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(Adrian Wyld)
(Adrian Wyld)

Retirement

Life insurance industry pushes pension fix Add to ...

Canada's life insurers are proposing sweeping changes they say would allow the industry to help fix troubles in the pension system, lobbying against a push by some provinces for a new national plan.

The industry's drive comes amid a raging debate over the problems, exacerbated by the recession and tumultuous stock markets, with how Canadians save for retirement. Aging baby boomers and the slow extinction of defined benefit plans are among the factors that have left many without sufficient financial protection for their retirement.

Alberta and British Columbia have been pushing a proposal to create a new national system for Canadians without a workplace plan. This voluntary plan would be in addition to the Canada Pension Plan and would be in the form of defined contribution, meaning the participants would receive payments that depend on the plan's investment income.

Provincial premiers met in Regina last week and called on Ottawa for a national summit on retirement income, directing their finance ministers to report this year on ways that both private and public sector plans can be improved.

The life insurance industry, which is responsible for about two-thirds of defined contribution plans in Canada, has also been talking to provincial and federal governments about "private sector solutions that we think will be as effective as any government-sponsored ones," said Frank Swedlove, president of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.

"Some of the proposals that have been made raise some concerns for us," Mr. Swedlove said. "Some of these proposals relate to a government-sponsored defined contribution plan, and we don't think that that's the best way to go.

"We think there are opportunities to increase pension activity for Canadians by changing some of the pension rules that exist in the country."

Retirement

Donald Stewart, chief executive officer of Sun Life Financial, the biggest industry player in the game, agreed the private sector can service the country's retirement needs, and said it is calling on government to update pension laws to spur further involvement.

The industry wants the government to alter the Income Tax Act so that a pension plan sponsor need not have a specific relation with, or be an employer of, a participant in a defined contribution plan.

That would mean life insurers and others could sponsor an umbrella plan that could take in a number of companies and, the industry argues, make it easier for many small and mid-sized businesses to offer pensions to their employees.

It could also mean more self-employed people are able to access pensions.

The industry also wants changes to employment standards laws that would allow for the indexing of pension contributions so that contribution rates could be automatically indexed based on age and other factors. That could help new employees who aren't yet prepared to contribute as much.

More broadly, life insurers want a major overhaul of federal and provincial pension laws in general. The laws were written in an era of defined benefit plans, and have not been properly updated following the dramatic shift toward defined contribution plans, they argue. The laws also fall into a patchwork system of federal and provincial rules that the insurers believe must be harmonized.

"If you have consistent plans, individuals can be mobile across the country," said Sue Reibel, senior vice-president of Manulife Financial's Canadian Group savings and retirement solutions. She has spoken to the Alberta and Ontario finance ministers, and travelled to Ottawa on the issue. "One of the things that we all agreed on is that we need to do more," she said. "We agree that we need to enhance Canadian savings."

She would like to see changes to the savings legislation that would give Canadians a lifetime RRSP contribution limit, rather than an annual one, similar to what Britain now has. That would give people the flexibility to contribute more when they can, and also account for the natural tendency to save more with age.

With such changes, government can spur retirement savings without intervening in the system further, the industry argues. "As a taxpayer, if I divorce myself from my company, I would step back and say that we've got a private sector that built everything," Ms. Reibel said. "They've been building the business for the last 10 years, which is when the defined contribution business really started to grow. Why would you build a new one to do exactly what's there, unless to point to it and say it's broken? And I don't think anyone's pointed to it and said we're not doing a good job."

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