What’s the row over pension charges now?
You may have been listening to Radio 4 or perhaps seen the TV news, Steve Webb the pensions Minister is doing the media rounds having announced that charges on pensions should be capped at 0.75% which he announced yesterday and has been plugging his cause since. There is no doubt that there are many very expensive pensions and I would go as far to say that there have been lots of “rip off” pensions. There are too many vested interests, this has broken out in a row over pension charges.
We now have various think tanks and Providers all taking the opportunity to price to the bottom and distance themselves from “rip off pensions” as quickly as possible. An assortment of spurious views about the impact on the final value of a pension fund is now doing the rounds. The vast majority of this is utter drivel. We are all to blame for this (advisers, providers, investors, regulators and Governments) why? Well because over the years we have colluded in the deceit that anything to do with financial services is free. It isn’t. I had hoped that this delusion would have been put to bed by the introduction of RDR, yet AE (auto enrolment) exposes the deep resistance to a shift in mindset.
Can a pension have low charges?
It is perfectly possible to use a pension that has low investment charges and by low I mean less than 0.30%. However this is merely one element of the piece. The administration costs are high due to well intentioned regulation. The “sales costs” are high due to well intended regulation. The regulation is designed to protect the investor and the wider market.
Why does AE have unique charging problems?
The unique problem that AE brings is that there are some very tiny premiums. Suppose you earn £10,000 a year and in several years time you will have contributions of 8% a year (£800) a cap of 0.75% on this would be £6… ok its based on the value of your fund, but given that most will not be more than £4,000 that’s £30 to cover the investment and administration for the year (and by the way you can opt in and out, switch funds, vary the payments creating more administration). It’s a nightmare for pension providers. Some have come up with some low cost solutions (hardly any investment choice) and some have a fixed monthly fee. Well even at £1.50 a month (£18 a year) that’s a higher proportional charge on a small fund of £1,000 (1.80% to be precise). The Government backed (taxpayer funded) NEST is loss making and will be for many years. This is typical of Whitehall delusion that they then expect commercial enterprise to replicate. We all know Governments are not good at maths… don’t we?
The solution is right under their noses
Stakeholder pensions (with low charges) failed because there were other better alternatives at a lesser or more competitive price. The Government (this one and the previous one) believe compulsory membership isn’t quite ok, so we have a “difficult not to join” approach. However, I would argue that today employers and employees already have a proper pension system. It’s called National Insurance and the State pension. We know it’s not good enough, so why not simply make it better for everyone? It has no investment risk and is already set up. For those that want (and need) more than the State pension (most of us) then there are plenty of very good pensions around, any decent adviser can structure a sensible plan – but it is not free… neither should it be. If we want to create a society of that is independent of the State, we all need to face some adult truths.
Dominic Thomas: Solomons IFA
The state of the UK pension system, supposedly one of the best in the world, is a shambles. It is high time this Government got its act together and decided that either we should all be saving and encourage us to do so, or give up. The bureaucrats at Whitehall are the only winners in the pensions mess, with endless tinkering with the rules that are gradually constricting the life out of a system that is supposed to encourage and reward savers and employers alike.
You may recall that the last Government decided to draw a line under pension rules and adopt a new approach called “pensions simplification”. Well intended it may have been, but it has been a shambles. The current administration are just as bad. Pension simplification was meant to give everyone a maximum pension fund allowance (the lifetime allowance). Not easy when you consider that a lot of pensions are not real money – a final salary scheme, such as the NHS or Civil Service are not investment based pensions, but service based. Irrespective of what the employee contributes the end result is assured based upon a proportion of final salary. For the record, this has also been messed around with. Anyhow, these schemes were given a formula. Let’s keep it simple and suppose you have built a pension of £25,000 a year and the lump sum would be 3x times this amount. The formula was 2ox pension + LS. in other words £575,000 in this instance. Then this needs to be checked against the lifetime allowance, originally £1.5m – so in this case fine. The problem comes if your pension is worth £65,000 a year – which is not unreasonable in 2013 for a Consultant with 40 years of NHS service. Those with more than £1.5m at A-Day (when the new rules came in on 6 April 2006) could protect their existing funds by applying for enhanced or primary protection, essentially agreeing not to pay more in.
The Lifetime allowance has been increased and then decreased and heading to £1.25m from 6 April 2014. The amount that you can contribute has also been restricted. Severe tax penalties apply for anything over the limit. In essence there is an incentive to restrict growth and payments. Don’t forget that “the other side” of retirement, when you actually take your pension, this is taxable income. Argh! yes there are new levels of protection too, just to meet the problems of a reducing lifetime allowance and the latest raft of rules published by HMRC are out for consultation until 2nd September. These outline two more forms of protection Individual Protection (IP14) and Fixed Protection 2014 (FP14).
All of this needs very careful advice. But just in case anyone from central or any far off field of Government is bothering to listen. Here’s a question for you. Can YOU tell me what your pension is worth today? (all of them) and can you tell me what it will be worth when you retire? can you even tell me who your pensions are with? and are you aware of the potential problems for those with “workplace pension” or “auto enrolment” for those with large pension pots? No, like most people, you attempt to understand the mass of paper that may or may not arrive each year outlining the income that you might get if XYZ does something useful with your money.
If anyone in Government had a modicum of common sense the only restriction on a pension should be the amount that can be paid in that qualifies for tax relief. That is all. Have this as a fixed percentage of income – just one level, not dozens based on your age. Make it attractive. Don’t mess with it, leave it alone. YOU will get your tax relief back anyway in the form of income tax, reduced reliance upon the state and eventually in some cases inheritance tax. Here’s my suggestion after 20+ years of dealing with pensions and handling everything from the very basic questions to the most complex. Offer tax relief of 25% at source, with no need to reclaim it. Only allow those that pay income tax to receive the tax relief and restrict the amount to 25% of taxable income (in total from employer and employee). Oh, and keep the ability to have tax free cash of 25% of the fund at retirement, but no more. It bet that in 2 days you will still be able to remember my suggested fantasy rules. As for the more complex issues – allow carry back to only the last tax year and for non earners, or non taxpayers frankly there are likely to be more pressing matters for their money and a myriad of alternative forms of saving vehicles.
I wait in anticipation of the revolution that puts investors/savers/ the UK public first…. no I am not a member of UKIP.
Dominic Thomas – Solomons IFA