Reform of tax relief on pensions should be accompanied by pension reform

Jim Stewart30/03/2009

Jim Stewart: The solution to the current pensions crisis proposed by TASC in its pamphlet Making Pensions Work for People is to introduce an improved basic state pension, and an earnings related top-up scheme. The proposal is that this would be paid for by reducing existing tax reliefs.

Some have suggested that, in the current economic crisis, tax reliefs on pension provision should be given at the standard rate as a means of reducing the government borrowing requirement and maintaining existing expenditures, without any pension reform.

Tax reliefs on pensions need to be reformed for a number of reasons, including their cost:-

(1) Pension related tax reliefs cost €2.9 billion (2006 figures) in terms of tax foregone;
(2) They are of greatest benefit to those with the highest incomes because those with the highest incomes contribute proportionately more than lower income groups and have greater tax relief because of higher marginal tax rates.
(3) Because of tax reliefs and the extensive exemptions from annuitisation, pension provision can be regarded as one of the most tax-favoured means of saving, rather than of pension provision, for example as in the recent case involving the Irish Nationwide. Some of this advantage was, however, lost through investment in high risk assets. In December 2007, the equity allocation of Irish pension funds amounted to 65% overall (and 77% for those pension funds with no investment mandate from trustees).

In addition, pension funds are subject to annual average charges of 1.5% per annum (Green Paper, p. 142). This means that annual charges amount to a substantial proportion of the cost of tax reliefs (50% in 2003).

As a result, due to charges (which are largely independent of investment performance) and losses on investments, many of those contributing to a defined contribution (DC) type scheme over a ten year period, even with tax relief (at 41%), may have been better off investing their pension contribution in a deposit account which does not attract tax relief*. Those who paid tax at the standard rate and who invested in a deposit account savings scheme over the past ten years would be substantially better off.

Giving tax relief at the standard rate rather than the marginal rate would reduce tax induced income inequalities and, in so far as pension provision is in reality a form of savings, reduce distortions in the savings market.

The Irish Nationwide/Fingleton case has drawn attention to exemptions from tax on lump sums paid on retirement. Tax free lump sums should be reduced substantially or removed entirely on private sector pension payments. Lump sums paid in the public sector as part of pension provision should be subject to tax.

There is a crisis in private sector pension provision. Many of those nearing retirement, or in retirement, have suffered large reductions in wealth and income. As a result many are or will become far more dependent on the basic state pension than they planned for. The current basic state pension, at approximately 30% of the average industrial wage, is insufficient to ensure a reasonable level of income replacement on retirement. There are several reasons why tax reliefs for pension provision need reform, but it would be a mistake to reform tax reliefs for pension provision without also reforming pension provision in terms of equity and long-term sustainability. Detailed proposals have been developed by TASC and published in the pamphlet Making Pensions Work for People.

Using the following assumptions: negative returns of 2.8% per annum for pension fund returns over the past ten years (see here), average costs of 1.5% per annum, marginal tax rate equal to 41% over the 10 year period and return on a deposit account of 6.5% (5.2% after DIRT of 20%), a pension fund investment has a slightly higher return than a deposit account over a 10 year period.

Dr. Jim Stewart is a member of the TCD Pension Policy Research Group, which has collaborated with TASC on its pension reform proposals

Posted in: WelfareTaxation

Tagged with: pensionstaxation

Prof Jim Stewart

James Stewart

Dr Jim Stewart is Adjunct Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin. His research interests include Corporate Finance and Taxation, Pension Funds and financial products, Financial Systems and Economic Development.

He is widely published and his titles include Mutuals and Alternative Banking: A Solution to the Financial and Economic Crisis in Ireland (2013), Choosing Your Future: How to Reform Ireland's Pension System (co-author, 2007) and For Richer, For Poorer: An Investigation of the Irish pension system (2005).



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