Making Sense of Pensions

David Davison

They always say that sequels are never as good – well here’s a publication that well and truly proves that adage wrong.  This fourth edition has taken over nine months to compile and provides over 50 pages of invaluable information, compiled by industry experts, which will hopefully allow finance directors, HR managers and CEO’s to find information on the issues which affect their charity and therefore help them get the most from their pension provision.    

I am delighted to have been able to contribute to, and indeed sponsor, the publication of “Navigating the Charity Pensions Maze” produced by Charity Finance Group (CFG) having provided input in the area of Section 75 debts in non-associated multi-employer defined benefit schemes, and providing our experience on how the problems can be addressed.  We believe that this document will provide charities with an invaluable reference guide to the complex pension issues they face.

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Richard Smith

At the risk of showing both my age and my teenage self’s film preferences, I have to confess I enjoyed a bit of Bill & Ted and their musical adventures through time. One of the scenes I recall from the second film was an evil Easter Bunny, pursuing our terrified heroes through the underworld. It was incongruous how a loveable character could be portrayed in such a scary manner. But what’s that got to do with pensions accounting?

Back in November I wrote a blog about my expectations for accounting disclosures for companies reporting at the calendar year-end. Many recent events have proved the foolishness of attempting to predict the future, but (unfortunately perhaps in this case) taking an educated guess at the broad size of upcoming accounting deficits was fairly straightforward back then. Sadly, it made uncomfortable reading, and I predicted that pensions deficits would be an unpleasant surprise in the FD’s Christmas stocking.

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Hugh Nolan

Once upon a time, there was a Scheme Actuary. He was very proud of his profession and his reputation as a prudent man of business. Trustees all across the land admired and respected him and queued up to follow his advice, for they all understood how clever and learned he was. Besides, the wise old King passed a law requiring them to appoint a Scheme Actuary so they had to have one anyway…

One day the actuary was counting out the gold coins in a pension scheme and a tiny fragment chipped off one and flew straight into his eye. From that day on, he could only see pensions through a gilt lens and his peripheral vision vanished altogether. However, nobody in the Kingdom knew about this incident, and everyone still trusted the Grand Vizier (surely “actuary”?) when he demanded a mountain of gold from every farmer, so he could look after all their cows should they go bankrupt… which many promptly did, since they didn’t all have a spare mountain of gold lying around.

Of course this is just a fairy tale and couldn’t happen in real life. Or could it?  In fact, a similar story happens every day in pensions – albeit not as extreme or (hopefully) amusing. Read more »

David Davison

Fortunately my expectations for the Green Paper published last week weren’t high which was good as at least I didn’t have to deal with crushing disappointment. I did have some hopes that after a myriad of working parties and consultation on Section 75 and multi-employer schemes over the last few years, that expectant charities at last may see some revelation on an issue that has been dogging the sector for well over a decade. There was indeed a revelation, of sorts! It was just that they needed more consultation!! How could anyone not understand the issues here? The problem isn’t about lack of understanding of the issues, but about lack of will to do something about them.

The commentary on multi-employer DB schemes is contained in paragraphs 400-407 in the ‘Consolidation of Schemes’ section, which is somewhat ironic given that most of the necessary change for multi-employer schemes results in anything but consolidation!!

In point 405 there is one tantalising comment, namely “We intend to consult on a new option employers can consider to manage the employer debt in these circumstances.” Ah, what could this be, and why was it not actually in the Green Paper?

My greater concern is that at the end of the Consolidation section there are three key questions posed in relation to multi-employer schemes:- Read more »

David Davison

Many charities participating in local government pension schemes (‘LGPS’) have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of recognition of the issues they face by the schemes they participate in and, indeed, from Department of Communities and Local Government (‘DCLG’) who oversee them. The issues are not new but there remains an element of denial and finger pointing, and it’s very easy to see how charities could be understandably frustrated.

I often experience a feeling amongst charitable admitted bodies that Councils and LGPS encouraged them to join Funds, without ensuring independent advice was sought or providing any risk warnings about the step they were taking, and have now just abandoned them to their fate. Whilst, to a great extent, the problem has been capped over recent years as admission to Funds has become much more rigorous, this unfortunately does nothing for all those employers admitted before that stable door was closed.

For those employers, LGPS have sat on their hands allowing organisations to continue to accrue liabilities even when they clearly couldn’t afford to do so, and without providing the flexibility to address the issue. Many charities I’m aware of have approached LGPS over many years looking to stop accrual, and arrange a payment plan and were just provided with pay up or keep participating as options. Now, as funding positions have deteriorated and funding costs have increased these same schemes are pointing fingers at these same trapped charities for their inability to be able to continue to participate.

For many charities there is also a growing recognition that Councils have adeptly transferred historic past service liabilities in £millions to them, due to LGPS inability to segregate service between employers and without making employers aware of the impact. This has been hugely expensive for charities and DCLG and LGPS continue to try to ignore this issue and sweep it under the carpet. Indeed, LGPS continue to do this with unsuspecting Academies being a prime example.

A limited number of Funds and Local Authorities have sought to deal with the issues however, the response has been at best patchy and has lacked any level of standardised practice. Indeed these ore enlightened approaches attract a “nothing to do with me” response when raised with pension managers from Funds not employing them and for many admitted bodies they are completely unaware of the alternative options explored and implemented elsewhere. A lack of consistency of approach also means that each exercise needs to be looked at on an individual basis, adding complexity and professional adviser costs when helping charities through the maze.

The Shadow Scheme Advisory Board (SSAB), which was established to encourage best practice, increase transparency and coordinate technical and standards issues for LGPS as well as providing recommendations to Government for future regulation commissioned a report from PWC as part of its deficit management project kicked off in summer 2014.

The report was published in July 2015 and the key recommendations which will be of specific interest for admitted bodies are:

  • More flexibility on when exit debts are triggered. The proposals suggest that debts would not be automatically triggered by the exit of the last member. The paper recognises that some minor changes to regulation will be required.
  • Establishing a maximum level of prudence when calculating exit payments. Currently Schemes tend to use a gilts basis to calculate the exit cost despite schemes not investing assets in this way. This effectively means that employers paying a cessation debt are cross funding other employers who remain. This is recognised as inequitable and is also a discouraging factor for charities wishing to look at an exit. This proposal would effectively reduce cessation debts for those looking to exit the Scheme, for many to a point which may be affordable.
  • Flexible exit arrangements. These could include continuing to pay contributions on an on-going basis for a prescribed period and for employers to pay their cessation debts over a much longer period. This would be extremely welcome flexibility for many small employers and is a more consistent approach with that adopted in the private sector.
  • Employer exit on weaker terms. It is recognised that, in some circumstances, it could be in the interests of the Fund, the remaining employers and the admitted body to allow them to exit on weaker terms and small charities are cited specifically as an example.

These items certainly reflect much of the commentary supplied by charity representative bodies, charity advisers and charities themselves although at this stage they haven’t fully addressed issues around the transition of prior local government liabilities to charities but it is hugely helpful to charities’ positions and it has been a welcome addition to the debate, especially given that it comes from such a reputable source.

Unfortunately however, it has disappeared in to something of a black hole, possibly overtaken by other more pressing global events. The proposals however need to be addressed by the SSAB and implemented by Government and LGPS as quickly as possible. The issues faced have been created by local government, LGPS and the admitted bodies and there needs to be a commitment to co-operatively finding solutions, and a desire to do it soon. Charities need to be vocal with their Funds and local authorities about the issues they face and get them to look to address them positively. Charities should also be working collectively and in conjunction with their representative bodies to make sure their voices are heard.

Alan Collins

If they had a competition to name this Green Paper, they’d call it Dampy MacSquibface.

The much-anticipated pensions Green Paper in response to the demise of BHS dropped into the industry’s inbox yesterday.

It contains many more questions than answers, saying no to lots of things and yes to nothing.  If this was a squib, it would be very much of the dampest kind. Dampy MacSquibface if you like.

The bluster of the Work and Pensions Committee is nowhere to be seen.  The Paper is littered with phrases like “we do not feel there is sufficient evidence”, “all of these options have significant drawbacks”, “we would need to be certain” and “it would not be appropriate”.  The world of pensions is slow enough to change – do we really need yet another agnostic consultation? Read more »

Richard Smith

There have been a plethora of news articles in recent weeks commenting on the sharp increase in the levels of transfer values available from defined benefit pension schemes. Whilst these values have dropped back from their peak, they still remain substantially higher than they had ever been previously to this. The sometimes eye-watering sums on offer are now tempting even the most prudent to consider cashing out their benefits. However, some commentators are warning members against losing the longevity protection provided by a DB scheme and taking on all the investment risk themselves. What are members to do?

Subject to a few exceptions, anyone who is a member of a funded defined benefit pension scheme and has not yet started to draw their benefits, has the right to “transfer out” their pension and pay the cash value into another pension scheme. Doing this gives members much more flexibility in how they take their pension – increasing the cash available (even potentially taking it all as one large cash sum), re-shaping the benefits to release more value in the early years of retirement, and could also lead to significant increases in survivor benefits if the member were to die early. Read more »

Alan Collins

2016 – A year in review

Wow – what a year 2016 has been.  Brexit, President Trump, Hibs winning the Scottish Cup – who saw that coming?  Seriously, Hibs won the Scottish Cup.

What have we learned?  The dictionary definition of “pollster” might have to change to “people who predict things and always get it wrong”, said the actuary throwing stones from his glass-house.  My lesson to the pollsters is to quote a much bigger margin of error and include lots of caveats.

At least when it comes to 2017, it is now a reasonable stance to say that I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen. Read more »

David Davison

Playing the waiting game

In our fast paced society no one really likes waiting for anything, however for those financial directors of charities participating in local government pension schemes in England & Wales I’m sure they wouldn’t mind waiting a bit longer for their valuation results given everything else going on around them.

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Richard Smith

If nothing else, 2016 has shown us that predicting the outcome of future events is a mug’s game. If we can learn one thing from the likes of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Leicester City, it is to expect the unexpected. As such, it was with some trepidation I accepted the challenge to pen a short blog on what I expect to see from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement next week.

Due to the proximity of the “Autumn” Statement to the festive season, I’m going to take some artistic licence and predict a visit from Aladdin’s Genie of the Lamp, who will offer me three wishes for what I would like to see in Mr Hammond’s first Statement. Bear with me, it doesn’t sound as unlikely as certain other events that have happened! What would I wish for….??

1. No tinkering with the pensions tax system. As attractive as it might be as a target for raising some much-needed revenue for the Exchequer, now is not the time for tinkering. Pensions are already far too complicated, and any changes will just add unwelcome complexity to a tax system that is already creaking and few people understand. As a nation, we need to be encouraging saving and shifting the goalposts just doesn’t help.

2. Do something to help (those members of pension schemes run by) distressed employers. There is a growing clamour in the industry about the impending problem of distressed employers – those 1000 companies who are sitting on schemes they have no realistic chance of funding. Do we just sit and wait for these companies to fail and their pension schemes to fall into the PPF, with benefit cuts for members and job losses for employees, or can something be done to help both the members and the sponsors? This is a very difficult problem to resolve, and not one for which there is a magic bullet, but a number of ideas have been floated over recent months. The Government is there to make difficult decisions – there is a danger that if something isn’t done soon they may run out of time on this one.

3. Improve the investment opportunities on offer. Providing more investment in income-generating infrastructure projects, as well as providing a government guarantee for the early years of such investments (which are traditionally the riskiest period). Allow mayors to issue “city bonds” so that pension schemes can invest in local projects. Issue more long dated index linked bonds – there is huge demand and at current yields what’s not to like for the Government?

So there you have it. I’m sure that come Wednesday Mr Hammond will have some very different policies to the above. It might be too late to put the genie back in the bottle for defined benefit pension schemes, but there’s plenty that can be done to improve the UK’s long term savings arena.

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