Taha Lokhandwala considers whether the UK government’s latest move to create free choice in DC markets stacks up for pension schemes
Much of the talk in the UK over the last year has been one of annuities, whether it be bulk, individual, medically underwritten or just downright poor value. The reason has been the government’s reforms made in last year’s Budget statement.
The chancellor has allowed those approaching retirement in defined contribution (DC) schemes the freedom to spend any which way they please. In yesterday’s Budget, he extended this freedom to existing annuitants as the UK government began consulting on creating a secondary market for annuities, where consumers wanting to rid themselves of the retirement product could sell their income stream for a cash sum to a third party.
This creates an interesting prospect, one where bundled together annuities essentially create a new form of fixed income investment, as annuity providers continue to pay out regular income streams to the third party, until the contract ends as the original policyholder dies.
On a basic level, this kind of makes sense for pension funds. Nothing is really more liability-matching than an annuity, and even when not an exact match like a buy-in, there is still some correlation. The government alludes to this. In the consultation, HM Treasury says asset managers, pension funds, insurers and intermediaries are ideal buyers for second-hand annuities, with the mortality risk the buyer takes on offset by longevity risk. And we all know pension funds have enough of that.
So that should be set, then. Pensioners will rush to the markets to sell their ‘poor-value’ annuities, intermediaries will bundle them into fixed income products, and asset managers and pension funds will start adding the products into their fixed income allocations.
Well, not quite.
As mentioned above, bundled annuities do not quite match a pension scheme’s liabilities as well as a buy-in. So, according to Ian Mills of consultancy LCP, the only real place for the product would be if, one, it was valued cheaper than a traditional bulk annuity, and two, if it provided a better yield and risk management than traditional fixed income.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that bundled annuities, packaged in the right way, could do this, but the core issue remains pricing. The government, in its own consultation, suggests it has no concept on how to price second-hand annuities appropriately. In fact, it goes on to say retail investors should not be allowed to purchase second-hand annuities due to the complexities in determining a fair price.
(Immediately, one sees a contradiction here, given that the sellers in the market are given free rein while the very same market, comprising the same retail investors, are not trusted to buy. But that is another issue.)
This idea of a fair price is a difficult one to understand, as annuities are priced in for all risks from the start to provide this guaranteed income. To leave this, the holder obviously must prefer flexibility, but this always comes at a huge cost. So the only real way for this market to come together is for annuity holders to take a significant shaving off the value of their income stream.
Bob Scott, also of LCP, puts it quite succinctly: “If someone wants to buy your annuity, you probably shouldn’t sell it. And, if someone wants to sell their annuity, the buyer is unlikely to offer them an attractive price.”
That alone makes this is a difficult policy to envisage taking off. Even if there were a fully working market for secondary annuities, which created new fixed income products for pension funds and reduced the cost of annuities across the board, it could be a counter-productive area for schemes to enter.
Because whatever the benefit for pension funds, ultimately, the cost of it all will be laid fully at the feet of pensioners.