Debate Magazine

Pensions, Tax Subsidies Charges and Incentives to Save

Posted on the 27 January 2018 by Markwadsworth @Mark_Wadsworth

We recently enjoyed a lively exchange on this topic here.And I said I’d write up something from experience on the coal face as it were.

First a little history.Pensions originated much earlier than you might think. Quite a few centuries ago some notable taking on a Kings Patent was often obliged as the price to pay the outgoing tenant an income for life. Pensions are therefore strictly a regular payment to someone from someone else.Annuities were sold by the government to raise money for wars. These annuities morphed into Gilts, which is largely why today annuities sold by insurance companies are mostly backed by Gilts, Gilt cashflows being relatively certain of being sustainable as they are funded out of taxation. By coercion if you prefer.Private individuals could buy deferred annuities which came into payment at a set date or age in the future, the forerunner of today’s personal pensions.In time large employers started to offer company pensions to their workforces. These were offered not generally out of altruism but as an employee retention incentive. From memory at this time it was agreed between employers and the state that as company contributions were an expense they should be treated as pay, and as this pay would not be drawn until retirement age all income and capital taxes should equitably be deferred until those benefits were drawn, with the quid pro quo that the pension benefits – the ‘annuity’ – would be taxed as pay on the whole amount not just on the interest element.Clearly these tax breaks were an incentive to join the company scheme or if you were a professional or self employed take out a Retirement Annuity Policy. So far so all well and good. 
Over the years as the size of the pensions fund grew it was obvious that the tax breaks were ‘costing’ the state revenue.(In fact to align with the deferred pay philosophy) these taxes were not lost, merely deferred until the pension came into payment.
Also over time many insurers got in on the act, notably outfits like Hambro Life, Abbey Life and so on- early examples of sales led unit linked insurers.Some of the antics of their reps and the inveterate tendency for the state to prodnose into stuff led from the 1970’s to a series of official investigations and reports into pension and private savings, and various ‘reforms’ were mandated leading to the Financial Services Acts of 1986 which made some very fundamental changes.
In my view these Acts were very flawed, not because they ‘deregulated’ (which they did not – they introduced regulation) but because they made a fundamentally flawed intervention into the sanctity of private contract by forcing employer final salary schemes to make cash equivalent transfers of benefits to any member who requested one. This inevitably led to the pensions transfers scandal.The problems with pensions do start there but the final nails in the coffin came under the New Labour government between 1997 and 2010. The worst financial services act ever, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 imposed an entirely flawed regime on the FS industry and effectively crippled company pension schemes.
In the above I have ignored the history of State Pensions, SERPs, S2P, Stakeholder, Auto Enrolment, etc. etc. all of which in one way or another have been largely flawed initiatives.I have also ignored the failure of Equitable Life which gave me a great feeling of schadenfreude.
In any event pensions regulations themselves are now immensely complicated.The Common Man has no hope of understanding them, at all.And in my humble opinion there is no one man in the UK that understands them.I have an employee who is nominated as our pensions guru and he is backed up subscription access to a specialist technical service who have specialists in separate bits of the legislation and rules.That is a bill to my business of possibly £20,000 per annum – and we are a very small business.
Pensions Tax
As stated above pensions are deferred pay. The deal is that you pay no tax on the contributions you make, but you’ll be taxed on the whole annuity payment when you take your benefits.I think that that is easy to understand, simple, and fair.
The question is what proportion of these tax breaks end up in the hands of the scheme providers? Well, for defined benefits schemes of a reasonable size which are well funded and well run, the answer is not much. The Trustees can access institutionally priced investment funds which have very low charges. Nil initial and as low as 0.1% TER (See below for TER explanation).Where these schemes tend to lose out is when they employ ‘consultants’.These are the usual rent seeking culprits like Capita or Aon (the latter has atrocious administration). I have seen the most stupid recommendations for investment from these outfits.I also know that they routinely churned Group Personal Pension schemes for the initial commission.
For company money purchase schemes/GPP’s the same factors apply.They can be run very efficiently, and we have done so.
Total Expense Ratios

These are now called OCR’s.Ongoing Charges Ratio.
I started in FS in the late 1980’s.By the early 90’s we were asking fund companies what their total charges were and the good ones would tell you.In 1996 two blokes Paul Moulton and Hughes Gilibert set up Fitzrovia Fund Research to research and analyze funds costs.That business developed the Total Expense Ratio methodology and was latterly sold to Lipper.Gilibert and another ex-Fitzrovia alumnus now run
The Fitzrovia data was used by many pensions (and fund consultants) to drill down into the full costs of fund management.Good managers published their Fitzrovia TER’s on their own fund fact sheets.
If you want to you can Google these outfits and check their methodologies and see just how thorough they were in getting this data right.
Today, with their usual johnny come lately skill the regulators mandate the publication of TERs (now OCR’s) as if they’d just thought of it.
Fund Charges

Take two sample funds. One a global all cap equity fund the other a global bond fund.A typical asset split in a pension would be 60% / 40% equity to Bond
Fund   OCR
Vanguard Global All Cap Equity Fund                  0.24% (Institutional class would be less) Vanguard Global Bind Index Fund (hedged)         0.10%(for the institutional class it would be 0.1%)
Total weighted OCR                                             0.20%
Pensions admin (Aviva Platform)                           0.25%(This varies between 0.10% and o.40%)
Total charge                                                            0.45% per annum.
If you want / need to use the services of someone like us then that would be in addition to that figure and again would vary with both quantum and the extent of the services you wanted / needed.
Final Comment
There are lots and lots of investment managers and thousands and thousands of funds out there who charge a whole lot more and definitely soak up the tax subsidies.This is especially true of things like VCT’s and EIS’s and Cash ISA’s.And there are certain outfits who are notorious (IMHO) for overcharging, St James Place for example.
But without a shadow of a doubt you are perfectly able to operate a personal pension for less than 0.5% per annum all in.The real problem with pensions costs is not the investment management – it is the stupid complexity of the rules and regulations arising from a history of utterly flawed interventions by governments and their bureaucratic Satraps.
(Apologies for the length of this. Also I completed it in haste whilst motivated)

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