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MPs to fast-track pension relief legislation

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Residents plunged into hardship by the Covid-19 crisis will be able to make a one-time withdrawal of $12,000 from their pension pot under legislation to be fast-tracked through the House of Assembly today.

However, dipping into retirement savings presents a painful choice between today's needs and the ability to pay for life after work, say experts.

David Burt, the Premier, announced on Wednesday that the legislation would be pushed through the House today, in a process that would normally take weeks, with the backing of the Opposition.

The change will be in addition to existing provisions that allow for people to access private pension funds to relieve financial hardship.

While raiding the pension fund would not normally be prudent, many people will not have a choice, said Martha Harris Myron, personal finance columnist for The Royal Gazette.

“My take is that there are a lot of people in Bermuda who are desperate or close to desperate,” Ms Harris Myron said.

“Some people will need this money just to eat. Twelve thousand dollars is just five or six months' rent for a family.

“The alternative is that the Government will have to carry these suffering people for four or five months, or even longer, and that could add up to more than $150 million.

“I actually think the Government's estimates of what they're going to need to get through this crisis are significantly low compared to what's going to happen.”

Ms Myron said she hated the idea of people withdrawing funds at a time when financial markets had fallen, but appreciated that, for some, the money will be necessary right now.

Claudette Fleming, executive director of Age Concern, said of the impact of emergency withdrawals: “Of course, pensions will be impacted in the long run, but unfortunately there are limited options available for financial relief.

“Ordinarily, I would be against such an idea but, clearly, we are not living in ordinary times.

“My caution to those who choose this option is to get sound financial advice on where the use of these funds will be most effective.

“There is also a great philanthropic, or corporate social responsibility opportunity here for a credible financial institution to donate time and expertise in helping individuals make these types of critical decisions.”

Robert Stewart, an economist and the former chief executive of the Royal Dutch Shell Group of Companies in Bermuda, said the decision to withdraw from a pension fund will depend on personal circumstances.

“The money belongs to the person who will receive it when they retire,” Mr Stewart said. “So the freedom to do what you want with your own money is one side of it and it has a lot of appeal.

“The contra argument is that it's a very short-sighted move and taking money out of a pension plan does not make long-term sense because people need the money at the time they retire.

“People can dig a big financial hole for themselves. So on balance, it's a very bad thing to do.”

He added that, depending on how the funds were invested, now would be a poor time for a withdrawal because of this year's stock-market dip.

The S&P 500 Index lost about one quarter of its value in little more than a month after its February 19 high, but has recovered some of those losses in recent weeks.

With an ageing population, the adequacy of retirement funds is of national importance and that was an issue for the island long before the crisis, Mr Stewart said.

“The long-term problem for Bermuda is that many people have not made adequate provision for their retirement,” he said.

“If you retire at 65, you could expect to live at least another 15 years and that's a long time to live in poverty.”

The Premier acknowledged that the Government shares concerns about the potential impact of withdrawals on individuals' retirement funds.

He added: “But it is clear that this is not any normal time. Funds like this should only be accessed in emergency situations. And it is undoubted that the massive amount of unemployment that is seen in our economy due to the restrictions that are necessary to put in place to preserve life is such an emergency.”

The one-time withdrawal comes in addition to existing provisions that allow withdrawals of up to 20 per cent of the value of an individual private pension fund account on the basis of financial hardship, depending on approval from the Pension Commission.

These measures took effect in 2010. By the end of 2015, a total of $13.9 million had been withdrawn under this amendment, according to figures shared with The Royal Gazette by the Ministry of Finance four years ago. These withdrawals were made by 1,488 people approved out of a total of 1,789 applications.

At the same time, a further $3.3 million was pulled out from a government plan by civil servants, after 253 successful applications, under changes which came into force in 2012.

The rules limit what the funds can be used for. Most covered rent or mortgage arrears, or paid educational costs or medical bills.

Be cautious: Claudette Fleming, executive director of Age Concern Bermuda (File photograph)
Time of need: Martha Harris Myron, personal finance columnist (File photograph)
Long-term pension issues: Robert Stewart, economist and author (File photograph)

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Published May 08, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated May 08, 2020 at 7:43 am)

MPs to fast-track pension relief legislation

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