Tag Archives: savings

Rethinking Liberalism 5: pensions and the state

In my previous essay I concluded that we had no choice but to tax the wealthy more, and this was the most divisive issue in current British politics. The reason for this is that state commitments on pensions and the health service, and potential commitments on social care, would force the state to expand, and for taxes to rise. The hollowing out of the economic middle meant that the wealthy would have to take up an increased share of the burden. But what are liberals to think about these state commitments? It is easy to see why socialists favour them, but less clear for liberals.

At the recent CentreForum seminar on the Orange Book, more than one speaker referred to the coalition government’s commitment to a “triple lock” on the state pension as being disastrous and illiberal. This guarantees that the state pension will rise by the higher of consumer prices, earnings or 2.5%. So as the proportion of older people grows the cost of this promise will mount. The same demographic trend means that we cannot look to economic growth to camouflage the policy’s generosity. And yet pensions are something that people should be able to sort out for themselves through saving over their lifetimes. Relying on the state just fosters dependency – and it can only be funded by increasing the tax burden, largely on people who will not directly benefit. If liberalism is about fostering self-sufficiency and independence, this is surely a step in the wrong direction?

A similar logic applies to health care for the elderly. In Britain it is widely assumed that this will remain free and funded by the taxpayer. As the population ages the overall cost rises. Greater efficiency in the state spend can only get you so far. Social care for the elderly is a similar issue, except that this is only a universal benefit in Scotland – though there it was enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats.

The answer to this puzzle comes in two familiar guises: the need for a safety net, and market failure. A safety net allows people who succumb to bad luck to get back on their feet. I am sure that highly sophisticated arguments can be made in their defence, but to most people it is simply being part of a civilised society. Once families and social solidarity could have taken most of the strain, but the demands of economic efficiency have broken these institutions down; so economic efficiency, and the taxes they can generate, should provide the solution.

The safety net idea isn’t entirely satisfactory when providing for old age, however. The capacity to earn at this stage in our lives is limited, so it is rather more than a just a temporary helping hand. However, it still means that your life can’t be entirely ruined by bad luck. But everybody is entitled to the state pension, not just those down on their luck. The triple lock may be required to keep the state pension for the destitute at an acceptable level, but should it apply to everybody?

What lies at the heart of the problem is a market failure. Start with an obvious problem. If pensions are means tested, then the incentive to save is destroyed until you get past an amount that gives you a reasonable pension. Let’s use some numbers to get this into perspective. The new basic state pension will be about £7,500 per annum in today’s money. To get an annuity of this amount, indexed to RPI (admittedly a mathematically flawed measure of inflation that tends to distort upwards) would cost in the region of £220,000 for somebody of 65, the current pension age. For a forty year working life, with zero real investment returns (I’m coming to that), that £220,000 takes a saving of £5,500 per year, which is over 20% of the average rate of pay (£26,500) before tax. Average savings rates are, of course, much less than that (typically 5-10% of household income).

But surely people can earn more than o% real return on their assets? Actually most people can’t. There are two problems. First is that investment returns are very low at the moment. Central bank interest rates are less than inflation (negative in real terms). All other returns take their cue from that. The prospects for higher interest rates are bleak; that’s they way the world economy is. There are too many savings chasing too few investment opportunities. To break this stranglehold you need a combination of three things: low transaction costs of investment, an ability to take greater investment risk by spreading it, and access what economists call economic rents – income that is not earned through adding wealth to society, but by exploiting an “unfair” advantage. These advantages are usually only available to the better off. For the first two you need a decent sized starting portfolio (over £1 million, say). For the last you need some kind of economic privilege. While the economy was expanding, and before the demographic crunch, you could, in fact achieve these ends by owning your own house. Rising house prices are a form of economic rent, earned by the ownership of land, which is in limited supply. That covers an awful lot of people, but these are now a privileged elite: it is getting harder to join them.

Can’t people band together to get a better return? That is what an old-fashion final salary pension scheme used to do. Administrative costs were low (because you the calculation of entitlements is simple), and investment costs and average risk was low because there was single, large investment pot. Unfortunately such collective schemes are another victim of the drive to ever greater economic efficiency, which destroys the large and relatively stable employers who are needed to sponsor such schemes. Collective action means the state.

The state is the only institution that can take effective collective action. And, with private sector investment opportunities in such short supply, increasingly the state has access to the best investment opportunities too (consider much infrastructure investment). And they have the chance to tax those economic rents. That is the central logic behind the new triple locked state pension. A basic minimum, which the public has every incentive to improve through private saving, which will, unfortunately, rarely add up to a great deal more.

Meanwhile, the various distortions of tax and regulation that inhibit private savings can be gradually dismantled. The government has started by dismantling the rules compelling people with pension plans having to buy annuities. Personally I would start to dismantle income tax relief on pension contributions, increasingly of benefit only to a wealthy elite, and which comes with a dense thicket of rules to prevent abuse. That is a formidable political challenge, though, and can only be achieved in small stages.

Because efficient long-term savings are not accessible to the vast majority of people, especially those without access to property assets, the state must intervene to fill the gap. That makes the economic liberal dream of a low-tax society an impossibility – the alternative is mass destitution, or a needs based system that will be economically less efficient. And if you add health costs and social care into the picture, the problem gets bigger.

The state must get bigger. The question is how to do this in the most liberal way?

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Pensions, savings: sensible steps forward

This week’s UK Budget has revealed the usual muddle amongst politicians, journalists and the public over the whole issue of pensions and savings – with opinion strongly favouring several flavours of having your cake and eating it. This masks some profound and sensible reforms carried out by the coalition government.

First version of the cake. We like people to save. But we want them to spend to promote economic growth. We worry that a large part of the population will become dependent on the state and taxes because they save too little. But when they do, as in the early part of the 2008/09 crisis, we bemoan that fact that people aren’t spending and so causing economic slump. So interest rates crash to the floor in an attempt to reduce savings and increase consumption (alongside the vain hope that companies will be encouraged to invest more).

Next version. We want people to save more to not be dependent on the taxpayer, but we also want target state spending on the less well off, and tax the rich to pay for it. So we encourage people to save, and then confiscate the proceeds.

Another version of this is that we love the idea of exempting pension saving from tax but think that people who have accumulated sufficient savings for a reasonable pension (a million pounds for a pension of £35,000, for example) are part of a rich elite whose broad backs should carry the largest burden.

There is a genuine dilemma at the heart of this of course. For that reason a lot of hope resides in get-out-of- jail-free cards. One of these is strong economic growth. But that requires lots of people to work – which means retiring later and allowing immigration. We are clearly entering an era of low growth, thanks to demographics, personal preferences (i.e. people choosing unpaid leisure over work) and the changing nature of technological advance and the global economy. Remarkably few people have tried facing up to the consequences of this. Even some intelligent economists think that “trend growth” is a law of nature. Another get-out-of-jail-free card is that rising property values will compensate for lack of saving. Collectively this cannot make sense, but it has worked for many individuals, who therefore don’t engage with wider worries about the future.

Now let’s consider some difficult facts. I have already mentioned that economic growth is likely to be much lower in future. The next difficult fact is that private pension saving has collapsed in the last 25 years. Generous final salary schemes have been replaced by inadequate money-purchase schemes. It is now use just blaming Gordon Brown’s tax raid on pension schemes in the later 1990s for this (or Mrs Thatcher’s ill advised liberalisation of pension selling before that) and some are prone to do when you mention this. This at worst mildly accelerated a growing trend. The economics of businesses supporting these pension schemes became toxic even without the tax changes. This means that, as a generality, most people will not now have adequate private sector pensions. Instead as they approach retirement they will have accumulated a few tens of thousands of pounds in probably several schemes.

The next difficult fact is that the economics of long-term saving are toxic for all but the very well off (liquid assets of over £0.5m, say). The poor face the prospect of losing entitlements to state benefits if they accumulate wealth. Everybody will see any savings eaten away by costs which, even without a host of rip-offs, will always weigh most heavily on those with smaller savings. It becomes perfectly rational for a lot of people to not to bother with pensions savings – unless you count trying to own your own home.

When you consider all this, the attraction of tax funded state pensions become clear. That is why the current government has been right to make it reasonably generous, notwithstanding criticism form the right that we can’t afford it. It was also right to make this pension independent of private saving.

Now, what about the tax treatment of savings? To simplify, there are three groups of tax privileged savings. The first is domestic property. To buy your own home you pay out of taxed income and stamp duty on the purchase price, but the gain is exempt from tax. The second is Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), which, like property, are paid for out of taxed funds (subject to an annual limit) but income and capital gains are tax free. And third are pension plans, for which contributions are exempt from income tax, but it is taxable on drawdown.

The first and last of these are problematic. Domestic property because its tax exempt status has made it a highly attractive investment – but instead of this fuelling much in the way of building new, efficient property, it has simply driven prices up, making ownership out of reach for many younger people and driving a wedge between families with property and those without. Pensions are a problem because that particular route for providing tax exemption makes for maximum complexity. In fact they have become so hedged about in rules that most people don’t understand them.

ISAs, on the other hand, have an elegant administrative design which makes them easier to own than even taxed assets. They also have more chance of channelling investment into more productive parts of the economy.

Here’s why this week’s proposed reforms make sense. Currently money purchase pensions are forced to buy annuities, except in some carefully crafted circumstances, which tend only to apply to the better off savers. The original fear behind this annuity rule was the worry than pensioners would blow their savings quickly and then throw themselves into the arms of the state. But the state of private pensions is such that most people will rely on the state anyway, and most pension pots are so small that the amount of income that would be derived from an annuity would be derisory (and, presumably, a lot of value would be lost in administration costs). And those with larger pots are likely to be prudent with their wealth. If done properly, this will simplify the pension system, and make private pensions more attractive.

Extending the ISA allowance is more controversial. Many simply view this as benefiting the wealthy, as nobody else can save up to the £15,000 a year limit. There is some truth to this, but it will help level the playing field between financial investments and owning your own property. Since it is unthinkable to tax capital gains on homes, it may help to make other assets comparable in their tax status.

A lot of nonsense has been uttered as commentary: fears over people blowing money on cruises and fast cars – or rushing into buying property. My main worry is that the reforms will make it easier for better off people to save for their children, to pass on at death. This could reinforce the effect of inherited wealth, which is already growing. There may be mounting pressure to reduce Inheritance Tax.

But overall this looks a sensible step forward – and actually quite brave. It is surely no accident that unlike its predecessors the current government’s Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, really knows his stuff, and has been kept in post for the whole period. Liberal Democrats can take pride that he is one of theirs. There is strong political consensus in his reforms, and no party political benefit. But it is nice to feel that our party has contributed something useful to the process of government.

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