23 Feb 2016, 8:42pm
personal finance:
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  • wither pension tax relief and lump sum again?

    The flowers are coming out, there is the sound of the robin and the dunnock singing, Spring is in the air, and along with the snowdrops and early daffodils there are some stories in the press that come round every March/April time. Oyez oyez, it’s the last chance for you lucky higher rate taxpayers to get pensions tax relief. And as for you lot expecting to pay off your BTL mortgages with the pension commencement lump sums, well, better do it now while you can 1. ‘Twas ever thus

    1602_DSCN2798

    Going, going, gone…It’s the oldest trick in the book

    Sale – Must end Now – punters are suckers for a bit of FOMO, and pension providers always like to hit us with a quick giddy-up at this time of year. It’s always the same old story, sometimes it’s the PCLS that’s due for the chop, sometimes the tax relief. That’s not to say that adverse changes don’t happen with pensions, but they tend to come from left field – the reductions in the annual allowance ,and the introduction of the Lifetime Allowance are two, although these only hit the well-heeled. Presumably these well heeled got to be well-heeled because they had the odd brain cell to rub together; if they can’t be bothered to work it out for themselves Merryn Somerset-Webb of the FT is there to sock it to you straight between the eyes.

    The result is still up for grabs but one thing at least is clear: the game is up for higher earners. Whatever the new system is, it will further cut the reliefs given to them.

    Well, yeah, but it’s going to be more of a whimper than a bang, at a guess – they will be sliced and diced.

    The PCLS was introduced in 1988 I think, when the concept of a personal pension came into being, and every year since then the same stores have been trotted out by the pensions industry trying to stampede the rich into getting their money into a pension, like NOW. The poor, of course, well, they don’t save for retirement anyway.

    Despite having told HL for the last three years that I am an Ermine of very modest means, less than £3600 p.a. indeed, which is all I can save for a pension, they clearly think I am still one of the movers and shakers with a six-figure salary. As such I got my very own copy of this missive. No wonder HL is so damned dear for holding investments, as opposed to cash, if they have to mail so much cruft out to us all. I have nothing against them, well, apart from them demanding I pay £500 to be advised that transferring my AVC funds was a good idea, something I had worked out quite nicely for myself thanks. I observe they have got themselves into this advice game themselves, nowadays, clearly jobs for the boys is a revenue stream too good to miss.

    I am just a poor boy 2 though my story’s seldom told

    There’s a corollary here, which in fairness HL did list in a throwaway paragraph

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    Quite. Your impecunious scrivener, having failed to avoid earning about £5k can put this into his SIPP for the initial outlay of £4000. I’ve never really understood the status of the remaining £1k, obviously if I had been earning £20k then it would have disappeared into the taxman’s maw, but instead remains to be spent on beer and fast cars, or beaten down stocks. Anyway, the taxman adds the £1k back into the SIPP despite not taking it off me. The speculation on changes seems to vary between divvying up the HRT break into nothing extra for anyone, 25% tax relief for all, 33% tax relief for all, and zero tax-relief for all but the chance to have any gains tax-free in an ISA-like savings vehicle, but presumably one you can’t access before you are grizzled of years. I struggle to see the attraction here. Most people don’t save £15k a year into their pensions, so they may as well fill their ISAs first. The average DC pension capital on retirement is about £100k , elementary arithmetic indicates this is not saving £15k p.a. for 30 years. You read about all the options here. I am not sure that the savers of Britain are ready for a second major overhaul in the retirement savings structure and ethos in as many years without becoming suspicious refuseniks, but there we go.

    Should this go the 25% relief I guess I can hope for £1250, so there’s a potential £250 in it for sitting on my backside for a few weeks. Because I am entirely a cash saver in a SIPP, I always leave it to the last minute to contribute, because there’s no point in locking money away before I need to (to get the win of the tax break). Obviously the big money for HL is with the well heeled, but there are crumbs in it for the little sparrows in doing exactly the opposite of what is advocated in that HL exhortation. Indeed, for someone who is post 54 and intending to retire next year, the difference is respectable if they are earning, say £32,000 and toss the lot in. They could get £6400 at the moment going up to £8000 if the 25% tax relief happened. Of course it may not, or it may be deferred, but a potential £1600 would be worth waiting three weeks for. Obviously if you are one of the six-figure vHRT fellows then throw caution to the wind as HL advocate!

    Lifetime Allowance, Marginal Tax Relief, Annual allowance – one, not three

    I benefited well from higher rate tax relief, but even then my higher rate tax paying years were perhaps a third of my working life. Careers tend to be more contrasty now, they peak earlier, but people also burn out earlier. I’ve already put my colours on the mast for the lifetime allowance, which most accurately defines the ambition of tax-privileged pension savings to my eyes. All this fiddling with marginal tax relief and annual allowances sucks IMO – you should be able to get to the LTA in a couple of furious years in finance or 30 years of steady Eddie saving. It’s about the destination, not the journey.

    All the annual and lifetime restrictions combine to make tax-privileged pension saving more suited to your grandfather’s career arc than today’s sort where even the better off are likely to experience feast and famine, or burn out prematurely. Even I would have rubbed up against the annual allowance at the end of my career, and I got nowhere near the LTA.

    Erstwhile pensions minister Steve Webb scares the horses on the PCLS

    Meanwhile, Steve Webb says the pension commencement lump sum is due for the chop. Well, sort of – if the principle of tax-free pension saving on accumulation is iced, then yes. But those of you sitting on a potential PCLS, including me, this doesn’t mean you have to hook it out by the 16th March. Adverse pension changes are usually trailed at least a year ahead – such as the reduction in the LTA which was announced last year. Positive pension changes sometimes have immediate effect – the announcement of the pension freedoms was announced in March, giving me just enough time to open a SIPP in the old tax year.

    Pensions are still giving me a hard time to qualify the opportunities

    Say I take my PCLS this April, and start to run out the pension below the personal allowance. Let’s ignore that fact I am earning chickenfeed at the moment, say that is £0. I am still allowed to save £2880 a year and the tax man stumps up another £720. By rights 25% of that should be available as a PCLS – after all, say I opened another HL SIPP which had just that £3600 in it, there would be no quibble. I don’t know if HL are smart enough to be able to track that sort of thing.It isn’t as good as the deal used to be for me, because 3/4 of the tax credited is taken back again, so the gain is reduced from £720 to £180, but it’s still free money

    In theory, therefore, even I earned £10k all of which would be taxable at 20% because I am drawing pension income up to the personal allowance there would be a win to pass this through the SIPP. Because of the PCLS I could reduce my basic rate tax liability by a quarter. Paying tax at 20% × 0.75=15% seems like a step in the right direction, saving me £500 in that case. Of course changing to a post-tax savings regime would rain on my parade. Pretty much everything about pensions is hard, counterintuitive and full of wrinkles, that’s the nature of the beast.

    Notes:

    1. what with some of the changes to BTL tax relief on leverage there is more sense to that, but for different reasons
    2. Irony,dear reader, irony… ‘ere I take heat for being a PT b’stard.
     
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