Picture postcards from a global pensions tour

Published by Damian Stancombe on

Clocking up nearly two million airmiles in the course of a global career in pensions is impressive enough.

We also discovered David Harris had his own pilot’s licence as he took us on a world tour of pensions and benefits to help inform how the UK should be viewing its own challenges.

He can justifiably claim to have a bird’s eye view of benefits from the southern hemisphere to the Nordics and beyond. David questioned the "staggeringly aggressive" increases proposed for auto-enrolment in the UK, referring to the more gradual escalation of contributions in Australia, saying rises had been phased in over ten years down under.

The managing director of Tor Consulting discussed that in New Zealand, people contributing to their equivalent of auto-enrolment tended to hold their contributions at three per cent, preferring instead to invest in buy-to-let properties. He added that no annuities had been sold in New Zealand last year. Although a pensions dashboard had been in place for ten years, no-one used them.

Australia’s means-tested pension system meant that even Sir Richard Branson would not qualify (just one of a number of countries in an entertaining talk), even though it is compulsory to save for a pension. With fewer than 40 corporate schemes, most funds were being invested in master trusts - more than £1 trillion had been invested in infrastructure assets.

"On retirement, David answered Chile - because the government guarantees annuity performance levels promised by insurance companies."

If you had a pension in South Africa, you cashed out your pot every time you changed jobs.  Rather than label it a perverse incentive, David was more forthright: “That’s mad. It’s a weakness,” was his plain-spoken summary.

He expressed surprise that no-one from the UK’s pension authorities had been to his next stop, Denmark. That was because the Danes had a well-established pensions dashboard at the centre of its financial system. “Unless you’re Richard Branson – pensions are means-tested here, too – you print out your dashboard when you apply for a bank loan,” he said.

Across the water, the pensions system in Ireland was notable for holding £32 billion in reserve until it was used to bail out the Irish banks flattened by the credit crunch; eleven per cent of all pension assets were still held in cash.

Back on the European mainland, Switzerland was one of only two countries, together with New Zealand, to put compulsory pensions to a referendum. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss said “yes” but have just rejected changes to the state pension in a further popular vote.

David was asked where he would choose to retire, if he could. He answered Chile, because the government guarantees annuity performance levels promised by insurance companies.

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