The press was full of ‘pension bank account’ stories in October. Will it be that simple?

The Taxation of Pensions Bill, which will put most of the Budget 2014 pension changes into law, was published in mid-October. It contained few surprises, not least because it had been issued in draft in August, along with detailed explanatory notes. Nevertheless, the Treasury pumped out a press release and the media duly splashed the (old) news.

The emphasis in the press coverage was, to quote the Treasury release “Under the new tax rules, individuals will have the flexibility of taking a series of lump sums from their pension fund, with 25% of each payment tax free and 75% taxed at their marginal rate, without having to enter into a drawdown policy.” It was this reform which prompted the talk of using pensions as bank accounts. However, things may not be quite that simple in practice:

• The new rules do not apply to final salary pension schemes, which may only provide a scheme pension and a pension commencement lump sum.

• It is already possible to make this type of 25% tax free/75% taxable withdrawal under the flexible drawdown provisions introduced in 2011. This has not proved very popular.

• The new rules are meant to come into effect on 6 April 2015, but they are not mandatory, so some pension providers may choose not to offer them. It seems likely that many occupational money purchase schemes will avoid any changes, as they were never designed to make payments out – that was the job of the annuity provider. Similarly many insurance companies may not be willing to offer flexibility on older generations of pension plan – just as some do not currently offer drawdown.

• The short timescale has been criticised by the pensions industry. Systems and administrative changes can only be finalised once the Bill has become law and that will be perilously close to April, making it difficult for providers to bring in the changes from day one.

• If you are able to take a large lump from your pension, the tax consequences could be most unwelcome. For example, drawing out £100,000 would mean adding £75,000 to your taxable income – enough to guarantee you pay at least some higher rate tax, regardless of your income, and quite possibly sufficient to mean the loss of all or part of your personal allowance. No wonder the Treasury expects to increase tax revenue as a result of the reforms.

• Ironically another of the pension reforms, reducing the tax on lump sum death benefits, could mean you are best advised to leave your pension untouched and draw monies from elsewhere.

The new pension tax regime will present many opportunities and pitfalls, not all of which are immediately apparent. Do make sure you ask for our advice before taking any action.

The value of tax reliefs depends on your individual circumstances. Tax laws can change. The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate tax advice. The value of investments can go down as well as up and you may not get back the full amount you invested. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

Tips to Maximise Your Retirement Savings

Use these best practices to build a secure retirement plan.

Saving Early.
By beginning your retirement saving at an early age, you allow more time for your money to grow. As gains each year build on the prior year’s, it’s important to understand the power of compounding and take advantage of the opportunity to help your money grow.

Set realistic goals.
Review your current situation and establish retirement expenses based on your needs.

Focus on Asset Allocation.
Build a portfolio with proper allocation of stocks and bonds, as it will have a huge impact on long-term goals.

For the best long-term growth, choose stocks.
Over long periods, stocks have the best chance of attracting high returns.

Don’t overweight a portfolio in bonds.
Even in retirement, do not move heavy into bonds. Many retirees tend to make this move for the income, however, in the long-term, inflation can eliminate the purchasing power of bond’s interest payments.

If in doubt, see a properly qualified independent financial adviser who can help you put together a plan to achieve your financial goals and implement the necessary arrangements to put it into effect.

Beware of the hidden risks of low-risk investing

Most investors recognize and understand the risks involved when investing. However, during times of extreme market decline, even the toughest investors’ risk tolerance is tested. Such dramatic downturns can force many to limit their risk exposure. But, regardless of market highs and lows, investors really need to maintain perspective and proper risk to pursue their long-term financial goals.

“Low risk” investments help protect one from a decline in the overall stock market, but might leave one exposed to other risks not seen on the surface.

Risk #1: Inflation cutting your real return
After subtracting taxes and inflation, the return one receives from a low-risk investment may not be enough to remain ahead of inflation.

Risk #2: Limiting your portfolio’s growth potential
Beware, some portfolios with low-risk investments may be riskier than one realizes due to the limited growth potential of these investments.

Risk #3: Your income can drop when interest rates drop
If interest rates have dropped by the time a low-risk investment becomes due, one might have to reinvest at a lower rate of return, resulting in a lower yield each month.

A properly constructed portfolio with the correct balance between risk and return will mitigate the risks of market volatility. When deciding on how to invest, it is important for investors to take into account their personal attitude to risk and capacity for loss but also to understand the performance characteristics of different blends of equities and bonds and in particular, how their own portfolio might behave. This will ensure that when markets perform in a particular way, investors will appreciate that this is within the range of possible outcomes for their portfolio.

This is where an independent financial adviser can help by guiding investors to the correct choice of portfolio, which has the best chance of helping them achieve their goals. They can also help educate investors so that they better understand what to expect and encourage them to adopt a disciplined approach.

Pension death benefits – you can take it or leave it!

Those looking to pass on their pension fund received a boost today when the Government confirmed they’re following through on their promise to scrap the current 55% tax charge on death. This means the tax system will no longer penalise those who draw sensibly on their pension fund, making pensions a very attractive wealth transfer wrapper.

What’s changing?
Your age at death will still determine how your pension death benefits are treated. The age 75 threshold remains, but with some very welcome amendments.

Death before 75
The pension fund can be taken tax free, at any time, whether in instalments, or as a one-off lump sum. This will apply to both crystallised and uncrystallised funds, which means those in drawdown will see their potential tax charge on death cut from 55% to zero overnight. Using the fund to provide beneficiaries with a sustainable stream of income allows it to potentially grow tax free, while remaining outside their estate for IHT.

Death after 75
DC Pension savers will be able to nominate who ‘inherits’ their remaining pension fund. This fund can then be taken under the new pension flexibility and will be taxed at the beneficiary’s marginal rate as they draw income from it. Alternatively, they’ll be able to take it as a lump sum less a 45% tax charge.

What does this mean for advice?

Funding
Taken with all the other pension changes coming in April 2015, this creates a genuine incentive to save, knowing that family members can benefit from the remaining fund. It means that a pension will become a family savings plan, enabling one generation to support the next.

Drawing an income
The current 55% tax charge on death acts as a penalty for scheme members who take a sustainable income from their pension pot. The only way to delay this charge is for a surviving dependant to continue taking an income from the fund.

The option of taking a lump sum is often overlooked in favour of postponing the tax charge until the dependant’s death.

The new rules will mean that beneficiaries other than dependants may now benefit from the remaining fund, without suffering a 55% penalty.

Death before age 75 offers the option of a tax free lump sum. But it also allows the fund to remain within the pension wrapper which the beneficiaries would have flexible access to. And nominating a loved one to take over the flexible pension pot will also be a popular choice when death occurs after this age.

These changes will standardise the death benefit treatment for the different flexible income options from next April. There won’t, for example, be any difference between taking phased flexi-drawdown or phased withdrawal, as crystallised and uncrystallised funds will be treated the same on death.

Making instructions known

It will become even more important that death benefit instructions mirror the scheme member’s wishes. A nomination or expression of wish will help to guide the scheme trustees in their decision making. You wouldn’t knowingly entrust what happens to your home or other assets on death to a stranger. If there are no instructions in place, you’re relying on the pension scheme trustees to second guess your intentions. And with such wholesale changes to the death benefit rules to come, advisers will need to revisit existing nominations at their next client reviews.

All eyes on 3rd December

It’s worth stressing that more detail is awaited, particularly on the operational elements of how the new rules will work in practice. The next step is to see the full details in the Autumn Statement on 3rd December. We’ll provide updates on the final pieces of the pensions reform jigsaw, as it all starts to slot into place. Watch this space.

The Seven-Day News Diet

The financial media recently has been consumed by the issue of ultra-fast computer-driven trading and what it might mean for ordinary investors. But arguably what does the most harm to people are their own responses to high frequency news.

The growth of 24/7 business news channels and, more recently, financial blogs, Twitter feeds and a myriad of social media outlets has left many people feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information coming at them.

The frequent consequence of the constant chatter across mainstream and social media is that investors feel distracted and unanchored. They drift on tides of opinions and factoids and forecasts that seem to offer no single direction.

The upshot is they end up second guessing themselves and backing away from the resolutions they made in less distracted times under professional guidance.

Remonstrations by advisors can steer them back on track for a little while, but soon enough, like binge eaters raiding the fridge, they’re quietly turning on CNBC and opening up Twitter to sneak a peek at what’s happening on the markets.

Quitting an ingrained habit is never easy, particularly when asked to go cold turkey. But there are ways of gradually weaning oneself off media noise. And one idea is a “seven-day news diet” that eliminates the distractions a little at a time:

Day: 1 Switch off CNBC. Business news is like the weather report. It changes every day and there’s not much you can do about it. If you really want drama, colour and movement, stick to Downton Abbey.
Day: 2 Avoid Groundhog Day and reprogram the clock radio. Waking up every day to market headlines can be more grating than Sonny and Cher.
Day: 3 Read the newspaper backwards. Start with the sports and weather at the back and skip the finance pages. Small talk will be easier, at least.
Day: 4 Set up some email filters. Do you really need “breaking live news updates” constantly spamming your inbox?
Day: 5 Try “anti-social” media. Facebook is great, but it’s like a fire hose. If you want to be social, pick up the phone and ask someone to lunch.
Day: 6 Feeling the pangs of withdrawal? Go to the library and look up some old newspapers. They can give you a sense of perspective.
Day: 7 You’re nearly there. Use this window to decide on a long-term financial media diet. You might decide to check the markets once a week, instead of once a minute. The important point is to have a plan.
Those who swear off the financial media, if only for a little while, often find they feel more focused and less distracted. The ephemeral gives way to the consequential and they come away from the hiatus with a greater sense of control.

Any changes they make to their investments are then based on their own life circumstances and risk appetites, not on the blitzkrieg of noise coming at them minute to minute via media outlets.

Ultimately, going on a news diet can be about challenging our patterns of consumption and thinking more intently and less reactively about our decisions.

We can still take an interest in the world, of course, but at our own pace and according to our own requirements, not based on the speed of the information coming at us from dozens of gadgets.

In the words of the American political scientist and economist Herbert Simon “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. So it follows that if you economise on your information diet, you can maximise your attention.

Pensions Institute: ‘Almost all’ active managers fail to beat the market

Pensions Institute: ‘Almost all’ active managers fail to beat the market

This article confirms something that those of us involved in looking after client money have known for quite a while, namely that most active fund managers, despite charging extra for the pleasure, are incapable of beating the markets. This underpins our evidence based investment philosophy. To cut a long story short, the evidence from years of academic research, in many cases by Nobel Laureates, firmly suggests that the factor which has the greatest eventual impact on the returns (strictly variability and therefore expected returns, to those of you who are investment boffins) of a portfolio is the high level asset allocation, i.e. the split between equities and bonds. Strategies such as market timing (when should I buy or sell or should I hang on a little longer for the turn?) and stock selection (should I buy Tescos or M&S?) have been shown to have very little impact. Since these are the main methods supposedly used by active fund managers to add value, it comes as no real surprise that most of them fail. I say ‘supposedly’ because many simply track the markets and charge extra for doing so!

So, if you are looking for a portfolio that collects as much as possible of the market rate of return, according to the level or risk that you wish to take, start with the high level split. Then choose low cost funds and perhaps tilt towards sectors that have demonstrated an ability to provide extra returns given a certain amount of extra risk. Above all, avoid succumbing to the perfidious temptations of the financial porn which is regularly pushed out by the active fund management industry. They are thinking about themselves, not you.

What price for Brazil to win?

Every four years, in the build-up to the World Cup, lots of people attempt to predict the results of the competition.

Economists at Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s biggest investment banks, suggest that Brazil is the overwhelming favourite with Argentina trailing a distant second. England has a 1.4 per cent chance of winning, according to the bank.

Stephen Hawking has used a scientific method to calculate that England’s best chances lie in a 4-3-3 formation, playing in temperate conditions, with a European referee, kicking off at 3pm. Even so, he also backs Brazil to win.

And who can forget Paul, the captive German octopus, who correctly predicted the results of all of Germany’s matches in the 2010 World Cup?

People go to great lengths to make credible predictions but it is rarely worth the effort because seldom are they accurate. A more meaningful alternative to making individual predictions is to use the aggregate of all the analysis expressed in book-makers odds. Brazil are currently 11/4 favourites.

We use this idea as the root of our investment philosophy. We do not believe it is possible to reliably predict future events and think it is a waste of money to attempt to do so. We assume that all the relevant information has been taken account of by other people and we trust the aggregate of all analysis.

That aggregate is expressed as the price of a security and is the most reliable expression of the company’s prospects and expected returns.

20140605-191228-69148747.jpg