misrepresented’ would require that there was something shameful or embarrassing about referring to unfunded public sector pensions.”

    Not in English :-

    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/misrepresentation

    “There isn’t, unlike Labour’s reference to ‘deadweight’.”

    Why do you think that Simon? Please explain, because it’s an extraordinary claim.

    The government (you know, the one Lib Dems are a part of) has published an entre 140-page research paper on the matter of deadweight in post-16 education. How do you feel about that? Is this the most monumentally insulting paper in government history?

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32281/12-767-assessing-deadweight-loss-with-investment-further-education.pdf

    I think those Lib Dems who are pushing this nonsensical line of attack could do with taking a good long look in the mirror.

  • Stuart Mitchell 22nd Mar '14 - 4:12pm

    @Joe Otten
    “So far Labour are making these kinds of noises, whether is that people can’t be trusted with their own money (video), or, less contemptuously, that there is a risk people will run out of money… Labour are in danger of finding themselves again on the side of corporate interests, protecting windfall profits in financial services that come at the expense of pensioners.”

    Just for the record, Labour have come out in favour of the reforms.

  • Paul in Twickenham said:

    “I agree with Joe Otten: the notion being mooted by Labour that people would simply take the money and blow it all on a mad spree seems wholly implausible: we’re talking about people in their 60′s who have carefully set aside money for a pension over 40 years or more. Are such people really going to take the whole lot and go out and buy a banana yellow Lamborghini?”

    Except that Labour didn’t talk about Lamborghinis. It was the saintly Steve Webb who did that.

    Giving people more control may have merit. The Lamborgini remark does not. In fact it ticks a whole lot of bad boxes at a stroke. It declares that the Lib Dems don’t give a fig about climate change and are intensely relaxed about favouring the rich and their conspicuous consumption. Did Webb intend to present that image? If he didn’t, his choice of language was incompetent. If he did, then he’s not a social liberal hero.

  • David Allen
    BBC media manipulation at work here. See here that Steve Webb at first. Ignored the BBC posed Lamborghini nonsense. Then when pressed provided very clear context, said it with a smile, etc etc

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26649162

    Tory elements within the Westminster/media bubble then tore in to “defend” Webb and play the BBC game
    So the headline story becomes Lamborghini.
    Pension policy a serious issue, a complicated issue and the Tories have a Secretary of State in Iain Duncan Smith who has trouble chewing gum and spelling the word pension (let alone Lamborghini). So setting up Steve Webb plays to the Tory agenda and the BBC just love to trivialise anything in politics so it plays to the BBC agenda.

    All of that is speculation on my part. Steve Webb may have always set out to talk about expensive cars and the BBC may simply have obliged him by repeating a stupid question. What do you think?

  • Paul In Twickenham 23rd Mar '14 - 7:51am

    @David Allen – I wasn’t suggesting that Labour had said anything about those cars. The example of a “banana yellow Lamborghini” is an example of conspicuous, ridiculous consumerism of the sort that would be highly out of character in people who have worked all their lives to build up a pension nest-egg.

    To say “let them buy Lamborghinis” is treating the electorate as grown-ups: it is self-evident hyperbole to illustrate the absurdity of the notion that people would throw away carefully accumulated savings. To extrapolate the headline “Lib Dem minister says old people should blow their pensions on gas guzzling status symbols aimed at 40 year old City Trader kidults” is rather stretching credulity.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 3:19pm

    @John Tilley.

    Unusual for me to disagree with you.

    The Coalition takes a complex subject like pensions, reduces it to “trusting people to spend their own money” and it’s the BBC who are trivialising the issue?

    If you want to play that “it’s your own money, spend it like you want!” you have to accept that you’re fine with it being spent on Lamborghinis. With a smile or not.

    Webb was lucky he got this rather outlandist hypothetical example- had he been pressed on how this money could hurtle into the housing market instead, he’d have been even more flustered. Tax relief for speculating on property is indefensible.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 3:23pm

    “To say “let them buy Lamborghinis” is treating the electorate as grown-ups: it is self-evident hyperbole to illustrate the absurdity of the notion that people would throw away carefully accumulated savings”

    They don’t have to throw them away- though a relative of mine had done exactly that under the current system and is now on means tested benefits. I appreciate that the singular of anecdote isn’t data though!

    They can lose it by making unfortunate investments. Recessions make fools of very smart people.

  • David Evans 23rd Mar '14 - 3:26pm

    @ David Allen. Are you always this po faced. I sometimes wonder if some people just do not get irony or even freedom of choice.

  • Chris Manners,
    I have not actually made up my mind on this issue.
    Earlier in this thread I said –21st Mar ’14 – 10:25am
    Ian Sanderson’s two thoughts deserve attention. Pension policy can take a very long time to put right if you make a mistake.

    If Steve Webb is suggesting something I am prepared to listen and consider. My instincts are to be suspicious of government ministers who rush around saying that they have suddenly created “free money” for people ( which is what some Tories seem to have been doing ). It reminds me of the Thatcherite privatisations of the 1980s.

    For many poorer people this is all academic anyway as they do not have an annuity. I would guess that for some people early access to an annuity would simply enable them to pay off Wonga or some other dubious loan shark.
    Can anyone here can explain why my instincts are wrong?

  • David Evans 23rd Mar '14 - 5:25pm

    @John Tilley – Of course, for anyone with debts to payday lenders et al, paying off a loan with that sort of interest rate would definitely be the right thing to do.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 5:27pm

    I think the next few days are going to be interesting, John.

    There should be some scrutiny of the detail.

  • Chris Manners 23rd Mar '14 - 5:28pm

    @David Evans,

    Yes indeed, it would. Perhaps some case can be made for relatively small amounts to come out.

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