Sunday, May 27, 2007

640% of GDP

That would be the steady state equilibrium size of a Finnish model pension fund, assuming an elderly dependency ratio of 44% by 2050, up from currently about 23%. This is one of the interesting numbers that yet another central banker, Mr Erkki Liikanen of the Bank of Finland, has quoted in his recent address to the Conference of Social Security Actuaries and Statisticians.

There is a lot of interesting food for thought in that speech. I have just one question mark concerning the conclusions, where Mr Liikanen claims that "the volumes needed for financing pensions mean [that] the system will always have to be based on a public PAYG scheme". We think that always is an awfully long time. Mr Liikanen does not specify why funded systems should be unable to reach the required level of funding in the course of a generation or so.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Incentives for DB plans

The Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mr David Dodge, has been singing defined benefit pension plans' praises in a recent speech. He recognised that "an effective defined-benefit pension system is a tremendous asset for individuals, for employers, and for our society as a whole", but is currently hampered by a number of disincentives, which favour DC over DB for sponsors. Specifically, he lists
  • uncertainties over the legal status of actuarial surplus
  • overly restrictive solvency requirements,
  • transition from smoothed accounting numbers to fair value accounting
  • group longevity risk
  • insufficient transparency about cost / financing of newly introduced benefits
  • lack of large multi-employer DB plans.

  • We agree with both parts of the analysis, namely that DB plans are preferable to DC, and that there is currently a lack of incentives for DB plans. We strongly disagree however with Mr Dodge's opposition to fair value accounting. He claims, essentially, that we are not interested in today's values, but in expected values far into the future. We think that analysts of pensions are very much interested in today's values. For one, every expected future value can be discounted to a current present value (assuming that the term structure holds). Thus, Mr Dodge's distinction would essentially become moot.

    More importantly however, it is not at all clear at which specific point "far into the future" the expected value would need to be formed - surely that cannot be discretionary? How about changes to those expected future values, based on variations of underlying assumptions? Finally, the volatility introduced to sponsors' balance sheets is not artificial, it's an economic fact. Cognition of that fact is a prerequisite of sponsors' ability to manage the inherent economic risk of their DB plans and, therefore, an enabler of an effective defined-benefit pension system.

    Sunday, May 20, 2007

    Corporate Finance meets pension management

    "Pensions are being transformed from off-balance sheet operations with results smoothed over many years, to large consolidated business units with high potential short-term volatility, bringing them to center-stage for executive managers."

    Earlier in the year, JP Morgan has come up with a white paper that is very much in line with our thinking: Corporate Finance meets Pension Management: A new era for pension leaders. The paper is obviously targeted to the US market struggling with implementing the Pension Protection Act of 2006 and US GAAP SFAS 158, but as accounting (and regulation) follows economics in Europe, too, Europeans are well advised to consider this a sneak peek preview of their own not too distant future.

    JP Morgan established a set of three strategic pension metrics, namely shareholder equity at risk, corporate cash flow at risk and earnings at risk. These metrics measure the impact of pensions on the respective variable of the sponsoring corporation. Putting the metrics into action will lead to important changes in the pension plans' risk exposure: JPM expects a shift from the currently too high equity exposure into an allocation of 25%-35% in non-traditional assets. As the paper originates from JPM's asset management arm, I have a feeling that the wish may have been father to the thought ...

    Saturday, May 19, 2007

    ILMA news

    While the recently founded Institutional Life Markets Association (ILMA) still seems to have no proper website, a document containing its guiding principles has surfaced on the web. It's interesting to glean from it that the Association is explicitly positioned in opposition to Defined Benefit pension funds.

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    "Prudent investor" for Switzerland?

    NZZ reports the results of a survey among 172 Swiss institutional investors with CHF 211.7 Bio (EUR 128.3 Bio) assets under management. They have been asked to give their opinion on the rather restrictive set of detailed investment rules applicable to Swiss occupational pension funds. A majority of funds voiced their preference for the prudent investor rule to replace the incumbent detailed set of rules. The available exemption from detailed rules of Art. 59 BVV2 is reported to be used by 80% of funds and thus has become the rule.

    Unfortunately, detailed results of the survey appear not to be available online.

    Pensions in Russia

    On Tuesday this week, I had the pleasure to give a presentation on occupational pensions to the members of CFA Russia in Moscow. The presentation has been recorded and will be made available on their soon to go live website. Meanwhile, the slides are available here.

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Opening up Switzerland

    According to VF, ASIP's new president Christoph Ryter named opening up of Switzerland for European retirement solutions as one of four main challenges that the influential Swiss association will have to live up to during his presidency.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    CFA Institute's XBRL page

    The CFA Centre for Financial Market Integrity now has its very own XBRL page (no RSS feed, yet!) to watch. While it's great that the Institute endorses XBRL, one wonders why it is only actively involved with XBRL in one country (where the Institute happens to be domiciled) ...

    Regulatory distortion

    IPE refers us to an interesting OECD study modelling the optimal asset allocation for an identical pension fund, over a 30-year period, according to the regulations of five OECD pension jurisdictions. It found an identical pension fund which was fully funded according to UK standards would appear 87% funded in the Netherlands and 69% funded under German rules. Optimal asset allocation strategies also differ between the jurisdictions. Since good regulation should at least attempt to not distort economic reality, this certainly looks like an interesting paper.

    Tuesday, May 08, 2007

    Institutional hedge funds?

    Some will find this excessively dogmatic, but I still subscribe to the view that there is no conclusive evidence yet of the need for hedge funds (meaning active absolute return strategies) in the institutional asset management business. To provide such evidence, it would be necessary to demonstrate that hedge funds' risk-adjusted performance after fees is located on the efficient frontier over an entire market cycle, and that would have to hold in the present constellation with relatively huge allocations to the segment.

    In my view, hedge funds are perfectly appropriate for private wealth because of individual investors' known disproportionate avoidance of loss. In the case of institutional investors whose equity is subject to volatility of assets and liabilities, absolute return strategies may be net inefficient at best, or they may even create additional asset/liability mismatch and thus be entirely counter-productive if considered from a comprehensive balance sheet risk management perspective.

    That being said, the traditional distinction between hedge funds as providers of absolute return strategies on the one hand or alpha engines on the other becomes increasingly blurred. It is therefore advisable to keep a close watch on the industry, especially given the recent competitive pressure on excessive and asymmetrical fees exerted by institutional investors (epn story).

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    Commission addresses differential taxation of investment income

    Following complaints by the EFRP, the Commission has initiated Treaty infringement proceedings against a number of member states which do not grant the same preferential tax treatment of investment income (interest, dividends) to pension funds resident abroad as domestic funds receive. Even though there is no direct reference to the Pensions Directive in the text, the relevance of this step to an efficient investment regime of cross-border pension funds is obvious. (FT)