How to fund a happier retirement

A US government plan for civil servants is the unlikely blueprint for a stakeholding pension scheme.

For a few months during 1996 new Labour flirted with Will Hutton and his ideas about "stakeholding". It soon turned out, however, that this meant becoming like Germany, and the brief affair fizzled out. Nevertheless, one token of new Labour's early affection for stakeholding remains: the government's plans for so-called "stakeholder" pensions formed part of Alistair Darling's pensions green paper, published just before Christmas.

Its proposals herald a profound shift in the balance between public and private welfare provision. Though private welfare became steadily more important under the Conservatives, its growth was relatively slow. "Free market" welfare services - financed and provided by the private sector and purchased voluntarily by individuals - grew from 25 per cent of total (public and private) welfare spending in 1979/80 to 29 per cent by 1995/96.

The green paper envisages that this gradual shift in favour of the private sector will continue. At present, it tells us, 60 per cent of pensioners' income is derived from the state and 40 per cent from private sources. But under the government's plans, by 2050 the situation will have reversed, so that private sector support for pensioners will be half as large again as state support. Whether we like it or not, the majority of us are going to have to rely more heavily on private sector pensions - or Lisas (lifetime individual savings accounts) - under the government's newest rubric.

Twenty-five years ago the then Labour government was moving in precisely the opposite direction. The postwar scheme, based on Beveridge's blueprint, had been wholly flat-rate. It provided a universal minimum income which, while sufficient for the needs of the poorest, left workers accustomed to higher standards reliant on the private sector to supplement their retirement income.

Labour's 1975 legislation was intended to rectify this dangerous over-reliance on the private sector, as it was then perceived, by extending earnings-related pensions to those parts of the population that did not have access to an occupational scheme. The new state scheme, Serps, would provide secure, defined-benefit pensions, protected from market fluctuations and the ravages of inflation. As Richard Crossman described the policy, the new scheme would transfer "the privileges of the minority into the rights of the majority".

Darling's green paper proposal to turn Serps into a flat-rate State Second Pension scheme brings policy full circle. While not explicitly stated, it is clear that the government believes the state's role should be confined to ensuring a minimum income standard. If Darling's proposals are followed through, in the future earnings-related insurance will once again be a private affair. The job of the state will be confined to ensuring everyone receives flat-rate benefits at the minimum level. People who want to retire on an income above this minimum will decide for themselves how much they want to pay into a pension and which private provider offers them the best deal. The government will be responsible for regulation, rather than provision or finance.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. The pensions mis-selling scandal, a legacy of the Conservatives' reforms of 1986, has soured the relationship between private pension providers and the public. As is now well-known, the introduction of personal pensions led to hundreds of thousands of people being sold a new product when they would have been better off staying with their existing pension arrangements. This mis-selling mostly affected people who could have joined or stayed with an occupational scheme and who forfeited employers' contributions by choosing to opt out, a fact that commission-hungry sales staff conveniently ignored. But it also showed up the very high costs and charges attached to personal pensions, with up to a quarter of an individual's savings being lost through management and administration fees. Low and moderate earners in particular do badly, because of the high front-end, flat-rate charges that are often made. Forcing people to rely on existing personal pensions would be bad economics and worse politics.

So far there have been two general types of proposals for dealing with the problems of private pensions. The first argues that the problem is excessive regulation, which, it is claimed, drives up compliance costs and drives down the number of providers. The second suggests that the problem is not enough regulation, and that the government should go actively into the business of setting appropriate fees for pension provision.

Both of these arguments are, in serious ways, flawed. First, the argument for less regulation does not take into account the problem of what economists call "asymmetric information". That is, the providers of a product have much more information about its quality than consumers, a problem often faced in health care, for example. In such a case, consumers can either spend a substantial amount of time attempting to close the gap between what they know and what the providers know, or they can choose randomly, basing their decisions upon advertisements. This leads to a market where providers compete more on marketing than on reasonable charges, which is exactly what happened with personal pensions.

The second argument is equally flawed. The government does not have the information to determine what price is fair or reasonable for financial products, nor does it have any reason to prefer certain providers over others. Such a decision would require not only that it have comprehensive knowledge of the market as it exists today, but also of the adaptations that will occur in the future. Even if it is sold as part of a "partnership between government and business", detailed regulation of charges and providers would put the government in the untenable position of setting prices and closing out competitors. In other words, it would be back to "old Labour" command and control standards.

The government's proposals for stakeholder pensions do, to some extent, finesse the problem of whether to regulate more or less. In essence the government's idea is that only schemes meeting particular "benchmark" standards will be able to call themselves stakeholder schemes. According to the green paper these standards will include allowing individuals to transfer funds between schemes without penalty; sending out regular information about the value of pension entitlements that members have accrued; and, most importantly, ending flat-rate charges. In return the government will lighten the regulatory conditions attached to taking on new clients, relying instead on an annual administrative audit to ensure that the provider is still up to scratch.

While this is an improvement on the personal pensions regime, such a strategy is still fraught with problems. In particular there is a danger that private firms and their paid lobbyists will twist the government's ear about the impossibility of providing a product more cheaply or better. Weak consensual regulation could all too easily result, ensuring that the benchmark tests will leave most providers able to carry on their business as normal.

We think that there is a better option available, based not on theory but on existing practice in the United States: the US government's own plan for civil servants, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Suitably adapted for a different purpose, it would admirably deal with all the considerations the government finds so nettlesome.

The TSP is remarkably simple in its basic structure. The US government contracts with an outside provider to set up and manage, at arm's length (and off the government's accounts) three indexed accounts, one for stocks, another for bonds, and a third for short-term government securities. All are managed passively - they do nothing more than mechanically purchase a standard basket of financial assets, such as the S&P 500 or the Lehman Brothers Long Bond Index. Overhead costs are therefore kept very low, with administrative expenses being covered by an annual deduction of approximately one-tenth of 1 per cent of members' accounts. In comparison, most personal pension providers currently charge around ten times this level.

The advantages of having a single provider, with very narrow investment choices, all managed passively, are enormous. First, a single provider can attain remarkable economies of scale, spreading basic management costs over a large contributor base. Second, narrow choices reduce transaction costs for those who either don't know or don't want to learn the ins and outs of financial products. This all but eliminates the need for outside (and expensive) financial advisers. Finally, a simple, centralised system can accommodate a wide range of contribution levels, in the TSP as low as ten dollars every two weeks.

The most important advantage, however, is that active managers cannot, on average and over any reasonable period of time, beat passive investing, for reasons that are quite obvious but usually overlooked. An index simply measures the average of what all stocks are doing. By definition, all investors collectively cannot beat an average, since taken together they are the average. Once you subtract the costs of investment research, trading and managers' payments, active managers will always under-perform the index. In fact, according to a study by Barclays Global Investors, approximately 80 per cent of active managers trail the index. They are attempting, collectively, the impossible: it should be no surprise that they usually fail, or that they fail more dramatically the harder (and more expensively) they try.

For all these reasons, the ideal stakeholder pension would incorporate all of the major components of the US government's Thrift Savings Plan. But it would be a mistake to have the government monopolise or otherwise limit providers. The better option is for the government to provide the "default option", but to allow any pension company that provides a comparable product (no front-end load, charges assessed on an annual basis, and so on) to enter the market as well. This is desirable in part for political reasons: completely shutting out the pension companies would be a huge obstacle for a centrist government. But there are principled reasons as well. Most of what our knowledge tells us is that an indexed, centrally run system will out-perform most private options. Even so, governments work better when they recognise their own fallibility, and that circumstances may change over time.

A monolithic system would tend to discourage innovation; when financial service companies have to compete to survive, though, they promote the development of new and better products. The very low charges of the state system will inevitably drive down costs in the private sector, squeezing out many low-quality providers, and forcing the rest to focus on simplicity and value for money, rather than marketing. In this way the stakeholder pensions system could act as a catalyst for a revolution in the way pensions are managed and sold.

Our Thrift Pensions proposal cuts through the Gordian knot of regulation, achieving all the government's objectives without reducing competition, but by actually expanding choice. Instead of a messy scheme that introduces unnecessary and possibly damaging cosiness between the government and the financial system, our scheme allows the government and markets each to operate within the sphere of their own competence.

In sum, the scheme is based on a tested and well-liked model which deals well with all the political and economic problems of pensions provision for the low-paid. Increasing competition through expanding choice represents the best route forward for stakeholding.

Steven M Teles is research assistant professor at Boston University and is completing a book on the politics of pensions privatisation in the US and UK. Phil Agulnik is a research student in the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496