Lord Hutton: public sector pensions - Crisis? What crisis? Don't panic!
Don't go to today's Hutton interim report on Public Sector Pensions reform if you expect to find anything that backs up the general narrative which has developed over the last few years: that public sector pensions are gold-plated cash cows draining the exchequer and being subsidised by private sector taxpayers. The Hutton Report, rather than Hutton, comprehensively takes this argument apart simply through stating a few facts.
Don't read it if you expect to find evidence of an imminent catastrophe in public sector pensions provision or taxpayer support for them. Hutton believes that there is not.
Don't read it for comfort if you are a private sector worker who has not got a final salary pension scheme, or indeed any pension at all. Hutton has some harsh words for private sector provision. The real crisis is in private sector pensions, not public sector pensions.
Don't read it if you believe shrinking the size of the public sector workforce will help save the exchequer billions in pensions fund payments - Hutton suggests it could make the situation worse by sending unfunded pension schemes into deficit and the exchequer picking up the tab.
Although, don't go to the Hutton Report expecting clarity - even he suggests that there is a lack of consensus on what are the key facts and figures and a lack of transparency of the relevant data.
The interim report itself isn't recommending anything yet. But it is a mine of rich information and it does contain some simple facts. It is those, not any possible future recommendations, which slaughter many sacred cows fattened and nurtured by those who take the more jaundiced approach to the value, or otherwise, of defined benefit public sector pensions.
Some facts, having actually read the report this morning:
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ One in ten public service pensions are ÃÂ£1,000 a year or less.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ 65 per cent of female public sector pensioners and 40 per cent of male public sector pensioners, receive pensions below ÃÂ£6,000 per annum.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Only 1 in 10 male public sector pensioners and only 1 in 50 female public sector pensioners, receive pensions of more than ÃÂ£20,000 per annum..
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ The local government pension schemes are currently paying out much less than they receive in contributions - they are in net positive territory - but job losses there could change this radically.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Unfunded pensions schemes (where the public employee's pension moneys over the employee's working lifetime are simply paid right into the treasury) exist essentially for teachers, the NHS, the army and the civil service.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ These big four make up the vast bulk of non-funded public sector pensions (local government is, broadly speaking, funded).
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ These funds pay out based on defined benefits like final salary, but sometimes there are surpluses in any year which go into the treasury and sometimes there are deficits which are met by the exchequer.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ The NHS 'unfunded' pension scheme was 'in profit' last year, receiving ÃÂ£2billion in contributions more - a positive cash flow of ÃÂ£2billion into the exchequer overall.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ The gross cost of paying unfunded public service pensions is expected to fall (that's right - to fall) from 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 to 1.4 per cent of GDP by 2060
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Hutton believes that unfunded pensions schemes for the public sector are, on balance, a good thing for the economy rather than, instead, ring-fencing them into an actual pension fund; and, while he suggests some diversification would help, in principle we should continue with the system because it actually helps the economy.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Hutton estimates that gross expenditure on unfunded public service pensions will remain close to current levels as a proportion of GDP over the next decade.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Public service pension benefit payments will not sky-rocket over the next 20 years - adjusted for constant earning levels they will show a gradual increase from ÃÂ£24.9 billion in 2009-10 to ÃÂ£29.2 billion in 2029-30, with payments remaining around that level thereafter: this is a much more gradual rise than some raw figures (and commentators) suggested.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Much of what might be seen as large private sector pension funds are actually substantially public sector funds because their funds consist mainly of funds from active employees and pensioners when they were nationalised industries (e.g. BT, British Coal, National Grid, BAe etc.); or they are in reality part of the public sector but in ring-fenced funded pension schemes with trustees (e.g. University Lecturers, BBC, Royal Mail).
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Reforms already in place in public sector pensions over the last few years mean that the value to current members of reformed schemes is, on average, around 25 per cent less - public sector pensions are already much less.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ One reason for a lot of panic about future performance of funded and non-funded pensions has been more to do with the effects of changes to accounting rules involving more short-termist valuations, which in reality have little to do with what are effectively 50 year investments.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Another reason is the effect of the economic collapse on the basic calculations which are now applied to predict future performance - the effect of this is to skew the figures into unnecessarily gloomy territory in public and private pensions.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Ironically, says Hutton, the shrinking of the public sector workforce (especially in local government) will reduce the active contributors to the pensions funds or the exchequer.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Because the amount of pensioners receiving benefits will stay the same or increase in the near future, any reduction in the contributory workforce ensures the pension schemes go into deficit and that deficit may have to be met by the taxpayer!
Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Of the predicted short term deficits over the next few years, Hutton says "In particular, the growing gap reflects the forecast fall in public service workforce numbers, and therefore active members of public service pension schemes paying contributions over the next few years."
I suspect Hutton himself expected to find a different picture (as might also have George Osborne and, particularly bearing in mind his conference speech comments on 'gold plated pensions', Nick Clegg) and his comments today have been rather sober as a result. There is no need to panic about public sector pensions, he is saying, but long-term continuing reform is required to ensure a panic does not have to occur in the future.
Indeed, public sector pensioners are, again, unavoidably presented by Hutton as prudent savers who deserve a return on that investment. On the other hand, private sector workers, in the absence of compulsion upon employer or employee, and in the absence of decent schemes, are presented as having woeful pension prospects.
The real issue is that the schemes available in the past to the private sector worker have been woeful and, crucially, without an apparent effective guarantee from government, have been in comparison extremely unattractive. We could guarantee the banks and savers in them in the recent past, but pensions were another matter entirely.
Hutton in his report and in his comments to the media has been clear: there is no need to dumb down public sector pensions in a race to the bottom to meet the awful provision in the private sector. That, I would suggest, is the new politics of envy.
The public sector workers' contributions in the non-funded sector can be seen as having been put to work in the economy in what Hutton refers to as (wait for it) 'inter-temporal transfers within the public sector, in line with other public investment projects'. They effectively took out a National Savings bond with the government and expect their return on investment in their defined benefit pension scheme later in life.
Away from Hutton, there is a much bigger issue about pension funds in the UK: how they operate and invest, and where and in what things they invest.
The pension fund industry in the UK is dominated almost wholly by what are effectively public sector pension funds: private sector pensions funds are miniscule by comparison.
I shall be blogging next on how a revolution is required as to how those kinds of funds move around the economy, especially at a regional level and to whom they are responsible. It's time to ensure that savings by workers in the West Midlands stay in, and are invested in, the West Midlands. And that those very workers have a say in what happens to their money.