The introduction of the LISA in April could have profound knock-on effects on the entire savings sector, as Jack Jones reports

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There were relatively few of trademark rabbit-out-of-a-hat moments from George Osborne in what turned out to be his last Budget. There were a few targeted give-aways and a tax on sugary drinks, but the measure that could yet have the most lasting consequences was the launch of the Lifetime ISA, or LISA.

This was actually a watered-down version of the major overhaul of pensions tax treatment trailed ahead of the March showpiece. Many had expected a wholesale move from a system that gave tax relief on pension contributions to one where savers contributed out of taxed earnings, but enjoyed tax-free income in retirement.

Ahead of the Budget, the retirement saving sector warned such a move would prove damaging. The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association said it would boost government coffers in the short term but ultimately lead to lower saving levels.

So the unveiling of the LISA – a vehicle for under-40s with government incentives to encourage them to save for a first house or to fund retirement led to sighs of relief. But there are concerns the product could have an impact on auto-enrolment – the government’s flagship pensions policy.

Could these products be the first step towards the more fundamental change to the tax system?

Undermining auto-enrolment

There are several concerns about the LISAs. They could divert savings away from pensions into housing, are unlikely to be suitable retirement saving vehicles, and will complicate the savings landscape further. Pensions minister Richard Harrington believes that concerns the LISA will siphon money away from traditional retirement saving are overblown, however.

Speaking at the Trades Union Congress conference in February, he explained: “Any product is a competing product with pensions when there’s a finite amount of money. But in reality there is a huge difference between the LISA and a pension, and that is the employers’ contribution.”

His predecessor Baroness Altmann is not so sure the policy will prove benign. She warns that the LISA is a “classic example of how not to make pensions policy”.

Sackers Partner Fuat Sami says: “If it is popular the LISA could undermine the whole auto-enrolment regime because many younger people won’t have enough money to pay into two saving vehicles.”

Popularity contest

And there are signs that LISAs could be very popular with savers, particularly in property price hotspots like London. Research commissioned by Hymans Robertson found that 61% of under-40s would consider opening one, with 23% saying they would do so right away.

“We know the housing market is dysfunctional and people are haemorrhaging cash paying rent,” says Like Minds senior partner Trevor Rutter. “So all logic says this is going to be popular, because it has a nice, simple message – the government will pay off 25% of your mortgage deposit.”

But the take-up of LISA depends on more than popularity with consumers. Providers have to offer LISA products, and employers have to give staff easy access. But only one major provider – Hargreaves Lansdown – plans to launch a product in time for April, with others following later.

Barnett Waddingham head of DC Mark Futcher says: “There’s been a lot of silence from the government, which doesn’t fill the industry with confidence to spend the money to develop these products.”

Top-ups v tax relief

So if workers are eager to open LISAs, and many firms want to offer them, perhaps all will eventually be well.

But there are worries that many people will fail to grasp the value of what they are losing by opting out of a pension. The 25% ‘bonus’ is an easier sell than tax relief, but the end result is the same: a worker paying basic rate tax would need to pay £80 to get £100 in their pot under either system. Anyone paying higher rate tax would only need to put in £60 to their pension to get the same result (given that Futcher says most interest has come from City firms, this is potentially significant).

Savers who opt out of a workplace pension will also lose matching employer contributions, and if their firm uses salary sacrifice will end up paying more National Insurance. So the chances are savers will lose out on ‘free money’.

Although former minister Altmann is encouraged by steps the Financial Conduct Authority is taking to improve consumer protection, she warns these will not help people understand the value of what they’re giving up.

It also seems likely that LISA investment strategies will be geared towards liquidity and volatility control rather than growth, which is ideal for short-term saving, but not for building up a retirement pot.

“The LISA is fine if you are saving for a house, but as an alternative to a pension it is fraught with risks that savers may or may not understand,” says Altmann.

Helping employees

So a lot of responsibility will fall on employers to make sure their workers are well informed. Like Mind’s Rutter says: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to save into a LISA rather than a pension, as long as people are making informed choices.”

He also thinks that employers have to do better at communicating the benefits of pensions. “We need to talk about them in the same way as the LISA to make those benefits as concrete as a 25% government bonus towards your own home.”

Employers also need to think about how their pension contribution structures work. Those with relatively low matching contributions could see younger members opting out and losing the employer match.

But firms with more generous structures could offer the best of both worlds. “Some of our clients offer 10% employer contributions if members pay in 5%,” says Barnett Waddingham’s Futcher. “A lot of those companies are saying ‘you can put your 5% into the pension, or you can put it into a LISA and we’ll continue to put our 10% into the pension. They’re still hitting the auto-enrolment minimum.”

Political suicide

So what should we look out for next? As usual there are rumours of further changes, and the LISA could yet prove to be a Trojan horse for the wholesale overhaul Osborne refrained from last year.

The fact that the Treasury has removed pensions from its Ways to Save infographic, which outlines people’s saving options, sends a pretty clear message.

Futcher believes the logical sequence to an ISA-like system would be to start by restricting higher-rate relief, a measure that would save the Treasury £27bn a year.

“There’s a lifetime allowance framework now that doesn’t let you buy a pension income that puts you in the higher rate racket, so why continue to give higher rate tax relief on the way in?” he asks.

“You effectively have a system where you’re getting 20% tax relief on the way-in pay, paying 20% tax on the way out – it’s pretty much an ISA-style system.”

Or the government could look at a flat-rate system of tax relief somewhere between the 40% top rate and 20% basic rate. “That could save the government money and put its finances on a sounder footing,” says Darren Philp, director of policy and market engagement at B&CE.

There is also the perennial rumour that the 25% tax-free lump sum could in danger. “But getting rid of that would be political suicide,” says Philp. “The way politics is going though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should bet against it.”