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VERITY&#39S VIEW

The Government seems to have failed in its plan to get every company with more than four staff to assign a stakeholder pension provider. Last week, the ABI released figures showing that, by the end of August, little more than half of the 300,000 relevant companies (on its estimate) had assigned a provider.

The ABI thinks the figure will have risen to around two-thirds by the end of September but the truth is that no one, not the Government nor the ABI nor the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, has anything but the loosest estimate of how many firms need to provide a stakeholder pension.

The Government was very unlucky in one respect. One key element of its campaign to raise awareness of stakeholder was the TV ad drive. Cheap and gently amusing ads featuring talking sheepdogs were conceived and filmed before the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. At least one of the ads then had to be pulled for fear of offending troubled farmers.

Opra chief executive Caroline Instance says she expects to be looking at barely 2,000 stakeholder fines a year. The reason for that is Opra&#39s reliance on whistle-blowing. Unfortunately, those firms that have failed to designate a stakeholder provider are probably those without ready access to the internet, those without a union member to remind the employer about the legal requirement and those which simply cannot be bothered.

Even if it is true that there are only 100,000 of them, the whistle-blowing system will take a long time to make the threat of a fine do its work. There is something strange about a situation when employers are allowed to break the law with no great fear of falling foul of the pension police.

But what really damns the stakeholder pension strategy is the dull but irresistible fact that slashing charges on pensions simply is not enough to make people save. The early anecdotal evidence suggests that where companies have assigned stakeholder schemes, only a tiny minority of the potential savers will bother to contribute.

Because there is so little short-term profit for either life insurers or financial advisers in selling stakeholder as anything other than a hopeful loss-leader, the pessimists who predicted take-up would be tiny were proved right. The average man on the average income has little appetite for a stakeholder pension, especially one tied to a stockmarket that is looking less and less likely to repeat the amazing growth of the past. Years ago, the industry tried to tell the Government that pensions are sold, not bought. That was not what the Government wanted to hear.

In fact, there have been very healthy sales of stakeholder pensions in precisely the group that already has enough retirement money. Of more than 300,000 individual stakeholder-compatible pensions, it is impossible to know how many of them are new business and how many simply new contracts for old customers. The suspicion has to be that some individual sales are more to do with a wealthy parent&#39s desire to avoid tax by putting some money aside for their child&#39s retirement.

Meanwhile, Unilever is involved in a courtroom battle over its £130m claim for negligence against Mercury Asset Management, now absorbed in Merrill Lynch. Few expected this unprecedented claim to actually get to court but it has. The trustees of Unilever&#39s pension fund say MAM took on too much risk in the way it managed £1bn of the pension fund&#39s money, betting on sectors such as building materials when banks and pharmaceuticals were just about to rocket.

Merrill Lynch believes it cannot be legally sanctioned for falling behind its agreed investment targets , otherwise it is as if they had the status of a guarantee.

If Unilever&#39s pension fund wins, it has big implications for all institutional fund managers. First, it will probably trigger off a wave of similar claims, benefiting pension funds in the short term. But, in the long term, fund managers may have to put up their fees to pay for all the legal checks they will then be forced to carry out. Not only will their costs increase but they will be less inclined to take risks that might be criticised in court, depressing long-term investment performance.

Unilever insists its case will not set that sort of precedent. But even if the case is settled out of court, other pension funds may feel obliged to take similar legal action to recover the settlement money. Result – investment managers will be forced to take decisions with a lawyer looking over their shoulder. Not such a great result.

Andrew Verity is personal finance correspondent for the BBC

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