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Pensioners ripped off by “antithesis of plain English”
A 65-year-old woman with 100,000 pounds-worth of pension savings could be missing out on a staggering 24,162 pounds by failing to exercise this right; a man by 23,025 pounds, according to numbers crunched by independent financial service provider Hargreaves Lansdown. That is around the same as average annual earnings in the UK last year — 23,764 pounds, according to the Office for National Statistics.
More than 85 percent of savers buy an annuity contract when they retire. This guarantees an income for life in exchange for savings built up in a pension fund. “That’s always been the case and is likely to remain the case, as for most people it really is the right thing to do: they need the certainty of income and haven’t got many other assets,” Nigel Callaghan, a pensions analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, the largest annuity broker in the UK, tells Reuters.
Some 200-plus companies offer pensions. Yet only a small proportion — a dozen or so — “play” the annuity market. The average difference between the best and worst annuity rates published by the Financial Services Authority is more than 15 percent. Legal & General, Prudential, Axa, Friends Provident and Norwich Union are among those that vie to be competitive.
But did you know that savers need not buy their annuity from the company with which they’ve stashed their retirement savings? This — the “open market option” — became a contractual right in 2002, forcing insurers to send “wake up letters” to those approaching retirement to tell them of their ability to scour the market for the best deal. Despite that, the number of people exercising this right has remained largely static at around a third.
“Consumers are being ripped off right, left and centre when it comes to retirement,” says Callaghan. “Many, if not most, of these letters are the complete antithesis of plain English. Some are six-plus pages and you’ll find the stuff about the open market option embedded at the bottom of page four in small print and written in Latin. That’s why I think the take-up figure is so shockingly low. It’s not working: it wasn’t working back then and it’s not working now; commercial greed is the bottom line.”
If the current trend continues, insurers stand to make even greater sums: the number of pensioners is on course for a boom. Last year, 330,000 people bought annuity contracts with 12 billion pounds-worth of pension savings. By 2012, that figure is set to balloon to 18 billion pounds, as the baby boomer generation retires and the demise of final salary pension schemes continues.
By exercising the open market option, these people and the retirees that come before them can avoid handing insurers telephone-number profits. And, by all accounts, savers should be able to get a good deal: annuity rates are at a four-year high as the capital value of corporate bonds — used by insurers to back annuity contracts — plummets and yields stretch. “There have been 30 movements in annuity rates this year alone — the majority up,” says Callaghan. “It’s largely to do with the credit crisis and the continued spanking of corporate bonds. Annuities are one of the few beneficiaries of the credit crisis.” A beneficiary of the credit crunch? Well, I never.