The chancellor hands more freedom to retirees
GET out those cruise brochures—retirees may soon be going on a spending spree. Historically, most Britons with personal pensions and those in so-called “defined-contribution” schemes have been forced to use their pension pots to buy an annuity—a product paying a (normally fixed) income for the rest of their lives. These have never been popular. Money invested in an annuity is locked away and cannot be passed on to the retiree's heirs. Recently, low interest rates and longer life spans have caused annuity rates to fall sharply. Last month the Financial Conduct Authority, Britain's regulator, concluded that the annuity market “is not working well for consumers”.
Few anticipated George Osborne's sweeping response. In his budget speech, the chancellor outlined a plan to do away with the requirement to buy an annuity and all the arcane rules that accompany it. Retirees will be free to draw down their pension pot as they like, subject to paying tax at their marginal rate. That will bring Britain into line with other countries including America, Australia and Denmark.
It may prove a popular idea, but is it a good one? Pensions get generous tax treatment to encourage people to provide for retirement; if they blow their pension pot on a Maserati, they may end up as wards of the state, particularly in their later years when many will need expensive care in nursing homes.
The government reckons that most people can be trusted to make sensible decisions (although it is also proposing that they be given advice when they retire). But that view sits oddly with its other policies. Many workers are now auto-enrolled in pension plans, on the basis that they are too apathetic to provide for their futures voluntarily. Do people suddenly acquire wisdom when they retire, perhaps?
The change will have wide-ranging consequences, not least for the insurance companies that sell annuities, several of which saw sharp share-price plunges. To the extent that pensioners do take more of their pension pot upfront, the government will get tax revenues earlier than before; the boost may be worth ￡1.2 billion ($2 billion) by the 2018-19 financial year.
But there are dangers for the state too. Public employees such as doctors and teachers are covered by final-salary schemes, under which the government guarantees to pay them a retirement income. These pensions are funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning the Treasury has put no money aside to cover them. If public-sector workers decided to transfer their money into a private pension pot, to take advantage of the new freedom, the Treasury would have to cough up the cash immediately; the government is proposing to deny public-sector workers that right.
The same worry applies to private-sector final-salary schemes, which might suddenly face a cash drain if workers opt to convert. Such pension schemes are big investors in government bonds, and the switch might make it more difficult to fund Britain's deficit. So private-sector workers in final-salary schemes may also lose their right to transfer. Freedom for some retirees will thus come at the price of restrictions on others.
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