Giving up your defined-benefit pension isn't so crazy

While defined-benefit pensions are the envy of those who don't have them, ever more people are electing to give them up, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Those of us who don't have defined-benefit (DB) pensions have long been envious of those who do. Imagine having a guaranteed income for life on retirement. A sum of money that will turn up every month forever, regardless of what you do or don't do, and regardless of how long you live. A sum that will rise with inflation so that your "real" retirement income never falls. And, of course, a sum that comes with guarantees for your dependants as well. If you die, they'll keep getting the money. Knowing that you have all of this in the bag must provide a wonderful sense of security.

Yet increasingly large numbers of people are willing to give it up. They aren't crazy. They are realising that while there are risks in transferring out (swapping your DB pension for a lump sum to manage yourself), there are excellent reasons for doing so too.

The first is that very low interest rates have made transfer values bizarrely high: ask how much you would get for giving up your DB rights, and you are likely to be told it is around 35 times the value of your annual pension (so £10,000 a year could be swapped for £350,000). That's real money. The second is that there is a growing possibility that your DB pension won't pay out as you expect it to. The firm sponsoring the pension fund could end up unable to meet its obligations (particularly if it is unable to retain good staff or invest in the future, thanks to the endless demands from pension fund trustees trying to cover their deficit).

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Also, the rules might change. Take the calculation of the lifetime allowance (LTA). The LTA is £1m: have a pension valued at more than that and you pay a 55% tax on the excess. Today a DB pension is valued for LTA purposes at 20 times its projected payout ratio so you can have an expected pension income of £50,000 before you hit the LTA. But if, as the transfer values on offer suggest, their real value is more like 30-40 times the projected annual payout, then there has to be (and should be!) a risk that DB valuation methods for tax purposes will change and not in your favour.

Other possibilities include the watering down of inflation indexation for DB pensions, as discussed in the government's recent Green Paper on the system's sustainability (conclusion: it is in a pretty ropey state see page 23). Finally, note that most private DB pensions have limits on inflation linkage. While your scheme will raise your payout by RPI or something similar every year, the small print often caps that at 5% a year. If inflation rises above that again (something policymakers are desperate for), most DB pension holders' income will fall in real terms anyway. So if you have a DB pension, call and ask for a transfer value. Transferring out comes with risk (you must take proper advice). But don't think for a second you aren't also taking substantial risks by not transferring out.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.