Moneywise Pension Awards 2015

A pension revolution has given retirees more choice about what to do with their savings and even more incentive to make sure their money is working hard for them.

The implementation of pension freedoms in April was a retirement game-changer but the government has gone further and, following a summer Budget after a shock Conservative election win, the Treasury is now consulting on whether pensions should be revamped to look more like Isas.

Whatever long-term savings end up looking like, it's imperative that everyone plans for their financial future, especially those saving into defined contribution (DC) pensions.

It's only by understanding what you want your retirement to look like that you can decide how to plan for it by choosing the most suitable pension and the best funds to grow your money.

The Moneywise Pension Awards 2015 can help you make decisions about your retirement, whether you're saving for the first time and need to pick a pension, or choosing where to invest your cash. Here's a round- up of our award winners and some other outstanding performers that really stood out.

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Best stakeholder pension provider


Low-cost stakeholder pensions have been around since 2001 and were aimed at those on low and middle incomes, for whom standard pensions were too expensive or unsuitable.

These no-frills pensions have been largely superseded by the government's auto-enrolment programme, which requires all employers to set up a workplace pension for their employees, but stakeholder pensions may still be suitable for some savers.

This year, Aviva has taken the prize for best stakeholder pension provider. Awards judge Scott Gallacher, an IFA at Rowley Turton in Leicester, says Aviva was a "clear winner", thanks to a good fund range and low costs.

"[Aviva] has excellent financial strength, an excellent fund range with first-class cautious and balanced managed-type funds and very competitive charges, starting at 0.55%, and reducing for funds over £50,000," he says.

Fellow judge Patrick Connolly, a certified financial planner at IFA firm Chase de Vere, says Aviva had improved in terms of service: "This product has a wide range of fund choices for a stakeholder product including a reasonable default fund choice. The contract terms are competitive and Aviva has continued to improve its levels of service and administration."

Coming highly commended in the category was Royal London, which judge Nick McBreen, an IFA at Truro- based Worldwide Financial Planning, says is "fair value" thanks to its 0.9% charge.

He praises the comprehensive list of funds available although they are "not necessarily external funds".

Best personal pension provider


Personal pensions are the best way to save for retirement for those who are not part of a workplace scheme, such as the self-employed, or
for people wanting to boost their retirement income by supplementing their workplace pension.

The tax relief offered to pension savers is the main reason they are so attractive, even if personal pensions do not benefit from employer contributions. Pensions tax relief is linked to the top rate of income tax you pay and it means those paying basic-rate tax of 20% only have to put 80p into a pension to receive £1, higher-rate taxpayers pay in 60p and additional-rate taxpayers contribute 55p to reach £1.

Those who pay higher- or additional-rate income tax, will need to claim this back from HMRC, as pension funds only claim 20% basic-rate relief back on your behalf.

Royal London has taken the top spot as best personal pension provider in this year's awards, thanks to its service and flexibility.

Connolly says: "Royal London consistently provides the very best level of service. While its fund range isn't the biggest, it is adequate for most clients and its product is very flexible and has competitive charges."

Gallacher also highlights Royal London's "great customer service" and the fact savers are only required to save £100 a month, which makes it "easier to get started with Royal London".

Old Mutual Wealth also received praise from the judges, thanks to what Gallacher describes as an "almost unrivalled range of external pension funds", which benefits "those with an active interest in managing their pension fund selection".

The fund choice offered by Old Mutual Wealth is also noted by McBreen, who says the number of funds available was "critical to the ultimate value and growth of any pension pot".

Best mainstream annuity provider


The introduction of pension freedoms means no one is forced to buy an annuity anymore but for those who want to secure a guaranteed income in old age, they still play a key role in pension planning.

Although insurers have been accused of offering poor value annuities and taking advantage of customers who fail to shop around, there are a number of companies that are proving annuities don't have to mean a bad deal.

Retirement Advantage stood out to the judges and has been crowned the best mainstream annuity provider. Gallacher says there is "still a place for annuities for more cautious clients" and, with the annuity market shrinking, this has "allowed the smaller specialist annuity providers to come into their own".

He says Retirement Advantage offers "competitive rates compared to the traditional providers".

McBreen said comparing annuity providers is "tough" due to the pricing competition and although Retirement Advantage, previously known as MGM Advantage, is not a household name, it "is offering very good rates across a range of ages and annuity options".

L&G and Aviva were both highly commended by the judges. Connolly praised both for their "competitive rates" and said customer services at L&G is "consistently good", while it has been "getting better" at Aviva.

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Best enhanced annuity provider


Enhanced annuities work in the same way as mainstream annuities but pay out a higher rate of income because they are offered to those who have health or lifestyle issues that mean life expectancy is lower.

The difference in income between mainstream and enhanced annuities could be thousands of pounds but you do not have to have a serious medical condition to qualify; smokers and drinkers can also benefit.

The winner of the award for best enhanced annuity provider goes to Just Retirement this year.

Connolly praised the income provided by Just Retirement annuities "that its competitors often struggle to match", as well as the "outstanding level of service".

McBreen says Just Retirement went beyond good rates and praised the work the insurer has done in raising awareness of "the importance and value of retirement income planning".

"Annuity rates fluctuate like the cycle of the moon but Just Retirement gets my pole position vote for taking a stance on not applying a postcode lottery... when considering an application," he says.

Partnership, which came in highly commended, was praised by Gallacher for its "excellent rate" and service standards. McBreen says Partnership was a company that is "prepared to invest, innovate and adapt". And with the news it is to merge with Just Retirement, he seems to be right.

Best low-cost sipp savings


Self-invested personal pensions (Sipps) are a way for you to take control of your pension investments.

Using a Sipp, you can pick and choose from a wider range of investments than a personal pension offers, such as commercial property.

Although the flexibility of Sipps comes at a cost, those costs have fallen and there are a number of low-cost Sipps on offer that have a minimum investment amount of just £50 or £100 a month that is similar to personal pensions.

To decide on a winner, we assumed 7% growth over 10 years on two different portfolios, one of £50,000 comprising five funds and two deals a year, the second of £250,000 with 15 funds and six deals a year.

The judges picked the winner from a shortlist based on the effective cost and the value of the fund after 10 years.

Low-cost Sipps are offered by 'execution-only' websites, and iWeb picked up the prize for the second year in a row.

Gallacher says iWeb is the most cost-effective option for investors. "You'll pay no quarterly or annual administration or inactivity charges and trades incur just £5 commission," he says. "If you don't intend to have too many holdings or trade frequently, the iWeb Sipp is almost certainly the cheapest option for those with a lump sum."

Connolly praised iWeb for being "low cost and transparent", especially for those wanting to trade individual shares as it is backed by Halifax Share Dealing.

"There are very few extra bells and whistles and so this site is most suitable for those who don't need any investment guidance," says Connolly.

Alliance Trust Savings came highly commended by the judges, thanks to its investment options.

"This has a wide range of investment options and a competitive charging structure," says Connolly. "The Alliance Trust brand name is well-known and the site provides extensive investment performance information and data."

Best performing fund: mixed investment 20-60% shares


Pension investing can seem daunting, thanks to the thousands of funds on offer and many savers choose to stay invested in their pension provider's default fund.

For those who would like to dip their toe into investing, our fund winners are a good place to begin.

Mixed investment 20-60% share funds used to be known as 'cautious managed' funds and are lower risk because they can only invest a maximum of 60% in equities and 30% must be invested in fixed income, such as UK government bonds – which are known as gilts.

Kames Ethical Cautious Managed fund has moved from highly commended last year to winner this year.

Gallacher said this fund "challenges the conception" that ethical investment means compromising on performance.

He said the fund is a "consistent performer" that has outperformed its sector for each of the past five calendar years. According to Morningstar data, the fund has returned 43.6% over three years, 66.9% over five years and 84.3% over seven years.

McBreen described it as an "outstanding fund" and seeks "income and long-term capital growth through careful investment" and does not "shy away from investing in big PLCs with the right ethical credentials".

Highly commended was the Invesco Perpetual Distribution fund, which Connolly says has a "very consistent long-term track record".

"The managers aren't afraid to take risks and in recent years have done very well with their high exposure to banking stocks," he says.

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Best performing fund: mixed investment 40-85% shares


For those who want to take a bit more risk and have the patience to ride out the stockmarket over the longer term, then these funds could be for you.

The winner this year is a smaller investment company called Premier and the judges were fans of its Multi-Asset Growth and Income fund, which has returned 80.5% over seven years.

Connolly says the company is "building up some very strong track records with its range of funds" and "the success of this fund is mostly down to the research undertaken by its managers".

"Risks are then diversified by investing in large number of funds and, to date, this approach has worked really well," he added.

Gallacher says the fund takes advantage of "alternative assets when appropriate to deliver great performance but without taking on excessive risk".

He added: "The fund is run on a multi-manager approach; consequently, manager David Hambidge can access what he considers to be the very best investment managers in each sector."

Invesco Perpetual's Managed Income fund came highly commended by the judges and is another multi-manager, or fund-of-funds, which is a fund that invests in other funds.

"The fund is essentially an internal fund-of-funds and has performed well as Invesco Perpetual has consistently strong equity and fixed-interest teams, particularly managing UK assets," says Connolly.

Best performing fund: flexible investment


The winner of this fund has taken the top slot two years running: Unicorn Mastertrust Income returned 92.9% over seven years and 75.8% over five years. This fund operates as a fund of investment trusts, so it invests in a number
of investment trusts. Investment trusts are closed-ended funds and are traded on the stock exchange like shares.

Gallacher said Unicorn Mastertrust provides "exposure to a widely diversified range of equity markets and asset classes around the world".

"The investment in investment trusts enables the fund to gain a great degree of diversification and benefit from rising markets by way of taking advantage of gearing and the narrowing of discounts, or the movement to premiums, in the underlying investment trusts," he said.

"However, it's not quite a free lunch, as when markets turn these two factors can amplify the losses on the fund."

McBreen said investment trusts do "require a more sophisticated level of understanding and risk awareness from investors but the rewards are there to be gathered".

The Neptune Global Alpha fund took second place in this category. Connolly said this is a "high-risk" fund but the manager Robin Geffen "backs his beliefs with real conviction, which means the fund can take some big bets at geographical, sector and stock levels".
He said the fund has had periods of "significant underperformance" but has recently outperformed.

Best performing fund: specialist investment


The specialist sector includes funds that cannot be accommodated elsewhere and these funds invest in everything from agriculture to biotechnology and health.

This year's winner also took the prize last year: AXA Framlington Biotech invests in companies that create technology that benefits everyday life, medical research industries and genomics.

The returns on average over the past seven years for the Biotech fund have been 334.7% a year but this fund is high risk. "The performance from this fund over the past few years is stunning," says Gallacher.

"It's worth pointing out that while this fund didn't see the big falls that other funds did during the banking crisis, it should still be viewed as a high-risk fund.

"The last time this sector was rising high was back in the heights of the tech boom of the late Nineties. This fund was launched just before the stockmarket crash of December 2001 and had you had the misfortune of buying at that time, you would have seen a loss of over 50% in the first year, so a degree of caution is needed."

McBreen said the specialist sector was "in a bit of a strange place" as it is "hard to compare and evaluate funds and while the gains can be spectacular, the downside risk can be equally breathtaking".

The highly commended fund, AXA Framlington Health, could be an alternative to the Biotech fund "if you buy into the demographic and thematic story behind biotech and health generally", says Gallacher.

"[The fund] taps into the same themes but with a much wider investment mandate, consequently it should be more adaptable and not as exposed to the potential over- pricing of biotech companies," he says.

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