The new code of practice is good, but it’s still a flawed funding regime

I’ve blogged before about how putting employer covenant into establishing a funding target is as sensible a concept as zombie cats. Therefore, whilst the new code of practice published last week is markedly better than the first draft, it is disappointing from my perspective that such a flawed concept continues to have such high billing.

Probability and binary outcomes

To briefly summarise my thinking on this again we need to consider binary outcomes.

A binary outcome is one where there are only 2 possible results. A great, albeit morbid example, is that this year I will either be alive at the end of the year or dead.

Now I might want to think about the impact of those scenarios. If I am alive then (hopefully) things will be good and I’ll continue to earn money to provide for my family. However, if I’m not then my family could be in real difficulty. What should I do?

Well I could look to try and save up enough money to make sure my family is ok if I died (let’s say this is £500,000 for arguments sake). However, this is utterly impractical, it would take years and how would we eat in the meantime?!

The probability of me dying this year is quite low though (about 0.06% based on current tables) so really all I need is 0.06% of £500,000 which is £300. I can manage that. Now if I die my family will be protected.

Oh wait no they won’t. They’ll just have £300!!!

The probability of my death is irrelevant as it will either happen or it won’t. Saving the average amount needed doesn’t help in either scenario. If I survive I’ve put aside £300 I could have spent and if I die it is woefully inadequate to provide for my family.

Applying a probability for an individual event like this therefore doesn’t make any sense.

Insurance

Of course the solution to my problem is simple. I should buy some life insurance.

By using insurance I can pay my £300 (plus an expense/profit allowance) and know my family is protected in the event of my death.

This works because the insurer is taking lots of £300 premiums. Let’s say they have 10,000 policies. It would now be reasonable to expect that 6 of those policies would involve a pay-out which should be covered by the £3m of premium income.

Insurance is an efficient way of covering such risks.

Pension scheme risks

Much is made in the new code of practice on funding of the significant risks involved in funding a pension scheme. From the member (and hence trustee) perspective though, there really is only 1 risk, the risk that the employer sponsor runs out of money. Provided the employer is around the benefits will get paid no matter what the current funding level.

This risk is again binary. Either the employer will survive and continue to make profits or it won’t. We might be able to make judgements on how likely it is but this is just a probability. The actual outcome is still binary.

So what is the solution? Well as is the case for managing my own mortality risk the solution is insurance. To fund schemes to the worst case scenario is (like me saving £500,000) completely impractical.

The government introduced such insurance in a compulsory format in the form of the PPF and PPF levies.

However, at the same time the Pensions Regulator introduced the concept of employer covenant strength.

Employer covenant

Employer covenant strength is akin to the probability of insolvency.

An employer with a good covenant is like a person that eats well and goes to the gym a lot. An employer with a bad covenant is like a person that eats too much junk food and drinks too much. It changes the probability of outcome but not the range of outcome.

As I showed before, trying to use such a probability to manage a binary outcome does not make sense. Yet the code of practice says:

It (employer covenant) should help the trustees decide how much risk it may be appropriate to take (ie when they set their technical provision assumptions and investment strategy

With the intention that technical provisions should be higher for a weak covenant and lower for a strong one clear from some of the examples:

a low value for technical provisions based on a strong employer covenant assessment

But this is just like me putting £300 aside to cover the likelihood of my death. In fact worse, it’s like me doing it twice, once put aside and once as insurance (levy).

It won’t be enough if the employer fails and is too much if it doesn’t. It just doesn’t make sense.

The code actually acknowledges the impossibility of knowing whether an employer will be around in the long-term:

It is unlikely that trustees will be able (with any degree of certainty) to assess the employer covenant too far into the future

So surely in the majority of cases it is not relevant?? There is a bar to cross perhaps that some could fail, reasonable expectation to be around maybe, but after that, and for the majority of employers, a long-term view should be taken that doesn’t differ by employer.

Funding allowing for the PPF

Acknowledge the existence of the PPF and the single risk faced by members and trustees is largely managed.

There is perhaps some debate around the level coverage of benefits and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to increases in compensation but agree this and the possibility of employer insolvency can be ignored.

Schemes can then focus on running for the long-term on the assumption that employer support will always be there. Funding can be set at a level to broadly reflect the expected cost of providing benefits. Risk management becomes about managing risks for the employer rather than to protect members. Prudence used to allow an employer to reduce the volatility of its contributions rather than build a capital reserve.

In fact, as the reason for funding in the first place was to provide some level of security there is a reasonable argument to not require funding at all. (I don’t quite subscribe to this as I think there is merit in paying contributions at the time of accrual so cash cost and services gained are aligned somewhat and intergenerational issues mitigated.)

Can we allow for the PPF in decision making?

Acknowledging the existence of the PPF is an interesting concept. There is no law to state that the PPF should not be considered in scheme funding decisions but this is the common view propagated and believed by tPR due to its objectives. The reason for this is a court judgement Independent Trustee Services Limited v Hope and others in 2009. However, if you read the actual judgement the position is much more nuanced.

In particular, Mr Justice Henderson states that:

there is no single all-purpose answer to the question whether the PPF is a relevant consideration for trustees to take into account.

The judgement really states that the existence of the PPF cannot be used to justify something that would otherwise be “improper”. Additionally, a large part of the discussion of why this is the case relates to it being against public policy and not in the public interest.

In the context of scheme funding though, given the obvious efficiency and need to avoid double counting of capital and insurance, allowing for the PPF in the context of what it is there for would seem, to me, to be a very reasonable position to take and in line with the judgment made.

Summary

The current position is one that encourages excessive and often meaningless prudence which in turn often leads to excessively prudent investment strategies (if you’re funding to it then why take the risk – employer’s don’t generally think long-term enough to wait for money to come back).

There is much to like about the revised draft code of practice but the concept of employer covenant driving technical provisions doesn’t work. If the law allowed trustees to take account of the PPF it would be of great help. But even without this the funding code does not need to bring in employer covenant which is not mentioned in the law on funding.

Once insolvency risk is managed lower funding targets that are more reflective of actual expected costs can be used. The approach to funding can also be used to reduce the volatility of contributions (funding doesn’t impact on cost, just pace of funding don’t forget). In this sort of environment a highly valued benefit could be provided efficiently with members having reasonable levels of security in outcome. Isn’t this what we should be aiming for?

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Isn’t pensions regulation there to protect members?

This is what I always thought it was for. Some secondary concerns such as protecting the taxpayer and the PPF but fundamentally there to protect members?

It’s also the first objective of the Pensions Regulator (tPR) “to protect the benefits of members of occupational pension schemes”.

So when it comes to enforcing regulation you’d think that these fundamentals would be at the heart of it.

Not so it seems.

I’ve come across a scheme recently (and I should perhaps stress at this point that these are my views rather than the views of anyone involved) who changed their scheme accounting date by 1 month to align with the company year end. This was also at the time of the next valuation and would lead to a 3 year 1 month period since the last valuation.

So tPR’s views were sought on it being OK to carry out the valuation at this revised date. Commitments were also given to ensure things were done within original timescales. The response was that they couldn’t waive the requirements but would consider each case on its own merits. Given this, and awareness of another scheme that had done this, the Trustees decided to proceed with the valuation.

Time passes by

Some time later, and 9 months after submitting the valuation, tPR sent further correspondence stating that they couldn’t accept the valuation and had no choice but to request the valuation was redone at the old effective date.

Follow up discussions were had. All understand tPR can’t authorise a breach in the law but perhaps it could give an idea of what action might be taken. Nope. All communication has been utterly absent of any pragmatism. In fact they even suggested that as a pragmatic regulator they wouldn’t require it to be done within the original 15 month timetable – useful given already 24 months on!

Just 4 months before the next valuation date the Trustees had to concede that tPR will not back down and that they needed to do a valuation with an effective date of almost 3 years ago. This is despite the fact that it will be immediately superceded by the valuation that had already been done with an effective date just 1 month later.

Exactly how is this in the interests of members?

Or anyone in fact?!

Volatility in pensions

Volatility is seen as the great evil of pension schemes. Be they defined benefit (DB) or defined contribution (DC), it is volatility that is the greatest cause of concerns. But should it be?

To answer this we need to look at the causes of volatility and the impact of it.

There are two types of volatility people worry about, the first of which is the volatility of asset values. It is easy for trustees and companies to overly focus on this volatility as asset values are very visible and stock market swings are publicised in the news. But is this volatility important? Not really.

If I have 500 euros it would be easy to get concerned about their value going up and down with the exchange rate. But if I’d agreed to pay 500 euros for my hotel when I go on holiday next month then it really doesn’t matter to me how much they are currently worth in sterling. My transaction has no volatility at all.

The key focus of pension scheme volatility therefore needs to consider both assets and liabilities and hence, for DB schemes, the deficit or funding level. And this can be very volatile!

I did some analysis for a recent conference talk looking at history and put together the chart below. This shows how the funding level of a scheme would change over time assuming market based (gilts+) type valuations and 10 year spreading of surpluses/deficits. The funding level routinely changes by about 10% each year.

Funding volatility

This chart also shows the recent crisis in pensions caused by a perfect storm of:

  • Not great investment returns
  • Increased mortality expectations
  • Falls in bond yields

The current ultra-low bond yields actually being the second wave of large falls in bond yields/interest rates. The first starting at the end of the 90s.

This perhaps also brings into focus what we really mean when we say we dislike volatility, and that is falls in the funding level. Upside volatility is fine. For example some people talk about volatility from mortality but actually this has generally been pretty smooth (albeit with some step changes to reflect late application) upward only (in terms of liabilities) adjustments. So, not volatile, just more costly! The fact that it is relatively smooth reflects the fact that data only arrives each year and 1 year’s data is not used to determine the future expectations. It is accepted that 1 year mortality figures can be volatile and not necessarily the best guide of the future. A useful concept to bear in mind when we look at the causes of volatility.

So what are the causes of funding volatility?

There are many specific causes but fundamentally it’s because liability values and asset values don’t change in the same way.

The biggest specific cause of volatility in UK pensions? Long dated bond yields. And this is primarily because liabilities are generally pegged in some way to these yields via the discount rate used. For some measures, such as accounting bases like FRS17 or IAS19, this is prescribed. For others, such as buy-out costs, it reflects reality in how insurers are required to reserve for the benefits. But, for pension scheme funding, it is often a modelling choice made by the actuary, led on in no small way by the Pensions Regulator and a bunch of “economists” that don’t really understand what pension scheme funding is all about (and who struggle so much with 2 definitions of the word valuation that actuarial standards now require us to attempt to explain it to them in every report we do!). You can perhaps see what side of this debate I sit on.

Essentially the biggest cause of volatility in UK DB pensions is our choice of tape measure.

Real volatility

When it comes down to it, the fact that pensions are funded at all is a choice, and it would actually be more efficient not to fund them. A pension scheme itself is merely a series of future cashflows. We fund the scheme by investing in assets to enable us to pay those cashflows. So what really matters is the volatility of cashflows that can be obtained from our assets.

Bonds are therefore of course a great asset for this as you can build a cashflow stream in line with that expected for your liability payments. Investing in bonds can therefore remove a large amount of volatility through matching – and in this case there is no debate that the yield on those bonds should be the discount rate used.

These days things are even easier as synthetic bonds can be used to provide better and/or more cost effective matches for liability payment streams.

The downside of bonds though is their return – or lack thereof – particularly gilts in the current climate.

So what about growth assets or, in particular, equities. Equities prices are extremely volatile. They also have almost no correlation to gilt yields so if your liability valuation is pegged to gilt yields your volatility goes up further still. But in the long-term (and let’s face it pension scheme are long term) the vast majority of the return you get from holding equities comes from the dividend payments, not the change in capital value. And dividend payments aren’t that volatile. So, if we look at things from a cashflow matching perspective, a low volatility dividend payment combined with greater expected long term returns looks very attractive. If you make allowance for dividends when determining your discount rate this reduced volatility can effectively filter through to your funding position.

Current equity prices, rather like last year’s mortality experience as I mentioned above, are not a great guide to their long-term future worth in many cases.

Other growth vehicles

The growth vehicle of choice at the moment is the Diversified Growth Fund (DGF) of some form or other. These are all very different in strategy but have similar aims of long-term equity like returns but with lower volatility. In actual fact their “target” is often stated as cash plus.

The reduced volatility of assets that these bring is attractive. However, they offer no form of cashflow matching at all so in some ways could be viewed as more risky than holding equities over the long term. Just a thought…

Where cash plus does come into its own though is when using derivative products to generate long term cashflow matching in exchange for cash outgo. If your DGF gives you cash plus with vastly reduced capital volatility then maybe the biggest form of volatility in scheme funding is solved without losing out on the longer-term return benefits.

I’m more traditional and holistic in view point and favour long term equity biased growth strategies with more appropriate valuation techniques. However, in the current legislative environment, a DGF + swaps type strategy looks very attractive.

Shrödinger’s Pension Fund

I’ve been planning to write a blog on this topic for some time. It was the title of my session at the 2011 Actuarial Profession Pensions Conference and a topic that I am passionate about. I guess the place to start is with some quantum mechanics and Shrödinger’s cat…

Shrödinger’s Cat

Shrödinger’s cat is a reasonably famous thought experiment from 1935 (NB: as it was just a thought experiment no cats were actually injured!). The idea is as follows:

– get a box
– add some poison released by an atomic timer (such that the time of its release is random)
– put a cat inside
– seal the box

Then ask the question “Is the cat dead or alive?”

The quantum mechanics answer is that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is only when you open the box that its actual state is determined.Zombie cat

This is of course nonsense as a cat cannot be dead and alive. And in fact Schrödinger agreed. It was a classic “reductio ad absurdum” (a reduction to the absurd) designed to show how bizarre applying quantum mechanics principles to real world objects is.

So how does this relate to pensions?

Well, if we modify the experiment slightly and put an employer in a box we can then ask the question “is the employer solvent or insolvent?”. In the same way as a cat can’t be dead and alive, an employer cannot be both solvent and insolvent at the same time.

A further modification. What if we put an employer with a defined benefit pension scheme in the box and ask the question “what level should we fund the scheme to?”. We know there are 2 states that the employer could be in so these are the 2 states we should consider when funding a scheme.

This is unfortunately not how UK pensions regulation works. The Pensions Regulator lives in a quantum mechanical world of scheme funding and sees a continuum of schemes from those with strong employers to those with weak employers. Trustees are told1 to set their funding target taking into account this strength with higher targets required for weaker employers.

There are two key problems with this. Firstly, what happens when a strong employer becomes weaker? In this sort of scenario it is unlikely it suddenly has more money available to increase the funding level. Such demands could even make the employer weaker still and be a catalyst for its demise. Secondly, and related to this, strong employers can fail too! Who predicted the fall of Lehman Brothers and failure of Woolworths? Is it acceptable for members to receive a lower proportion of their benefits because we thought the employer was stronger than others?

Taking this approach to pension scheme funding is as nonsensical as a dead and alive cat!

So what approach should be used? To answer this we need to go back to the 2 possible outcomes for the employer and look at what this implies for the pension scheme…

Assume the employer is insolvent

In this case there is no additional money available to fund the pension scheme and, to wind it up and secure benefits with an insurance company, the full buy-out insurance liability will be required. On the assumption that the employer will be insolvent, we need to ensure the scheme is funded to this buy-out level.

BUT….

If this was the approach taken for funding defined benefit pension schemes then no schemes would ever be setup. The cost of funding the benefits at this level would significantly outweigh the perceived benefits from employees. An employer may as well just pay extra salary.

This approach to funding, although appealing from a security point of view, does not ultimately lead to an efficient way of providing pensions.

Assume the employer is solvent

If the employer is solvent until the last pension benefit is paid then (ignoring unfunded arrangements that would be even better!) it is most efficient for it to hold the best estimate of the amount of money it needs today to pay benefits in the future as and when they fall due i.e. taking into account best estimate expectations of returns on assets.

By doing this there is no opportunity cost of tying up capital. Benefits can also potentially be provided cost effectively meaning employees are able to access something they really value.

BUT…

If the funding regime took this approach then if an employer did become insolvent, there would not be enough money to secure benefits for all members leading to reductions. We therefore need a mechanism to address this and provide protection to members.

Interestingly enough, at the same time as introducing the current funding regulations such a solution was also launched:

Pension Protection Fund

Summary

To sum up my conclusions:

– The way schemes are currently funded does not make sense
– There are only really 2 ways to tackle scheme funding as an employer can only be solvent or insolvent
– Working on an insolvency assumption leads to no pension schemes
– Assuming solvency and funding to a best estimate level is therefore the answer
– Security needs to be addressed and the PPF is perfect for this

I will write more on why the PPF is perfect for this (or at least why it should be) another day!

1 – Notably they are told this by the Pensions Regulator rather than UK pensions law – see more here: Taking things too far

How to assess a pension fund’s health

Originally posted on IPE: How to assess a pension fund’s health

I read Jeroen Wilbrink and Jelle Beenen’s article on determining the health of a pension fund with interest, as this is an ongoing debate Wilbrink and I have had for the last two years. I therefore couldn’t resist writing a response to their arguments. They make the claim that Cools and van Nunen are confusing issues. I hope to show that it is actually Wilbrink and Beenen that suffer from this confusion.

Their article makes many references to arbitrage-free pricing and risk-free valuation, quoting many academics in this area. Of course, quoting many names does not make the theory any more appropriate to use. Risk free, or more appropriately, risk-neutral valuation is indeed the foundation of a huge market of derivatives. However, the clue as to why this is not relevant is in the name, ‘derivatives’.

Derivatives are products whose value is derived from other assets. A simple example is a forward contract and a more complicated one an option over an asset. Derivatives are valued using risk neutral, or arbitrage free, pricing because it is possible to create a perfectly replicating portfolio that will have the same payoff as the derivative from a portfolio of the underlying asset and cash. This means that no assumptions need to be made about the valuation of the underlying asset. Derivatives are about relative pricing. You wouldn’t, for example, use risk-neutral valuation to determine the value of an equity or property.

The theories quoted are powerful but not relevant for valuing pension schemes. A pension benefit is an asset in its own right, not a derivative of another asset.
Wilbrink and Beenen would perhaps like to suggest that pension benefits are a derivative of risk-free investments. Indeed, they quote the example of a member having no risk tolerance and that the pension benefit should be treated as being risk free. They have ignored a big part of what a pension benefit is, though, when making this assertion.

Let’s say there is a 20% chance of me dying over the next 10 years. You have a choice as to whether you buy Asset 1 that is a payment of £1,250 in 10 years’ time, provided I am alive, or Asset 2 that pays £1,000 in 10 years’ time with no risk attached – secured by the UK government, for example. The expected cash flow in both cases is £1,000 – i.e. 80% x 1,250 for Asset 1 and 100% x 1,000 for Asset 2. Which asset do you prefer? Which asset, therefore, has the highest value?

Asset 1 is, of course, very similar to a pension scheme benefit where the payment is dependent on the member being alive. To suggest that the ‘value’ of that benefit is the same as a risk-free bond of the same term is just plain wrong.

Wilbrink and Beenen give the example of a scheme changing its investment strategy and having better coverage. They write: “We would argue that the coverage ratio is still 100% for both funds; nothing changed in the value of the investments or the liabilities.” I completely agree with the second part of their sentence, that nothing changed in the “value” of the investments or liabilities. However, I disagree with the first part (assuming it really is in the pension context such that the cash flow was dependent on the member being alive). In line with my comments above, the coverage under both investment strategies is more than 100%, as the pension benefit is not worth as much as a zero-coupon bond.

However, I couldn’t tell you how much above 100% the coverage was, as I don’t know what the value of a pension benefit is. There is no market to tell me this, nor would it be desirable to have one. In fact, in the UK, we have specific legislation to prevent it. I could construct models to come up with a ‘value’ in the same way as I could value a company share or a property. It would only be a model, though, and highly subjective to my personal views. A market price would reflect everyone’s view. For these reasons, talking about ‘market value’ of pension liabilities is a pretty pointless and unnecessary exercise.

This brings me to the other two approaches to looking at the health of a pension fund. Moving away from ‘value’, we can think about the concepts of ‘budgeting’ and ‘reserving’. In many ways, these are the same thing and just reflect the level of prudence allowed for. Let’s look at budgeting first.

Budgeting is about answering the question ‘How much money do I need today to pay for things tomorrow?’ This is fundamental to what pensions actuaries call a ‘valuation’. In many ways, it is merely this confusion of terminology that has led to so much debate.

If we are to budget for something on a best-estimate basis, then we arrive back at the position Wilbrink and Beenen dislike, where different investment strategies suggest that less money is needed. There are two key points they make. First, that this is not appropriate when monitoring progress, and second, that this is extremely risky.

Dealing with the first, I’d like to return to the football analogy they used to dismiss the idea of allowing for expectations. They gave the example of a football team fooling themselves that it was OK to be a goal down, as they expected to score three goals. If you are the manager of a football team and expect to win a game but then go a goal down in the first 10 minutes, what is your reaction? I would suggest the reaction is that there is no need to panic, as there is plenty of time left to turn things around. The manager would be unlikely to change his tactics. He certainly wouldn’t give in and accept that 1-0 was the result.

If it got to half-time and it was still 1-0, then the manager might be a little bit more anxious and change things around a bit. Once it got to the last 10 minutes, the super sub would be on, and all-out attack might be on the cards. The manager of the team monitors the game against his expectations of what the team might achieve. Monitoring is, therefore, more appropriate allowing for expectations than without it. Without the expectations, the manager might make bad decisions early in the game.

The second point they make relates to the risk or variance of outcomes not being allowed for. They use an expected equity return over 200 years to demonstrate this. All they are really showing, though, is the power of compound interest. A similar picture could be shown with bond yields and large changes in interest rates. This is a completely unrealistic variance to allow for, though, as it effectively assumes that no monitoring or adjustments would be made throughout the entire 200-year period.

It is also suggested that interest rate risks can be hedged. This is true and, with legislation where it is, certainly worthy of consideration. However, if you are investing in other assets, all you are really hedging against is the way we choose to ‘value’ the liabilities.

Finally, this second point brings me to a third possible approach in considering the health of a pension fund – ‘reserving’. Reserving is merely budgeting with prudence. It is the backbone of how insurance companies operate. When Wilbrink and Beenen talk about a member’s expectations of benefits being risk free, it is reserving, rather than valuing, that makes sense. A large reserve would provide such certainty, whereas a small one wouldn’t. In this scenario, bond yields could be used as part of the measure. This is a choice, though, rather than a necessity and is certainly not the only answer. The level of any such reserve is open for substantial debate – the larger it is, the more certainty it provides. However, the larger it is, the less efficient the provision of benefits becomes.

The solution to this protection vs efficiency equation comes in the form of insurance, but that is a topic for another day.

I hope I have shown why risk-free is not always the answer and why pension benefits should not be confused with bonds. Ultimately, the decision on how schemes are funded is a political one. If good, efficient occupational pension schemes that share risks are to thrive, then the answer should lie at the budgeting end of the spectrum. I therefore hope politicians will take note and regulate pensions in a way that provides the best outcomes for all of us.

The Pensions Regulator’s statement – taking things too far

Towards the end of April the Pensions Regulator (tPR) released its first annual statement on the funding of pension schemes. Despite its reporting in the press, I can’t see how this gives any additional slack to employers. However, it does provide perhaps the clearest steer yet on how the Pensions Regulator expects The Occupational Pension Schemes (Scheme Funding) Regulations 2005 to be applied in practice.

It’s fair to say I’m not tPR’s biggest fan. This is largely because I strongly disagree with how they say we should do things (more to come) but also because when I’ve had to deal with them they’ve not been particularly effective (e.g. lack of guidance/help when asked by trustees or making comments that add advisor fees rather than any value). They have of course done some good things. The focus of this blog though is on the difference between the law and how tPR would like us to implement the law. A key quote from tPR’s statement:

“It is a requirement for trustees to calculate technical provisions based on prudent assumptions in relation to their assessment of the employer covenant”

Let’s have a look at what the law says on how schemes should be funded:

“(4) The principles to be followed under paragraph (3) are—

(a)the economic and actuarial assumptions must be chosen prudently, taking account, if applicable, of an appropriate margin for adverse deviation;
(b)the rates of interest used to discount future payments of benefits must be chosen prudently, taking into account either or both-
(i)the yield on assets held by the scheme to fund future benefits and the anticipated future investment returns, and
(ii)the market redemption yields on government or other high-quality bonds;”

No mention of employer covenant there. The whole notion of allowing for employer covenant in calculating the technical provisions has been made up by tPR. It is not law and therefore not necessarily a “requirement”.

Another key statement:

“In the regulator’s view, investment outperformance should be measured relative to the kind of near-risk free return that would be assumed were the scheme to adopt a substantially hedged investment strategy.”

This time they at least preface this with the comment that it is their view. It is quite clear from everything tPR has said over the last couple of years that their view of the future is that all schemes should invest in wholly bonds and be funded on a “self-sufficiency” basis. This is again a significant interpretation of the law and is inefficient, damaging to the long term future of pension funds and unnecessary.

TPR’s continued comments have pushed trustees to use more and more prudent assumptions and focus on short-termism instead of running schemes taking into account their long term nature. This has only accelerated further the trend of the closure and wind-up of both pension schemes AND employers. This goes completely against the tag line on their website:

Committed to increasing confidence and participation in work-based pensions

If this really is what they are committed to do then shouldn’t they be encouraging good pension provision rather than pushing funding so high that it puts employers off (any that aren’t already that is) for good?

A look at tPR’s mandate perhaps gives the biggest clue as to the why they have chosen to regulate pensions like this. From their website:

“The Pensions Acts of 2004 and 2008 give The Pensions Regulator specific objectives:

– To protect the benefits of members of work-based pension schemes
– To promote, and to improve understanding of, the good administration of work-based pension schemes
– To reduce the risk of situations arising which may lead to compensation being payable from the Pension Protection Fund (PPF)
– To maximise employer compliance with employer duties (including the requirement to automatically enrol eligible employees into a qualifying pension provision with a minimum contribution) and with certain employment safeguards”

The third bullet above around protecting the PPF is the only meaningful reason I can think of to allow for employer covenant when calculating technical provisions. It is nothing to do with the first bullet about protecting member’s benefits which would be better served with a significantly lower or significantly higher funding benchmark for all employers no matter what their strength*.

Isn’t this the biggest conflict of interest in pensions?

The difference between tPR’s approach to scheme funding and what the law says is huge. For me this is taking things too far as tPR is there to ensure that the law is abided by, not to write the law. It is after all an unelected quango.

* I will write a further blog on this but the higher level is obvious in that any funding level less than buy-out is not protecting members adequately and anything less than buy-out of PPF benefits provides no protection whatsoever. The lower level reflects the fact that protection already exists via the PPF and that capital can be better spent by employers than tying it up in the pension fund.