By Sheryl Smolkin
Today, I’m pleased to be interviewing Greg Hurst for savewithspp.com. Greg is a pension consultant and pension innovator based in Vancouver. He’s held many roles in the pension industry with large international and small regional consulting firms and a major Canadian insurer.
He’s a member of both the editorial advisory board of Benefits and Pensions Monitor and Benefits Canada’s online expert panel. In fact, two of his articles were among the five most widely-read Benefits Canada pension articles of 2013.
Today, Greg is going to share his thoughts with us on the federal government’s surprising pre-election proposal to study allowing Canadians to voluntarily contribute to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) to supplement their retirement savings.
Thank you for joining me today, Greg.
Glad to be here Sheryl.
Q: Were you surprised to hear of the federal government’s announcement in May that they are going to reconsider a voluntary top-up to the Canada Pension Plan?
A: It was totally unexpected. Since 2011, the federal government has consistently said it’s not the right time for changes to the CPP, and even more recently – in fact, just before the announcement – they characterized CPP contribution rate changes as a “pension tax hike.”
Q: Interesting. So, why do you think that the Minister of Finance, Joe Oliver, announced these consultations after the government and the provinces previously rejected similar proposals?
A: Well, an election is coming up. The federal Conservatives recognize that CPP expansion will be a significant election issue. In the 2014 Ontario election pensions were front and center, and Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals won with her promise of the Ontario Registered Pension Plan (ORPP), which grew out of the federal government’s refusal to consider CPP expansion in spite of a consensus amongst the provinces. Canadians have come to love the CPP. It delivers on its benefit promises and the CPP Investment Board consistently delivers good news on its investment returns.
Q: Now, in an article you wrote that was published May 27th on the Benefits Canada website, you suggest that “the devil is in the details.” The closing date for the consultations on a voluntary CPP top-up is September 10th and the election will be held on October 19th. Do you think a detailed blueprint for adding a voluntary tier to CPP will be available for public scrutiny prior to the election?
A: It is unlikely. October 19th is the next fixed election date, and that would leave less than six weeks to build and publish the blueprint. It would also require input from the provinces. It would be very irresponsible for the federal government to publish proposals for CPP changes without first consulting the provinces.
Q: Ontario has gone ahead and passed legislation to establish the ORPP. What do you think of those proposals?
A: Well, I really favor mandatory employer and employee contributions for pension benefits. It’s taken a lot of political courage and leadership from Ontario, which has been absent elsewhere in Canada for many, many years to implement the ORPP. But there again, the devil is in the details. I might have different ideas on how to build the ORPP, but I really don’t have any interest in criticizing those who exhibit this leadership in pensions.
Q: In your view, is it likely that other provinces will jump on the bandwagon once the Ontario plan is up and running?
A: I think there’s a good chance of that, particularly if the Conservatives win the upcoming federal election, because they’ve been consistently intransigent in their opposition to workplace pensions with mandatory employer contributions. But if the Liberals or NDP wins, they’re more likely to build on the leadership of Ontario and proceed with CPP expansion, which I think would make the ORPP unnecessary.
Q: Were you surprised by the federal announcement that the Harper government would not help Ontario administer the ORPP?
A: I was quite surprised. To me, it amounted to a juvenile temper tantrum. It seems to be extremely bad policy for the federal government to torpedo any provincial pension initiative, particularly in this way. Administration of contributions could easily be accommodated in the same way as provincial income tax collection. And in terms of tax deductibility, the feds could readily accommodate ORPP contributions in the current tax-assisted framework like they already do for the Quebec Pension Plan and the Saskatchewan Pension Plan.
Q: Do you believe a voluntary supplement to the CPP should be an option for Canadians to save for retirement? Is this something you would use to increase your retirement savings?
A: Well, to answer questions about the concept of a voluntary CPP supplement, I first have to suspend my disbelief that the federal government – and particularly a Conservative government – would actually choose to compete with the financial services industry, which already has a wide spectrum of products and services designed for retirement savings.
I think that the expectations amongst the public with this announcement are that it would be a savings and investment vehicle, in which case my answer would be, no, I wouldn’t use it to increase my retirement savings and, no, I don’t think they should bother.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: Well, although many Canadians might be excited by the possible opportunity to share in the investment results that the CPP Investment Board has achieved — particularly if the cost of investing is similar to the Board’s current cost — that’s not what they would get from a voluntary supplement under the CPP. It would require a different investment mandate from the CPP Investment Board, with the degree of difference dependent upon how much administrative flexibility the plan has. It would be far more expensive at the end of the day and would likely not have much to differentiate it from retirement investment options already available in the marketplace.
Q: And what about the design of a potential voluntary top-up? What do you think? Should the money be locked in? And should there be basic required contributions, or some variability? I mean what should this thing look like?
A: Well, you know, it depends on how they actually design it. They could do it as a standard savings and investment vehicle, or they could do it as a prepaid annuity vehicle, which might be more interesting. So, I think, first off, Canadians would generally choose good, old-fashioned RRSPs over CPP supplements as a savings and investment vehicle, unless the CPP had the same flexibility with no locking-in, in which case the cost would be almost the same as traditional RRSPs. But if a voluntary CPP supplement were designed around the prepaid annuity concept, contributions could be flexible so you could buy as many prepaid annuities as you want, perhaps within some limits; and full locking-in would perhaps be appropriate under that kind of a design.
Q: Now, in a previous question, you referred to the integration of a voluntary CPP into the current income tax rules. Do you think that that’s problematic, or it would be fairly easy to do?
A: I think it could be fairly easy to do within the current income tax rules. If you really wanted to make it work as a prepaid annuity concept, you could put it on top of the existing RRSP limits. It would just be another added-value pension saving that wouldn’t impact your RRSP limits.
Q: That might make it more attractive to particularly people who have topped up their RSP limits already.
Q: So, who do you think should be responsible for investing the contributions made to a voluntary CPP supplement?
A: If it was designed around a prepaid annuity concept, it would be the CPP Investment Board.
Q: How important is keeping costs low to the success of this proposal?
A: Well, it’s fundamentally important if it’s a savings and investment vehicle, which means that it would be very difficult to do without having some sort of subsidy from the government. MERs aren’t really applicable to paid up annuities. But certainly the cost would then likely be comparable to the current costs of the CPP Investment Board services.
Q: When you discuss a “prepaid annuity,” what do you mean? Do you mean that it would operate like a defined-benefit pension as far as the consumers are concerned?
A: Yes. Once you purchase it – so, you come in with “this is the amount of contribution I have. This is my age.” And then that would purchase a certain amount of fixed pension payable at your retirement date of age 65, or maybe 67, assuming that becomes the new normal retirement date. So, when you buy the annuity, you would know how much you’re getting when you reach that retirement date — like a defined-benefit plan.
Q: Do you think that this voluntary top-up to CPP is ever going to see the light of day? Will that depend on who forms the next government?
A: No. Even if it’s a prepaid annuity, I don’t think there will be enough of a market appetite for the concept to proceed. If it were a saving and investment type of program, it would have costs that are too high to really compete with the current, private-sector marketplace. But if the Liberals or the NDP form the government, I believe then we’d see a mandatory form of CPP expansion.
Q: Thank you very much, Greg. I really appreciated talking to you today.
A: My pleasure, Sheryl.
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by telephone in July 2015.