Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Rethinking the Pensions paradigm

The Chinese curse is "May you live in interesting times" - and that curse seems dramatically to be with us at the moment. At the risk of stating the obvious the Pensions world is at the crossroads and we have reached that point not when there is calm in the world around us (allowing measured reflection) but when there is at best uncertainty and at worst chaos. Pensions, a subject that in the past rarely made the media at all, is currently front-page news. And yet for all the ubiquity of the coverage I have yet to see much discussion of what may eventually turn into a need for a radical redefinition of the role of the Trustee. That role could become one which includes not just the need to protect the interests of Fund members but also to monitor the moral obligation that employers have to ensure that all their employees a have properly funded retirement.

About fifteen years ago, when I was in the last quarter of my career with Shell, the company produced a helpful booklet about Pensions. This communication explained that I would enjoy a pension equal to 1/54th of final pensionable salary for each year of service meaning that, as a long serving employee, I would have a high degree of financial security in my retirement years. The scheme was in line with most public and private sector Defined Benefit schemes in what it offered. To live on a Pension of say 70% of a final salary, revised annually in line with the Retail Price Index would be unlikely to cause too much hardship! And the then completely uncontroversial premise was that the employer has a duty of care to its employees which extended into and throughout retirement.

The situation described in the above paragraph seemed pretty much cast in stone for most European businesses until, over the past decade or so, for many schemes the foundations began to rumble. Businesses - often influenced by the very different paradigm in the United Sates - began to wonder whether they were really getting value for the pensions commitments they made to their staff. And the staff put funding their retirement even lower in their checklist of priorities than it had been in the past. Jam today became the order of the day driven by escalating property prices that meant that salary now to fund bricks and mortar became the imperative - and the future could take care of itself. So when Blue Chip companies began to close their Funds to new entrants it met with little resistance from the newly recruited. When you are 25 where you might be financially in 40 years time is not top of mind - putting yourself in a position to maximise your earnings now is the order of the day. This has led to a sort of collective apathy to the benefits of good quality pensions and it is this apathy which has led to the decline of DB pension schemes. As a consequence, as recent research has revealed, 70% of adults aged between 22 and 64 have no idea how much they are likely to retire on.

The old pensions paradigm was that saving for retirement was essential and that employers had an obligation to make contributions to pension accrual. This model may have broken down – but the reality remains that in retirement everyone needs an income stream and that the State Pension, helpful though it is, will not be sufficient for many. Government policy changes like Auto-Enrolment - along with, of course, the tax advantages attached to Pension schemes, tries still to encourage saving for pensions. But a significant minority of the population does not save at all and can expect no income other than the State Pension and perhaps welfare benefits unless they do something quickly.

In these rapidly changing circumstances could it become a part of the Trustee’s role not just to protect Fund members but also to have an overview of all employees’ interests – including those who cannot be members of a closed DB Pension scheme? This role redefinition would require Trustees to have an input into a Sponsor’s remuneration policy with a view to encouraging and enhancing elements of compensation that help employee retirement welfare – such as sharesave, tax wrappers like corporate ISAs and of course, the provision of a good DC scheme.

Paddy Briggs is a Member Nominated Trustee of the Shell Contributory Pension Fund. He writes in a personal capacity.

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