I was watching Eddie Izzard trying to run his 27 marathons in 27 days for Sports Relief and felt the tension growing as he neared his goal. As he came into the last mile, I wondered if he was going to suddenly have a heart attack, an asthma attack or a major panic attack that would drop him to the ground and prevent him from finishing. I was almost becoming as tense as he was. I knew the psychological torment and panic that would be going through his head as he neared his goal because, increasingly, I find myself experiencing the same nerves over my pensions. The closer I get to being able to draw on them, the more worried I become that some disaster will happen to prevent me taking them. After all, although I haven’t run 27 marathons, I have been saving for almost 27 years into pensions and, as the finishing line approaches, I find myself wondering if I’ll make it?
Let’s be honest, there’s so much that could go wrong. Will Brexit wreck equity markets across the Western world? Will there be a repeat (or when will there be a repeat) of the 2008 crash? Will ISIS dirty bombs in New York and London paralyse the financial industry? Outside of finance, will some exotic disease appear from nowhere to strike me down? Will I cash in my first pension cheque on one day and cash out with dementia on the next?
I found a new worry at the weekend when reading about the collapse of BHS and the Port Talbot steel industry, where the pensions debts of both are a massive part of the problem. It seems to me that the “entrepreneurs” who might be interested in buying the assets will only step forward if someone else – i.e the Government – takes on the pension liabilities. But surely the Government’s emergency Pension Protection Fund isn’t some bottomless money pit? As more and more liabilities are piled into it, my worry grows that if my private pensions ever need this life support system there might be a lot, lot less cash available in the fund than there is today. The BHS pensioners might have to take a 10% cut in their pensions, but that’s maybe 90% more than they would have got if it was left to people like Robert Maxwell. I wonder if the existence of the Government’s pension fund allows these so called entrepreneurs to be even more aggressive when driving for a deal? Let the taxpayer take the risk while the spoils can be creamed off to Monaco.
I just can’t see a government continually picking up the tab from the wreckage of businesses that have been mismanaged, trashed by global economic forces or that have simply just passed their sell by date. It’s more likely that a future government might stump up 10% of what you’re owed on the basis that this will still be more than the state pension is doling out. (And remember Robert Maxwell.)
My plan is that I will take one of my pensions at 55 and the other aged 60. Both are private pensions and therefore vulnerable to who knows what potential financial disasters and shenanigans. Perhaps we’ll never see the likes of Robert Maxwell again, but I wouldn’t bet on it and at least Maxwell was British. What if your pension fund is owned by some obscure American venture capital firm or some shady non-dom entrepreneur? How much protection do you have going forward? I think if I had the option today I’d be taking the cash out my pension funds and investing them myself, preferably in gold bars that I can stick under my bed. At least I’d have a sense of control. Right now, my funds really don’t feel like my money at all and, as such, I worry that someone else has their beady eye on them – the Chancellor, the pension fund manager, the owners of the businesses that built them up. “Possession is nine tenths of the law” is an old chestnut of a phrase, but only recently have I applied it to my pension fund. I don’t have possession of the money. I mean, I “know” the funds are “there”, but they’re not actually in my hands. They’re in someone else’s.
Perhaps you could say this about finance in general. You don’t have money in the bank any more, you have a set of digits on a screen. If everyone turns up at the bank tomorrow and demands to have their physical cash handed over out of the vault, then the game’s up. If I actually do manage to get my gold bars then it means that you have less chance of getting yours, because there’s a lot more “cash” out there than gold. Thinking this way leads to madness of course, and the only solution to it is to go and have a nice cup of tea and a sit down, while telling yourself that somehow we’ll muddle through. After all, if that isn’t good practice for being a pensioner, then nothing is.
(P.S. I’ve just read that BHS bosses have taken £25m for themselves out of that business since buying it for £1.00. The best practice for being a pensioner, therefore, is to be a Chief Executive.)