In the UK, there are several different types of pensions, split into two groups:
- defined benefit = final salary
- defined contribution = money purchase
- personal pensions
- stakeholder pensions
- self-invested personal pensions
Occupational pensions are run on behalf of the employer, often by an insurance company such as Standard Life. You can generally contribute via salary sacrifice and often the employer contributes too. If your employer has more than a certain number of employees, they must either offer access to an occupational pension scheme, group personal pension scheme or to a stakeholder scheme, although they do not have to contribute. The two types of occupational pension available are defined benefit and defined contribution.
A defined benefit or final salary scheme is one in which the pension (benefit) is defined in advance as a percentage of the final salary. The percentage you can get will depend on how long you have been working at the company and is roughly positioned so that if you worked at the same company for your entire career you would receive a pension of approximately two-thirds of your final salary. This pension is paid for by investing your contributions sacrificed from your salary and generally the employer contributes also. With this type of scheme, the trustees of the scheme will choose how to invest the money they have so that there will be enough to pay out all the retirement benefits of the scheme to all members. The biggest risk that you face is that the scheme will be wound down or the company go bankrupt (potentially due to pension liabilities). Defined benefit schemes have become much rarer of late.
All other pension schemes work similarly. You contribute an amount of money every month which is then invested. In return for investing before income tax, you agree not to take the money out until retirement (due to rise to 55), there are further rules about how you may withdraw the money at that point. You are responsible for choosing the investments so that you will have a sufficiently large pot of money to live off once you are retired. These underlying investments are the important part of the pension and the bit that generates the money, everything else is just a set of rules.
Occupational defined contribution or money purchase schemes have the added benefits that often the employer will contribute to your pension pot in addition to your own contributions. Also as all the employees in the company are invested through the same scheme, discounts can often be negotiated on the investment fees. The main drawback is the limited number of different types of investment that the money can be placed into.
Personal pensions work in exactly the same way as money purchase pensions do in terms of risk. The main advantage of a personal pension is that it is not linked to any one employer and can be taken out by anyone. The disadvantages are that the charges can be high as an individual pension pot is not usually large enough for discounts to be negotiated, there are also often restrictions on the minimum amount of money that may be invested each month and the variety of investments available varies considerably depending upon the provider.
Stakeholder pensions are like personal pensions with the added benefits that the fees are capped at 1% per annum, the lowest payment that must be made monthly is £20. The drawbacks are that range of investments available is generally small and that the fees are usually set at the maximum 1% despite the underlying investments being available with much lower fees (often 0.1% to 0.5%).
Self-invested personal pensions or SIPPs are like personal pensions, but with the added benefit of having a very much wider range of investments available. In particular it is possible to invest in almost any unit trust, exchange traded fund, investment company, bonds, individual shares and cash*. They may have higher fees especially if they allow investment in the more esoteric options, but that is not always the case, many SIPPs are run by discount funds supermarkets have very reasonable fees similar to those found in stakeholders, although they usually have stricter rules on the amounts of money that may be transferred into the pension.
I think that the best way of investing through pensions is to determine what your overall investment strategy is, taking into account the amount of risk you are comfortable with and the length of time you have until retirement, and then working out the cheapest way of getting there, taking into account all your own circumstances.
*It is almost always a poor idea to invest a pension fund in cash.