Don't forget the fees: Devon pays £40m less than Stafforshire for the same pensions

When Keep it Simple, Stupid comes into its own.

The Financial Times looks into the murky world of public sector pension funds:

Neither Staffordshire nor Devon is exceptional; they are an interesting example because they appear similar. They are the same size: Devon had £2.68bn in March 2012, against £2.62bn for Staffordshire. They have a similar spread of assets in fixed income, equities and property, with a little money given to hedge fund managers. Both hold the same top three stocks (Royal Dutch Shell, Vodafone and HSBC) while three fund managers work for both counties. They follow the same public-sector procurement rules.

Yet Staffordshire paid £7.152m for fund management in 2011-12, while Devon paid £2.669m. And Staffordshire’s bill for administration came to £2.033m, while Devon paid £1.225m.

Over eight years, Staffordshire paid £38.2m more for an investment which returned 0.3 per cent less than Devon did. That's a pretty sizeable difference, and one which we'd ideally try to remove. Of course, the 0.3 per cent difference in returns isn't the sort of thing which you'd want to try and plan before-hand, because it could just as easily have been the other way round. But saving almost £40m for the same service is something which we generally want our local authorities to try to do.

The real point to all of this is that all too infrequently are management fees actually discussed in public. For many people – hopefully not the ones in charge of placing investments at councils, but certainly your average small investor – the only thing worth looking at is the annual rate of return. But management fees can alter that greatly, and unlike rate of return, they're something which can normally be known, and negotiated, in advance.

For pension funds, the lesson stops there. They're big enough, and competent enough, that so long as the client is negotiating well, they still offer the best chance of a good return. But for individual investors, putting a bit of money in an ISA for retirement, there's an even more basic piece of advice: you'll probably minimise your fees if you just get an index tracker. You might not get the best return (although you almost certainly won't get the worst), simplifying investments is an under-appreciated way to work.

Newton Abbot, Dorset, in 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.