If you think that Gordon Brown carried out a tax raid on pensions in 1997, which was the main cause of the end of final-salary pension schemes in the UK private sector, then you are wrong.
In 1997, the government did indeed abolish the tax relief on dividends paid by firms into pension funds. But on the same day it cut corporation tax by 2%, such that the final outcome of the legislation was revenue-neutral. Profits were taxed less in the first place, in exchange for which people lost the ability to get some of the tax money back if their shares were held as part of a pension fund rather than just as shares. The net effect on the income that flowed from the companies to the people was zero.
There were three real factors which led to the move away from final salary pension schemes in the UK – all of them are based on the fact that before 1997, the cost to a company of offering final salary schemes was understated:
1) Changes in life expectancy: average male life expectancy in the 1950s, when most final-salary schemes were created was 65; it’s now 80. This makes schemes that provide a defined benefit from age 65 onwards an order of magnitude more expensive than they were. Perhaps actuaries should have allowed for increasing life expectancy over time when calculating the costs of these schemes 20, 30 and 40 years ago – but they didn’t, and now it’s payback time.
2) Unwinding of contribution holidays: if you’re a plc, there’s an incentive during the good times, when your pension fund temporarily rises in value because stock markets are booming in general, to cut contributions as the pension fund is nominally overfunded. This is silly. Yes, if you’re a short-to-medium term investor, it’s rational to keep trading within the bubble – but if you’re investing for 30 years ahead, then you are grossly fiscally irresponsible if you base your required contributions on market fluctuations rather than, say, applying historical P/E ratios to your stock portfolio.
3) Introduction of FRS17: the accounting standard FRS17 forces companies to recognise pension fund deficits on their corporate balance sheets. Which is fair enough, as in the long run they’re ultimately accountable for them. However – especially as FRS17 forces mark-to-market on pension fund assets – companies are reluctant to show their financial statements swinging wildly each year based on an institution over which they have absolutely no control.
Overall, it does not make sense for an engineering company or an oil company or a retail company to take financial responsibility for an enormous pot of money (in the case of many companies, a pot of money larger than the market value of the company itself) on which its shareholders have no claim; nor is it especially sensible for an individual to base their retirement plans on the continued existence of an engineering company, oil company or retail company.
People who had private sector final salary schemes before 1997 have done very, very well because of the changes in life expectancy now compared with expectations when the schemes were set up. But this makes them the lucky beneficiaries of actuarial miscalculations. It does not mean the schemes as they existed in 1997 were sustainable, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Labour are evil pension thieves because the unsustainability of the final salary model became apparent on their watch…