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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Panorama - Pension companies taking equivalent of 80% of money paid into some pension plans out in fees and commissions

Pension companies are taking the equivalent of 80% of money paid into some pension plans out in fees and commissions, the BBC's Panorama has found.

Paying 120,000 into one HSBC pension plan over 40 years would result in 99,900 being taken out in fees and commissions. This is a financial projection supplied by the bank itself to Panorama.

The figures will cause alarm at a time when, as individuals, we are increasingly being asked to shoulder the risk of seeking financial advice and taking life-changing decisions with little or no expertise.

Tonight's Panorama, Who's Taken My Pension?, on BBC One at 8.30pm, looks at a number of pension plans, using figures provided to the finance education organisation Consumer Financial Education Body (CFEB) and information sent by the companies themselves to the programme.

Twenty one out of the 24 main pension companies volunteered the information to CFEB and confirmed it as accurate. Panorama's scenario looked at someone who pays in 200 a month for the next 40 years. With tax relief, those payments would amount to 120,000.

After 7% growth, Panorama reporter Penny Haslam investigated who would take the most in fees using figures supplied by the companies themselves.

The 99,900 fees accrued on HSBC World Selections Personal Pension are equivalent to 80% of the money paid into the pension plan being taken out again in fees and commissions.

In a statement, HSBC told Panorama their pension offered "good value for money" and was "certainly not one of the most expensive pension schemes in the market."

The Co-op Individual Personal Pension came in at second most expensive, taking out nearly 96,000 in fees across 40 years upon deposits of 120,000.

The Co-op told the programme: "The vast majority of our customers' pensions invest in funds with charges lower or equal to the 'stakeholder' government-set levels."

In third place was Legal and General's Co-funds Portfolio Pension, which would take out 61,000 after 40 years of investment growth. Legal and General did not respond to requests from Panorama for a comment on the level of these fees.

In the City, poorly performing financial investments are known as dog funds and some experts say high fees risk turning some pensions into "dogs".

Malcolm McLean, a pensions consultant, says the problem is a lack of transparency when the pension is sold. He says that while an annual charge of one and a half per cent may not sound a large amount, it builds up each year as the fund gets bigger and the amount taken out in fees grows accordingly.

He tells the programme: "You suddenly find that, after 30 or 40 years, there's a terrific amount of money lost and I don't think many people actually understood that when perhaps they took out the pension."

HSBC told Panorama that of the 99,900 in fees taken from their pension, 20% of that was profit. It said more than 5,000 people had already signed up and it was very popular with their customers.

Dr Paul Woolley, who used to control an investment fund worth billions but is now a finance academic at the London School of Economics, told Panorama: "Fund management fees and brokerage have doubled in the last 10 years, amounting to one and a half per cent in fees. But the net return to pension funds collectively has reduced. And it's reduced by the amount that fees have gone up by."

These fees have risen because of the way pension funds are managed nowadays, according to industry experts. Rather than investing for the long-term, they trade in shares more frequently.

Dr Woolley says: "The average pension fund now probably changes its holdings 100% each year - the average holding period for a share is simply down to one year. That involves a cost that amounts to somewhere between half and 1%, a brokerage cost.

They're exchanging with other pension funds the same shares for no collective advantage but at a cost that reduces the pension fund value by about 25% at the end of 25 years."

The payments into a pension plan are likely to incur a management fee from the pension company, an annual investment fund manager charge and numerous other deductions including establishment fees, dealing fees and brokers' bonuses.

Dr Woolley advocates limiting the churn of shares by pension funds to 30% a year, along with a ban on performance-related bonuses that currently reward bankers even when a pension fund loses money on its investments.

Among fees causing concern are so-called "rebates", where pension companies are receiving payments for investing in particular funds. While some companies pass the rebate, or kickbacks as some City insiders call them, back to the customer, many do not.

The fear is that these rebates mean our money may be left in poorly performing funds simply because they pay the pension companies the best rebates.

Maggie Craig, from the Association of British Insurers, denies the rebates are kickbacks and says they are completely above board.

"A rebate is where a company providing pensions to customers goes and buys investment funds in bulk on the market. Because they can buy in bulk, they get what is effectively a rebate or a discount and that is then used to keep the customers' charges low".

She added: "The details of the rebate between the provider and the supplier are a commercial matter for them and that's not made public. It's a commercially sensitive transaction between the bulk provider of investment and the pension provider."

To secure a better low-cost deal in our retirement, some experts also say we need strength in numbers and a national pension system that signs us up automatically.

Current Government plans for auto-enrolment include the National Employment Savings Trust Scheme (NEST), due to launch in 2012. Employers will be required to automatically enrol employees into a workplace pension and make a minimum contribution. The employee and the government will make further contributions to the scheme.

They have low cost auto-enrolment schemes in Holland and experts say the Dutch benefit from their collective power compared to British pensioners.

David Pitt-Watson, founder of investment firm Hermes Management, tells Panorama: "If you take a typical British person and a typical Dutch person and they save exactly the same amount of money for their pension, on pretty conservative assumptions and being quite generous to Britain, the Dutch person ends up with 50% more than the British person."

The programme also meets people who had they invested in pension plans with lower charges could have had an extra 10 or 20% in their pension pot at retirement just by paying lower fees.

Who's Taken My Pension? Monday 4 October at 8.30pm on BBC One.


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