Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 14:51 UK

Mixed messages on pensions future

By Huw Williams
BBC News

The closest most people get to owning shares is through their pension plans.

Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson's Tracks of My Tears rang out over the conference tannoy

So will the current turmoil in stock markets round the world mean less money for them when they retire?

I spoke to people at the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) annual conference in Glasgow to find out how worried they are... and how worried we should be.

As delegates filed into the opening session of their conference, Smokey Robinson was playing over the loudspeakers.

"Take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place.

"If you look closer, it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears."

I'm sure organisers didn't mean anything by it.

But it did seem strangely appropriate, especially when NAPF chairman Chris Hitchen started his presentation with a collection of great financial crises we have known and loved.

Images and music flashed up on the giant screen, culminating in some striking archive footage from the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Traders on Wall Street, circa 1929
Traders working on Wall Street, around 1929

"Who knew 12 months ago, when we started planning this programme, that there was going to be a world financial crisis, global meltdown?" he asked the assembled fund managers and pension fund trustees.

But when I got the chance to interview him, he was less apocalyptic.

He did accept that the value of pension funds has declined in market value terms by billions of pounds over the last few weeks.

"It's never nice to lose money," he said, "but every problem brings an opportunity.

"To the extent that people are still investing for their retirement, lower stock market levels is a good opportunity to actually invest at more reasonable levels."

He accepted that the present crisis does seem particularly severe, but added: "The end of the world has been often predicted.

"And the predictors have generally been wrong."

The same reassuring message came from Joanne Segars, the association's chief executive, who appealed for a sense of perspective.

People are going to die because of this, because they're not going to have enough to pay for food, for heating
Pension fund trustee

"We have seen a lot of turmoil on the markets, but we need to remember that pension schemes are long-term investors.

"They're investing in a mix of assets, for liabilities that stretch out of 40, 50, 60 or even 70 years.

"It's essential that we remember," she added, "that the ability of pension schemes to pay out pensions hasn't been affected."

But at a reception for conference delegates, hosted by the City of Glasgow, some were willing to express real concern about the future.

"If I were a member of a defined contribution fund, and coming up to retirement in the next six, nine or 12 months," one said, "then I would be very worried."

She said the value of the pot of money such a person would have to buy their pension when they retire "has diminished in value significantly".

And the problem for anyone in that position, she told me, is that they won't have time for the markets to bounce back and restore the value of their investments.

So what can they do? I asked.

'Don't panic'

"Hold fire. Don't panic. And maybe you might have to work a bit longer than you'd anticipated," she advised.

Another man, a member trustee of a pension fund for mainly lower paid workers, was even more gloomy.

"With the crisis that's happening today, I'm worrying about what they're going to get in the future," he said.

"People are going to die because of this, because they're not going to have enough to pay for food, for heating.

"They're not going to be able to pay the bills. End of story."

And he was clear about what he would like to see done to solve the situation.

"I would like the government to start putting some money back into the pension system," he said.

"They took £5bn out. Why can't they put some of that back?

"They're giving it to the bankers. Why can't they give it to the pensioners? And to the future pensioners of this country?"

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