Drawdown transfers, suspended investments and the FCA

I delivered a training session recently that got me thinking about the drawdown transfer rules and a number of recent high-profile investment issues.

When a client is transferring a drawdown pension, HM Revenue & Customs rules tell us that the “relevant drawdown fund” must be transferred in full and on a ‘like-for-like’ basis.

This means the drawdown fund cannot be split or partially transferred and, if it is flexi-access drawdown, then the receiving scheme must receive flexi-access drawdown funds.

There is an exemption where a client wants to use part of their drawdown fund to buy an annuity – otherwise these rules apply.

The first rule made a lot of sense before pension freedoms.

Splitting a capped drawdown fund would be complicated and lead to extra reviews of maximum income limits, at a cost to the client.

However, it is now causing problems post-2015, where we have more people in drawdown than ever before and more chance of someone holding an illiquid and non-transferable asset.

You would be forgiven for thinking that illiquid and non-transferable investments were only issues for those who invested in higher-risk or unregulated investments.

But there have been a number of recent examples involving more ‘mainstream’ investments that thousands of retail clients might hold within their self-invested personal pensions (SIPPs) and drawdown funds – and some of those may be looking to transfer.

Consider shares in Carillion and Patisserie Valerie.

Although the liquidation for Carillion began in January 2018 and the shares have all but been confirmed to have no value, some brokers will not remove the shares in case the process miraculously raises enough to produce a small pay out.

If the shares are not removed, anyone with a pension in full drawdown who wants to transfer could be prevented from doing so.

If HMRC could consider a relaxation in the rule that a drawdown fund must be transferred in full, that might prove welcome respite for those looking to transfer to another provider.

Woodford – the next episode

As we know, no trading is allowed as the fund is suspended.

Shares could be transferred – but only if both the underlying client (pension member for a SIPP) and the share class held remains the same.

The requirement to transfer all of the drawdown fund together would be achievable if there was one universal share class.

However, we live in the age of ‘superclean’ and commercial agreements barring other brokers from holding share classes which are exclusive to others – like Hargreaves Lansdown in the case of Woodford Equity Income.

HL has waived its platform fee for the fund, but share class changes are not currently allowed by Woodford Investment Management.

So clients holding the exclusive share class in their drawdown fund will be prevented from transferring away. The fund cannot be transferred, nor can it be left behind thanks to the wider pension rules.

FCA considerations

Although the pension issue is largely down to HMRC rules, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) could consider it from other angles – namely its wider remit to promote competition and barriers to transfer as discussed in the platform market study.

Competition is not working well if people looking to transfer pension providers cannot do so.

The FCA is investigating the circumstances leading up to the Woodford fund suspension but they could also consider the block on people changing between share classes.

As we learned in the Investment Platforms Market Study, the FCA wants to make it easier and cheaper for investors and advisers to switch between platforms and providers.

Bringing back cash rebates would be the simple solution to the in specie transfer issues highlighted in that study, and with hindsight could have prevented Woodford fund-holders being trapped with their current providers.

Senior Technical Consultant

Charlene is a Chartered Financial Planner with over 10 years' experience in financial services. She joined AJ Bell in 2014 after relocating to Manchester from Bristol, where she held financial planner and paraplanner roles at leading firms. In addition to analysing and commenting on technical and regulatory issues, Charlene is also responsible for designing and providing technical training for AJ Bell staff.