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Poor subsidising the rich in private pensions

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Mark Easton | 17:01 UK time, Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"Pensions reduced if you are middle class" thunders the Daily Telegraph this morning. But what the story actually does is remind us how the poor continue to subsidise the rich in their private pensions.

The front-page splash is prompted by Norwich Union's decision to join Prudential and Legal & General in tailoring pension payouts to your post code. The annual value of the annuity a pensioner can buy at retirement will be lower depending on where you live.

The Telegraph puts it this way: "People in middle class areas such as Surrey, Sussex and Buckinghamshire will receive up to £230 a year less each year than those in parts of Manchester or Glasgow."

PensionersWell, this is only true if you assume a pension pot of £100,000. However, not many people in Easterhouse or Moss Side can afford a private pension like that - if at all. The national average private pension pot is actually about £30,000, a figure that does not take account of the millions of people who rely on state or occupational pensions and whose private pot is zero.

But let's follow through the logic of the Telegraph argument. If you live in a deprived part of Glasgow you would get a guaranteed annual payment of £7,818. However, pensioners in Kensington in London would get only £7,590 a year from the same £100,000 pot, "a full £228 less" as the paper helpfully points out.

The Norwich and Union has done this because they are in the business of risk, not social engineering. The fact is that on average people in Kensington live longer than people in central Glasgow. A lot longer.

The table from the ONS paper (pdf link) on the subject shows how long a man is expected to live after their 65th birthday in different areas.

Local areas in the UK with the highest and lowest male life expectancy at age 65, 2004-06
RankLocal areaCountry/English Government Office RegionLife expectancy at age 65 (years)
Highest Life expectancy at age 65
1Kensington and ChelseaLondon22.0
2Crawley South East20.3
4RutlandEast Midlands19.9
5East DorsetSouth West19.4
6West SomersetSouth West19.3
7ChristchurchSouth West19.3
8South ShropshireWest Midlands19.2
9LewesSouth East19.1
10GuildfordSouth East18.9
Lowest Life expectancy at age 65
432Glasgow CityScotland13.8
430North LanarkshireScotland14.9
429West DunbartonshireScotland14.9
427KnowsleyNorth West15.3
426ManchesterNorth West15.3
425LiverpoolNorth West15.3
424HartlepoolNorth East15.4
423Cannock ChaseWest Midlands15.4

You can see that a male pensioner in Glasgow is likely to get another 13.8 years while the pensioner in Kensington will probably be around for a further 22 years.

The arithmetic is telling. The average Kensington policy-holder will get £166,980 from their pension pot across a lifetime. The equivalent in Glasgow will get £107,888 - barely what they put in.

Far from the rich subsidising the poor, it is still the other way around - despite the Norwich Union's claims that their motivation is to make the situation fairer. "It is currently unfair because people living in poor postcodes are, in effect, funding those that live longer and live in rich postcodes", said Scott Brown of Norwich Union.

I suspect this has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with business. Coincidentally, postcodes were first introduced in Norwich in 1959 to improve the postal system, but increasingly insurers have been using them to calculate your premium.

Your buildings insurance is largely dictated by your code which will be used to estimate the risk of flooding and subsidence. Your contents insurance will reflect the crime in your post-code. (Taken together, this apparently makes West Norwood in South London the most expensive area for home insurance in the whole of the UK, thanks to an above-average risk of burglary, flooding and subsidence).

Your postcode will have a bearing on your car insurance - according to one survey the cheapest rates are found in Dundee and the most expensive in East London.

Life insurance policies are likely to be cheaper in areas where people live longer.

Until recently it was the first three digits of your postcode that held the key to your premium but sophisticated 'spatial data' means insurance firms now have an interest in the second half to find out really detailed information.

But people are not being targeted for being middle class or poor, feckless or greedy. Financial services are interested in cold numbers and the products they sell are designed to maximise profit, not change society.


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  • 1. At 9:38pm on 23 Sep 2008, busby2 wrote:


    Haven't you missed the point?

    The big story is that value of private pensions have fallen 20% in the last year and the outlook is poor given the predicament of the financial situation. A difference of a couple of hundred pounds between different postcode areas is of realtively little importance compared to the loss of thousands of pounds in the past year from pension pots.

    This begs the question of whether it is now worthwhile investing in a private pension at all. Projections are nothing more than guesses and whether a pensioner gets a decent return depends purely on chance.

    Isn't if far better to put your savings in cash ISAs and in short term cash bonds as offered by the largest building society? At least you retain control and get a guaranteed return.

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  • 2. At 9:40pm on 23 Sep 2008, herbmanbob wrote:

    I would suppose this is somthing that most people wouldn't think about, but it does raise some issues over when the pot is paid and how it is spent. Maybe a term should be written into pensions that forces the pension to be set over 25 years and if the person dies before that time the rest of the pension is paid as a life insurance lump sum. This would make the system fair but the chance of pension companys ever paying out the full pension to everyone is slim with a lot of pension holders dieing before the full pension is paid.

    So its quids in for both the socialy advantaged and the pension companys.

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  • 3. At 11:49pm on 23 Sep 2008, neonMerlin wrote:

    So in effect people are being forced into an impaired-life annuity (normally a humane recognition of an inevitable truth) by the crudest of tools - a postcode lottery? These have already been discredited in many areas of life - surely a more personal, realistic tool is possible - such as a healthcheck?

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  • 4. At 00:26am on 24 Sep 2008, Jack Kilms wrote:

    You have correctly pointed out how annuities work and that for example the Scots do not live as long.

    Having correctly pointed it out the title is entirely contradicted. Nobody subsidises anyone, the system is designed to be fairer (though personally I shall be moving to the Goebbels the day before I retire and moving back the day after)

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  • 5. At 10:03am on 24 Sep 2008, RichardManns wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 6. At 10:57am on 24 Sep 2008, Peter_Sym wrote:

    #4 Goebbels was the nazi propaganda minister. You mean the Gorbals. However as most inhabitants of the Gorbals are pakistani muslim their life expectancy is far better than many parts of the east end of Glasgow as they don't drink, smoke less and have a better diet.

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  • 7. At 11:18am on 24 Sep 2008, RichardManns wrote:

    All this article tells us is that the pension schemes are forced to use postcodes as a crude indicator of life expectancy rather than a health-check, otherwise the situation would be far more disparate.

    You state the many of the poorer people are on State Pension, yet continue as if that money were from a magical land far away, and not paid for by the higher earners, who will never see that money again because they secured their own future without relying upon the State. The rich (that means, I suspect, people who have a job) are subsidising the poor.

    Gordon Brown has ravaged our pensions, and transformed our country from one of the best-provisioned EU states for old-age to one of the worst.

    Finally, "the products they sell are designed to maximise profit, not change society" - thankfully they are as I want my pensions fund to stay out of bankruptcy, not act as an irrational fount of largesse for social engineering.

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  • 8. At 11:28am on 24 Sep 2008, Peter_Sym wrote:

    "Gordon Brown has ravaged our pensions, and transformed our country from one of the best-provisioned EU states for old-age to one of the worst."

    Gordon Brown removed a few tax breaks from private pensions, not least to fund the bail out schemes for when they go bust (a la equitable life). As most people rely on the equity in their houses, state pension or employers scheme it made very little difference to the overall retirement plans of most of us. The stock market doing a nose dive has done 100 times more damage than Brown ever could.

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  • 9. At 12:25pm on 24 Sep 2008, Lizzie P wrote:

    Firstly, pensions are the only investment where you get tax relief on your contributions (other than a little used share save scheme). Members of occupational schemes will also benefit from employer contributions. Pensions in payment are payable for life . None of these apply to other investmnets such as ISAs. If you try and use the equity in your house you are going to have to by an annuity with any proceeds on sale or do an equity realease scheme otherwise the money will run out.

    Gordon Brown stopped all occupational schemes from reclaiming the tax paid on dividneds - so a pension fund that received an £80 dividend would have got £20 of tax relief from the Treasury. This was done at a time when DB schemes were in surplus and he assumed the public wouldn't notice. The money from the Pensions Protection Fund which is for DB schemes run by companies which go bust comes from other schemes not the Government.

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  • 10. At 12:53pm on 24 Sep 2008, Pud wrote:

    When Gordon Brown stopped pensions from reclaiming dividend tax he killed off the private-sector final salary schemes. Companies were given a choice between either paying the difference or closing the schemes, not surprisingly they decided they couldn't afford the increased liability. This doesn't affect all the Labour-voting public sector workers whose final salary schemes aren't funded from investment but by the taxpayer.

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  • 11. At 1:00pm on 24 Sep 2008, SheffTim wrote:

    An open question:
    As a) pension funds invest money where they can to make a profit. b) The current credit crunch and crisis in the financial sector is due to the sub-prime bubble. Does anyone know if the pension funds have lost out and if so by how much?

    Being suspicious minded I wonder if one of the nasty surprises lying in wait is that many pension funds and public bodies will be unable to honour pension schemes.

    Any thoughts on this?

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  • 12. At 2:03pm on 24 Sep 2008, Lizzie P wrote:

    Most DB schemes are closed to new members and companies are continuing to finance their liabilties.
    A lot of schemes have changed from equiies into bonds in recent years although most are still in deficit. Recent market conditions have made things worse but companies can not just 'walk away' like they could in the past otherwise the deficit becomes their debt. There is also some protection from the Pensions Protection Fund although not 100% of all benefits would be paid.

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  • 13. At 4:18pm on 24 Sep 2008, Peter_Sym wrote:

    #9. Thats not strictly true. You can make a very large amount of money on property tax free if you work the laws regarding capital gains tax. Equally you can do what my former landlord did when he realised that his pension was looking inadequate- he cashed it in, bought a house and planned on using the rental income as a pension.

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  • 14. At 4:18pm on 24 Sep 2008, Lord_Nose wrote:

    What next? NI payments aren't higher if you live an area with chronic health problems. Likewise, the state pension isn't higher in such places either. The same social principles should apply to private pensions and greedy insurance companies made to toe the line - or go and sell in America instead.

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  • 15. At 7:37pm on 24 Sep 2008, busby2 wrote:

    All the replies confirm that the pension payable on a private pension is a lottery.

    The amount depends on all manner of circumstances that cannot be predicted when someone starts saving for a private pension. I understand for example that annuity rates have halved since 1997 which means you need a pension pot twice as high just to obtain the same income in cash terms, without taking inflation into account.

    Gordon Brown has pretty much destroyed final salary company pension schemes by taxing dividend income. I understand that the cumulative total taken from pension funds is 100 billion pounds. He continued to tax pension schemes even when they started losing money when the stock market fell, not long after Labour came into office. That was unforgivable.

    The Gordon Brown housing boom of the first 10 years of this Labour Govt was seen by many as a way of boosting their pension funds, a sort of compensation for the way Brown had robbed their pension funds. The idea for many was to downsize on retirement and buy somewhere smaller and use the balance to supplement their pension. Now that the housing bubble has well and truly burst, this option now looks far less promising.

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  • 16. At 06:24am on 25 Sep 2008, scawbyman wrote:

    Given the financial state of the nation I suspect a number of these companies will dissapear and take a lot of pensions with them before they are claimed....or worse, gamble and lose your money on the stock market then get it all back again from your tax payments via a government more interested in profit than people.

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  • 17. At 5:22pm on 25 Sep 2008, bobjob wrote:

    Busby2 is quite right. Gordon Brown's deliberate destruction of pension schemes by removing tax relief is his most unforgiveable act of vandalism and theft. It was also an act of short-sighted political stupidity; a whole generation will remember this as they approach the poverty of retirement. This has become a monument to the worst of Brown's financial mistakes. How likely are they to vote for him now?

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  • 18. At 09:22am on 26 Sep 2008, Duncan wrote:

    Why don't we just ban postcodes? They are becoming a lot like an ID card...

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  • 19. At 12:27pm on 26 Sep 2008, gq2006 wrote:

    I seriously object to this article which re-enforces the hard-done by justification of those in less afluent areas as an excuse to extract more from those who are more afluent as some kind of social injustice.

    Your life expectance is much more down to personal lifestyle choices than your economic background and includes your choice not to smoke, drink heavily, to excercise etc most of which are free.

    A person from a deprived area who takes care of themselves will benefit most at the expense of all others.

    Thanks to G Brown I'm not affluent, but I aspire to be, unlike those who aspire to little and expect to be catered for. This article holds some responsibility for propagating the acceptability of those who could work, but survive off the state.

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  • 20. At 5:02pm on 26 Sep 2008, anonUK1 wrote:

    busby2 needs to understand that pensions are a long term investment and looking at one year's fluctuations is not really a good idea. Had the changes 2 years ago allowed BTL and other properties into pension funds, these would also be now taking a nose dive.

    Sure, invest in cash if you feel it's safer but over a 30-40 year period of employment, don't expect much above inflation growth.

    Over the long run, stock markets have proven the best for growth. We may be in for a period of major ups and downs, but even today, the FTSE is over 2x what it was 15 years ago and up 50% on 5 years ago (ok, let's not talk about 10 years!).

    The real culprits behind today's pension problems are the actuaries who under estimated life expectancy back in the early 1990s. This made pension funds look overfunded. The Tories (post Maxwell) threatened to tax overfunded funds, so companies could not shelter profits in them. Companies took pension holidays as result. This made their profits look higher, so drove stock prices higher, making funds look even more overfunded. This caused a "virtuous" circle. By 1997, it looked like funds could afford to have the dividend tax break they enjoyed removed. GB did that. At worst, all else being equal (which it isn't of course) it would have reduced annual grwoth by less than 1% a year.

    Then a whole flock of chickens came home to roost. The actuaries recalculated life expectancy and so funds no longer looked overfunded, the reverse in fact. The true value of companies was also reassesed and they also then had to take from their profits to fund the funding gaps. A vicious circle developed resulting in stock market crash of the early 2000s. This was exacerbated by people starting to invest in property (or worse, in nothing) to fund their pensions.

    So, the tax on dividends was a minor player, though I guess it's a convenient excuse for pension fund managers to hide behind: "don't blame my investment strategy, blame Gordon!".

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  • 21. At 5:34pm on 26 Sep 2008, Secret Love wrote:

    It wasn't just the tax though - it was making pension deficits be recorded on balance sheets, that devalued companies, thus discouraging investors - indeed bankrupting some companies so their pensioners got nothing.

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  • 22. At 6:21pm on 26 Sep 2008, anonUK1 wrote:

    Another key factor was the reduction in annuity rates that came about as inflation and long term interest rates reduced over the last 10-15 years. This meant that £1000 of pension fund 10 years ago bought more than the same amount now. Hence, pension funds bought less pension, meaning they had to have even more funding to buy a given pension.

    Collectively these factors meant that final salary schemes were doomed and the writing was on the wall before 1997.

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  • 23. At 10:26pm on 26 Sep 2008, busby2 wrote:

    anonUK1, the charge against Gordon Brown is not only that he taxed dividend income on pensions but that he continued to do so even when it became perfectly clear that pension funds couldn't possibly afford the cost without cutting benefits. Gordon Brown made a bad situation much worse, and I think that is unforgivable for those with private pensions.

    I think the lack of care and concern of this Govt for pension schemes was illustrated a few weeks ago when there was a strike at a refinery. The workforce were not striking for more pay but striking to protect their pensions and the pensions of newcomers to the firm. The response of the Govt minister, himself nicely protected by an index linked final salary pension scheme far more generous than that paid to his civil servants, was to attack the strikers for trying to protect their pensions.

    My experience with long term investments has been with endowment policies. Their performance declined shortly after Labour came to power and they did not pay back the basic amount projected when I took them out 25 years ago. It was fortunate they matured earlier this year and not in the last week or so, otherwise I expect the small final bonus would have been even smaller!

    What return you get back on long term investments is a matter of luck. And as you know yourself, people are having to put in more and more into pension funds to get back less than they would have done in the past.

    Who, starting out on their career nowadays in the private sector, can expect to be able to retire on a decent pension, other than those that reach the top and earn very high salaries? For those who remain on low incomes, it now appears that they would be better off not saving for a pension as whatever pension they might earn won't be worth having when they retire, and they would be better off relying on the good old taxpayer.

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  • 24. At 11:13am on 27 Sep 2008, anonUK1 wrote:

    busby2: You have essentially argued for the public sector (in particular our legislators) entering the real world of pensions that the rest of us inhabit. I agree with that 100% - the argument that public sector pay is lower than private sector, so a more generous pension arrangement is necessary, is no longer tenable. Final salary, index linked pensions are a thing of the past in the private sector and aren't going to make a comeback anytime soon.

    Based on the factors I explained above, private companies have transferred the pensions risk from themselves to their employees. If they didn't do that their competitiveness globally would be reduced. Closing final salary funds to new employees is a sensible way (for companies) to transition. New employees know the terms of employment when they join and can make an informed choice. Current employees can continue to have the terms they signed upto. Attempting to protect new employees as well is probably the surest way to accelerating the closure of such schemes to all employees. However, the risk is that there will be a two-tier set of employees which could stoke up resentment long term.

    As for such investments being a "matter of luck", there are ways of mitigating that risk. Putting all your funds into equities right upto to the day you retire is high risk and exposed to short term fluctuations. In the 5-10 years before retirement gradually move more of the fund to cash and lower risk investments and you'll have less exposure to risk. Good fund managers will do that for you anyway. That way "luck" can be managed.

    Whoever was in government over the last 10 years would have faced the same issues. Taxing dividends certainly didn't help, but was not the fundamental cause of these problems. The Endowments problems you refer to had their roots in the 1980s and these chickens also came home to roost when inflation and interest rates were brought down dramatically.

    What I now expect a government to do is to make the hard task of moving the public sector towards the same types of pension schemes that the private sector has. Comparisons with other EU countries with generous state provision are interesting, but over the long term they will be uncompetitive as they face the same longer life expectancies that the rest of the developed world faces and will have to fund such pensions out of current taxation, increasing the tax burden.

    Basic message is have a diversified set of investments, don't expect a quick fix (eg property) and there certainly is no free lunch.

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  • 25. At 10:11am on 28 Sep 2008, kayakpaddler wrote:

    Why is it always the Government's fault? Surely our financial problems and in particular our pension woes are as a result of poor funds management by the companies we trust with our contributions. The additional taxes on pension schemes were to provide some sort of safety net to protect against the likes of people like Maxwell.

    As with any public company with shareholders, the responsibility of the Board of that company is to make money for those shareholders and is not, contrary to popular opinion, to provide security for us in our declining years.

    If we are going to blame anyone for our financial woes, surely it should be the bosses who manage these various financial institutions and are sitting very pretty with annual bonuses and share options which make the salaries, let alone the pensions that most of us live on pale into insignificance.

    If we don't like our governements, we at least have the option in the UK to change them at regular interval, a priviledge not extended to people of many nations on the World.

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  • 26. At 10:12am on 29 Sep 2008, vsmani40 wrote:

    Poor subsidising the rich has always been there since the days of Robert Maxwell. Mrs Thatcher did nothing about it and so did successive govts including the present Labour and Gordon Brown.

    Once they regulate so that the top brass can only take as pension what they have contributed and its growth, without touching the pension funds, all other regulations are only cosmetic to appease the general public.

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  • 27. At 1:48pm on 29 Sep 2008, GrooveCafe wrote:

    "Finally, "the products they sell are designed to maximise profit, not change society" - thankfully they are as I want my pensions fund to stay out of bankruptcy, not act as an irrational fount of largesse for social engineering."

    So those short-sellers "maximising profit" was good for all of pension funds?

    I have to agree with post 8 and 25. The stock market dive, driven by a desire for short term profit rather than long term economic gain and prosperity, has the most impact, postcodes pretty much meaningless. We've all lost, except for those making a fast buck on the back of the current financial climate. Brown a criminal? Not on those terms, unless he was aware of and condoning such trading practices.

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  • 28. At 2:46pm on 29 Sep 2008, busby2 wrote:


    I entirely agree that private companies have transferred the pensions risk from themselves to their employees. Whilst there are many reasons for this, there is absolutely no doubt that taking over 100 billion pounds from pension funds since 1997 has been a major factor. You only need to compare the size of pension funds deficits with the amount taken from funds by Gordon Brown to see just how damaging he has been to all private pension funds.

    The Govt has also taken action to hit the competiveness of companies that offer decent pensions to their employees. Take the Royal Mail, for example. The Govt has opened the mail up to unfair competition from privat competitors. It is bad enough that they compel the Royal Mail to deliver the mail of private companies (the final mile) for a fixed price irrespective of the cost but they know full well that competitors of the Royal Mail
    can compete on price simply because they don't have a comparable pension fund to fund unlike the Royal Mail. This pressure on the Royal Mail has forced them to cut services and find other ways to increase revenue which are not in the interests of consumers, like me. That is why we now have increased prices for thicker letters and a handling charge of £1 for underpayment on letters which is far more that the previous charge of double the amount due.

    The treatment of the Royal Mail is a classic example of how this Govt has made life worse for employees and the public. No organisation can can compete fairly with the Royal Mail with their universal postal service at a fixed price so the Govt had to impose unfair conditions and competition on them.

    I think we have to decide if we want to live in a society in which those on low/average wages can share in the prosperity of this country and live to retire on a decent pension or whether we don't mind living in a society where we work people until they die because the lower and average paid can never afford to retire.

    What I would like to see is a tax regime on companies that restores a level playing field between those that take the risk of providing pensions for their employees and those who pass the risk onto their employees.

    It was Winston Churchill who said that without the minimum wage "the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst". We now have the situation where the good employer who provides good pensions for their employees is undercut by the bad who provide limited pension provision and they in turn are undercut by the worst who provide no pension provision.

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  • 29. At 2:51pm on 29 Sep 2008, Tony Boulton wrote:

    Maybe someone can tell me how much less I will get for living overseas. I call it daylight robbery. This is one of those "heads they win, tails I lose" situations.

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  • 30. At 6:00pm on 01 Oct 2008, David_Bouvier wrote:

    AnonUK1 -

    Cutting annual investment returns on your pension fund by just 1% makes a huge difference in your pension pot, because the difference is compounded over your entire working life.

    For a steady payment over 45 years, the difference is around 30-40% depending on the base average return you assume.

    Gordon's tax raid on pensions would cost you nearly a 1/3 of your pension over a life time. Got that?!

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  • 31. At 2:56pm on 02 Oct 2008, rogers2008 wrote:

    Once again there is a failure to understand the basis of financing an annuity. Pensions have always been based on 'actuarial' rates. In the mid 1960's when I worked in the actuarial dept of a major pension provider the average life expectancy of a male blue collar worker was around 4.5 years after retirement at age 65 and a male white collar worker was around 9 years. At the same time jobs in many sectors were 'for life' and the presentation of a gold watch for 40+ years service was quite a common occurrance. In this situation financing the 'pension pot' was much easier than it is today - not only because of a greatly extended life expectancy but also 'job mobility'. If people still wish to retire at 65 and then enjoy 15+ years of retirement rather than working until 70 or 75 then they must face up to the fact they they must either make a private provision to fund this or pay much more in taxes if they expect to draw a 'state pension' for this period of time. MONEY DOES NOT GROW ON TREES!

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  • 32. At 5:09pm on 02 Oct 2008, busby2 wrote:


    The life expectancy of men reaching 65 was a further 15 years in 1997 and had risen to 16.5 years by 2007. This is an increase of a mere 10%.

    And yet in the same period you needed twice the pension pot in 2007 as you did in 1997 to obtain the same pension in money terms before inflation is taken into account.

    Do the maths. The increase in life expectancy is just a small part of the reason why funding private pensions is now so much more expensive than before Labour took office. Other factors, like falling interest rates and taxation on pension funds by Brown, have had a far more significant negative effect on financing pension provision than increased life expectancy.

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