Market volatility and DC pensions: keep calm and carry on!

Published by Mark Futcher on

Our expert

  • Mark Futcher

    Mark Futcher

    Partner and Head of DC

  • Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

    These are turbulent times. Investment markets appear to be extremely volatile. So it can often be daunting when, as DC pension scheme members, we see the value of our pension pot has dropped.

    Through data and analytics, employers can understand how these issues might impact different groups within their workforce. With this knowledge they can target communications to specific groups of pension scheme members.

    How have pension scheme members reacted to the Covid-19 outbreak?

    The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a number of calls to Barnett Waddingham’s pension helpline from members of group pension schemes. They are concerned that the value of their pot has fallen and are looking to discuss what can they can, or can’t, (or shouldn’t) do with their pension. 

    It is easy to think: “Why should I continue to invest in a savings vehicle that may be lower in value than it was last year?“ But as consultants we need to help members understand the issues and implications of potentially making poor decisions. 

    Below are some of the main areas we have been speaking to members about recently.

    Particularly if we are invested in equities, many of us will have seen a drop in our fund value. However, members need to be reminded that a pension is a long-term savings vehicle and there will be short-term market volatility. As we have seen in the past, markets recover and go on to provide positive returns over the longer term. This is, of course, not guaranteed and we can’t predict when it will happen. But looking back over previous periods of market volatility shows us that markets do rebound.

    Pension membership provides a number of benefits and, as a member of an employer pension arrangement, it is not only our own contributions that are invested. Before any investment growth, we also benefit in the form of tax relief, as well as a contribution from our employer. Indeed, the level of pension contribution is the main driver behind having a good outcome in retirement, particularly for younger members.     

    If increasing contributions, it is always a good idea to consider the contribution structure applying. Many pension schemes are set up on a tiered basis and any increase to the level of employee contribution may also result in an increase in the level of employer contribution as well. 

    As we know, investment volatility will impact the price of investment units and, as markets fall in value, the price of an investment unit will also decease. Making contributions in a falling market can be advantageous and, rather than considering stopping of reducing contributions, it may be an opportune time for members to review their level of pension saving and consider increasing the amount of personal contributions.

    By contributing on a regular basis, in a market downturn contributions can benefit from pound cost averaging. Whereby, if the price of an investment unit deceases as a result of investment conditions, the amount of units purchased is greater than before. The same also applies when making a lump sum contribution - it is always better to invest when the market is falling rather than waiting for the market to recover.

    Many of us do have competing priorities for our money, even more so in the current environment. Pension saving can be flexible and, as well as increasing contributions, in some cases members may decide to reduce the level of pension contributions they are making or even stop contributing for a period of time. However the level of pension contribution should be regularly reviewed and we need to bear in mind that reducing contributions will have an impact on retirement planning. 

    The recent investment falls and job insecurities have prompted some members to consider accessing benefits earlier than originally planned. The freedoms and flexibilities certainly allow this and, if you are over 55, you can access some or all of your pot. 

    However, we need to stop and think and discuss with members whether this is the best course of action. If members are close to retirement and are invested in a lifestyle strategy and are de-risking as they approach their selected access age, this may not have much impact on the size of their pot and resulting income. However, for members primarily invested in equities, accessing benefits in a volatile investment market earlier than intended may well mean having to rely on a retirement income lower than before.  

    In these scenarios members may be better off delaying taking benefits or, if possible, waiting for markets to recover. If there is an immediate need, do all benefits have to be taken at once? Would it be more beneficial for some members to instead take advantage of the flexibilities that most DC products offer and start to access their benefits in stages? 

    The Pensions Regulator’s view is that setting a clear purpose and strategy is essential to managing schemes effectively and getting good outcomes for members. It believes that trustees should develop a business plan to help them plan ahead and comply with any legal requirements.

    The Regulator believes that the business plan should contain strategic goals and that progress should be checked against short and medium term objectives. It should then help to act as an early warning system for any problems.  

    A business plan is useful for other reasons too. For example, it should help the trustees to:

    • better understand the items of work arising in the future, the time available, and the amount of delegation therefore required for more routine matters
    • decide the order of priorities and allocation of resource
    • plan training
    • co-ordinate advisers
    • engage with the employer more efficiently

    As Lewis Carroll noted “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”.  If you have a business plan you will have more of an idea of where you are going and have a better chance of being able to work out the best route. So don’t forget to put this on agendas.

    Members who access benefits early, particularly for those who are some way from their selected access age and intend to carry on working and contributing into pensions, need to be made aware of the MPAA and the impact that this may have on future pension provision. 

    The rules can be complex and unclear. For example, many are often unaware that, if they take any income or further lump sum amounts above the tax free cash limit, future tax relievable total pension contributions will be limited to £4,000 per annum going forwards, rather than the regular Annual Allowance of the lower of £40,000 per annum or an individual’s total income. That’s a potential nasty shock for many pension members!

    Even in the current environment we can forget there are still people out there trying to get us to part with our hard earned pension pots. We need to continue to make members aware of the risks of potentially transferring to unregulated products with promises of fantastic returns or early access, which can lead to losses of some or all of our pension funds. The old adage that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” still remains true.

    Employee engagement is vital

    Although these issues have been primarily driven by the Covid-19 crisis, it does highlight the importance for employers to engage with their employees. By doing so, whether it is a targeted communication strategy informed by analysis of your employees, using media such as a newsletter or an email nudge, or simply pointing members in the direction of where they can find further information, it will help members better understand the features of DC pension saving and ultimately assist in improving member outcomes.

    If you would like to talk about this topic, please get in touch with your usual Barnett Waddingham contact to find out how we can support you. Alternatively, please contact, a key contributor to this blog, or Mark Futcher on the details below. 

    If you are an employer and looking for guidance on how to better understand your employees pensions concerns in the face of volatile markets, we encourage you to explore our Employer DNA hub.

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