Monday, 26 September 2011

Insurers make it (a bit) easier to shop around at retirement.

For most normal mortals, what happens to their pension at retirement is a complete mystery. Many people who have a personal, stakeholder or stock market-linked pension through work (as opposed to a final salary scheme) are blissfully unaware that, if they want to turn it into a guaranteed income for life they have to buy an annuity (a product that is designed to produce a monthly income from a lump sum).

Many more don't realise that they have the right to buy an annuity from any pension company they choose, not just the one they've built up their pension with. When I started in financial journalism (quite a long time ago!), pension companies made it pretty hard for people to shop around for their annuity.

They loaded the process with jargon (it's called the 'open market option' - not exactly an everyday phrase) and buried the important information in the small print. Over the last decade or so, mainly as a result of prodding by the regulator, the FSA, insurers are more upfront about the fact that you may be able to get a better deal by going elsewhere; but it's still not foolproof. Fewer than half of those who buy an annuity do so from a different company.

Today the ABI, which represents insurers, said that pension companies wouldn't be able to include an application form with the documents they send out as someone approaches retirement. It means you wouldn't be able to fill in the application form and buy your annuity with your existing pension provider because it was the easiest option. It's another step in the right direction, although there's still more to do.

The point is that if the insurance industry had spent more money and time in the past explaining why it's so important to shop around, more people would be confident of getting the most from their pension fund. Consumers 'get' shopping around. Many now do so, but awareness around pensions - and the decisions you have to make at retirement - is woefully low.

While pensions companies can't be expected to take all the blame, the industry has missed plenty of opportunities to educate its customers and to make sure they really were getting the best deal at retirement.


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