Making Sense of Pensions

Hugh Nolan

As we head into the brave new world of 2020 with a strong majority Government that has every chance of seeing all its policies implemented during its five-year fixed term, it seems a good time to review the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) situation to see whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had a point about compensating the 1950s women who saw the age at which they can take their State Pension (“State Pension Age” or “SPA”) increased.

Background to SPA equalisation

The Pensions Act 1995 laid down gradual increases in SPA for women between 2010 and 2020, with the objective of eventually equalising their historic retirement age of 60 with the (then) SPA of 65 for men. That was a slower process than the 15 years recommended by the Turner Commission and the ten years recommended by Saga and seemed long enough to give those affected a chance to plan ahead (provided, of course, they knew about the change…).

Occupational schemes faced with the equalisation issue following the Barber judgment were only able to make changes to normal pension ages for pensionable service from 17 May 1990 onwards but the SPA was amended retrospectively. This is undoubtedly a bit harsh but it is understandable that Parliament took that approach. It is arguably justified by the drive for equality, intergenerational fairness, the need for a sustainable State Pension and the pressure on public finances – especially with an ageing population and an increasing dependency ratio with fewer workers relative to pensioners. At least the women affected had 15 years or more to adjust to the change.

Accelerated programme

However, the Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the change from 63 to 65, so this happened from 2016-2018 rather than 2016-2020 as originally planned. There were concessionary transitional arrangements to limit the impact of this later change so that no woman saw an extra increase of more than 18 months in her SPA compared to the Pensions Act 1995 timetable. That does, however, mean that many women saw an additional delay of 18 months in receiving their State Pension, with only 7 years’ notice (if they were even aware of the change at that point). SPA for both men and women is now increasing to 66 from October 2020 and then on to 67 by 2028, with a further rise to 68 currently on the statute books for 2044-2046.

WASPI women want to be compensated for the change in their SPA to 65, citing long-standing inequality with men in other areas and a lack of notice as justification for retaining the more generous retirement age. I have a lot of sympathy for the inequality that women have suffered over the years (and continue to suffer) but I can’t see that as a compelling reason to give them a better pension than men. I’d rather see society address the underlying inequality. In any event, it’s true that women live longer than men on average so the same State Pension is typically worth more for a woman than a man.

The danger of assumptions

I have less sympathy for the argument that women weren’t given enough notice for the original change from 60 to 65. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ran an advertising campaign and wrote literally millions of letters advising women of the SPA changes, though naturally some weren’t safely received for various reasons (or weren’t understood and remembered). I realise that I may be rather complacent about how widespread the news was disseminated as an industry insider. But the key point for me is that none of the affected women would have had any quote whatsoever or any other official information based on an SPA of 60 from 1995 onwards. WASPI women may have been under the impression that they’d be allowed to retire at age 60 like their mothers and grandmothers had, but that was simply wrong.

Although it’s an understandable misunderstanding, I think this apparent belief in an SPA of 60 was an unjustified assumption, particularly for those who had received letters notifying them of the changes. I wouldn’t want to see people being compensated for an unreasonable expectation and I haven’t seen any convincing case put forward as to why women could reasonably expect to retire at age 60 or make plans and decisions on that basis without checking at any point in the previous decade or two. Even if I were convinced that women had good cause to think their SPA was still 60, I would question how they could plan properly for retirement without knowing what pension they’d be entitled to and I’d challenge how they could know that without asking. In fairness though, the WASPI women aren’t the only people who blithely expect their State Pension to be adequate for retirement without knowing what it actually is.

Sympathy in equal measure

So, I am left with the view that the increase in the SPA from 60 to 65 for women was reasonable and that an extended period of notice was given for the change. My remaining sympathy is for those women who relied on their mistaken belief of an earlier SPA and took irrevocable decisions based on that belief, where I could easily be persuaded that they deserve special treatment even if their financial hardship arose from their own misunderstanding. On balance, I believe that the Labour Party election commitment to compensate all the affected women was misguided.

There are undoubtedly many moving stories of personal circumstances that tug the heartstrings, setting out the difficulties caused in individual cases by the SPA of 65 for women. There are WASPI women who have been unable to carry on working past age 60 due to illness or who have been unable to find (decent) jobs after being made redundant. There are others who have died shortly after retirement having paid into the system for up to 50 years, who could have had the benefit of a few years of retirement and pension if they’d been allowed to retire at age 60. Some have had to apply for Job Seekers Allowance, having to justify their ongoing search for employment after a lifetime of contributing. The harsh reality though is that there are similar stories for men too. If we want equality (and I do), then any sympathy for people prevented from retiring before age 65 should be for men as well for women and for those born in the 1960s (or whenever) as well as those in the 1950s.

Sting in the tale

That said, I take a completely different view about the accelerated timetable set out in the Pensions Act 2011. Those changes were introduced at relatively short notice and were a pure cost-saving measure rather than a way of achieving equality, which was already in hand. Women affected by this change had to wait up to 18 months extra to retire, or use any private pension savings to bridge the gap to their new retirement age. The transitional arrangements recognised that the notice given was too short and mitigated the effect of the change but I can’t understand why it’s any more acceptable in principle to make women wait an extra 18 months at short notice than two years? Frankly, the women affected here were being completely ripped off in the name of austerity. Parliament may have been entitled to make the change as a matter of law (in the same way that State pension increases were changed from RPI to CPI in 2011) but it doesn’t seem ethically correct to disproportionately penalise this specific group of people, who had been disadvantaged over a lifetime of unequal treatment and were already in the process of having one of their few positive inequalities gradually removed.

If I were King for a day, I’d compensate the WASPI women for the change made in 2011, simply by paying them the pension they missed out on for the months of delayed retirement. I doubt if the Courts will insist on that in any WASPI appeal to last year’s unsuccessful action against the changes,  but I still think it would be morally right and the cost would be modest relative to the Labour pledge. In practice, Boris Johnson could do this if he wanted but will surely be tempted to let sleeping dogs lie in the expectation that it won’t hurt him in the next election any more than it did this time. I’d encourage Labour and the WASPI women to lobby for a reversal of the 2011 provisions rather than keep fighting the losing battle about the original 1995 changes. While the Tories might just be prepared to give something (and will have to if the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman finds in its delayed investigation that there has been maladministration), they’re unlikely to open the can of worms if all it gets them is a continued kicking in the press for not going fully “Back to 60”.


[1] Mr S, PO-21607

Brendan McLean

2019 reflections

The year began negatively with many commentators predicting poor returns. This was mainly because 2018 was a particularly poor year for assets. Deutsche Bank said 93% of assets were down in 2018 – worse than during the Great Depression – and December 2018 was the lowest performing month since the 2008 financial crisis for global equities. In Q4 2018, Brent crude oil fell by 35% due to rising crude inventories and increased production, in addition to fears that global growth may be slowing.

The main causes of the large declines in 2018 were: US central bank increasing interest rates, a slowdown in Eurozone business confidence, tightening global liquidity due to the withdrawal of quantitative easing, and weaker Chinese growth.  There were also rising geopolitical concerns including Brexit, Italian politics, US political gridlock, and the ongoing trade conflict between the US and China.

Key features from 2019 were the liquidity issues affecting Neil Woodford’s flagship fund, the Woodford Equity Income Fund, H2O Asset Management and the M&G property fund. As investors continue to hunt in riskier, illiquid parts of the investment universe (due to the decreasing yields available), I would not be surprised if similar events occurred this year.

Environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) became more important in 2019 as trustees faced new requirements to document the way in which they take account of ESG issues in their Statement of Investment Principles (SIPs). This resulted in a frantic push from asset managers to make their funds meet the relevant standards. Suddenly every fund became an ESG focused fund, which going forward is likely to result in a degree of ‘greenwashing’. There will be additional ESG requirements in place from October 2020 so trustees should prepare to spend more time on this area.

2020 predictions

2020 has certainly begun differently to 2019, mainly because 2019 was a fantastic year for assets. It would have been hard to lose money with equities and bonds both going up. Global equities increased by 22% – even a 60:40 equity bond fund would have increased by 20%. Commentators have been claiming that 2020 will be a good year, but I wonder how influenced they are by the joy of 2019.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic about 2020. Due to the large Conservative majority in the House of Commons, progress on Brexit will hopefully be made and years of uncertainly should come to an end. There has also been progress on the US/China trade war. In the USA strong real wage growth, low debt levels and rising house prices means the US consumer, the key driver of the economy, is more likely to keep spending, which could prolong the economic cycle and be supportive for assets.

However, bonds and some equity markets do appear expensive by historical standards. There is a high level of global debt and the increased tension between the USA and Iran could very quickly escalate. This means that asset values are susceptible to any type of global shock.

To reduce the effects of such a shock, investors should aim to be highly diversified, allocating not only to the traditional asset classes of bonds and equities, but also alternative asset classes such as infrastructure, commodities, emerging market debt, structured finance, and currency.

Matt Masters

As we say goodbye to the 2010s and welcome the 2020s, we look back at some of the big themes that emerged in Defined Benefit (DB) pensions over the past decade.

Low interest rate environment

Much has been written about low interest rates, might they be here to stay and whether or not the UK is in the grip of a Japan-like environment? Regardless of the answers to these questions, it has certainly made the cost of securing pension income much more expensive, resulting in, amongst other things, significantly increased liabilities for final salary pension schemes.

This has led to an increasingly polarised position for DB schemes, with those who hedged interest rate risk early on now sitting relatively pretty, and those who did not now finding themselves continuing to stare at deficits, despite record contributions and one of the longest equity market bull runs in history.

While the low interest rate environment has led to a corresponding re-rating of asset prices, driving some of the unprecedented returns seen over the decade, perhaps more importantly it means lower expected returns looking forward. Consequently, pension schemes are having to keep their investment strategies under review, with many choosing to look at more esoteric investment classes and the merits of a fiduciary approach. 

A decade of returns

It was the decade of the equity bull market, with the US S&P 500 index up 28.9% in 2019, its best for some years, contributing to a 190% gain over the decade. This was led by stocks such as Netflix (up over 4,000%) and Apple (up over 850%).

Closer to home it was a decade of mixed performance. While the Total Return on the FTSE 100 was 104% (equating to an annualised return of around 7.4%), JD Sports, who weren’t even in the FTSE 100 index at the start of the decade, ended the period as the top performer, with £1,000 invested in January 2010 worth £33,700 at the end of December 2019.

By contrast, Tesco, with its accounting scandal, numerous profit warnings, and with the challenge from the German discounters, was the worst-performing FTSE 100 share over the decade, giving a negative total return of 21.6%. More generally, the banks and energy stocks largely seemed to have a tough time in the 2010s.

The rise of member options and de-risking

The number of DB schemes moving inexorably closer to the “end game” has increased substantially, with many putting in place strategies designed to move them into a position to fully secure all benefits as soon as reasonably possible.

While this may remain many years away for some, a focus on member options has come to the fore. Along with the now regulated incentive exercises, this can perhaps most clearly be seen by the change in options available at retirement. Beside the traditional retirement options of “pension; or tax-free cash sum and lower pension” are further choices, commonly a transfer value or partial transfer value, or an option to exchange pension increases for additional pension.

In addition, the buy-out market has continued to grow rapidly, with the second five years of the decade seeing some five times the level of activity from the first five years, with transactions peaking in 2019 at around £35bn. And, while the headlines suggest a focus on multi-billion pound deals, there remains competitive pricing for those smaller schemes who are genuinely ready to transact.

Pension freedoms

A look back over the past ten years wouldn’t be complete without mention of pension freedoms. The popularity of the member options mentioned above was turbocharged by George Osborne’s shock Budget announcement of 2014. Gone was the requirement to take an annuity with your Defined Contribution (DC) pot, replaced with the “freedom and choice” to do what you want with it, whether to buy the much talked about Lamborghini or not. 

With this change came a substantial increase in transfer value quotation requests, particularly from DB members over the age of 55 curious to explore their options. Indeed, this activity has led to a substantial increases in the amount transferred from DB schemes, to an annual amount in excess of £20bn. While seen as a win-win-win (a win for members, who are able to take greater control over their retirement planning; a win for pension schemes trustees, who see a consequent improvement in the funding position for their remaining members; and a win for pension scheme sponsors, who see a reduction in their buy-out liability), DB pension transfers could represent another “mis-selling scandal”, if not conducted properly.

Conclusion

While pensions are reassuringly long-term in nature, the rate of change in legislation and market developments can often seem to stand in stark contrast. The coming decade promises continued evolution and change, not least with a new Pensions Bill expected imminently, a “stronger, tougher regulator”, GMP equalisation to grapple with, the potential alignment of RPI with CPI, the possible rise of commercial consolidators and the implications of Brexit to come!

Brendan McLean

The liquidity mismatch

Once again, the liquidity of daily dealt funds has made headline news.

Back in June 2019, Neil Woodford’s flagship fund, the Woodford Equity Income Fund, stopped taking redemption requests and will now be wound up, which has prevented 300,000 investors from accessing their investments.

More recently, in December 2019, M&G suspended dealing on its £2.5bn property fund due to £1bn of redemptions in a 12 month period, and the difficulty the firm has had in selling assets to meet all of its redemption requests.

These high profile cases highlight the problem of liquidity mismatch. Both funds offered daily dealing, which enables investors to buy and sell units in the fund each day. However, as the underlying assets cannot be sold at such quick pace, the funds were forced to suspend redemptions while assets were liquidated to meet the withdrawals.

One issue with the M&G property fund is that it had a high retail investor base. This class of investors has historically been quick to move money around at the slightest hint of ‘trouble’. Normally, defined benefit pension schemes will invest into ‘institutional only’ property funds, which makes redemption requests more stable and the funds less likely to be suspended.

Systemic risk

The Bank of England (BoE) has said that the issue of liquidity mismatch has the potential to become a systemic risk – this highlights the seriousness of the issue.  This risk being realised would potentially see similar funds suspended; this contagion effect was reflected following the M&G announcement, as investors started selling other property funds.

To combat the issue of liquidity mismatch and to protect investors, the BoE and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are considering making daily redemptions of property funds incur a financial penalty. This is aimed at preventing large withdrawals and aligning redemption periods with the length of time it takes to sell underlying assets at a fair price.

In September 2019, the FCA announced new rules requiring property funds to suspend dealing if there is uncertainty over the value of 20% of their assets. This may see more property funds being suspended, which could damage investor confidence in the asset class and discourage investors from allocating to open-end property funds. Fund managers will likely respond to the new rules by holding a high cash balance, which will result in lower returns.

It is encouraging that both the BoE and the FCA recognise the importance of liquidity. In my view, the measures may create additional risks and potentially sacrifice returns, however, liquidity mismatch is a serious issue for investors and I am glad more efforts are being made to stop it.

Alan Collins

As the year draws to an end, I find myself reflecting on a strange 12 months for pensions; with a bit of planning blight in terms of substantive new law and policy, due to Brexit, but still several important developments. My main take-aways are as follows:

Those who can see the hills are running for them

Risk transfers, i.e. buy-ins and buy-outs for defined benefit pension schemes, are inexorably rising. The amount of assets transferred to insurers has broadly doubled year-on-year over the last three years and is expected to exceed £40 billion by the year end. 2019 has been notable for several mega-deals; e.g. National Grid, Telent and Rolls Royce.B

For well-funded schemes which have taken financial risks off the table, there is very little upside in continuing when an exit route is affordable. After all, securing benefits with an insurer represents “job done” for trustees and sponsors.

While doubling again in 2020 seems unlikely, it is clear that risk transfers will provide some major pension stories over the next twelve months.

The need for member engagement is growing

As schemes mature, the proportion of members in the retirement “zone” (currently 55+) is rising and more and more members are seeking regular quotations of their benefits. Also, a recent survey by the Office for National Statistics indicated that pensions has overtaken household property to become the largest component of household wealth. For many schemes I am involved in, the average value of a member’s benefit is often in excess of £100,000.

So, how do members take the important decisions around their retirement? For me, access to timely, accurate and understandable information is of key importance. Technology is developing all the time and members can now do much better than the “paper-only” methods of old.

I also think the tide is turning on “accessibility to advice” for pension scheme members. Trustees have historically shied away from having “on tap” advice available to members, but there is a growing recognition that a member adviser is a useful addition the suite of scheme advisers.

Another topical issue, which is unlikely to go away any time soon, is whether trustees should offer their defined benefit pension scheme members a ‘partial’ transfer option – allowing them to retain some of the guarantees associated with DB pensions whilst also having complete freedom and choice over the part of their benefits they transfer to the own personal arrangement.

CMA review and ESG has increased documentation, but what else will it change?

There were some much talked-about changes brought in following the Competition and Market Authority’s review of the investment consultancy and fiduciary management industry. Investment consultants now need to have objectives set for them by trustees and fiduciary mandates need a one-time open market tender (if not done already). 

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues were also a hot topic and, with further changes still to take effect and the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’, will continue to be so.

All schemes should have updated their Statement of Investment Principles to set out their policy on ESG matters. Investment managers were also falling over themselves to extol their “green” credentials.

Time will tell how much change will come about as a result – so far, there has been a lot of box-ticking.

The Regulator is sharpening its stick

With Parliament being somewhat “distracted” for most of the year, there was little progress on pension regulatory matters. The long-awaited Pensions Bill made it into not one, but two, Queen’s speeches and looks all set to progress next year. The Bill will include, amongst other things, greater powers for The Pensions Regulator and possible jail sentences for reckless employers who fail to look after pension schemes.

Consultation on the new defined benefit scheme funding code is expected early in 2020. It is likely to involve ramping up the pressure on under-funded schemes, seeking shorter recovery plans, more conservative investment strategies for maturing schemes, avoiding “covenant leakage” and the development of longer-term “end-game” plans for all schemes.

The time for talking about GMP equalisation is over

And, finally, a “current issues” article on defined benefit pensions would not be complete without some comment on GMP equalisation (GMP-E). We (and I should really say I) have gone through the eye-rolling, the denial, the “wait and see” and the “mañana”. Time is up for all of these approaches and work really needs to start in earnest in sorting out the relevant data and amending the member benefits.

Look out for the HMRC guidance due to be published in January.

Given the levels of fees that some service providers are quoting for GMP-E work, it will also be interesting to see whether some trustees put projects out to tender rather than just telling the incumbent advisers to get on with it.

John Wilson

On 19 December 2019, the Queen’s Speech was delivered to both Houses of Parliament. It sets out the Government’s legislative priorities for the 2019-20 parliamentary session.

Background briefing notes include details of the reintroduced Pension Schemes Bill, which was first announced in the last Queen’s Speech in October 2019 but fell with the dissolution of Parliament earlier this month.

The following measures are included in the Bill (all substantive proposals were in the original version too):

  • New powers for the Regulator. These include ‘lengthy jail terms on the table for reckless bosses who plunder people’s pensions pots’.
  • Scheme funding. Measures regarding Defined Benefit (DB) scheme funding, including additional Regulator powers.
  • Collective defined contribution schemes. A new pension scheme design to give greater choice for employers and enable people to adequately save for retirement and better predict their income in later life.
  • Pensions dashboards. Establishing the framework for the creation of pension scheme dashboards that will “allow people to access their information from most pensions schemes in one place online for the first time”. The Pensions Regulator will have the power to ensure schemes provide information to populate the dashboards.
  • Scheme transfers. Revisions to the rules to help combat pension scams.
  • Pension Protection Fund (PPF) compensation. Changes to compensation rules to ensure the regime works as originally intended and to respond to the decision in Beaton v The Board of the Pension Protection Fund [2017]. It will be interesting to see if there is further tweaking in light of this week’s decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the Bauer case.

A draft of the Bill has yet to be published but, for further information, see –

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/queens-speech-december-2019-background-briefing-notes.

Employers and trustees may want to start discussion with advisers on the prospective changes to the scheme funding regime. Employers should be aware of the Regulator’s new ‘moral hazard’ powers which, even now, could impact on the nature and timing of corporate activity.

John Wilson

The PPF published its final levy rules and guidance for the 2020-21 levy year on 16 December 2019.

You can find them here: https://ppf.co.uk/levy-payers/levy-2020-21.

The key elements to note are:

  • The PPF confirmed the total levy it expects to collect at £620 million.
  • The 2020/21 rules are little changed from 2019/20, and are broadly in line with the proposals set out in September’s consultation.
  • The PPF also published revised guidance on contingent assets, which remains largely as consulted on but reflects comments received.
  • The PPF has set out the basis on which a small number of significantly affected levy payers, most likely to be SMEs, can ask for an adjustment of their insolvency risk score, where a GMP equalisation adjustment is the sole reason they are reporting a loss rather than a profit in their accounts.

While we feel it is important to draw the rules and guidance to your attention, our full Client Alert will not be published until later this week because there is a prospective development that may mean the final levy rules are not so ‘final’.

The Bauer case

Mr Bauer had been granted several occupational old-age pension benefits by his former employer, including a pension paid through a supplementary occupational pension institution (PKDW) and a monthly pension supplement paid by his former employer.

In 2003, PKDW, experienced financial difficulties and was authorised by the relevant German national authorities to reduce the amount of the pensions paid.

Under German law, Mr Bauer’s former employer was then obliged to ‘offset’ this reduction in his benefits. However, in 2012, the employer entered insolvency proceedings.

PSV (an insolvency insurance institution for occupational pensions) informed Mr Bauer that it would assume responsibility for the payment of the monthly pension supplement and a Christmas bonus that was also due. However, PSV would not assume responsibility for the offset mentioned above.

Mr Bauer disputed this refusal and several questions were then referred to the CJEU by the German national court. In essence, the German Court asked whether the German Government via the PSV had to compensate Mr Bauer for the top-up payment that his ex-employer paid to cover the pension benefit reduction.

The answer directly impacts the level of protection that must be provided to individuals in respect of their pension rights on the insolvency of their employer / former employer under Article 8 of the Insolvency Directive (2008/94/EC).

And the Court of Justice of the European Union is expected to deliver its judgment on 19 December.

Watch this space …

Brendan McLean

ESG is on the agenda

There has been a growing demand on UK defined benefit pension schemes to consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. Since October 2019, trustees need to set out how they take account of those issues in their statement of investment principles (SIPs).

This has led to investment managers adjusting their funds to meet the new requirements and satisfy the needs of trustees on considering ESG. However, defining ESG is open to debate. Different individuals have a different view on what it means, which could give rise to ‘greenwashing’, the term used to describe investment managers veiling their funds as greener than they truly are.

To combat this potential issue, the European Parliament has voted on new disclosure requirements for sustainable investments. Also, the Investment Association in the UK has released a framework to try to prevent confusion around responsible investment stemming from inconsistent use of terms and phrases. We believe this will naturally make it harder for managers to greenwash their funds, giving investors more confidence to invest in genuine sustainable funds.

Data issues

A potential issue caused by the increased disclosure requirements is the reliance on ESG data to ensure managers consider sustainability risks and opportunities. Currently, the main ESG data providers have vastly different methodologies for scoring companies, resulting in a wide range of results. One provider may score a firm highly and another, using a different scoring metric, may score it lower. We feel it is important for the ESG data providers to score firms consistently and recognise that the new classification system should help.

Investment managers place a heavy reliance on ESG data, which increases pressure to provide overly positive results for a higher score. Many ESG metrics are currently not audited in the same way as financial information, so it is easier for firms to inflate their ESG credentials. We would hope regulations will prevent this from happening.

No overnight fix

We feel the most important thing pension schemes can do to ensure they are really investing in line with their own sustainability objectives is to discuss the topic more frequently and understand what their aims are. We are pleased to see ESG and sustainability aims are a more common feature of trustees’ meeting agendas. While the change won’t happen overnight, we feel that over time, as more people become aware of the benefits of considering sustainability, it will get much more attention.

Alan Collins


2020 will definitely see progress being made towards a new funding code for defined benefit schemes. The Pensions Regulator has recently made clear that, despite numerous delays to date, consultation on the code will likely begin in January of next year.

Armed with new powers, the new code and its “clear, quicker, tougher” approach, the Regulator’s presence will loom large for many trustees. So, how then, will trustees keep the regulatory “wolf” from the door. 

Top tips

Here are some of my top tips and recent experiences.

1. Recognise and document your long-term objective

For all but the very largest of closed schemes, the end-point will be some form of insurance arrangement (consolidate or buyout).  It is therefore important, as schemes mature, to put a greater focus on this end-point and estimate how long it will take to get there. This will likely mean contributions continuing even after the scheme has a surplus on the ongoing (technical provisions) basis. 

So, trustees should get to know how long the path to buyout is and plan out their strategy to get there (including any investment de-risking along the way). Developing contingency plans with agreed actions for good and bad outcomes will also be very worthwhile.

2. Use an Integrated Risk Management approach to manage and monitor covenant, funding and investment.

Most schemes regularly review funding levels, investment performance and (perhaps less frequently) sponsor covenant. Often, however, these three strands are looked at in insolation and not part of a single “package”. To meet long-terms objectives, it is important to manage all of these risks together.  

I have found it helpful to collate some key metrics for each area into a single one-page dashboard. This allows trustees to review overall progress and importantly review the need to take any action. Funding and investment metrics should be readily available, and it is worth engaging with the sponsor to get regular updates on key metrics in their business – they will be monitoring these so it should be easy to get hold of them to help trustees do the same.

3. Get-together more often

For me, the days of a “once a year” meeting and nothing much in between are gone. With volatile financial markets and the potential for fast-changing outlooks for sponsor covenants, schemes are “businesses” which need more regular attention. 

In my experience, most scheme trustees would now expect to arrange some sort of meeting on at least a quarterly basis to review investment performance, funding progression and administration matters. These meetings need not be long and, with improving technology, need not be face-to-face either. Agendas can also be structured to allow advisers/providers to attend in part.

4. Make sure the basics are done

It sounds obvious, and maybe it is, but getting the basics right is important. Trustees should be making sure that:

  • Data is clean, complete and up-to-date.
  • Conflicts (and potential conflicts) are documented and discussed.
  • Scheme documentation is complete and consolidated.
  • Trustee Knowledge and Understanding is up to date, documented and future training is scheduled in.
  • Investment compliance is up to date (ESG, Investment Objectives documented).
  • Scheme business plans and risk registers are “live” documents, not just pages that gather dust between meetings.
  • Future project work is factored in e.g. GMP equalisation.
  • Be up-front if your scheme doesn’t fit with the ideal expectations of the Regulator

Back in the day, a recovery plan of over 10 years was a warning “flag” that often triggered some regulatory scrutiny. That was all washed away with the more employer friendly “sustainable growth objective”. The new funding code is likely to view 7 years as the benchmark recovery period. Indeed, I have already seen the Regulator gather information for schemes where the current recovery period is above that threshold.

However, it is also fair to say that many schemes, for many reasons, will have longer recovery plans that the Regulator will now view as appropriate e.g. charities, schemes with weaker sponsors.

Here, it is important for trustees to examine and clearly document the rationale for a longer recovery period. If affordability is shown to be constrained, it is likely that a longer recovery period should go hand in hand with a more cautious investment strategy. Taking risk on your sponsor (as demonstrated by a longer plan) should not be compounded by a higher risk investment strategy that the sponsor cannot afford to underwrite.

For me, a well set out and justifiable longer recovery plan with a cautious investment strategy is far better than over-optimistic actuarial basis and a “wing and a prayer” investment strategy which give the misleading impression of achievability.

Hugh Nolan

The Pensions Ombudsman has made a few slightly controversial rulings over the last 12 months, finding maladministration by schemes relative to an extremely high standard and with the benefit of hindsight. His recent ruling on the Hampshire County Council transfer case follows these precedents but goes even further.

In the latest case, Mrs H transferred to a scam pension scheme and the Local Government Pension Scheme (Hampshire Pension Fund) paid the transfer value as she requested and is now being forced to pay her benefits too. It’s great for the member that she will still get her pension benefits but the scheme has to pay twice, though the Ombudsman has kindly said that Hampshire County Council can keep any money it manages to get back from the scammers.

The background to the case is that the scheme paid a transfer of £26,234 to a scheme that had only been set up fairly recently. The member involved was approaching her Normal Retirement Age and lived hundreds of miles away from the sponsoring employer of the new occupational scheme to which she was transferring. Incidentally, the member had also declined to join the Hampshire Pension Fund originally and then joined much later. The Ombudsman took this as evidence that she was not financially astute and, therefore, argued that the trustees should have taken extra care to protect her. The scheme did send her the Scorpion literature and she signed a form declaring that she had read the leaflet and understood it was entirely her own responsibility to make sure the benefits in her new scheme were appropriate.

In fairness to the Ombudsman, the Hampshire Pension Fund seemed to believe, incorrectly, that the member had a right to take the transfer and they had no ability to stop her. In fact, she may have had a right to a transfer but she did not have a right to transfer to that particular scheme, as she was not (and never had been) employed by the sponsoring employer. That is a pretty esoteric point, and one that the transferring scheme did not know, but I can see that they might have checked further if they had realised they did have some discretion after all.

Nevertheless, the transferring scheme did warn her about scams and highlighted her personal responsibility. She chose the receiving scheme (albeit with dubious ‘advice’) and requested the transfer be made. The Ombudsman says that Hampshire should have realised that it was a scam as they didn’t check whether she worked for the new employer, but apparently doesn’t mind the member choosing an occupational scheme that she hadn’t worked for. The Ombudsman says that the recent approval by HMRC was another red flag, rather than placing any responsibility on HMRC (or pension regulations generally) for approving a scam scheme. The Ombudsman criticised the scheme for thinking it was obliged to make the payment, but has repeatedly made clear that it will uphold complaints wherever schemes do not fully comply with their legal obligations within the statutory timeframes, even where there is a strong suspicion and evidence that the receiving scheme is a scam. Successive Governments have declined to introduce legislation to give trustees an option to withhold transfers in suspicious cases but trustees are still expected to police the issue, with little or no support from the Ombudsman or legislature.

I have had conversations with members who have requested transfers to schemes that look suspicious and these members can be upset, frustrated, confused, aggressive and even abusive. I have, however, always eventually been able to persuade them that the trustees were trying to protect their best interests, leading the members to withdraw their requests (even if they later transferred somewhere else).

I thought that was a good example of how we go above and beyond the basic call of duty to administer our schemes in the best possible way. But now it seems that we are only doing what is actually needed to protect ourselves against future claims for compensation. I feel sorry for schemes that haven’t always gone to such lengths and I thank goodness that we set our own standards high enough to stand the test of time.

I am all in favour of high administration standards across the pensions industry. However, I just can’t get completely on board with an Ombudsman who sometimes seems to see trustees as an easy target for compensation, despite their best efforts to look after their members even when they don’t get much help from the rules to do so.

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