BY: CRAIG WELSH, SPECTUM IFA GROUP.
Final Salary pension schemes, also known as Defined Benefit schemes, have long been viewed as a gold-plated route to a comfortable retirement. In the past, many advisers, including ourselves, would have been sceptical about people transferring out of such a scheme. However, there have been huge changes in UK pensions legislation and there are likely to be further changes ahead. The key question here is; will these schemes be able to provide the benefits they have promised over the next 20+ years?
Why Review Now?
In many cases, it may still be best advice to leave the pension where it is. And a transfer out requires highly specialised and regulated advice. However, there are many compelling reasons why a review makes sense.
Record high transfer values
UK gilt yields are at an all-time low and this has pushed up transfer values to an all-time high; some transfer values have increased by over 30% in the last 12 months. Many clients are quite surprised to learn their scheme which projects an income of GBP 10,000 per annum in retirement offers a transfer value of over GBP 330,000.
Actuaries Hyman Robertson now calculate the total deficits on remaining final salary pension schemes as £1 trillion.
Recent examples show that very large deficits cause several problems. No one wants to purchase these struggling companies as the pension deficits are too big a burden to take on. Could the Government be forced to change the laws to allow schemes to reduce benefits? A reduction in the benefits will reduce the deficits and make the companies more attractive to purchasers. There is a strong argument that saving thousands of jobs is in the national interest, if that just means trimming down some of these “gold plated benefits”.
Pension Protection Fund (PPF)
This fund has been set up to help pension schemes that do get into financial trouble. Two points are key. First, it is not guaranteed by the Government and secondl the remaining final salary schemes must pay large premiums (a levy) to the PPF to fund the liabilities of insolvent schemes. As more schemes fall into the PPF there would be fewer remaining schemes that must share the cost burden. Their premium costs will increase as there will be fewer remaining schemes to fund the PPF levy.
It is possible that the PPF will end up with the same problems as the final salary schemes; i.e. they won’t have the money to pay the “promises” for pensioners. Additionally, the PPF will most likely have to reduce the benefits they pay out.
Pension Changes Already in Place
Inflationary increases have already been allowed to change from Retail Prices Index (RPI) to Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This change looks reasonably small, but over a lifetime this could
reduce the benefits by between 25% and 30%.
In April 2015, unfunded Public Sector pension schemes have removed the ability to transfer out, so schemes for nurses, firemen, military personnel, civil service workers etc. are no longer transferable. Now these are blocked, it will be easier to make changes to reduce the benefits and no one can respond by transferring out.
When this rule change was being discussed the authorities also wanted to block the transfer of funded non-public sector schemes, i.e. most corporate final salary schemes. There is therefore a risk that transfers from all final salary schemes could be blocked or gated.
Autumn Statement (Budget)
This is expected on 23 November 2016. Could the Government make any further changes to Pension rules? When Public sector pensions were blocked, there was a small time window to transfer. People who review their pensions now may at least have time to consider options.
Could Brexit end the ability to transfer pensions away from the UK? This is still unknown, but pensions are often a soft target of government taxation ‘raids’.
Reasons Why Schemes Are In Difficult
Ageing population. People now expect to live around 27 years in retirement. When these schemes commenced the average number of years in retirement was 13 years.
Lower Investment Returns. As schemes have become underfunded, they have invested more conservatively. Average exposure to equities (shares) is now around 33%, whereas in 2006 the average equity content was 61%.
Benefits were too generous. In simple terms, many of the final salary schemes were too good. In 2016, if you became a member of a 1/60th scheme then your company would need to add 50% of your salary to make sure the benefits can be paid. Clearly this is unrealistic.
What Could Change?
- An end to the ability to transfer out of such schemes
- An increase to the Pension Age, perhaps in line with the increase of the State Pension
- Reduction of Inflation increases, (already started as many now increase by CPI instead of RPI)
- Reduction of spouse’s benefit
- Increase of contributions from current members
- Lower starting income
What Are The Alternatives?
QROPS schemes have proven very popular in recent years as they offer expats excellent flexibility. While QROPS is not the only alternative (a UK SIPP may be more appropriate) and each individual case needs properly reviewed by a suitably qualified adviser, the benefits are clear;
- The ability to pass the pension fund on to heirs
- The option to change currency
- You can access the benefits flexibly via income drawdown (can vary the income you take)
- Wide investment choice to suit your risk profile
At The Spectrum IFA Group, your locally-based adviser will work together with our internal Pensions Review team and conduct a full analysis of your current arrangements. If you are based in the Netherlands or Belgium, you can contact Craig at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. If you are based in another area within Europe, please visit our website and use our contact form to find your local adviser.