Taking the sting out of the pension tale

Nic Cicutti cuts a path through terminal tedium and sales-talk to the best value in retirement funds
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The Independent Culture
Many financial advisers argue that how much of a pension you receive at retirement depends on the performance of the fund in which you are investing.

It is a reasonable argument. Sadly, it does not hold much water for most fund-management companies. The fact is that most fund managers are average most of the time. Indeed, 75 per cent of them don't even manage to beat the share index.

What distinguishes them from each other is their fees. Take one that charges 1 per cent of your money each year to look after it and another that takes 2 per cent. Little difference, is there? But over 25 years, the second firm would have to achieve a performance 25 per cent better than the first just to overcome the impact of its fees.

If this is so, how do people end up with personal pension policies where the value of their fund barely matches the contributions they have paid in, even after 10 or 15 years? A rip-off, in other words.

There are many theories as to why this happens. Perhaps the most persuasive is that making decisions on how to provide for an event many decades away is boring. It is not made any easier by the fact that personal pension literature is often written in indecipherable language.

Consequently, many people may start out with good intentions but, faced with a combination of terminal tedium and unintelligible rubbish, plump for the first product shoved under their nose by a salesman.

This is all very understandable. But it may turn out to be a mistake. Choosing the wrong pension product can mean ending up with something so loaded with unnecessary expenses that your pension fund at retirement may be almost halved.

Thankfully, this is no longer necessary. A new breed of telephone-based pension providers has sprung up in the past two years whose charges are considerably cheaper than most old- style providers. Moreover, their salespeople are trained to answer your questions in simple-to-understand language, while the literature they send out to prospective customers is not written in Martian.

Here are some questions to ask a prospective provider over the phone.

What does it cost to pay premiums each month? Look for companies that levy little or nothing for each premium, whether it is a monthly or a one-off payment. Good companies will charge no more than pounds 2 to pounds 4 per monthly payment, or 3 to 4 per cent on a average contribution.

What are the annual charges? Look for companies that charge 1 per cent or less to manage your money each year.

How are charges levied? Some companies will tell you that their average annual charges are 1 per cent or slightly higher. What they do not tell you is that their average is low because they sting you heavily upfront, only lessening the load after five or ten years. Others take a larger cut of your initial payments, calling them "capital" or "initial units". Look for a company that has flat-rate charges. Most important, never choose a firm where the adviser cannot explain properly how the charges are levied.

Is the adviser prepared to cut his or her commission, or accept a fee? Aim to pay no more than pounds 300 to pounds 400 to set up a simple, uncomplicated pension. This is equivalent to about three or four hours' work. If the pension is being sold over the phone, commission considerations are less important to you.

How flexible is the pension? Unless you are very unusual, you will work for several different employers in your lifetime, some of them with occupational pension schemes you should join. You may get divorced or lose your job, or have children or want to increase or cut your contributions. Choose a pension that allows you to do these things without extra charges.

Should you pay single or regular contributions? With regular premiums, the adviser will receive upfront commission based on the expected period of your contributions. This takes a large slice of your first two years' payments.

Single premiums mean the adviser gets about 4 to 5 per cent of everything you pay in but no more. Choose this option, or something called a "recurring single premium" pension, where every payment counts as a one-off. With telephone pensions, all contributions are counted as single ones, which means you pay less in charges.

Despite all these warnings, you may still be bamboozled. This is the fault of the companies and of some advisers who still try it on. If you believe this is a deliberate tactic, blank them out.

If, despite the advice above, you are uncertain of which companies to look at, here are the names of several among the lowest-charging: Eagle Star, Virgin, Flemings, Scottish Widows, Merchant Investors, Equitable Life, Standard Life, PensionStore. Get details from at least one of them.

Then, if your adviser recommends others, ask how they compare. Ask for cost comparisons based on the same premiums paid in. Once you have them, check the company's past performance, then choose.

The Independent has produced a Guide to Direct Pensions, written by Nic Cicutti, its personal finance editor. The 26-page guide, sponsored by Eagle Star, a provider of inexpensive pensions by telephone, covers a wide range of topics linked to retirement planning. The booklet is available by calling 0800 776666. Or check the coupon on this page.