IFAs and the defined benefit promise

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This article explores the relationship between IFAs and defined benefit schemes, one that has historically been uneasy. It argues that the polarisation of opinion between IFAs who see pensions as “pots” of wealth, and those who regard them as a “wage for life” has never been stronger. This polarisation is present in politics, demonstrated by the differing view on “pension freedoms” at the DWP and Treasury, and present in Regulation, with polarisation between the FCA and tPR’s approach to these same issues.

This deep divide is philosophically between those who believe is that the management of financial assets should be a matter for the beneficiaries of those assets (the member) and those who think the creation of a lifelong income, a matter for collective endeavour.

And the fault lines created by these polarised positions are clear to see, wherever you look.

They are apparent from the Work and Pension Select Committee’s inquiry into Pension Freedoms, which focused on the divisions in Port Talbot between BSPS members desperate to liberate the wealth in their pension scheme and the Trustees, who were (until recently) oblivious to the demand for “pension freedom”.

I believe has happened over the past eighteen months has had everything to do with adviser confidence

The fault lines were equally apparent in the disputes between Royal Mail and its membership (represented by the CWU) and the current dispute between USS and its members (represented by the UCU). In both cases, the employer believed philosophically that it was doing the right thing by switching from DB to DC accrual, based on evidence that ordinary people value a pot of wealth rather than a wage for life.

Contrarily, members have said no to a DC pot and held out for a wage for life. In the case of Royal Mail’s membership, this will mean an unguaranteed CDC pension and in the case of USS members, a continuation of guaranteed accrual from a DB plan.

An IFA, reading these paragraphs, has every right to be confused. Steel-workers are not normally considered as candidates for wealth management, but with average pots of c£400,000, they proved to be of great interest to a large number of IFAs. Meanwhile, the professors and lecturers who one would imagine financially capable, have gone out on strike, rather than be switched to a DC pension.

The polarisation of opinion cannot be defined on socio-economic lines, nor can it be defined in terms of education. In fact, the pension freedoms seem to be as popular on the streets of Tai Bach as in the City of London.

It now looks likely that once all transfers out of BSPS are completed (some time in April), around £3bn will have moved from “pensions to pots”. This is roughly the same amount that has been transferred out of the Lloyds Bank staff pension scheme and around 75% of the £4.2bn that Barclays have reported moving out of their pension scheme. It was not long ago that KPMG were estimating the total transfers from DB to DC in 2017 would be £6bn. What has happened?

The explosion of transfers that has happened from mid-2016 onwards, cannot be explained by the Pension Freedoms alone. Indeed, in its 2014 impact analysis, the Treasury saw no reason for the changes in the tax treatment of DC pensions as having little to no impact on DB to DC pensions.

Nor can it be considered a function of quantitative easing or the shift of DB assets from equities to gilts. While there may have been a marginal shift (major at BSPS), quantitative easing and the trend for DB pensions to “de-risk”, were established well before 2017.

What I believe has happened over the past eighteen months has had everything to do with adviser confidence, especially confidence in the IFA sector. Underpinning this confidence is the rise in world stock- markets which has seen equity-based wealth management solutions deliver fabulous returns to their customers for nearly ten years. There is a sense among many advisers I speak to, of invincibility in market forces and the power of investments in growth assets to deliver better outcomes than can be achieved from DB pensions.

The second factor that has given advisers confidence, is finding a mechanism to unpick the lock on the CETV, without creating disruption to their client’s cash-flows.  I mean by this the practice of conditional charging. By putting the bill for advice at the back end of the advisory process, IFAs can achieve a painless transfer to their wealth management solution that enables them to be paid from a tax-exempt fund without concerns over VAT.  It enables clients to release their “DB wealth” without reaching for their cheque book and  it is a very elegant solution to the problems posed by the requirement of those wishing to transfer an amount above £30,000, to take financial advice.

There is nothing uncompliant about conditional charging and it is now widely used by the majority of Britain’s 2,500 transfer specialists. However, conditional charging is showing signs of stress. Ten firms have now “voluntarily” handed back their permissions to advise on DB transfers, leaving hundreds of clients orphaned from the transfer process and marooned in DB.

A recent article in the Financial Times, saw the Personal Finance Society’s Keith Richards, claim that Professional Indemnity Insurers were jacking up premiums for those remaining PTS’ and denying some cover. The practice of outsourcing pensions advice to specialist Transfer Value Analysts, has come under considerable pressure from the FCA.

All this is evidence of the deep divide between those who see a pension as a “pot of wealth” and those who regard it as a wage for life. Many advisers, such as John Mather, consider the defined benefit system, so broken, that engineering a route out of DB for clients, is the right thing to do. Meanwhile, the FCA insist that from their sampling in 2017, 53% of transfers examined, contained either questionable or wrongful advice.

The Pensions Regulator and the FCA are at last working together to produce a joint pension strategy. In a recent session of the Work and Pensions Committee, its Chair- Frank Field- suggested that advisers and trustees were living in “different countries”. The same criticism has been made of the two regulators.

It remains to be seen where this will all end up, few believe that we have seen the end to the DB transfers. The results of SJP, Old Mutual, Prudential and many other providers, suggest that pension providers are now reliant on the massive flows of assets brought to them by advisers. Many advisers now seem as addicted to conditional charging as they were to commission and the FCA and Pensions Regulator, seem powerless to prevent CETVs becoming business as usual.

As always, the analysis of the issue, post-dates it. The transfer from pensions to pots will go on, till a point where either the available assets within DB schemes have been exhausted, or a proper brake has been put on the transfer process, most likely by a Government with the will to ban conditional charging.

In the meantime. we have to hope that those in charge of this new-found wealth, can deliver on their promises.

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11 years providing financial advice to individuals directly and through employers. 14 years within insurers working with advisers to provide better DC and DB outcomes. 25 years left to make a difference!

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