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18 October 2004

Let’s not panic about pensions

There is no "longevity crisis", only decisions to be made about how we pay for retirement

By Richard Reeves

Adair Turner is not an obviously scary person. Parents certainly do not threaten their children by saying that the softly spoken former McKinsey consultant will come and get them unless they eat their broccoli. But this bogeyman has been doing his Hallowe’en best over the past weeks to frighten the workers with the prospect of a long and impoverished old age.

The report by the government’s Pensions Commission, chaired by Turner, is full of dire predictions, prompting newspaper headlines about “black holes”, “time bombs” and “crises”.

Pensions is an area politicians like to describe as “complex” – which is actually code for “politically difficult”. In fact, as the commission demonstrates, the issue is utterly straightforward. People are living longer and not saving enough, which means they will either have to work for longer, live on less in retirement or be bailed out by the government.

Pensions is also an area in which political compasses swing wildly. Ten years ago, one of the two major parties was fiercely critical of means testing in old age and advocated a higher state pension for all. That party’s opponents lauded a policy of directing limited funds to those in greatest need. The argument today is identical – but Tories and Labour have switched sides.

There are some real issues to be resolved here, and the government clearly made a mistake by raiding occupational pension funds in 1998 (which, within government, only Frank Field warned about).

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None the less, the language of crisis is neither helpful nor accurate. It is not helpful because people, being what they are, discount with ease warnings of imminent disaster. Think of the continual warnings about environmental collapse, or the Aids adverts trying to terrify people out of unprotected sex. In neither case has beha-viour been appreciably altered.

In any case, it is not clear that we are sitting on a “time bomb”. First, the pension predictions are based on predictions of life expectancy – or, in the terminology of the pension policy wonks, “longevity risk”.

In the space of 25 years, almost five years has been added to the estimated post-65 average lifespan. This is an unprecedented rise – and government actuaries believe that lifespans will keep lengthening. On the other hand, the Department of Health is warning that the predicted rise in obesity could reverse this. The point is that we don’t know. Actuaries make very serious, informed guesses about these matters; but they are guesses all the same.

Second, even if the figures are correct, it is not clear that we are looking down the barrel of bankruptcy. The Pensions Commission estimates that, if the gap were to be filled by public spending, by 2050 the bill will be roughly £57bn a year at today’s prices – about 7.5 per cent of GDP. Now, when you add the odd billion here to the odd billion there, you are pretty soon talking about real money. But to put it in perspective, such an increase would merely bring UK levels of public spending up to those of many of our European neighbours. Such a rise would not be revolutionary. In the 45 years between 1930 and 1975, public spending as a proportion of GDP (excluding investment) rose from 10 per cent to 24 per cent.

Third, the real issue is not, as currently presented, whether the state or the mar-ket acts as the transfer mechanism, but whether the working population can produce enough to cater not only for its own spending needs but also for the needs of the retired. Whether the surplus can be skimmed off in tax, or in profits to the shareholding pension funds, is a secondary issue. Economies have proved remarkably adaptable in the past. There is every reason to hope that rising economic productivity combined with liberal immigration policies could dramatically improve the picture.

None of which is to say that nothing needs to be done, nor that we can avoid some hard decisions. However, the recent atmosphere of near-panic is unhelpful and unwarranted. Worse, it may be blocking more considered solutions.

Right now, the debate is conducted in terms that assume pensions are either an individual or a national responsibility – ie, that the unit of analysis is either one person, or 50 million. The welfare state is – or at least used to be – much richer than this. There are other groupings within which savings, risk-pooling and redistribution can take place, such as the family, trade union, community or workforce. It is striking that just as the pensions debate reaches such heights of rhetoric, Standard Life prepares for demutualisation.

What is required is not another policy lurch, but some certainty and stability. A huge increase in the basic state pension, reversing the policy of every government since Margaret Thatcher’s first administration, is popular at the moment but almost certainly impossible. Gordon Brown is right to resist calls for quick fixes – though he clearly needs to look at the disincentives to save created by his credit-based system.

The winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott, have analysed the need for credible commitments and consistency from policy-makers over time. In other words, how can we ensure stable, consistent policy in areas such as pensions and benefits, which are prone to short-term temptations: how, like Ulysses, can we tie ourselves to the mast? Kydland and Prescott focus on monetary policy, but the need of individuals to secure income across the whole life cycle raises similar time-consistency issues.

What we need from government is not wholesale revision of existing arrangements, but “credible commitments”. It’s not scary, and it’s not sexy, but we need cool heads, and a steady hand.

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