The scale of the ethical challenge facing pension providers can be neatly illustrated by the fact that most people completely misunderstand what a pension is. Most people think of it as the monthly payment they receive after retirement, when in fact, it’s the product into which savings are accumulated prior to retirement. This misunderstanding can of course be quickly sorted out as the person nears retirement, but nevertheless, it is symptomatic of the gap between those who manufacture pension products and those who buy them.
Is misunderstanding inevitable?
Is such misunderstanding inevitable with a complex product like insurance? Not at all. Some commentators (including within the market itself) see it as having been build up to allow for more lucrative annuities sales at the point of retirement. That comfortable carpet of sales has now been pulled from under their feet by the Chancellor’s reforms.
So the number one ethical issue that pensions providers must tackle is ‘information asymmetry’: the imbalance in understanding between provider and purchaser. That inevitably means simpler products, which can then be sold on more clear terms and relied upon later in life with greater certainty.
Insurers are being encouraged along this simplification route by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. Its chief executive, Martin Wheatley, has indicated that simplified polices will be looked upon favourably by regulators, on the basis that they are likely to lead to fewer conduct problems later on.
A Revolution in Language
Simplication should also bring about a revolution in pensions and annuities language. Policies have previously been written mainly with the financial planner in mind, but as adviser firms orientate their business towards those more able to pay their regular fees, a gap is opening up around those with small to mid sized pension pots. More simply worded policies help fill that gap: they’re more easily designed with a target market in mind, more easily understood by that target market, more easily sold on a direct basis and if necessary, more confidently bought on an execution only basis.
Stratification and access
Another ethical issue that pension providers must together face up to is stratification and access. There’s a danger that in times of change and uncertainty, the market adopts an even stronger focus on those customer segments it feels most secure dealing with. If this is at the cost of attending to other, less familiar, perhaps more challenging, segments, then there’s a danger that some types of consumer will find access to pensions much more difficult. Times of change are opportunities for innovative thinking, not repeat thinking, both in terms of the design of products and the ethical ideas that influence them.
Another question that each insurer needs to carefully weigh up on a set of ‘ethical scales’ is how much longevity risk they incorporate into their product offering. The market has been criticised for distancing itself from longevity risk and should this apparent trend continue, it needs to be clearly signalled in how products are targetted and communicated.
And is this ultimately a healthy trend? Is long term insurance with reduced longevity risk a bit like say, a car without fuel: in other words, nice on the outside, but really, what’s the point? A popular phrase here in the UK is ‘it does what it says on the tin’, which, for long term insurers, means grasping longevity risk and delivering the value that comes from risk transfer and pooling.