Category: financial planning

Temporary Transfer Relaxation for pensions carrying higher tax free cash or early retirement age

Formerly pension scheme members with schemes carrying a higher entitlement to tax free cash or an early retirement age would loose these when transferring to a new plan, unless at least one other member of the same scheme transferred with them at the same time, to the same scheme. For schemes without any other members, such as section 32 plans, one person EPPs or assigned policies, this meant that the option to preserve protections when transferring to personal pensions was not available.

However, solo transfers are now permissible, as long as the following criteria are met:

• The transfer must fully extinguish all rights within the current plan
• The transfer must be made in a single transaction
• The transfer must be completed before 6 April 2015
• The new plan must be fully crystallised (including any other rights held within the new plan) before 6 October 2015
• Benefits are payable from age 55 (unless a protected retirement age is available).

As the transfer must be completed before 6 April, the investor would also have the choice to set up a capped drawdown arrangement, should they wish to retain the higher annual allowance. It should also be noted that any GMP benefits will be lost on transfer.

So what does this mean?

Pension scheme members who have held off transferring their benefits due to a potential loss of tax free cash or because they will loose the ability to retire early may now make an individual transfer to a new plan without loosing the enhanced benefits.

Who does this affect?

• Sports people and members of professions who were previously entitled to early retirement ages
• Members of occupational defined contribution pension schemes such as Executive Pensions, Small Self Administered Schemes (SSAS), Contracted Out and Contracted In Money Purchase Schemes (COMPs and CIMPS)
• Those who have transferred their benefits to a Section 32 Buy-Out

This is a complex area and advice from a pensions specialist should always be taken before implementing any transactions.

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.

Read between the (head) lines

Too often, money gets a bad press. Just in the past few weeks headlines have reported that “Yes, the stock market is rigged”[1] and “City watchdog to probe 30m financial products”[2]. At the same time, investigators are still looking into the alleged manipulation of foreign exchange rates and the rate that underpins most savings and mortgages.

It is hardly surprising that people are put off saving and investing when there are so many scandals. But it’s not all bad news: in fact, there are some very good news stories about money that will never make the headlines.
One of them is that many investors have doubled their investments in the past five years. They didn’t go to great lengths to pick the right funds, or devise a complex investment strategy. They could have spent more time digging a new flower border than poring over stock prices. All they did to achieve this great return was to hold a diverse and low-cost portfolio of global shares and stick with it.

These people have benefited from one of the most powerful wealth-generating machines in the world; the stock market. They ignored the Eurozone crisis and they ignored the lumpiness of the global economic recovery. Instead, they just sat back and watched the steady climb of their investments, while taking care not to give up any returns to bad timing or paying too much in fees and costs.

It might not sound exciting, and there are very few reporters in the world that would be interested in writing about it, but right now, all around us, are people easing their way to their financial goals.

1 http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/yes-the-stock-market-rigged
2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26780863

Protection for Final Salary Scheme Benefits could be under threat

In an earlier blog I commented on the inadequacy of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), which provides benefits to members of final salary pension schemes where the employers have gone bust. To summarise, the maximum benefits for employees who have not yet reached retirement age, are subject to a cap and are likely to increase both before and after retirement by less than the original scheme. In addition, options such as early retirement are not available under the PPF.

The PPF is funded by a levy on other pension schemes. Unsurprisingly, in these times of recession, an increasing number of schemes are having to call on the PPF because their employers have ceased to trade. In June of this year the PPF announced that levies will remain at the current level, which increases in line with wages. However, the Chief Executive of the PPF, Alan Rubenstein, also indicated that, whilst they are aiming to avoid increases above the level of wage inflation, further rises above this level cannot be ruled out in future, in order to maintain the benefit levels.

Whilst the PPF can demand more from schemes, the question is, can they actually raise the money? Recently a major firm of actuarial consultants has pointed out that, unless the recession ends fairly soon, it may not be possible for the PPF to simply impose increased levies on schemes attached to employers that are already suffering from the economic down turn. If this occurs, the PPF will have little option but to reduce the level of protection it offers to members of final salary pension schemes. Such cuts can be applied not only to the benefits which are not yet in payment but also to benefits already being paid to pensioners.

So what should you do if you have final salary benefits with a current of past employer? (For the avoidance of doubt these are benefits in which your pension is based on your years of service and final salary and are not normally related to investment returns or annuity rates.)

– Order a transfer value and statement of deferred benefits. These will tell you how much the scheme would provide you with were you to transfer elsewhere and also the value of the benefits which you have in the scheme.
– Provide these details to an independent financial adviser, who specialises in pensions, to carry out an initial review (they may need further information, which they can obtain from you or directly from the scheme).
– Obtain a copy of the employer’s accounts to get a view on how solvent they are.

If you are worried about the financial security of an ex-employer, depending on the state of funding of the scheme, there may be a case for moving the transfer value to a scheme under your own control. This is a complex matter requiring specialist professional advice, which I will cover in more detail in a separate post.

Confusion on Sources of Financial Advice

There are essentially two main sources of financial advice in the UK; Independent Financial Advisers and Tied Agents. The key difference between the two is that Independent Financial Advisers are required to act as the agent of the client and to select products from the whole of the market, whereas Tied Agents represent a single financial institution, or at best a limited number of companies. Independent Financial Advisers are also required to offer the option of being paid by a fee instead of taking commission when they arrange transactions on your behalf.

So, what does this matter? After all, both types of adviser put themselves forward as providing comprehensive financial planning, wealth management, tax and estate planning. Some Tied Agents even promote their fund management service as offering a ‘Best of Breed’ – take a look at this Google Search result page for a few examples.

Well, the chances are that you already own products from a variety of companies. Once the financial planning advice has been provided you are probably going to need to acquire some products in order to provide the security that you require and deliver your long term financial goals. With a Tied Agent you immediately encounter a couple of problems. They are not allowed to advise you on the products which you hold with other companies. Just as importantly, when it comes to putting the financial plan into action what choice do you get from a Tied Agent? If you have been following this so far, it will come as no surprise to learn that what you get are products from the companies that they represent.

Suppose you have gone ahead and bought a number of products from a Tied Agent and after a while you decide that their investment performance has not been up to scratch. You go to the Tied Agent and ask him what your options are. He can only offer other fund choices from the provider that he represents.

Independent Financial Advisers, in contrast, can advise on all products that you already hold. If you need to buy new products, they are required to search the whole of the market and recommend the most suitable one for your needs. They are strictly answerable to you and act as your agent and not that of a product provider.

Clearly it is a matter of personal choice. The following table may help you to decide which type of advice is best for you:

What type of advice is best for you?

If you do decide that Independent Financial Advice is best for you make sure that you check that is in fact what you are getting. Due to the obvious advantages Independence confers on consumers Tied Agents working for ‘Wealth Management’ companies will go to considerable lengths to fudge the issue. Ask them out right whether they are an Independent Financial Adviser. If in doubt check the Unbiased Register to see if their details are included.

Acts of Commission make you feel worse than Acts of Omission

Take a look at this 5 min video about Dollar Cost Averaging by Professor Kenneth French.

Dollar (UK investors should read Pound) Cost Averaging, in this case refers to lump sums available for  investment which, instead of  immediately being fully invested in the markets, are allocated over a series of months. The objective is to avoid being caught out by sudden market falls shortly after making the investment. In the UK we call this ‘Phased Investment’.

Interestingly, Prof French  reinforces the academically accepted view that Dollar Cost Averaging does not optimise returns, given the level of risk that an investor wishes to take. When considered purely from a finance perspective, if the right thing to do, in order to deliver a set of goals, is to invest in an equity portfolio, then it should be implemented in full, immediately. Market timing has been shown to contribute very little to returns and as a consequence there is no good reason to delay.

But, is this always right? Well ,Prof French observed that, from a behavioural finance point of view, it may be a good thing. People apparently feel worse about the negative outcomes from acts of comission (things they did) than they do about acts of ommission (things they didn’t do). Hence an investor feels a lot worse about the fact that his portfolio plummeted shortly after investing the money that he does about the returns which he failed to make because he didn’t invest the money.

On balance, Prof French concludes that, even with his finance professor’s hat on, the damage to prospective returns caused by Dollar Cost Averaging is very little, so it makes little difference whether investors use it or not. However, he observed that it may give them an experience that they feel better about.

Ultimately as investment professionals and, especially as financial planners, we do need to step outside of the theoretical world of optimised portfolios and look at things more closely from our client’s point of view. If doing things that are theoretically sub-optimal but not actually damaging makes our clients feel better about what they are doing then there is no good reason not to facilitate this. After all we are not on some kind of Evangelical mission to convert the pagan unwashed. Oh, and it is their money…. not ours.

Interesting huh!