LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's pensions industry has criticised government plans to introduce collective workplace pension schemes, which formed a part of the legislative programme for the coming year announced on Wednesday.
In a ceremonial speech delivered by The Queen, the government confirmed plans for collective defined contribution (CDC) schemes, part of an overhaul of UK pensions that will also remove the need for retirees to buy annuities with their savings.
But the plans for CDC schemes - which the government has named Defined Ambition schemes - were lambasted by the pensions industry, which warned they would add to a welter of reforms that the industry may struggle to deal with.
"We wonder whether the introduction of rules to allow collective DC arrangements in the UK is a bridge too far for employers and the pensions industry," said Stephen Bowles, head of defined contribution at asset management firm Schroders (SDR.L).
The spate of proposals reflects growing concerns in Britain and other mature economies that ageing populations, with more people living longer in retirement, are not adequately prepared financially and are too expensive for governments to fund.
Under the new legislation, three mutually exclusive types of scheme will be available: defined benefit (or final salary) schemes, which are being phased out by most employers; defined contribution schemes, in which workers build up individual pension pots; and the new collective schemes.
Supporters of the collective schemes say they would reduce costs, as they have the advantage of economies of scale, and could bring richer returns because assets can be kept in riskier investments such as equities, rather than being transferred into safer asset classes as members approach retirement.
LAYER OF COMPLICATION
But Bowles noted any cost advantages would be offset by a cap on charges already announced by the government. And he said CDC schemes could be at odds with the abolition of compulsory annuities, as they would be designed to provide long-term income in retirement.
"The announcement on CDCs seems at best inconsistent with other pension policy, and at worst as another layer of complication in an already overcomplicated industry," Bowles said.
Mark Wood, CEO at advisory firm JLT Employee Benefits, said: "While investment returns and life expectancy conform with expectations, the system brings some benefit. Outside these norms ... the system breaks down.
"Annuities protect the individual from investment risk and living longer than expected. Defined Ambition gives no such guarantee," Wood added.
The schemes have, however, received cross-party support, with opposition Work and Pensions Minister Rachel Reeves saying last week they could boost returns by up to 30 percent - an argument previously made by Pensions Minister Steve Webb.
But some argue that the idea of collective schemes runs counter to the decision to give retirees increased flexibility, as set out in March's budget.
Neil Shillito, investment manager at SG Wealth Management, called the plans "muddled thinking in the extreme", while Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "An employer selecting a CDC scheme may have to explain to their staff why they’ll be missing out on these new pension freedoms.
"Good luck with that."
Critics also warned that predicted returns from the schemes could be too optimistic, noting they had had a mixed record in Denmark and the Netherlands, where 55 out of 415 collective pensions schemes cut benefits to pensioners last year.
Insurers, many of which were left reeling after the budget, may be set to suffer further from the changes, which could deliver another blow to their profitable annuities businesses.
Shares in major pension provider Standard Life (SL.L) fell earlier this week as investors worried about future profit margins, after newspaper reports confirming plans to introduce legislation for the collective schemes.
(Editing by David Holmes)