Jeff Prestridge 

No pensions spin from me

Jeff Prestridge

Jeff Prestridge

Some pension experts are worth their weight in gold, shedding light on a key component of our financial lives that so often remains shrouded in thick Channel fog.

Think Tom McPhail of Hargreaves Lansdown,  Alan Steel of the eponymous financial adviser firm Alan Steel Asset Management, and the two ‘Steves’, Steve Bee and Royal London’s Sir Steve Webb.

Oh, and of course, Baroness Ros Altmann who fights conscientiously – and admirably – for the financial rights of pensioners. All forces for pensions good. Shining knights and baronesses in gold armour. Clearers of fog.

Other pension gurus are not so glittering although their knowledge of all the pension intricacies known to man and woman is incomparable.

Maybe, because they are so in love with pensions, they see the industry they work for through rose-tinted spectacles. Blind love. They refuse to acknowledge that the pensions system is muddled and too complicated – and occasionally marred by scandal. 

The mis-selling of pensions to British Steel workers? A mere blip on the pensions landscape, these defenders argue, an issue hyped by a press in search of bad news stories (tell that to financial adviser Al Rush who spent time down at Port Talbot helping victims of mis-selling – he is still seething at what was done to these people, many of whom he grew up with).

The view of the pension defenders is that we live in a world where pensions are more hunky-dory than broken. And if there are problems swirling around in the pensions fog, they would rather blame other darker, more malevolent forces. Outsiders, not insiders. People like me.

Negative tone

So, it was no shock to the system – mine, not the pensions system – when a leading trade body sent out a missive at the beginning of this month bemoaning the negative tone of much pension journalism. It was the fourth estate, it claimed, that was undermining confidence and trust in pensions. Not the components that make up the pensions jigsaw – namely: sleepy regulators, companies reluctant to address mounting pension deficits, law breaking financial advisers, greedy pension providers and meddling governments (past and present). Ill-fitting jigsaw pieces.

These claims were made by Bob Scott, chairman of the Association of Consulting Actuaries (ACA), a trade body representing the interests of many of the country’s qualified actuaries. 

Its members are often actuaries to private sector defined benefit pension (DB) schemes, using complex formulae and mortality tables to assess whether the funds have enough in the pot to pay out all pensions due – now and in the future. They are vital members of the financial community. An integral part of the pensions jigsaw.

Not for one moment do I question Mr Scott’s integrity. Indeed, he is an upstanding pillar of the pensions community who has spent his working life assisting DB pensions in being sustainable.

But it is not right for him to say – as he did at a recent ACA dinner – that the pensions industry is in better shape than portrayed. That there is a “perception problem with pensions all too often being seen as bad news”. That instead of highlighting problems, we (all of us including the press) should blindly be singing the praises of the Pension Protection Fund, The Pensions Regulator and the auto-enrolment regime. More pensions gloss than pensions reality. Dare I say it, fake pensions news?