Portable Pension Plans and Rogue Advisers
By Chris Cleary
Portable pensions plans are a means for people working abroad to build up a lump-sum for their retirement when their employment circumstances will not automatically provide them with a pension. This article looks at who such plans are suitable for and how they work. It also considers the pitfalls of such plans and the unfortunate issue of rogue advisers, along with the questions you should ask when considering taking out a portable pension plan.
Portable pension plans are suitable for:
They may not be suitable for:
They are particularly suitable for people in their late twenties/early thirties who have a career path ahead of them but have not yet made any significant investments and do not want to spend much time on looking after and managing their investments. They are also suitable for people in their forties and fifties who would like to enhance their total portfolio by investing into more volatile markets without taking the risk of placing a lump-sum at one particular time.
This is how such plans work: in signing up for a portable pension plan you agree to a contract. This will be a minimum of five years but is best aimed at your earliest foreseeable retirement age. This will normally be between 55 and 60. You also agree a monthly amount to put away. The more you put into the plan, the more there will be for your retirement. However, you should not take on an obligation you cannot fulfil. All plans have a minimum contribution period, ranging from 5–28 months, in which you must make the contributions. Beyond that you are free to discontinue, but discontinuation makes the plan less efficient financially. The flexibility to miss a few payments is there, should you change job or decide to go round the world, but in taking out the plan you should not set the contribution level unrealistically high—your income might increase in future, but then so might your responsibilities. You should choose a level you are comfortable with. A simple method for doing this is to take your annual disposable income (how much you have left over after your accommodation and living expenses are paid, including an annual holiday/trip home) and divide this by two. That is how much you can afford without resenting the payment later. This sum is best paid using a credit card—this is convenient, is cheaper than using a bank to make transfers, will get you better FX rates if your plan is not in yen—and after a few months you don’t really notice the money going out.
Your monthly contribution is then invested into a selected portfolio of mutual funds. Doing things this way gives you four advantages:
1. Access to a diversified range of funds. The days of opaque mystery funds and lack of choice are long gone. You can be in a range of funds which will sustain overall performance and cushion you from the gyrations of the markets. Yes, you can be in a wide variety of stock funds; you can also be in high-grade or high-yield bond funds, in gold stocks, in resource stocks, or in property income funds. Diversified portfolios do better in the long run. (See J@pan Inc Issue 70 - Investment — Putting a Portfolio Together). These funds are from household name fund houses, such as Fidelity, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan.
2. Free switching. You can change your funds at any time, switching at zero cost. Diversification matters, but your portfolio can be re-balanced at any time.
3. Averaging. Investing monthly gives a huge advantage over lump-sum investment. If the price of a fund falls, you buy more units the next month, and so on, until the unit price turns around. As you have accumulated a number of units, your gains will be much greater than with a simple lump-sum investment. (See J@pan Inc Issue 73 - Investment: Regular Savings).
4. Compounding. These plans are long–term, part of the financial structuring of your life. The longer the plan the more it affords you the power of compound interest (dubbed by Einstein ‘the eighth wonder of the world’). A return of 9% doubles your money in eight years and quadruples it in sixteen. Your money makes money and the profits make money too.
As the plans are written technically as life insurance contracts, the investments are tax-sheltered. They are held by an insurance company with whom you have a contract for the value of those investments. There are no dividends or distributions to be taxed, and no capital gains taxes to diminish the power of compounding as the plan builds up. Note for US nationals the IRS regards these plans as look–through, as do the Australian authorities for repatriating nationals. Of course when you take the benefits at the end of the plan it will count into your amount taxable that year as income in the country where you are resident. You are not obliged, however, to take all the money at one time, and can set up an income facility that will provide you with regular income—while the rest of your money is still working. You can also buy an annuity with the proceeds, although given current annuity rates this is hardly advisable.
And finally, as mentioned, these plans are portable. You can take them to where you live next, even if that is the country of your own nationality (with some restrictions for residence in the US). If you relocate, your retirement arrangement travels with you—you need not even miss a payment if your relocation is a smooth transfer.
However, despite all these advantages, some members of the expatriate community have suffered problems with such plans. There are two typical reasons for these problems.
Firstly, a pension plan is a contract. If you take one out you should expect to fulfil its terms, which involve putting a pre-agreed amount of money away on a regular basis for a pre-agreed number of years. (Remember, by the way, that this is still your money!)
Such plans have flexibility, as they are designed for normal working people and can cope with periodic interruptions. But the more contributions that are missed, the less efficient a plan will be. It is highly inefficient and therefore inadvisable to take out a long-term plan and contribute only for the minimum period. You should be making as many contributions as you can, but should not be worried if life circumstances require you to cease contributions temporarily.
It is a good idea to beware of high-pressure sales people who will assure you that the more you agree to put into the plan the better, and that you should go for maximum plan length (irrespective of your circumstances) as ‘all you have to pay in is the first twelve or eighteen months.’ Typically these people come from companies that have not been in town all that long, or have changed their name in the not too recent past. And they assuredly do not have your best interests in mind. Whereas your planning should be based on a thorough discussion of your circumstances, goals and responsibilities, not on the desiderata of the salesperson.
The second set of reasons why people get into trouble with these plans is unrealistic expectations about returns in the short term and the inability to cope with bad markets. In the life of a typical pension plan—say, 20 or 25 years—there will be a wide range of market conditions, unforeseeable except in their variability. Some of these years will be poor for a range of asset classes, and the value of a plan can fall in such years, especially if heavily exposed to the stock markets (where in the long run the greatest gains in value are to be had). A plan largely invested in stocks during the period 2000–2002 will have done very poorly. It would have rebounded steeply in the period 2003–2007. However, inexperienced investors at the end of 2002 may have decided they were throwing good money after bad and ceased contributions for that reason (a mistake, as they were cutting themselves out of the averaging effect). They may even have decided to encash the plan. These plans have high penalties for early encashment, especially towards the beginning of the plan. There is nothing untoward about this as a pension plan should be there for your retirement; it is not a short-term savings vehicle and should not be seen as your source of instant cash. If you had a corporate pension in the country of your own nationality you would not in most cases be able to touch the money in it until you retired. Portable plans are more flexible, but the early encashment penalty is an advisable deterrent. Over time they make money, but they need time to make that money. The knee-jerk reaction of encashment because of (temporarily) poor performance is how people lose considerable sums of money in these plans.
In view of these negatives, is it sensible to take out such a plan? The answer is overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ given the advantages they confer, but keep in mind these dangers: that you may take on a plan that is longer than you expected or need and into which you are contributing too much; and that short-term poor performance may scare you into the penalties of early encashment. The morals here are caution, patience, and a modicum of education. These plans are very much worth investing into, provided you know what to expect, and the plan fits your life situation.
Suggestions before starting such a plan:
Further information on portable pension plans is available on request from:
Chris Cleary is a Director of Banner Japan KK