Getting the investment strategy right for auto-enrolment

This article is part of
Guide to the auto-enrolment review

Getting the investment strategy right for auto-enrolment

Auto-enrolment successes and concerns were rightly highlighted in the recent review by the Department for Work and Pensions.

However, while the Maintaining the Momentum report rightly focused on engagement, the self-employed, creating more flexibility in workplace saving and getting millions more Britons saving for retirement, the review hardly talked about the adequacy of the investments underpinning the provision of auto-enrolment schemes.

While it did suggest the annual benefit statements should be more explicit and engaging, to help savers understand what they have got now and what they can expect to get in the future, there has to be more focus on what investment strategy sits behind workplace defined contribution (DC) provision.

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There is, to put it crudely, no gold-plated outcome such as might be expected from a defined benefit scheme, where the scheme sponsor bears the investment risk themselves.

Nor can most employers afford such pledges now - consider the end state of BHS or Carillion, where the employers themselves fail.

With auto-enrolment being a DC-style solution where the individual bears the risk, thought has to be given as to whether the investment strategies - especially those of the default funds in which the majority of members sit - are robust enough to meet the needs of savers regardless of their age.

With the three-year reviews starting in 2018 of the largest auto-enrolment schemes, now might be a good time for financial advisers with corporate clients to suggest an analysis of the investment choices, and the make-up of the default fund - to see if it is meeting the needs of members.

Assessing the default fund

Getting the underlying investment right for the default fund is crucial, as more than 90 per cent of people are invested in their workplace's default fund, according to 2017 research by Hargreaves Lansdown.

This is across the board, regardless of sector or industry, says Chris Daems, director of Cervello Financial Planning. His advisory firm was involved heavily in helping employers to set up auto-enrolment schemes when the government brought it in.

He comments: "Our experience is the majority of individuals use the default fund provided, even in organisations where you might expect more self-selection to occur."

Moreover, people are likely to remain in the default fund. Paul Todd, director of investment development and delivery for the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest), comments: "When it comes to auto-enrolment, a scheme's main default strategy is a more important area of focus than the choices offered around it.

"That's because evidence from the UK and abroad shows 90 per cent of members are likely to stay in the fund they're first put in."

So the default has to work for everyone. Ms Kirkwood says: "A pension accumulation strategy is completely dependent on an individual's appetite for risk, expectations for retirement and where they are in the retirement planning journey.