Saturday, 27 February 2016

A new idea for pension reforms

Pension reform can feel this way
The chancellor may have gained a reputation for sound economic and fiscal management, but he is also prone to over-complexity.
Where Nigel Lawson once cut the Gordian knot in the 1980s, the elegant simplicity of his tax reforms have since been undermined.
One important component - and indeed one much in the news of late - is that of pensions. Everyone hates the current tangled, incomprehensible system. Currently on the table we see Osborne’s ‘pension ISA’ and a flat rate system.
I propose something different, something both simple and robust. Significantly, it breaks out of the ‘EET’ vs ‘TEE’ paradigm that currently constrains thinking.
The nub of it does see ISAs and pensions merged. Crucially, though, there is a build-in mechanism to discourage withdrawals before retirement. What’s more, the system is relatively easy to administer. So how does it work?
Each citizen is issued by the government with a ISA/Pension/401k account wrapper (possibly based on their NS number).
As with ISAs, the account is transferrable between Financial Service providers and can contain multiple asset types.
Any money an individual adds to their account is first subject to income tax, but then gets a flat rate tax rebate (as per pension reform being currently touted).
Any money withdrawn before the individual reaches official retirement age is taxed at source by the provider at the same flat rate. After retirement, like an ISA, withdrawals would not be subject to tax.
Annual limits are high (like £40,000?), as would be the maximum account balance (£1m to £2m?).
I regard this as elegant because it’s flexible and easy to understand. Citizens just have to think like this:
If I contribute anything, the government tops it up by x% 
If I withdraw anything before retirement, the government knocks off their initial contribution ‘on the way out'
There is thus an in-built incentive to try to keep the money in the account until old age, but at the same time there is no actual penalty for withdrawing the cash earlier if you need it (compared to an ISA). Bingo! People gain the flexibility they want and the government doesn’t do too badly either. If push came to shove, withdrawals after retirement could also be made subject to income tax.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Issues remain. What about DB schemes? What if the flat tax rate changes? Should the annual limit be the same for all ages? How do you encourage companies to top up their staff pensions? What happens on death? 
Though obviously important, none of these issues are insurmountable. Solutions (or at least partial solutions) to most of these questions have already occurred to me, but I won’t bore you with the more details here. I would prefer to concentrate your minds on the central feature above and welcome any feedback. Is there something in this or is it fatally flawed? 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Spinning plates, tech giants, Newsnight and the Bank of England

Well, must say that was quite weird – to switch on Newsnight tonight and find that the chief economist of the Bank of England had been thinking the same thoughts as ones running around inside my own head.
Andy Haldane (for it is he) was saying that the extreme primacy of shareholders is damaging capitalism.
His interview has forced me into belatedly putting pen to paper (or Mac to Blogger as it is nowadays). I wasn’t coming at it from quite that angle, but had some weeks ago intended to say the following…
I was thinking about the relationship between the great tech giants: Microsoft,  Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google - and how one might coach their chief executives to triumph over the competition.
My thesis was simply this – that the winners in the 21st century corporate wars will be the ones that best balance three sets of stakeholders at the core of what they do: the owners (shareholders), the employees and the clients. It struck me that historically these companies have by habit and culture ‘weighted’ these three interest-groups rather differently.
For example, although Amazon preaches the gospel of client-centric design, increasingly one gets the impression the company is consumed by the desire to satisfy shareholders – initially at the expense of its lowly employees – and perhaps now even relegating its own clients to a poor second – as witnessed by their increasingly aggressive up-sell techniques. As with the banks, the ‘lifeblood’ of their business, their client base, at some imperceptible point inflects to become a passive cow, there to be milked.
Anyway – it struck me that running these companies is like spinning a plate on a pole. Now imagine that there are three weights – placed at even intervals along the circumference of the plate. If the weights are all about the same, the plate spins nice and smooth. But if one or two of the weights are heavier, then the plate’s orbit inevitably becomes lopsided.
If the differential isn’t too extreme, the plate continues to spin – just at an inclined orbit. But if the difference gets too extreme – then of course the orbit is no longer sustainable and the plate comes crashing to the ground.
It is my view that company failures are often down to an inability to balance these three sets of stakeholder needs properly over the long haul. Orbits become lopsided, the fall comes and disintegration follows.
My intention had been to pitch this as some kind of smartipants business insight. But seems I wasn’t so clever after all. The same thoughts are out there. But at least I should console myself that they are being broadcast by the chief economist of the Bank of England.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Funding the BBC

The future funding of the BBC is once again in the spotlight as its Royal Charter comes around for renewal. For years the arguments for and against the Licence Fee have been rolled out, but it strikes me that there is an opportunity to approach the whole thing quite differently and kill two birds with one stone. My starting point may seem off beam – but bear with as it all comes together by the time I’m done.


Increasingly you hear people talking about access to wi-fi, and more broadly to communication channels, as a utility that they ‘can’t live without’. To future generations it will doubtless seem weird there could ever have been a situation where there wasn’t an integrated national communications net.

In the early days of electricity there were a host of different providers with competing infrastructure, using different voltages and so forth. This is inconceivable now. And so it will be with communications in future.


Rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the future – too often the default position for British politicians and civil servants – why not actively prepare for the future and actively promote a single national communications net. So what would such a thing require? In short, a single entity should take over the following:
* telecom infrastructure (BT)
* cable infrastructure  (Virgin)
* mobile mast/network infrastructure (Vodafone/BT/3)
* terrestrial TV/radio masts (Arqiva)

The new national comms entity would run all digital ‘pipes’ in the UK, while private operators run consumer-facing services using this infrastructure. In other words, not unlike Network Rail providing the tracks for private train operators. (Perhaps not the happiest comparison, but anyway…)

Getting the ownership structure for this national entity would be tricky. Without wanting to get too bogged down on this aspect, let’s just say it would nice to see it split between:
* the operators
* the employees
* the government (perhaps with a ‘golden share’)

Will Hutton for one is enthused how a public utility – in the form of Welsh Water – can thrive outside of the greed-infested realm of stockmarket PLCs.  Making employees stakeholders could certainly aid productivity. I don’t see John Lewis doing too badly.  But the operators themselves also need a stake – as does the government, to ensure consistent and fair coverage across the nation (ie: limit blackspots in unprofitable rural areas)


So what’s all this got to do with the BBC? Good point. It didn’t escape my notice that many of the ‘operators’ in this digital landscape will be carrying BBC output one way or another. So instead of a licence fee, this national comms entity pays for the BBC – passing on the cost to all operators being billed anyway for accessing the infrastructure. The operators then pass on these costs to their customers (ie: the great British public in the main).

But is it fair? Well, it’s not less fair I’d say than a flat licence fee, which doesn’t take account of individual levels of consumption. In future, operators may charge customers in line with the amount of data they consume. As such, the portion of costs passed on for Public Service broadcasting would be very roughly correlated to data consumption – which doesn’t seem entirely unfair.

What about Sky? You may have noticed that I haven’t talked satellites. I’m not going to go into detail here – but suffice to say – that I have thought about this angle and don’t see why the model proposed here is invalidated by the presence of  satellite broadcasters.


Of course, one could dismiss this all with a single wave of the hand saying it’s grotesquely unrealistic politically. Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

And one final bonus thought:  a national comms utility probably won’t go around digging up the roads as much…

* Let me know what you think. And if you want to know more, drop me a line.