The BBC is currently in the middle of an industrial dispute over pensions reform. It is not often that I sympathise with a strike. But in this case, I do.
The BBC pension scheme has a huge deficit, and the BBC wants to cut back on pensions. Part of the proposals is to provide a “career average” rather than a “final salary” pension. And the BBC is not the first organisation to propose this.
This might sound like a pretty minor thing – yes, of course people’s career average salary is lower than their final salary in most cases, because they tend to get promoted and so on. The media have concentrated on this aspect of the change, and pointed out that high fliers would lose out (which is probably fair since under final salary schemes they get an unfair advantage).
But what about inflation?
The BBC’s “career average pay” will be enhanced by the inflation rate, but only up to a maximum of 4 percent per annum. And that means, quite simply, that people’s pension entitlements will depend on inflation. And not in a small way, either.
Bear with me while I go through the figures.
The current inflation rate is around 5 percent in the UK. And by the standards of the last few decades, that’s pretty low.
Let’s imagine that somebody works for the BBC for the next 20 years, starting at £20k. Imagine a strange world where there was no inflation, and that our mythical BBC employee stays in the same job and gets no pay rises.
This means, of course, that their career average pension would be based on the same salary as their old final salary pension would have been.
Now, imagine a more realistic scenario where the inflation rate stays at 5 percent over that period.
Presumably our hero would get a 5 percent pay rise each year, equal to the inflation rate (giving him a zero real pay increase).
With those 5 percent pay rises, after the 20 years, their final salary will be much higher obviously. In fact, their final salary will be £50,539. That sounds a lot, but remember, in real terms, it’s only equivalent to that original £20,000 in today’s money.
Now over the 20 years, their career average salary is £33,066. With that 4 percent uprating, the career average salary, upon which their pension is based, comes to £46,423.
Thus, if the pension accrues at the same rate as it used to with the final salary scheme, their pension will be reduced by 9 percent purely because inflation has been 5 percent over the 20 years.
And now imagine that inflation really takes hold, and runs at 10 percent over that 20 year period. (That is not an unrealistic scenario, given the quantitative easing we have seen recently and with more being considered.)
In that scenario, our hero’s salary at the end of the 20 years is £122,318.
Over the 20 years, his average salary has been £57,275 and his average with the 4 percent uprating has been £77,831.
In that (relatively) high inflation scenario, his pension has been cut by 37 percent – and just by inflation!
Of course, if he gets real terms pay increases each year, then his pension reduction from the move to the career average scheme will be even higher.
You can see from all this that career average pensions leave the pension scheme member completely at the mercy of the inflation rate. (Of course, that was always the case after retirement except in the feather-bedded public sector, with its 100 percent inflation-linked pensions. But at least with final salary pensions you weren’t at the mercy of inflation before you retired.)
Higher inflation can very rapidly destroy the value of a career average pension. But of course high inflation does not hurt the ability of the employer to finance the pension scheme – their business will inflate along with the rest of the economy. That 37 percent pension hit for the unfortunate hero of our tale is not matched by a corresponding hit for the employer.
Career average pensions give employers a huge incentive to welcome high inflation. That’s why we need to resist them at all costs.
If there is a “black hole” in a pension fund, then maybe lower pension benefits will be needed. But let that be done in a transparent way, by reducing the rate at which pension rights build up, or by increasing contributions.
An alternative, of course, is to move to money-purchase schemes, which are the norm now in the private sector. With those, the employee is at the mercy of the performance of the pension fund. But at least he is not affected by inflation, because the pension scheme assets will inflate along with the economy.
Career average pension schemes represent employers’ using inflation to cut back people’s pensions without their realising it.