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Can alternative investments be an alternative form of retirement saving?

A series of restrictions on the amounts that can be put into pensions mean that high earners might need to look for new ways to save for their retirement. This may well increase demand for tax-advantaged investments like EISs and VCTs, which potentially offer big upfront tax reliefs. But are these investments really a viable alternative to pension contributions?

Oxford Capital is not able to offer financial advice and this blog should not be construed as advice. Tax planning and EIS tax reliefs depend on individual circumstances and are subject to change.

What’s the problem with pensions?
Most people have an annual allowance of £40,000. This means they can obtain tax relief on contributions to their pension pot of up to £40,000 each year. However, rule changes introduced in April 2016 reduce the annual allowance for high earners. For every £2 earned above £150,000, the pensions annual allowance is reduced by £1, down to a minimum of £10,000.

As such, an individual earning more than £210,000 will only be able to make a pension contribution of £10,000. Each year they will miss out on tax reliefs of £13,500 – 45% of the lost £30,000 of allowance.

It is worth noting that if the annual allowance in the previous three tax years was not fully utilised, the surplus allowance can be added to the allowance for the current year, allowing for a bigger contribution to be made before tapering kicks in. But if a high earner has consistently used their full annual allowance, the new tapering rules could leave them with a lot of surplus cash.

What might high earners do with excess remuneration?
Faced with finding a new home for surplus cash, some investors could be tempted to simply make contributions to their pension, in excess of the annual allowance, accepting that tax relief will not be available on those contributions. But they would need to keep a careful eye on the size of their pension pot. If their pension eventually pays out more than the lifetime allowance of £1m, the excess will be taxed at a hefty 55%.

As such, many high earners will prefer to look for an alternative home for surplus cash. A few possible examples include:

  • Investing in ISAs. ISA contributions have been a staple of tax planning since the tax-free savings accounts were first introduced in 1999. There’s no income tax relief on contributions, but unlike a pension there’s also no tax to pay when you eventually access your money. £20,000 can be put into ISAs every year. Investors under the age of 40 could also start a Lifetime ISA, into which they could invest up to £4,000 of their total ISA allowance each year.
  • Paying down debt early. Paying off a mortgage or other debts sooner than planned could be a sensible move, particularly for people who aren’t keen on risk. UK interest rates can’t remain at historic lows for ever, and early repayment of a mortgage could lead to interest savings in the coming years. However, some mortgage providers limit early repayments. And many people will feel confident of getting a better return by putting their money to work, rather than paying off debts, particularly when interest rates are so low.
  • Investing in property. Buy-to-let property has been a popular investment choice over the last ten years, as house prices and rental incomes have increased whilst borrowing costs have remained low. But the hassle of managing a rental property isn’t for everybody, and recent changes to the way rental income is taxed have made the sector less attractive. There is also growing speculation from some commentators that we may be on the verge of a house price slump, which will deter some investors from buying property.

What about other investments that offer tax incentives?
If an investor’s top priority is to invest in a way that generates tax reliefs, they might be tempted to look at tax-advantaged alternative investments. Venture Capital Trusts and Enterprise Investment Scheme investments offer income tax relief equal to 30% of the amount invested, as well as tax-free returns and a range of other reliefs, subject to various conditions being met. On the surface, this compares favourably to the reliefs on offer from pension contributions.

But it’s vital to remember that these different sets of reliefs exist to encourage very different types of behaviour. Tax reliefs on pensions are designed to encourage people to save prudently for their retirements. Tax reliefs on VCTs and EISs are designed to encourage people to put money into high risk investments to support smaller companies.

As such, EISs and VCTs are not direct substitutes for pension contributions. Instead, they need to be assessed in the context of an investor’s overall wealth and risk appetite. If an individual is accumulating significant cash, they might wish to consider allocating a small proportion of their total wealth to VCTs or EISs, as part of broader strategy to mop up their excess remuneration and plan for their retirement.

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