Making Sense of Pensions

Hugh Nolan

With ever more people falling into the “Just About Managing” category as inflation increases faster than many pay packets, pension saving is likely to feel the pinch. Employees and employers both need clear and simple guidance on the choices to get the best outcomes.

In the infamous Jam Experiment (the psychological study rather than the jazz quintet of the same name), ten times as many customers bought some jam when offered a choice of six flavours rather than 24. Similarly, sales of Head & Shoulders went up 10% when the brand range reduced from 26 to 15 varieties. What on earth was Mr Heinz thinking when he decided to advertise a whopping 57 varieties? He could have taken over the whole world if he’d stuck to plain old baked beans in tomato sauce!

One of the authors of the Jam Experiment (lyengar) turned her hand to pensions later, finding that US plans offering just two investment options had a 75% take up rate – falling to 61% where they had 59 choices, which is even more than Mr Heinz. Back in 1999, Baber and Odean found that the least active traders got an 18.5% return compared to 11.4% for the most active traders. The average investor who switched stocks lost out by 3% over the following 12 months. Nowadays few people would object to a return of 11.4% but we’d all definitely want to get a little bit extra if it’s available given the current low expectations of future returns. Read more »

David Davison

We are delighted at Spence to be able to support a further two publications launched over the last week.

  • The 4th Edition of Charity Finance Group (‘CFG’) “Navigating the Charity Pensions Maze” was published in London on Thursday 23rd March. Spence were pleased to sponsor this invaluable publication and our Director and Head of our Charities Practice, David Davison, provided technical input on the Guide content. The Guide contains an excellent section on “Navigating the Local Government Scheme” compiled by leading legal firm Charles Russell Speechlys. This covers the benefits and risks of membership and provides a list of helpful questions charities should be asking about their participation. The CFG accompanying blog can be found here.
  • Leading representative body the Pension & Long Term Savings Association (‘PLSA’), formerly the NAPF, have launched the third of their guides covering Best Practice for Employers in LGPS with David Davison again providing technical input on the content. This was launched on the 28th March and a link to the launch information can be found here.

We believe these documents, and those published previously, will provide an excellent resource for charity trustees and senior personnel to assist them in dealing with the issues associated with LGPS membership.

David Davison

An Amicable Divorce

The question I’m asked about most often is about the cost of exiting a LGPS, as for most charities the costs can come as a bit of a surprise. One organisation I worked with recently had a small surplus at their last actuarial review and in their accounts, but when a couple of their staff left unexpectedly they were immediately hit with a bill from the fund in excess of £500,000, pretty much wiping out all their assets and placing them on the brink of insolvency. So what do you need to know?

Should you run out of active members in your LGPS fund (and not be in a position to add any new ones, for example if you have a closed agreement or a local authority contract has come to an end) under the LGPS Regulations the fund must commission the Fund Actuary to complete a cessation valuation. Whilst the Regulations do not prescribe how this calculation should be carried out, the actuaries undertaking the calculation will use very prudent ‘least risk’ assumptions based on gilt yields. This will result in liabilities being much higher than is the case on either a funding or accounting measure. Often this is the first point that an admitted body may be aware of this liability, as unfortunately numerous funds still do not provide organisations with an annual estimate of the potential cessation debt.

The conservative approach taken reflects that once an organisation exits an LGPS, the fund cannot pursue them for any extra money if the cost of providing members’ benefits is higher than expected. The fund therefore wants to make sure that there is a minimal risk that other employers in the fund would be responsible for paying for any of these exiting liabilities. As such the approach is a protection for all. However, what has been called in to question more recently is whether the basis adopted is reasonable, and indeed suitable in all circumstances. What is clear however, is that there is a great reluctance on the part of the funds to change, not surprisingly.

Whilst the approach to calculating a cessation debt across Funds, and across the various fund actuaries, tends to be consistent, the circumstances in which it applies can vary significantly. For example, some funds offer public sector out-sourcers ‘pass through’ protection, which means that any cessation debt is calculated on the much lower on-going funding basis. Other funds recognise where the last employer has inherited significant liabilities from a public sector body, and will account for these by ensuring that the public sector body picks up their fair share. Unfortunately, though the vast majority of funds do not.

Some funds are prepared to negotiate around the cessation amount payable, subject to affordability and the term of any repayment. However, in most circumstances these negotiations need to be conducted in advance of any formal debt trigger / calculation.

Admitted bodies therefore need to be aware of their situation and look to plan for it, as far in advance as possible, as allowing a cessation event to just happen could have catastrophic implications for the charity.

In my next bulletin I’ll consider why change should be considered.

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.

Read more »

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.

Read more »

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 »

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