Elements of truth… and complete misunderstandings

20 Apr 2017

Con Keating takes issue with how the regulator views the objective of defined benefit pension schemes.

“The Pensions Regulator’s Code of Practice has been seized upon by many advisers and ‘gold-plated’; used to promote elaborate, expensive and unnecessary management strategies.”

Con Keating
This is an era of fake news, half-truths and outright lies. Spin and distortion have become the fabric of a false defined benefit (DB) pension narrative; their unjustified ruination. Some “fact checking” is appropriate. We hear again and again that DB pensions are deferred pay(1). This may be true of the employer contribution, but it clearly isn’t for employee contributions; they are an investment, plain and simple – a deferred annuity. The overwhelming majority of the pension associated with the employer’s participation comes not from the contribution but from the investment returns promised and realised on that. The investment return promised on the employee’s contribution is implicit in the terms of the pension contract; the pensions payable in consideration of the contribution(s) made uniquely determine this. The return implicit on the employer’s contribution is (usually) the same; this is the contractual investment accrual rate. It is a cost of the sponsor. Suppose the sponsor company decides to issue deferred annuities to investors and prices these at this same rate. For convenience and security, in common with many corporate bonds, this issue has a trustee, with responsibility for monitoring and enforcing employer performance of the deferred annuity contract. Let us further suppose that the credit standing of the sponsor company is such that it needs to secure these securities in order to sell them. The question for the trustee then becomes: what is the appropriate amount of security required at any time during their existence? The answer is that this should be the principal amount initially advanced (contribution) together with the accrual, from issuance to date, at this rate. DB pensions are no different. There is no consideration by the trustee of any future state of the world, no consideration of the future development of the sponsor company’s “covenant”. This is based entirely on historical fact; what risks may have been faced previously has eventuated, or not. Nor should there be with DB pensions. The DB pension trustee’s duty is to secure the members’ benefits, at a point in time; no more, no less. The Pensions Regulator has invented other views. Its Code of Practice (2), Funding Defined Benefits, states: “Paying the promised benefits is the key objective for scheme trustees.” It is most interesting that the regulator’s more extensive descriptions of trustee duties (3) do not include this objective. It has been seized upon by advisers and “gold-plated”; used to promote elaborate, expensive and unnecessary management strategies. Unless this is written into scheme rules, this objective isn’t a duty or even desirable. But it gets worse. The regulator’s Code introduces a “Principle”: “Managing risk: Trustees should implement an approach which integrates the management of employer covenant, investment and funding risks; identifying, assessing, monitoring and addressing those risks effectively.” The shift is total, though entirely unsupported in any of the many Pensions Acts. The scheme is now to be considered as a stand-alone entity; its assets primarily responsible for generating the returns to pay pensions. It is now an insurance company in all but name. The economic and financial inefficiency of creating almost six thousand insurance companies is self-evident. Doubtless, the regulator sees this approach as fulfilling its objective: “to reduce the risk of situations arising which may lead to compensation being payable from the Pension Protection Fund (PPF)”. As these situations can only arise from either or both sponsor and scheme insolvency, the wording of this objective is unfortunate. The lack of political will for systematic involvement in the financial affairs of private sector business leaves only schemes and their funds available to the regulator. The splendidly misleadingly titled 2005 Occupational Pension Schemes (Scheme Funding) Regulations are not helpful; they specify scheme valuation techniques. “…the rates of interest used to discount future payments of benefits must be chosen prudently, taking into account either or both: the yield on assets held by the scheme to fund future benefits and the anticipated future investment returns; and the market redemption yields on government or other high-quality bonds…” Unfortunately, both methods are incorrect for sound valuation. The first, the expected return on scheme assets, would inform us as to the sufficiency of those assets for the purpose of paying benefits, if the expectations prove correct, but that may be a very big if indeed. The second is appropriate if we were an insurance company considering the price we might demand to assume those liabilities at the time of valuation, given investment constraints. Both result in time-inconsistent valuations, making them unsound as a basis for management action. Only the contractual accrual rate is time consistent; the valuations arrived by accrual (of the past actions which have occurred) and by discounting (the future obligations contracted) are the same. Along with the IFRS accounting standard, the scheme funding rules introduce both bias and volatility into valuations; a serious problem for corporate and pension management. The greater problem is that actions based on this view and these figures may bring with them real costs. Con Keating is head of research at BrightonRock Group   1 This description, though, does provide an interesting test for DC “pensions”, where no pay is deferred. 2 Code of Practice No 3, dated July 2014 3 See: The Trustees Duties and Powers: http://www. thepensionsregulator.gov. uk/guidance/guidance-fortrustees.aspx#s1542

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