x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Take risks to boost your pension and retire on time

Playing safe can cost you dearly. Workers in Europe and the US face a triple whammy - with inflationary pressures, low interest rates and poor market returns - forcing many people to work longer.

As European workers at companies such as BMW in Germany, above, near retirement, they face difficult investment choices. Lennart Preiss / AFP
As European workers at companies such as BMW in Germany, above, near retirement, they face difficult investment choices. Lennart Preiss / AFP

Playing safe can cost you dearly. Workers in Europe and the US face a triple whammy - with inflationary pressures, low interest rates and poor market returns - forcing many people to work longer.

As if all the doom and gloom emanating from the euro zone is not enough cause for depression, workers across the western world are warned that they can kiss goodbye to their retirements unless they take more risk to keep nest eggs growing in a world where playing safe can cost you ever-more dearly.

Four years of near-zero official interest rates and successive market panics have driven the returns from the low-risk German, British or American government bonds, on which pension funds traditionally rely, to record lows.

That may yet rescue the global economy by supporting borrowing and growth, but it is bad news for several generations of workers already set to retire later - and for longer - than their predecessors.

Without returns that outstrip inflation, still running at about 2 per cent in much of Europe, they face the real value of their savings declining rather than ratcheting up over the next few years. Yet there has been little public discussion of the problem in the rush to try to head off a deepening crisis of poor growth and rising public debt in Europe and the United States.

"For governments in northern Europe and North America, it's about gaining time, avoiding any painful adjustments, keeping interest rates artificially low and hoping things will improve," says Nicolas Firzli, the co-chairman of the World Pensions Forum.

Nigel Green, the chief executive of the financial adviser deVere Group, estimates a pre-crisis pension pot in the United Kingdom worth £10,000 (Dh57,447) a year is now worth 20 per cent less, hit by a triple whammy of the central bank printing money, low interest rates and poor market returns.

Many of his clients have been forced to delay retirement as a result, typically extending their working lives by five years. "People are only just starting to understand how profound an impact these policies are having when it's too late. When they see the figures, they quickly realise they don't have the funds to finish work," says Mr Green. "They are working longer if they have the choice. But some can't, and not everyone wants to employ someone who is older."

In the past, fund managers could move up the yield curve, buying other AAA-rated euro-zone bonds instead of German bunds to get an extra percentage point or two of return. But the loss of top credit ratings has meant their rules forbid them from investing heavily in many of those countries.

That leaves savers with a stark choice: raise the stakes to retire on time, or stay safe and work longer.

But if funds bet badly on assets they are not used to owning, they may inflame a problem that has already driven pension funds at major companies such as BMW or British Airways into billions of dollars worth of deficit.

"There are big deficits but there's no silver bullet," says John Belgrove, a principal at the consultant Aon Hewitt, which advises pension funds running more than £10 billion in assets. "Funds cannot afford to suddenly pull out into the outside lane and stick their foot down, they need to have measured approaches for closing that gap."

The transfer of responsibility for retirement planning from the state to the individual has left policymakers free to prioritise quick economic gain over long-term growth, catching thousands of pension savers in the crossfire.

While cuts in pensions paid to teachers, police and health workers across the indebted euro zone dominate the headlines, many private-sector savers have failed to grasp the more subtle link between central bank policy and their dwindling wealth.

Lower interest rates earn savers less on their money, while an increase in the currency in circulation promotes inflationary pressures, reducing the purchasing power of that cash over time. In the meantime, because pensioners are living longer, the gap between the income they need and the total returns generated by the assets in their funds continues to widen.

For pension scheme trustees and members who reject a rapid increase in the risk to their capital, saving more can help to mitigate the impact of damaging macro policy. But it is not a fail-safe solution for those who planned to take retirement soon.

"If a marathon runner hits the last mile 20 seconds off his target time, he won't be able to make it up. If he found out halfway through, he might have had a chance. It's the same with pensions," says Brian Henderson, a consultant at the investment company Mercer.

"When you get a few years from retirement, it's the assets you already own that generate most of your income, not the money you put in to top things up at the last minute."

Many corporate pension funds are using hedging tools such as interest-rate swaps to improve the chances of meeting liabilities, even if markets continue to sour. BMW, British Airways and the British broadcaster ITV have offloaded an aggregate £5bn of pension risks to insurers and banks via these derivatives since 2010.

On a consumer level, Mark Soper, the head of financial planning at RetireEasy, says savers can wrestle back control by using a broader mix of methods to shelter wealth, such as Britain's tax-free independent savings accounts.

"People who put all their eggs in one defined contribution pension basket are discovering the amount they get out can depend as much on government policy as what they put in. You thought you had control but the fact is, you don't."