The pensions industry has been cautioned not to offer a “knee-jerk” reaction to government proposals for the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) to offer drawdown products, amid concerns the provider could distort the decumulation market. 

Reacting to a consultation on the future of the defined contribution (DC) scheme set-up in parallel with the rollout of the UK’s auto-enrolment reform, the pensions industry warned against allowing NEST to compete with, or replace, private sector providers.

The largest master trust, the nearly £1.2bn (€1.4bn) People’s Pension, argued that the government “can’t have its cake and eat it”, with its director of policy Darren Philp insisting that, if NEST wished to compete with other drawdown providers, the cost should not be met by further drawing on its government loan, which at the end of March stood at £460m.

“Given how the market has responded to the challenge of auto-enrolment,” Philp said, “it is far from clear why we should be using a heavily subsidised government-backed scheme to provide services and products the market is well-equipped to provide in its own right.”

Morten Nilsson, chief executive of the £192m fellow master trust Now Pensions, warned that NEST’s entry into the decumulation market risked “significantly [distorting] competition in an already distorted market”.

“Its role was to be a provider of last resort with the intention that it should complement, not compete or replace, private sector providers,” Nilsson added.

NEST has been successful in attracting more than 3.3m members to date, reporting assets under management of £970m as of the beginning of June.

While some of its costs are met through a 0.3% annual management charge, additional costs are met by drawing on the loan.

Immature decumulation market

Gregg McClymont, head of retirement savings at Aberdeen Asset Management, insisted the decumulation market remained “very immature” one year after the end of forced annuitisation and the UK’s pension freedom reforms.

Responding to those critical of NEST’s potential entry into the decumulation market, which the Department for Work and Pensions said would only see it offer drawdown solutions to existing NEST members – thereby ruling out the provider’s directly competing with market participants at retirement – McGlymont said he was “very sensitive” to the arguments put forward.

However, he also questioned how long it would take the industry to develop a drawdown product suited to NEST’s target market, with its stated goal of attracting largely lower-income earners less likely to be financially literate.

“Given NEST’s track record in the accumulation space,” McGlymont said, “given the characteristics of the immature decumulation market, and given NEST’s need to serve its target market more widely, a knee-jerk reaction is probably not the right way to proceed.”

In the wake of the pensions freedom reforms, NEST has been working within its current statutory framework, allowing those members wishing to access savings to take one or more lump-sum payments.

In 2015, the scheme outlined how its future retirement offerings could evolve to blend deferred annuities and income drawdown – allowing for income certainty and members to benefit from future returns.

McClymont, previously the Labour party’s opposition spokesman on pensions, praised NEST’s work on drawdown products.

“This is a market crying out for some sort of innovation, and we’re all trying to provide it,” he said.

“But, actually, it’s difficult because usually you respond to consumer demand in the market – and it’s unclear what the demand is.”

The government consultation is set to close in late September.