Sunday, 23 March 2014

Optional Annuities Could Mean Working Pensions

Odd that Will Hutton should claim in The Observer, of all places, that making the purchase of pension annuities optional will end in long term social disaster. UK pensions are already a long term social disaster. Hutton himself points out that "400,000 people buy £11bn of annuities every year", yet "the annuity market [has become] overstretched, offering indifferent and often wildly different rates." 

This is because consumers have no choice. There's no competitive pressure at all on the insurance companies or their agents to remove unnecessary middlemen, reduce fees to customers or simplify products. In fact, the Financial Services Consumer Panel recently found that the annuities industry continued to focus on increasing its revenues through product complexity, even when consumers were given the option to shop around. No one in the industry seized the opportunity to make annuities more transparent and better value for the consumer. [Update on 26 March: Legal & General has suggested the market for individual annuities will shrink by 75% - rather endorsing the government decision to make them optional!].

Will Hutton argues that rather than make annuities optional "the response should have been to redesign [the market] and figure out ways it could have offered better rates with smarter investment vehicles". But that seems naive, given the FSCP findings. The industry had that opportunity and declined it. 

It's equally naive to suggest that less demand for annuities will mean losing a valuable opportunity for insurance companies to 'pool the risk' of funding pensions. The industry merely sees risk pooling as a chance to exploit asymmetries of information to line its own pockets

The only way for the government to shake up the cosy annuities cartel was to remove the implicit guarantee that everyone would have to buy an annuity. 

Mr Hutton then seeks to set up some kind of moral panic that the 'freedom to buy a Lamborghini' instead of an annuity will result in people simply frittering away their life savings. Not only does this suggest that he'd rather your life savings were placed in the grubby mitts of the annuities industry so they can buy the Lamborghinis, but it also insults the consumers who face the abyss of the annuities market. Their concern clearly arises from the lack of decent returns, not because they're eager to spend the cash on exotic cars.

Finally, Will suggests that the State is entitled to control how you invest your pension money because it allowed you to avoid paying income tax on your pension contributions in the first place. If you agree with that, then presumably you would say the State is entitled to control how you spend every penny of your income that it has allowed you to keep. This of course places a great deal of trust in the State's financial management capabilities that we know from bitter experience is ill-deserved. As a result, it's more likely that citizens will gain greater control over the allocation of 'their' tax contributions, not less (as I've joked about previously). But regardless of whether it's the State or the taxpayer who is in control, neither party wants the State to be saddled with the consequences of an uncompetitive and opaque annuities market. That would only suit the annuities spivs. Again, the only alternative is to expose the market to competition from all manner of transparent savings and investment opportunities. 

Importantly for economic growth, the freedom to avoid annuities opens up the potential for £11bn a year to be invested directly into the productive economy at better returns in much the same way that the new ISA rules will liberate 'dead money' from low yield bank deposits. Not only could we see some pension capital crowd-invested into long term business and infrastructure projects in a way that won't be interrupted by the need to purchase an annuity, but those in draw-down might also consider some 3 to 5 year loans to creditworthy borrowers as a way to generate some additional monthly income.

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