27 Jan 2017, 11:21am
personal finance
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  • the siren song of the tax-free bung

    Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: “Do not march on Moscow. Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good”.

    Monty

    So it is with pensions. Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of personal finance is: “Never give up any defined benefit pension”. Various people want to try it, so many that they had to set up a law that you need to take independent financial advice when transferring even a DC pension which has been run by the same administrators as a DB pension, never mind actually trying to transfer a DB pension into a SIPP.  Nevertheless I am thinking of giving up some of mine, for a 25% tax-free bung (PCLS). Not right now, but at a later stage. Not only that, I am not planning to invest it, merely use it for a consumption good, although not a wasting one 1.

    I’ve already take a bite of a PCLS when I sprang my additional voluntary contributions into a SIPP. I’d saved roughly a third of the notional capital behind my main defined benefit (DB) pension into defined contribution AVCs in my last three years at work, ramming my pay down to nearly minimum wage at times and winning both tax and NI savings using salary sacrifice, saving in three years what it had taken me nearly 8 years normal accrual of employer and employee savings.It’s not a recipe for a huge amount of consumer spending fun, but you get to buy a lot of your time back from The Man.

    Those were the days when there was little point in me taking out a SIPP, because I’d have had to convert 3/4 of the SIPP to an annuity for life, where I really wanted an annuity for five years until my DB pension kicked in. By taking out AVCs I wanted enough tax-free lump sum to be able to invest to compensate for the actuarial reduction in drawing the DB pension in my early 50s 2. There are many good points about a DB pension, but flexibility in retirement age is not one of them. In general you want to take a DB pension close to whatever the normal retirement age (NRA) is for the scheme, which in my case is 60 for most of my contributions. And I wanted to retire at 52. The inflexibility of pensions was also why I chose to build up ISA savings at the same time, because I made this choice according to the old rules.

    Then George Osborne wandered along and shook up the system so you could front run a DB pension with a SIPP, running it flat between your early retirement age and the DB pension NRA. So I grabbed this opportunity, started to run down my AVCs in a SIPP and left the ISA alone. As it happened the uplift of the Brexit brain-fart has increased my nominal SIPP capital so it will take me to a year later than 60 if I want to sneak it all out below the tax threshold, which hasn’t been lifted to compensate for the 20% devaluation in the worth of the pound. On the upside the 25% PCLS got a Brexit boost in my ISA, so I probably won all round. The idea of paying tax hurts, though, when I didn’t need to on the original plan.

    Still, we’ll have well and truly Brexitted by the time I am 60 and that nice fellow Michael Gove tells me that it will all go swimmingly so maybe the supine pound will have increased back to its former Imperial glory, making each pound count like it used to in the days of the Raj. I’d settle for its power in the 1960s when you used to get twelve Deutschemarks for a pound 3. One can live in hope that it’ll be all right on the night and a pint of beer won’t cost £10 4 a few years hence…

    A pint of Brexit Doom? That’ll be £10, sir.

    So I now ask the DB admin guys what I would get if I draw at 58, 60, and 62. The reason for that is I have 23 years DB pension accrued, for 20 years the promise was to pay from 60, then they switched that to 65 for the last three years. They demand I take both accruals at the same time and don’t pay any uplift on the NRA 60 contributions. A moment’s thought indicates that delaying two years after 60 should give me much less uplift than the difference between 58 and 60, but it’s always nice to have one’s gut feel confirmed in writing.

    It was. I lose 5% of the pension at 60 if I draw it two years early, and I gain 1% if I draw it at 62. So it’s daft to delay after 60. I then go and factor in the  effect of tax, because although the headline actuarial reduction is 5% for two years 5 it so happens that all the difference is well over the basic rate tax threshold. So I get to lose 20% of it, making the actuarial reduction 4% net. I have already done all my duty paying tax for one lifetime, so it really doesn’t make my heart bleed that HMRC will lose out each year. Stuff ’em.

    What about taking another 25% PCLS?

    It appears that I can still take a pension commencement lump sum, which reduces the annual pension by ~ 25%, natch. Whether this is a good idea or not is all about two things. One is the commutation rate, ie if you take the PCLS and divide by the annual loss of pension what is the ratio. The other thing is how you feel about the stability of the pension scheme, changes in tax rates and investment returns, and if there is anything else you want to do with the money like pay off a mortgage. Taking the PCLS insulates me against changes in tax rates and the stability of the pension scheme, but of course if I were to invest it I get exposed to investment risk. I can easily pay my essential bills from the reduced pension since it is more than my current income. The natural yield of my ISA would make up more than the net difference to where it was without the lump sum,  and I’ve never needed to draw income from the ISA yet.

    It so happens that I have a use for a lump sum in a couple of years, I may want to move a little bit upmarket housing-wise. I am hoping that Brexit slows down or hopefully hammers the housing market. Unlike every other Briton I don’t personally believe that property is a good investment at all, but sod it, I have come to the stage where I just want a little bit more house and I’m not really looking forward to the experience of  when my current  semi-detached neighbours go to a retirement home in a few years and I end up living next door to a baby 6, or a teenager into Throbbing Gristle, or the little toe-rag that used to live next door to my mother who used to do his baseball practice. Against the upstairs bedroom party wall FFS, just as well she was getting hard of hearing but still needed earplugs to deal with that little tyke…

    So the 25% lump sum is attractive. The commutation factor is 20 (ie I get 20 times the loss of annual gross income as a tax-free lump sum). However, since that is gross income, I would get to pay tax on the income. Probably tax and NI in the coming years, since the differing tax rates on earned and pension income is an obvious target for governments to hit without raising tax rates. So when I look at the difference in net income, the commutation rate is 25 times, possibly more if the dreaded integration of tax and NI comes to pass. A PCLS is tax-free.

    Everybody says don’t ever sell any of your valuable DB annuity promise. I have some good reasons here, and I have enough to be able to do fine surrendering the income. I take the point that you shouldn’t just blow it on a Lamborghini, although pouring it into the bottomless toilet that is British residential property isn’t much better IMO, but at least it is a fixed asset. Another factor is that I am ten years older than Mrs Ermine, and a DB pension pays a widow’s pension of a half . So if/when I kick it before her, assuming property hasn’t fallen by a half in real terms, she has more preserved value from the DB pension 7, though she will need to move to realise it. There are other ways to hedge that risk though – term life insurance to insure my death to the value of the PCLS until Mrs Ermine reaches her three-score years and ten is about £500 pa

    Housing? WTF?

    The general theme on housing seems people want to downsize post work, but although I don’t want a huge upgrade I want to get away from some hazards. I am probably housing-lite relative to many readers of a similar age; my ISA was probably worth a little more than my current house before the Brexit boost. Most people my age at The Firm seemed to have the majority of their networth in housing. They probably share SHMD Jim’s perspective and want to change down, not up. But hell, I had a different experience of housing. And while you can go into a retirement complex in your 50s, I don’t yet feel that I have one foot in the grave, so I am happy to swim against the tide here.

    I have a couple of years to mull this over before actually needing to do it. A lot can happen over two years, and there’s no need to rush it, but it was worth getting those quotes from the pension administrators so I can sketch out an action plan, even if it does go against rule 1.

     

    Notes:

    1. Cars and iPhones are wasting assets, because they are degrade, and are worth less in ten years than they are now. Other assets, like gold, housing and worthwhile education, preserve value across the years because they don’t degrade, although the value can still be volatile
    2. I had protected rights so I could have drawn it from 50, not 55
    3. In that case the large Brexit increase in unitised price of my ISA will become a large decrease. But then I’ll be living in a country with cheap beer, energy and all that good stuff! I am also toying with some of Monevator’s hedged ETFs
    4. Londoners will probably tell me it’s already £15 in City watering holes, but such usury has yet to creep out into the sticks, because the rest of Britain is a lot poorer than you guys
    5. I find this surprisingly low but that’s what the estimate says when I compute the difference. Are they really expecting me to live for 40 years after 60, such that two extra years of payment is 5% of the total expected period of payment?
    6. I lived next door to people that had a baby in a terraced house in my early thirties. I had to move my bedroom to get any sleep.
    7. this is a complicated calculation, because it depends on how long I live as to whether the total amount coming into the household ends up more or less. If I really get to 100 taking the PCLS will have been a bad move
     
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