Are Pensions Not Fit for Purpose?

Posted on 05/04/2009. Filed under: pensions v isas |

In this Article published on Citywire Lucien Camp argues that pensions are not fit for purpose. He suggests that there is a birth date lottery, which affects the level of income, which you can expect when you retire. He implies that a tax free savings vehicle such as an Individual Savings Account (ISA) would be a more effective method of retirement saving. He also suggests that their annual contribution limits are more than enough to cater for most people’s funding needs. Let us examine whether either of these propositions is actually true.

Before doing so, it is worthwhile comparing the two types of arrangement:

Pension Contributions: Paid net of basic rate tax relief at source. Higher rate tax relief is also available. This means that basic rate taxpayers pay 80p for every £1 invested. Higher rate taxpayers only effectively pay 60p for every £1 invested. Respectively they have immediately made a 20% and 40% return on their contributions.

ISA Contributions: No tax relief is granted. Contributions are paid out of income on which tax and National Insurance have already been paid.

Pension Income: Taxable. Paid net of tax at your highest rate.

ISA Income: Tax Free.

Access to capital: Pensions – 25%; ISAs – 100%

Which will provide the better retirement income?

Let us consider, given the same cash outlay by a basic rate taxpayer, which of the two is likely to provide the greatest income on retirement at age 65. For this purpose, I have assumed that the full value of the pension or ISA fund would be used to provide an income. In both cases the fund has been assumed to grow at the same rate (a conservative 5% pa), since the same investment choices are available to each. Contributions of £7200 (in terms of the cash paid out by the pensioner) have been assumed to be made for 20 years. This means that the pension contributions will be increased by tax relief to £9,000 per annum. The ISA investments will be £7200 per annum, as they do not benefit from any tax relief.

In the case of the pension fund, I have assumed that a level single life annuity payable for a minimum of 5 years (even if the pensioner dies) is purchased. For the ISA I have assumed that the fund would be run down over 25 years (i.e. until the pensioner is aged 90, by when most people have probably died).

When the pensioner is aged 65, he/she will have a pension fund of £297,593 or an ISA fund of £238,074. This represents a difference in the accumulated fund of £59,518.

The pension income would be £21,027 per annum gross, based on current rates. After tax, a basic rate taxpayer would receive £16,821 per annum. The ISA fund would provide a tax-free income of £16,087 per annum. The pension income would be guaranteed for the life of the pensioner, however long they live and would not be dependent on future investment returns. The ISA income would be dependent on both the future growth of fund and the life expectancy of the pensioner. If investment returns are less than I have assumed or, should the pensioner live more that 25 years after retirement, the ISA income may be reduced or stopped.

In this example the pension income, which is payable for life would exceed the ISA income by over £700 per annum. If the pensioner were a higher rate taxpayer whilst they worked and a basic rate taxpayer in retirement, the difference would be £1847 in favour of the pension fund. This assumes that they make pension contributions, which ultimately net down to £7200 per annum.

Note that non-taxpayers still benefit from basic rate tax relief at source on pension contributions although they may only pay £3600 per annum (equivalent to £2880). It is also possible to provide for a fully inflation proofed retirement income or draw an income from the pension fund (i.e. similar to that assumed for the ISA) instead of buying an annuity.

The conclusion as to which can provide the best level of retirement income, all other things being equal is that a pension fund is likely to beat an ISA in most scenarios. This is without taking into account the fact the pension funds sit outside your estate for inheritance tax purposes and are not accessible to creditors, should you become bankrupt. Bear in mind, despite the adverse and ignorant press to which they have been subjected, that pensions are designed to provide a retirement income. Their tax breaks give them the edge over ISAs. This is not to say that ISAs are not useful. They are more suitable for medium to long-term savings, perhaps to meet a specific objective, such as education funding. In reality the perceived flexibility of full access to the capital is somewhat illusory because if fully encashed and spent early on in retirement, there will be nothing left to live off later on.

Are ISA maximum contribution limits sufficient for most people’s needs?

In order to examine this it is necessary to factor in the effects of inflation. If inflation of say 3% per year is deducted from the assumed investment return of 5% per annum, this gives a ‘real’ return of 2% in round terms. On retirement, the ISA would generate an income in today’s terms of £8478 per annum. The average wage in the UK to April 2008 equated to £24,908. This means that the prospective ISA income amounts to just over 35% of pre-retirement income. It also assumes that on the above level of earnings the pensioner was able to fund ISA contributions of £7200 per annum, equivalent to 28.91% of earnings.

Assuming that the same person instead pays £7200 net into a pension fund, on retirement they could expect a real income of £9884 if they are a basic rate taxpayer whilst working and in retirement. If they were a higher rate taxpayer, obviously earning more than average earnings, their real income in retirement would be £13178 per annum.

It is obviously somewhat improbable that a person on average earnings will be able to afford maximum annual ISA contributions. However, this illustration has shown that for a person on average earnings they are unlikely to provide a pension that is anywhere near previous earnings.


In both of the above examples (where the same investment return assumptions have been used for both pensions and ISAs), pension arrangements appeared to be the most effective method of retirement funding. On balance, if funding for retirement, a pension should be used. If funding for a medium to long term financial objective an ISA would probably be more suitable since all of the proceeds can be accessed.


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