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UK pensions industry warns of Budget announcement's impact on DB

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The UK pensions industry has begun digesting the surprise announcement by the government to overhaul the way it taxes and restricts savings in defined contribution (DC) vehicles, with warnings on the implications for defined benefit (DB) savers.

Yesterday, in his annual Budget speech to Parliament, chancellor George Osborne announced a raft of changes to the DC at-retirement market.

A tax surcharge on DC savers accessing the full value of their savings is to be removed, as is the compulsion for pots to be annuitised.

However, in its policy consultation, the government said it needed more detailed analysis on whether to allow DB savers the same allowances.

It has already moved to block the DB savings to DC vehicles in the unfunded public sector pension scheme, and may spread this across funded DB schemes.

John Ball, head of pensions at consultancy Towers Watson, said: “The government is thinking about going further and erecting a wall between private sector DB and DC schemes in order to avoid suppressing demand for Gilts.”

The impact on DB investments was a key concern in the consultation released by the government.

With UK schemes being vast owners of government debt, as well as corporate bonds, any need for trustees to shift assets to maintain appropriate cash levels to match bulk outflows would hamper growth and liability-matching assets.

“Given that the stock of defined benefit liabilities and assets exceeds £1.1trn (€1.3trn), even relatively small changes to this stock could have a significant impact on financial markets,” the government conceeded in yesterday’s annoucement.

Ball also said the removal of the need to annuitise would require DC pension schemes to overhaul current investment strategies.

“Where savers do not make investment decisions themselves, the strategy is usually to protect them against swings in annuity prices as they approach retirement,” he said. “It could be back to the drawing board.”

While industry reactions to the Budget announcement were generally positive, the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) said the move was “perplexing”.

The pension fund lobby group’s chief executive, Joanne Segars, pointed to a contradiction between auto enrolment, the flagship policy to increase pensions coverage, and allowing savers unrestricted access to their pension.

“Experience tells us that people are often ill-informed and make poor decisions about financial planning for old age,” she said.

“It is concerning there appears to be little robust modelling to reassure us the government has understood the risk that a number of people will run through their pension pots far too quickly.

“We fear these reforms, without careful scrutiny, will leave a large swathe of people vulnerable to poverty in old age.”

However, on the other side of the table, the Society of Pension Consultants fully backed the government proposals, calling them a “breath of fresh air”.

President Roger Mattingly said: “In one fell stroke, [Osborne] has broken down the barriers to the customisation of individual benefits for those living in increasingly modern circumstances.”

Jan Burke, a partner at consultancy Aon Hewitt, admitted the firm was concerned running costs for DC schemes would increase.

“There is an inevitable need to review administration, scheme design and in particular the default design, as well as the additional communications to members who will need to understand their new options and how this might influence their investments,” he said.

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