Dr Ros Altmann has a unique position in the UK pension arena. No other figure both works for the Government while simultaneously whipping up such political momentum against it.
An independent consultant to 10 Downing Street and an adviser to the Myners review, Altmann's high-profile campaigning on behalf of final-salary scheme members has been a key driving force behind the setting up of the Government's pension protection fund.
Altmann's no-nonsense style is backed by her credentials as an economist who has proved herself in the markets. A first in economics from the London School of Economics led to a Kennedy sponsorship to Harvard, where she heard first-hand the views of JK Galbraith, Kenneth Arrow, Richard Porter and Martin Feldstein.
Starting her career as a UK companies analyst at Prudential, she became head of international equities at Chase Manhattan Institutional Investment Group, running its London operations before filling similar roles at Rothschild International Asset Management and NatWest Investment Management.
Working from her North London home, she has since been an adviser to the Myners review and an independent consultant to the Treasury, 10 Downing Street, 3I and Man Group.
Having campaigned to make companies directly responsible for the pension promises made to their staff, Altmann could be credited with single-handedly adding several billion pounds to the debit column of corporate Britain.
But she would argue that she is simply standing up for the silent majority who have no effective representation when it comes to matters of public policy.
“I am trying to do something for the 60 per cent of the population who are not looked after. You have the bottom 20 per cent catered for through the Government and the top 10 to 20 per cent are represented by innumerable pressure groups. The middle 60 per cent are understood by nobody.”
The 47-year-old mother of three is active in several charity organisations, including Cancer Relief and local homes for physically and mentally handicapped children. She is also a governor of a home for the elderly in South London.
Although she comes across as a philanthropist, she denies that she was brought to championing the underdog by social commitment on her part. She shows no evidence of a personal axe to grind against anybody except those in the way of her view of social justice although she does exhibit a Spurs fan's glee over seeing Arsenal dumped out of the Carling Cup.
“My PhD was on pensions policy and the incomes of the elderly but I chose this subject because my adviser thought it was under-researched. Then, when I was on the Myners review team, I realised the system offered no safety net at all.”
Altmann's campaigning on behalf of the Allied Steel & Wire workers – and other employees whose final-salary schemes have left them without even the guaranteed minimum pension – has included organising a Full Monty-style strip tease by workers on the beach outside the Labour Party conference.
She is a vocal advocate of suing the Government for recommending, through various official documents, that people pay into occupational schemes without ever highlighting the risk that they might be worthless when they retire. This idea has been taken up by the TUC and Altmann is carrying out independent research to calculate the likely cost of compensating all workers who have lost out.
“I have always wanted to maintain my independence. If a policy is not working in the right direction, I should stand up and say so.”
Altmann has surprised herself with the media profile she has achieved. “I never set out to court the public profile at all, it all just happened. You meet all these people who have nothing out of their company pensions after saving for 30 or 40 years and who, in fact, would have been better off never having put that money in. They would have got more out of Serps and the basic state pension if they had never put all that money into the company scheme.”
The Treasury, FSA and Sandler should be very wary as Altmann is now turning her attention to the light-touch sales regime proposals. “The whole advice issue is being sidestepped. If we move forward with Sandler, as proposed in the most recent consultation, I am absolutely convinced that the position for the majority of the population will be much worse. Now people can try to get compensation from whoever gave them the appropriate advice.
“It is not surprising that the product providers are really keen on this guided self-help because it gets them off the hook but it is really not in the consumer interest.
“The Sandler analysis was good but the conclusion the wrong way round. He said the way we give advice is too expensive to deliver to the mass market. His solution is to do away with the advice. My solution is you have to think of ways to make it cheaper to give the advice.”
Lives: North London
Education: First in economics, LSE; Kennedy scholar, Harvard; PhD in pension policy, LSE Career: 1981-84, UK and international companies analyst at Prudential UK; 1984-89, head of international equities at Chase Manhattan; 1989-91, Rothschild International Asset Management; 1991-93, NatWest Investment Management global equity strategist; 1996 onwards, independent consultant Career ambition: “To use my skills in investment banking to drive forward policy and campaign for people who have lost out” Life ambition: “To have my children become happy, successful, honest, decent people” Likes: Swimming, walking, sunbathing. “My holiday has to be on the beach, although most recently in Bournemouth” Dislikes: Boring meetings, false promises, Arsenal
Drives: Mercedes 190e and Fiat X1/9