Pensions minister Steve Webb. Photo: Getty
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How are the government going to build a pension system that works?

Most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”.

The budget announcement allowing savers to choose how they spend their retirement savings may look a political coup. But to suggest it addresses the issue of how we provide pensions is a misuse of the English language. In fact it begs this question, “if people do not buy annuities, how are they to able to provide for themselves throughout their retirement?” Because an annuity is a pension; that is “a regular payment made during a person’s retirement”.  So, if you don’t buy a pension when you retire, how are you to ensure you have enough to look after yourself as you grow older?

Let us be clear. The Chancellor had good reason to abandon annuities, because they are such poor value for money. Today, someone retiring at the age of 65, who had saved £100,000, and wanted to buy a pension annuity which kept pace with inflation, would only be paid about £3,600 a year. In other words they would need to live until they were 93 just to get their money back. Fifteen years ago, they would have received much more. But the combination of low interest rates, and destructive competitive forces put pay to that. Annuities are bad value, and the government had no wish to face a grey electorate, which it had forced to purchase them.

But it doesn’t address the core problem. Because if you don’t buy an annuity how do you know that you will be able to look after yourself in retirement? For those in the public sector the answer is easy. Their pension savings is designed to generate an income for life. That used to be the situation in the private sector as well. But successive, and sometimes well intentioned regulation, has resulted in that pension system slowly being abandoned.  The government’s latest announcement is just another nail in the coffin. Retirement savings no longer need to be used to buy a pension - they are rather a pot set aside to give yourself a golden handshake when you stop work.

So let’s consider the prudent hard working person who retires, at the age of sixty five trying to plan for their future. If they don’t buy an overpriced annuity what do they do? What happens when, in their late 80s having done everything by the book, they discover they are running out of money. What future do they face, when, despite their playing everything by the book, their savings have run out? Is that the best we can do for people who have worked hard, been prudent, planned and saved?

And that is assuming that they have negotiated their way around the siren voices of financial advisors who will doubtless have gone on a spree of “innovation” to help invest the savings of those who are no longer buying annuities. Those who remember the last attempt to “free pensions” in the 1980s will also remember the ubiquitous pensions’ mis-selling scandals which followed.

What is needed is a pension system which works. In all the research which the RSA has done, most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”. That simple system, a comprehensive private pension system, is lacking in the UK.

However, across the North Sea, in Holland and Denmark, they have a private pension system that works on that basis. You set aside your money each year and receive a pension in retirement. Indeed their simple well designed systems mean that, if a typical Briton and a typical Dutch person, both save the same amount, have the same life expectancy and retire on the same day; the Dutch saver will get a 50 per cent higher pension than the Briton.

That is the challenge for the government. Not the further abandonment of the inadequate British pension system, but the building of a new one that works. There is no perfect solution, but there are approaches which are far better than those we are pursuing in the UK today. They are systems which have gained political consensus, and stood the test of time. They were not built by surprise announcements in the budget. Such announcements about the pension system, made in haste, and spun as a political coup, are often ones which old people, many years later, repent at leisure. So let’s make sure that the Chancellor’s announcement is not a further retreat from a broken pension system, but rather that it clears the space for a new system that works.

David Pitt Watson is Director of the RSA Tomorrow’s Investor programme. He is an Executive Fellow in Finance at the London Business School, and founder of Hermes Equity Ownership Service, the largest shareholder stewardship programme of any fund manager in the world

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit