Helen Nugent

Business pessimism, pensions, tax credits and online banking

Business pessimism, pensions, tax credits and online banking
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UK financial services firms are becoming more pessimistic about their prospects in the wake of the Brexit vote, an industry survey suggests.

Optimism fell for the third consecutive quarter according to the CBI employers group. It is the sector's longest period of falling sentiment since 2009 - in the midst of the financial crisis.

The survey of 115 companies found low interest rates and potential restricted EU market access were seen as risks. But while 28 per cent of the respondents were gloomier, 15 per cent were more optimistic. And almost 40 per cent of the firms surveyed reported healthy profits in the last quarter.

Meanwhile, Sterling is trading near a five-week low as lingering worries about Brexit prompted investors to sell the pound.  The currency was knocked late on Thursday after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he expected Article 50 to be triggered early next year - a claim later denied by Downing Street.

Pensions

The cost of running generous pension schemes at Britain’s biggest firms is set to double to an unaffordable £14 billion-a-year over the next three years, according to a warning from a retirement consultancy.

The Telegraph reports that FTSE 100 firms that run defined benefit pensions, which offer workers a guaranteed income for life once they retire, currently pay £7 billion a year to fund their obligations and manage their sizeable investments, JLT Employee Benefits said.

Almost all of the running costs, around £6.23 billion last year, is used to plug funding shortfalls, which totalled £87 billion by March for the 100 biggest firms and has risen further since.

In other pensions news, The Times reports that Tesco could be called before the Commons inquiry into workplace pensions amid claims that the hole in its pension fund could be up to £6.5 billion.

Exane BNP Paribas suggested that Tesco’s pension deficit may have grown by as much as £3.3 billion since the company’s last stated numbers because of low interest rates and bond yields. Barclays, Tesco’s own broker, put the increase at up to £3.1 billion. A soaring deficit could threaten a resumption of dividend payments.

Meanwhile, millions of workers could have to delay the age when they retire by several years because they are paying steep fees on their pension fund, exclusive new research suggests.

Thisismoney reports that cutting back fees by just 1.5 percentage points can mean the difference between being able to retire at 63 or 80, according to the new data by advice firm Profile Financial. However many middle-aged and older workers do not even realise they are paying fees that sap their savings, which can prolong the amount of time they have to carry on working.

Financial exclusion

A new report from cross-party think tank Demos finds that a lack of coordination between sectors involved in financial services provision and advice is stymying attempts to address the problem of financial exclusion. 

Banking for All reveals the tremendous scale of the challenge, with 1.5 million British adults without a bank account, and thousands more building up problematic debt and falling prey to payday loans each year. The report explains that many ordinary Britons also simply lack the financial and digital know-how to manage their money effectively. 

Financial exclusion can be a vicious cycle, as the under-banked miss out on deals that are only available online or through direct debit payments (such as energy bills, mobile phone contracts and internet plans), and often struggle to access the credit needed to make investments, such as buying property, or the financial products to help them plan and save for the future.

Tax credits

A firm used by the Government to cut tax credit payments has received calls from 'suicidal' clients, the BBC has been told.

A whistleblower at Concentrix's call centre said most staff 'weren't even trained' to deal with such calls. He said staff were not offered counselling, but were instead told: 'Have a smoke... you'll be fine.'

But Concentrix said, in the case of suicidal callers, staff were trained in accordance with guidelines from HMRC. It told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme: 'Our staff are supported as much as possible where we have encountered this type of scenario.'

Online banking

Almost half of UK banking customers are still not comfortable managing their finances solely online or by mobile, according to the 2016 EY Global Consumer Banking Survey.

Although digital banking is on the rise, with around a third of respondents claiming they use online and mobile banking more than they did a year ago, people still want to deal with someone face-to-face for certain banking queries. In addition, a third claim to actively distrust a bank that has no high street presence, even if they predominantly use digital banking.

Home insurance

Home insurer NFU Mutual has revealed that it paid out just over £25 million in home fire claims in 2015 and that 52 per cent of the cost of these claims arose from electrical fires.

Nicki Whittaker, a high value home specialist at NFU Mutual, said: 'Where household appliances were directly responsible for causing fire, cookers, dishwashers and fridges/freezers were the worst offenders. Tumble driers, electric blankets and irons were also named as a source of home fires.

'It will come as a great shock to many householders to learn that everyday appliances designed to make life easier could present a fire risk. We urge homeowners never to overload plug sockets, regularly check for frayed or worn cables and wires and to unplug appliances when not in use.

'Programming appliances such as tumble driers or dishwashers to run while homeowners are at work or asleep could also expose people to increased risk if a fire does occur and it goes without saying smoke alarms should be fitted and regularly tested.'