Another of the myriad important questions and uncertainties thrown up from the vote to leave the EU is what will happen to pensions in the UK. In this article, Pay and Reward Adviser, Charles Cotton, investigates the effects that the vote is likely to have, both in the short and long-term, on the value of pensions as well as what impact it may potentially have on the retirement plans of those who are looking to retire in the not-too-distant future. He also makes a number of suggestions of what HR professionals should be doing in communicating with employees the choices they may face in planning for the future.

The prominent Brexit campaigner, and now Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson has a reputation for having a Greek or Latin quote for most occasions. I’m sure that he’d be familiar with the saying: Quidquid agis, prudenter agas et respice finem, or whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end. In other words, whatever you decide to do, first think about the consequences.

Unless it was well hidden, the recent convulsions within the UK’s political and economic systems arising from the referendum vote indicates that there may have been little forward planning by politicians and business leaders about how to respond to the potential consequences of quitting the EU.

Now, after the event, employees, employers and the industry have been rushing around to examine the possible ways that Brexit may impact on pensions and retirement plans. In this context, there are a number of ways that HR and reward professionals can help their organisation in evaluating the situation and the range of options on offer.

HR should be looking at how the vote could impact on service provision. For instance, how many EU nationals do your fund managers employ and what would happen if they decide to leave the UK? Similarly, how many US or EU nationals may opt to quit your pension provider, adviser or administrator now that their income in pounds has become less valuable? Similarly, will the drop in the value of the pound impact on these firms’ ability to recruit from outside of the UK?

The economic effects of Brexit, particularly in the immediate short-term, are having a negative impact on pension liabilities and assets. Falling Gilt yields are increasing defined benefit (DB) pension deficits, while slowing economic growth is having negative consequences for employer covenant strengths and deficit recovery plans.

To bolster the employer covenant, HR should be busy looking at various business opportunities so that firms are better able to meet their pension liabilities. For instance, moving towards a high-quality product/service strategy, job and work redesign or an export drive to new markets. There is also going to be a potentially difficult conversation with employees if the focus of the reward budget has to switch from pay and benefits and towards paying off the increased pension deficit.

Reward professionals are also going to be busy responding to members anxious about what could happen to their supposed ‘gold-plated’ retirement plans. We and trustees need to ensure that our communications explain what’s happening, how and why, and the possible implications.

When it comes to defined contribution (DC) pensions, HR also has a crucial communications role. Many young DC pension members may be worried about the recent falls in the value of their pension caused by the current economic and political uncertainty. It is important to suggest that now may not be a good time to stop contributing to a pension or selling their shares because the stock market has fallen, and that over time they should be able to ride out the market turmoil and pick up some bargains along the way.

There is also the human issue of how to respond to employees whose retirement plans have been suddenly dashed by recent events. Those aiming to turn their DC pot into an annuity will be depressed to see that it now buys less as annuity prices have risen on the back of a fall in Gilt yields (which are used to calculate annuity prices).

Similarly, those workers nearing retirement who were planning to draw down income from their pension pot to fund it could face problems if they are heavily invested in shares. If the price of shares drops, then they will need to sell more of them to get the same level of income. This means that they will go through their pension fund quicker and may run out of money sooner.

Employees in a DC plan may now need to postpone their retirement plans which, in turn, has people management consequences for their employers. Again, HR must help their organisations respond by exploring what could be the possible workplace issues if a significant number of staff decide to defer their retirement, in terms of work and job design as well as people management and development issues.

Of course, employees may also be nervous about the potential political fallout from Brexit, such as changes to pension tax relief or the scrapping of proposals to reform how pension funds are treated at death. There may also be implications for employers; auto-enrolment contribution rate rises will now be delayed until April 2018 and we could see other changes, for example, or a delay in the introduction of Lifetime ISAs.

HR, therefore, has a vital role in helping employees and employers work through the choices and possible consequences, with intelligence and with the end in mind. Hopefully, something that will also happen when the UK and the EU negotiators meet to determine our new relationship.

About the author

Charles Cotton, Senior Performance and Reward Adviser

Charles has recently led research into the business case for pensions, how front line managers make and communicate reward decisions, and managing reward risks, as well as the creation of a good practice guide on the annual pay review process. He is also responsible for the CIPD’s public policy work in the area of reward and is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD.

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