Pension Reform in 2005/6 – Ros Altmann

    Ros is a leading authority on both private and state pensions,annuities and
    retirement policy. Numerous major awards have recognised her work to
    demystify finance and make pensions work better for people.

  • Ros Altmann

    Ros Altmann

    Pension Reform in 2005/6

    Pension Reform in 2005/6

    Reform in 2005/6

    by Dr. Ros Altmann

    (All material on this page is subject to copyright and must not be reproduced without the author’s permission.)

    Where are we

    2005 and 2006 will be momentous years for UK pensions. The Pensions
    Act, designed to increase security and confidence in occupational
    pensions and the Finance Bill, detailing plans for simplification of
    pensions taxation, both introduced in autumn 2004, herald huge
    changes for pensions. Let’s explore the impact of the reforms to
    help deal with the looming pensions crisis.

    What will the changes mean for occupational pensions?

    The new pensions legislation will not stop the move away from final
    salary pensions, towards money purchase (defined contribution)
    schemes. However, the Pensions Act aims to improve security for
    defined benefit occupational schemes, with the centrepiece of
    reforms being the introduction, from April 2005, of the Pension
    Protection Fund (PPF). For the first time, the UK will have a safety
    net designed to ensure members of defined benefit schemes, whose
    employer fails, leaving an inadequately funded scheme, will not be
    left without their pensions. After tens of thousands of members of
    final salary schemes were left with little or no pension when their
    schemes wound up, the Government was forced to act. The PPF will be
    funded entirely from levies paid by employers running defined
    benefit pension schemes, not by the Government. It aims to provide
    full pensions for those already retired and around 90% of pensions,
    (up to around a £25,000 a year cap) for those not yet drawing a
    pension. In addition, a new regulator will be established to oversee
    occupational schemes, and help ensure that pensions promises are

    Most defined benefit occupational schemes are in deficit at the
    moment and their sponsoring employers face increasing costs. Changes
    to actuarial funding rules (moving to a Scheme Specific Funding
    Standard) and new accounting rules (FRS17 in the UK and the new
    European IAS19 accounting standard) are expected to lead to more
    bond-based investment and less reliance on equity returns, which in
    turn will require increased contributions. Schemes will also face
    extra costs from the PPF levies. For 2005, there will be a flat-rate
    charge per scheme member (some suggest this will be around £30 per
    person) and for 2006, the levy may also reflect the ‘riskiness’ of
    the scheme, with higher charges for schemes that are considered to
    be at greater risk of falling into the PPF. Exactly how the levies
    will be calculated has not yet been decided.

    The new environment for pensions and the general desire by Finance
    Directors to have greater certainty of costs, makes retaining a
    defined benefit scheme more difficult to justify. Employers will be
    required to consult employees about planned changes to their pension
    arrangements. There may be some hard bargaining ahead, with members
    who want to retain defined benefit pensions, perhaps agreeing some
    compromise to cut costs, perhaps moving to career average or cash
    balance schemes, instead of final salary. But due to the uncertainty
    of the long-term costs of any defined benefit arrangement, most new
    employees are likely to be offered defined contribution pensions in

    Schemes will no longer have to offer AVC’s (Additional Voluntary
    Contributions), because individuals will be allowed to belong to
    more than one pension arrangement concurrently, so they can have
    their own personal pension arrangements, in addition to their
    company scheme.

    Increased responsibilities for pension fund trustees

    The responsibilities of pension fund trustees will be vastly
    increased in the new pensions environment, requiring them to be
    knowledgeable about pensions law and investment matters. Defined
    benefit scheme trustees will need to focus much more closely on
    delivering the promised pensions, rather than maximising investment
    returns. This could lead to conflicts of interest between trustees
    and employers when demanding higher contributions to make up a
    deficit, or less risky investment policies with lower forecast

    Defined contribution scheme trustees will need to focus closely on
    the investment options offered to members and also ensure that the
    annuity purchase decision is taken with due care. If members do not
    obtain the right kind of annuity or buy at a poor rate, trustees
    could face legal challenges in the future.

    As the trustees’ role becomes more onerous after the Pensions Act,
    this may start a trend away from trustee-based pensions and more
    towards contract-based provision. This would mean a rise in group
    personal pension and stakeholder arrangements, which require
    individuals to take responsibility for their own pension decisions,
    rather than relying on trustees or employers.

    The new tax regime for contributions

    From 6th April 2006 (known as ‘A-day’) the regime governing pension
    taxation and contributions will change. The current system of annual
    contributions limits, dependent on age, salary level, when
    contributions started and type of scheme, will be swept away, to be
    replaced by a lifetime limit of £1.5m (rising to £1.8m by 2010) on
    the total value of pension savings accrued at retirement. Any
    amounts above this lifetime allowance will be taxed at a penal rate
    of 55%. The annual contributions limits will rise significantly for
    most people. Individuals can contribute 100% of their annual income
    and employers can contribute extra, up to an annual limit of
    £215,000, with full tax relief. In the year before retirement,
    tax-favoured contributions can be unlimited, up to the £1.5million

    Transitional arrangements will be available for those whose pension
    savings already exceed the lifetime limit to protect their funds
    from the 55% tax rate. They can choose either ‘primary protection’
    or ‘enhanced protection’ and are likely to need independent advice
    on the best options for them.

    So, 2005 will be a hugely important year for top earners to take
    advice on their pension arrangements and decide how best to protect
    their pension funds, what type of scheme to have and what assets to
    put into their pension. The requirement to buy an annuity by age 75
    is also to be dropped, under certain conditions.

    Implications for investment of pension fund assets?

    There are likely to be significant changes in the investment
    approach of most pension schemes. In particular, for defined benefit
    schemes, there will be a continuing trend towards investment
    approaches which aim to match the liability payments, rather than
    just aiming to maximise returns. Trustees will be required to
    demonstrate that they have considered carefully how their investment
    allocations are suitable for meeting the pension liabilities.

    In the past, pension fund portfolios have relied heavily on expected
    high equity returns to deliver long term growth, with well over half
    their assets invested in equities. The typical approach has simply
    aimed to ‘maximise returns and minimise risk’. This sounds sensible,
    but it is not clear that maximising returns is the best strategy for
    ensuring members’ pensions will be paid. A high return strategy will
    not necessarily benefit members (since good investment returns are
    more likely to lead to lower employer contributions than to higher
    pensions) and high risks could jeopardise the security of the
    pensions if investment returns are poor. A higher risk asset
    allocation may well mean that the downside risks are greater than
    the upside potential.

    So the investment aims of defined benefit schemes in future are
    likely to focus more on minimising downside risk, which may well
    mean a much reduced reliance on equity investments and a more
    broadly diversified portfolio, investing in bonds, index-linked
    gilts and probably also alternative assets, derivatives and swaps.

    Pension fund investment benchmarks will become more scheme-specific.
    The Minimum Funding Requirement (MFR) will be replaced next year
    with a new ‘Scheme-Specific Funding Standard’, which should lead to
    more emphasis on liability-led investing. Derivative strategies can
    help achieve a closer match between assets and liability profiles
    and focussing on absolute returns, rather than returns relative to
    an index, will become more common. Diversification into hedge funds,
    funds of hedge funds, and derivatives are likely to become more
    mainstream, with trustees aiming to benefit from risk premia in
    asset classes other than just equities. Using hedge funds, for
    example, or commodities, whose returns are lowly correlated with the
    returns of traditional assets, can greatly enhance the efficiency of
    a pension fund portfolio, reducing the risk and enhancing potential

    Investment of personal pension fund assets

    The investment options for personal pensions will be opened up
    enormously after ‘A-day’. At the moment, there are many different
    types of pension scheme, each with different investment
    restrictions. In future there will be very few restrictions on which
    assets can be put into a pension. For example, residential,
    commercial and overseasproperty, art, stamp collections, classic
    cars, hedge funds and derivatives are expected to be allowed. People
    will be able to borrow 50% of the fund value and take out a mortgage
    to pay for a property in their pension, with full tax relief. In
    fact, the post-April 2006 proposals are a huge potential tax
    giveaway to top rate taxpayers. Those who can afford to should
    probably consider putting as much as they can into a pension, in
    case the Treasury decides to reduce this generosity. Certainly, they
    should seek independent advice from an adviser who is up to speed
    with the implications of the new regime.

    The new pension environment

    These tax changes could fundamentally change the whole environment
    for pensions. It will no longer be necessary to think about pension
    contributions every year, for fear of losing an annual allowance.
    Pensions could become a 5 – 10 year exercise, perhaps later in life,
    contributing large sums with full tax relief and perhaps saving in a
    different form earlier on, without having to lock the money away for
    decades. Another effect of these tax changes may be that top
    executives will no longer be contributing to pensions (because they
    will already have their £1.5million pension amounts and can’t do any
    more) which might mean they lose interest in providing pensions for
    their workforce. Given the reduction in confidence in pensions
    generally, this is a worrying prospect.

    Reforms still urgently required

    1. Reform State pensions

    There will be significant reforms for occupational and personal
    pensions, but one area which Government has failed to tackle, is
    radical reform of the state pension system. This is urgently
    required. At the moment, the state pension system is undermining
    private provision. The UK pension model over the past few decades
    has relied on continually reducing state pensions and shifting the
    burden of pension provision onto the private sector, companies and
    then individuals. However, the reductions in state pension have gone
    too far and the burdens placed on companies and individuals have
    become too great. Company provision is falling, most schemes are in
    deficit and closing and state pensions are so low that most people
    cannot live on them. The result is that the majority of pensioners
    now need to apply for means tested benefits (the pension credit) in
    order to escape poverty. This, however, penalises private pension
    savings. Those who are entitled to pension credit will lose at least
    40% of their pension and in many cases all of it, when they claim
    the benefit. This is a huge disincentive to pensions and has
    resulted in a situation where forecasts suggest that over 75% of
    pensioners will be entitled to pension credit in future. Therefore,
    pensions are no longer suitable for many people and financial
    advisers cannot safely recommend a pension to anyone who is not on
    higher rate tax, who does not have an employer contribution, or who
    cannot be sure that they will be in the top 25% of the income
    distribution on retirement.

    A growing consensus is emerging that we need to move away from mass
    means-testing of older people. A widely-supported reform for a
    citizen’s pension, could mean the State paying a higher pension, of
    around £110 per week, to all those over age 65, as of right. This
    would be based on residency, rather than National Insurance
    contributions. It would address some of the major problems of the
    current state pension system. Firstly, people would understand what
    State pension they will actually receive. At the moment, most have
    no idea how much their state pension will be. Secondly, it would
    ensure that all those who need extra income, actually get it.
    Currently, around a third of those entitled to pension credit do not
    claim it, so they stay in poverty. Thirdly, it would mean that
    private savings would no longer be penalised by the state pension
    system. The financial services industry could safely sell pensions.
    The £110 per week, may be enough to live on, just, but anyone who
    wants more will need to save for themselves or carry on working.
    This is a clear message, compared with the mixed messages being sent
    out by the state system now. Fourthly, it would address the problems
    of poverty among older women. Women’s pensions are around half those
    for men, partly because they have an incomplete National Insurance
    contribution record, due to spending time out of the labour force. A
    citizen’s pension would recognise that women who are not working are
    still performing a socially valuable function.

    2. Better incentives for pensions

    The other element missing from Government pension reforms is
    provision of new incentives. There are no new measures to encourage
    either employers or individuals to contribute to pensions. Given the
    loss of confidence, scandals, scare stories and confusion that have
    surrounded pensions in the past few years, many people, particularly
    the young, are simply not interested in contributing. They would
    rather spend the money now. If we really want to encourage people to
    start contributing to pensions, new incentives are needed. At the
    moment, the only incentive offered is tax relief, but this is not an
    effective incentive mechanism for most people. Tax relief gives the
    highest incentive to those who need it least. The 90% of taxpayers
    not on higher rate tax, receive lower incentives. Higher rate tax
    relief provides an extra £2 for every £3 contributed to a pension,
    but those on basic rate tax only receive an extra 85p for every £3
    they contribute. This is regressive, inefficient, poorly understood
    and also costs enormous amounts of money. Government spends about
    £10billion a year on tax relief for pensions, over half of which
    goes to top-rate taxpayers. A more equitable and effective system
    could be to move away from using tax relief as an incentive
    mechanism and introduce a system of matching payments. For example a
    ‘government savings incentive’ which offers everybody an extra £2
    for every £3 they put into a pension, up to a certain limit each
    year. This would be much easier to understand and a much more
    powerful incentive for those who most need incentivising.

    In addition to this, better incentives are needed to encourage
    employers to offer pensions and contribute to them. At the moment,
    evidence suggests that smaller and medium sized employers, in
    particular, are questioning whether money spent on pension
    contributions in money well-spent. Finance Directors consider
    pensions a company cost, rather than the traditional idea of
    pensions being a company benefit. We need new incentives for
    employers to set up pension schemes, or to make contributions.

    3. Auto-enrolment, not compulsion

    Of course, the Government is also considering the idea of compulsory
    contributions and has set up the Pensions Commission to look into
    this. The Commission’s second report, due around September 2005,
    will consider whether our system of voluntary pension provision is
    working, or whether compulsion would be a better policy option. The
    jury is out on this one, but my own view is that, if we can reform
    the state system so that it pays a decent minimum pension to all
    older people, and then put in place suitable incentives for savings,
    we will not need to resort to compelling people to save at all. It
    would be up to them. The amount they would get from the State would
    be clear and they would then have free choice as to how much extra
    they might want to provide for themselves in the form of a pension.
    There is very little evidence that compulsion actually increases
    overall savings levels and the level of contributions people would
    need to make is likely to be very high, which would have potentially
    damaging consequences for the economy.


    There are enormous changes ahead for pensions in 2005 and beyond.
    All pension arrangements are likely to be reviewed and occupational
    pension provision will continue to move away from traditional final
    salary arrangements. Whilst the Government’s reforms so far are
    well-intentioned, a radical overhaul of the state pension system is
    still required and much clearer and better incentives for pensions
    in future.

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