I was listening once again to a presentation from the PPF on their funding plan earlier this week. I first heard about their strategy some time ago and it made me as angry then as it did again this week.
Anyone involved in (UK) DB pension scheme funding will have heard the term self-sufficiency thrown around. This is a term used by the Pensions Regulator (tPR) to reflect the level they believe a scheme should be funded at if there is no strength in the sponsoring employer. It is also I suspect a longer term aspiration of tPR for all DB pension schemes.
What they mean by this number is a level of assets that should be sufficient to cover expected pension payments with near certainty i.e. by investing in low risk assets. As much as I believe this to be wrong as a funding target (a blog for another day) I can understand how they have got to this position in the interests of member protection. The employer puts the money in to get to this position and it is used to pay member benefits or ultimately returned to the employer if it turns out it is not needed.
It is this latter point that is crucial. If the Scheme is not currently invested in such low risk assets then all expectations will be that a lower level of assets will ultimately be needed. So if the employer does survive it would be expected that a return of surplus would occur.
The PPF has some obvious comparisons with an insurance company in that it pays out on an event (insolvency) to those paying premiums. However, the pay-out is compensation and the premiums are levies. There is no choice in the levy or compensation levels. There are three fundamental differences though:
- It is not an insurance company (and therefore does not have to abide with insurance regulation).
- If the premiums (levies) are too low it can demand more from future premiums.
- In the worst case it can actually make changes to the compensation pay-outs.
These three differences mean there is no need to fund the PPF like an insurance company and hold substantial capital reserves/low risk investments. To put the differences another way:
- It does not need to be concerned in the slightest about short term asset volatility.
- It can raise more money.
- It can pay-out less.
Given this, the PPF should be able to take a long term view of things.
Indeed, in addition to the above, the UK funding rules require ever more prudent funding targets such that in most cases there may be more than a best estimate of the cost of providing all benefits in a scheme even where there is a funding deficit. Add to this that PPF benefits are already lower than scheme benefits and, by investing in a similar manner to schemes as a whole, very little levy should be needed.
Yet despite this, it chooses to invest 70% of its assets in cash and bonds and set a self-sufficiency target.
In the context of the PPF their target for self-sufficiency is that they will build up a big enough pot of money to cover all future expected claims on the PPF such that they can stop charging levies.
This means current levy payers are being overcharged as they are paying more than is needed to cover the current risk in order to build a reserve for future risks (that may or may not exist).
Not only this, the target is set with 84% certainty! This, at a very simple level, suggests that as well as overcharging through the target there is a very good chance that they are overcharging above the self-sufficiency level i.e. building up a greater pot of assets than are actually needed to meet all future claims!
So when all these Schemes have gone (which is where regulation as a whole is taking us from accountants, tPR and others) where will the money left over go? Back to the treasury I suspect. How can it be right for the PPF to be taxing DB schemes?