James Coney  

There is no such thing as free pensions advice

James Coney

James Coney

Almost five years on from the pension freedoms and there is still quite a lot of guesswork involved in assessing how they are going.

This has meant that anyone who wants to blame the freedoms for consumer harm can do so.

Last month, the Financial Times published a story based on a freedom of information request about those who had cashed in final salary pensions since 2015.

It found concerns about 80 per cent of the companies providing bad advice in this £80bn market. As a result, the Financial Conduct Authority planned to write to 1,841 financial advisers about potential harm in their advice. 

The estimable Mick McAteer, formerly of Which? and an ex-FCA board member, demanded a full-scale inquiry.

It came in the same month that the FCA admitted too much transfer advice was not at an acceptable standard.

The FCA’s intervention, in its letter to chief executives of financial advice businesses, should be taken with deadly seriousness.

It is clear from the tone of that missive that the FCA has advice companies in its sight – just at a time when the burden of regulation is already at its most choking.

It was interesting to see it positively demanding advisers turn in criminal or rogue businesses – a call I have been making for some time now.

Let’s hope that means good advisers turning the table on introducers and ending all ties with them.

But what are we to make of all this in the context of the pension freedoms?

Are mis-sold pension transfers to blame; is it criminal activity or poor advice; is it reckless consumers; is it contingent fees; was it the fault of the media for cheerleading the death of the freedoms; or is it driven by trustees desperate to reduce their liabilities?

Sadly, it is impossible to know, even though 160,000 people could be affected. 

The key argument against the pension freedoms seemed to be that consumers are fundamentally too stupid to be able to make their own decisions. It is certainly true that most will underestimate their own longevity.

We were told that everyone would gamble their money; if anything, the tentative findings we have already had from the FCA show that people are not taking enough risk.

We know that lots of people have cashed in pots, but any evidence that this only applies to smaller pensions is scant.

It may be the case that many should be taking annuities, but we do not know for sure.

And it is certainly true that when the pension freedoms were launched, the industry was utterly unprepared. 

I have seen arguments for minimum income requirements before people can access the pension freedoms, or that some sectors of the economy could be barred.

All that would do is make freedom a right of the rich – and that is clearly not good.

The freedoms are a great act of consumer empowerment, but having launched them on the public, the Treasury and the FCA should now launch a study into their effects so that we have a full picture of how people are behaving and the advice companies are giving.