“Épargne-pension” (or “pensioensparen” in Dutch), is a pension-saving scheme offered by the Belgian government. It lets you put away funds for your pension in addition to the state pension. It comes with a considerable tax break, making it an attractive option for those saving for retirement.

We’ve covered this topic extensively in our guide to Belgian pension saving but how does it compare to saving for your pension through passive investing? Which method leads to a higher outcome? Is the payoff from managing your portfolio through passive investing worth it?

That is the question that Gary, co-founder and CEO of Marker.io, asked us on Twitter. We thought it was particularly relevant for the Belgian community. In fact, what we've discovered convinced Curvo co-founder Yoran to reconsider how he saves for his pension.

How does “épargne-pension” work?

First of all, we couldn’t find a good English translation of “épargne-pension". As far as we know, it’s a very Belgian concept. So we will continue to use this word throughout the article. We could have used the Dutch word “pensioensparen” but we chose to use Gary’s native language.

As we said in the introduction, “épargne-pension” is a way to put aside extra money for your pension, on top of the state pension that every Belgian worker starts receiving at the age of retirement. It's voluntary, so you can choose to contribute to an “épargne-pension” account if you want. Furthermore, it is done on an individual basis and not through your employer.

How do you decide how much to set aside for your "épargne-pension"? Every year, the Belgian state defines a maximum amount that you can contribute towards your “épargne-pension” account for that year. This amount was set to €1,270 for 2021 and grows slightly every year. To start contributing to your “épargne-pension”, you simply go to your bank and tell them that you want to set up an “épargne-pension” account.

This account will either be:

  • an insurance. You earn a fixed interest rate every year. The return will be low but predictable.
  • a fund. The bank invests your contributions in stocks and bonds through special funds. Compared to the insurance, you can potentially achieve a higher return. But the returns are riskier because of the unpredictable markets.

The great thing about “épargne-pension” is that it offers a tax break of 25% of your contribution. For example, if you contributed the maximum amount of €1,270 this year, you will earn €317.50 back through your tax returns. Essentially, this means that you contributed only €952.50 out of your own pocket and the state subsidises the rest. If you contributed less than €990 during the year, the tax break is 30% so it's even higher relative to your contribution. Free money, we like that!

But there's a twist. Indeed as soon as you break the limit of €990 and even if you don't put in the total €1270, you'll still get the 25% rebate on the total amount, meaning you should carefully consider your contribution. Here's an example: if you contribute €1100 a year, you get a tax rebate of 25%, or €275. This is less than the €297 tax rebate if you had put in only €990. So if you decide to contribute more than €990 and want to maximise your tax rebate, make sure the amount is higher than €1,188.

We previously explained why passive investing is a great way to save for retirement. Which one will yield a higher pension: passive investing or “épargne-pension”? Let’s find out!

The simulation

Let us put our findings in a real case scenario. We'll start by using Nathan as an example. Ever since he started working at age 23, he contributed €1,270 every year towards his pension. He'll do this until he reaches 67 years of age, the official age of retirement.

Let's look at three scenarios:

  1. His contributions go towards an “épargne-pension” insurance. For the simulation, we chose the Belfius Life Plan. This account is offered by Belfius, a major Belgian bank (we don’t have any affiliation or connection to Belfius). It yields a yearly interest rate of 0.30%.
  2. His contributions go towards an “épargne-pension” fund, namely the Belfius Pension Fund High Equities fund. Using historical data, we calculated that this fund yielded a yearly return of 3.27% between 1999 and 2021. We will use this return for the simulation.
  3. His contributions go towards IWDA, an ETF that tracks the MSCI World index (passive investing). To account for the tax break offered by “épargne-pension”, Nathan contributes only €952.50 every year in this scenario. Between 1999 and 2021, IWDA yielded an annual return of 7.00%.

How did Nathan's savings evolve across the three scenarios? Check out the chart below.

Belgian pension saving ("pensioensparen" or "épargne-pension") vs passive investing
Simulation that compares Belgian pension saving against passive investing over Nathan's working career between the ages of 23 and 67.

The first observation is that all three scenarios result in a bigger pension than the sum of Nathan’s yearly contributions if he had kept them in a savings account (purple line). So both “épargne-pension” and passive investing are a better option compared to a savings account.

Secondly, it shows that passive investing wins over “épargne-pension” in the long run. Up until the age of 35, the 25% tax break compensates for the lower return of the “épargne-pension” fund compared to that of passive investing through IWDA, so the yield between the two is roughly comparable. However, after age 36, the tax break is not enough to counter the much higher return achieved through passive investing.

By age 67, Nathan can retire with:

  • “épargne-pension” insurance: €56,000
  • “épargne-pension” fund: €113,000
  • passive investing: €272,000

Those are considerable differences!

The reason why the “épargne-pension” fund underperforms against the MSCI World index is mainly due to regulations. The Belgian state imposes rules so that “épargne-pension” funds do not have total freedom in their investment strategy. For instance, 80% of the entire portfolio must be invested in companies and bonds from within the European Union. Such regulations reduce the possibility for diversification and therefore put a limit on the yearly return that can be achieved for these funds.

Finally, you can notice a sudden decrease at age 60 in the evolution of the “épargne-pension” graphs. This is due to a 8% tax that you must pay when you reach the age of 60 for the government to be partially compensated for the yearly tax breaks (nothing comes for free 😏). In the case of the “épargne-pension” fund, this is strangely calculated on a fictional annual return of 4.75% instead of on the actual return of the fund. This resulted in a €9,478 loss at age 60 (rather than a €6,903 had the tax be calculated on your actual return).

Other disadvantages of “épargne-pension”

The smaller pension isn't the only thing to make “épargne-pension” less desirable. There are other constraints to consider as well:

  • Your savings are locked up until the age of 60. You can withdraw the funds at an earlier age, but you'll suffer a severe 33% tax penalty. Therefore, this option is not recommended. When passively investing, you’re free to withdraw funds at any time, no matter the reason. Maybe you're buying a house, or suffer a health crisis.
  • “Épargne-pension” insurances and funds have an entrance fee. For instance, the Belfius Pension Fund High Equities fund has an entrance fee of 3%. This means that you have to pay the bank €38.10 every time you make a €1,270 contribution. In contrast, there are no entrance fees when passively investing.
  • “Épargne-pension” funds are expensive. “Épargne-pension” funds are actively managed, which means there are higher ongoing fees. The Belfius Pension Fund High Equities fund has ongoing costs of 1.45%. Passive investment services are cheaper. For instance, you can passively invest with Curvo for an all-in yearly fee of 1%. And you can do it even cheaper if you manage your own investments through a broker.
  • You cannot save more than the maximum imposed by the state. If you want to save more than €1,270 every year, you have to figure out a way to invest the excess amount through another way.

Conclusion

Nathan's simulation showed that passive investing yields a higher pension than that of the “épargne-pension” scheme offered by the Belgian state. Furthermore, it’s flexible. You’re not bound to the yearly limit set by the Belgian government and you can withdraw your funds at any time.

What we've discovered in this article convinced Curvo co-founder Yoran to reconsider how he saves for his pension. His bank had previously sold him an “épargne-pension” insurance. He's since cancelled it and set up a passive investment portfolio through Curvo. This is where he makes all of his current contributions.

Sources

Passive investing (IWDA)

The average annual return rate of IWDA was calculated with Backtest.

“Épargne-pension” fund

We ran the simulations with the Belfius Pension Fund High Equities fund, which is their most offensive fund and therefore will earn the highest potential return in the long run. The average annual return rate was calculated using the data from Candriam.

“Épargne-pension” insurance

We ran the simulations with the Belfius Life Plan, which has a fixed interest rate of 0.30% as of 2022.

Spreadsheet

We built a Google Sheets spreadsheet to run the simulations. It takes into account the entrance fees, ongoing fees and taxes that are relevant for each scenario.