Kill them all – DB to DC transfers and the Albigensian Crusade

Neil Copeland

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As those of you who know their French medieval history will recall, Arnaud Amalric was the Abbot of Citeaux at the time of the supression of the Cathar heresy in the Languedoc. The French Catholic king of the time, with the blessing of the Pope, had launched the Albigensian Crusade , aimed at exterminating the heretics. Because the Cathars had for many years lived happily amongst their Catholic neighbours, the crusaders were presented with a problem – how can we tell the “good” Catholics from the “bad” Cathars before we exterminate them?

This is where Arnaud comes in. Arnaud was what we would call in morden parlance, a pragmatist. He was with the crusaders beseiging Beziers, presumably to provide spiritual and moral guidance. Beziers had a mixed Cathar/Catholic population. When asked by his military colleagues for some guidance as to how they could distinguish the religious adherence of Beziers’ inhabitants in the forthcoming massacre and therefore avoid killing their “good” co-religionists, Arnaud came up with a splendidly pragmatic  response – “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own.”

Now don’t get me wrong, generally I see pragmatism as a virtue, but I’m not entirely convinced that, in this case, the end justified the means.

Equally, I am unconvinced that the effective banning of Contracted out DB to DC transfers hidden in the regulations regarding the abolition of DC Contracting-out is entirely justified.

The Government’s approach here seems akin to that of Arnaud. The proposed ban is clearly about a failure of regulation. There are many legitimate scenarios where transferring from a Contracted-out DB scheme to a DC arrangement of some sort makes sense for individuals, given their particular circumstances. Given this, and the fact the the Government will not have sat down with any individuals to ascertain what is or isn’t in their interests, killing all Contracted-out DB to DC transfers seems as overzealous now as Arnaud’s response all those years ago.

So rather than a medieval approach to the issue of transfers and regulatory concerns about protecting members from themselves, can we  have some proper regulation?

By this I emphatically don’t mean the recent consultation document issued by the Pensions Regulator on incentive exercises. It has always been my view that transfer advice is regulated by the FSA and trustees should not be forced to provide a figleaf for any regulatory failings in this area – see our other blogs on this point.

Having said that I think that the guidance around the trustees’ role in this area seems to have completely missed the point that trustees do indeed have a legitimate existing role in the process which could help resolve some of the concerns voiced. It is already the trustees responsibility to set scheme transfer values. The Regulator in its guidance in this area suggests that these can be a ‘best estimate’ of the value needed to replicate the benefits being given up by the member. So setting the transfer value basis for a Scheme rests squarely with the trustees.

If trustees and the Regulator have concerns about members losing out as a result of transfers, even where these are topped up to the full transfer value provided by the Scheme, or beyond, then clearly part of the problem must be the trustees’ transfer value basis.

In my opinion the biggest and best contribution trustees can make to the whole transfer value debate is to make sure that their transfer value basis genuinely reflects the value of members’ benefits.

Obviously this is yet another area where there is a potential for conflicts of interest – some trustees might be tempted to set weak transfer value bases with a view to facillitating positive communication in employer sponsored transfer exercises. A 20% “enhancement” to a weak scheme transfer value could well be less than 100% of a “fair” transfer value and mislead members into thinking that they are getting something “extra”. This is properly an area for scrutiny by the Pensions Regulator and another argument for the appointment of a professional trustee to any Scheme where potentially contentious issues are to be addressed.

This may raise the bar for transfer value exercises by increasing the amounts of any top ups required from the employer – but surely this is a good thing? Transfer exercises would then – quite rightly – be difficult to do “on the cheap” as disclosure requirements would mean that the full transfer value has to be disclosed to the member and any attempt to “incentivise” members’ to transfer out at a level below this would be very apparent to them.

I have to ask if this would not be a simpler and more joined-up solution than a blanket ban by stealth, which appears to be where we are heading?

Neil Copeland

Post by Neil Copeland

Director, pensions consultant and adviser to trustees and employers on all aspects of work based pension schemes.