Pension funds and the search for alternative assets

A decade after the 2008 global crisis, some key trends can be highlighted: a) There has been a shift to defined contribution (DC) pension plans, b) The increasing role of alternative assets, such as private equity, among pension assets.

Many governments in OCDE countries have been committed to structural reforms in labour markets and pension plans. As a result, the current era of austerity has deep impacts on the diversification of types of pension plans. According to a 2018 OCDE  report, in a mandatory pension plan, a) employers setup a plan for their employees, b) employees contribute to a state funded pension scheme or c) employees contribute a private pension fund of their choice.  In a quasi-mandatory, employers need to setup a pension plan as a result of labour agreements. In some OCDE countries, there are automatic enrolment programs at the national level where employees have the option to opt out of the plan under certain conditions.

In this setting, a recent PwC report warned that government-incentivized or government-mandated retirement plans turns out to privilege the use of defined contribution (DC) pension plans -such as the United States. In a defined contribution (DC) pension plan the employer, the employee or both make contributions on a regular basis in individual accounts. As  matter of fact, after the global crisis, the traditional occupational defined benefit (DB) pension plans have been losing ground in many countries, such as Australia, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States. Besides, the increase in life expectancy result in longer periods of benefit payments to retirees for DB pension funds for a given retirement age (OECD, 2017).

The shift to occupational defined contribution (DC) plans seemed to be associated with pension underfunding. In this setting, lower discount rates used to value liabilities (as a result of quantitative easing policies) have been important factors to rethink the financial sustainability of pension funds. Indeed, the continuity of liquidity-driven monetary policies and a decline in the long-term interest rates have affected not only the expectations on profitability of pension funds, particularly in those portfolios where income-fixed assets predominate, but also the valuation of liabilities. In this scenario, the portfolio performance has been stimulating the search for alternative assets.

Table 1 shows the evolution of contributions and benefits in DB plans as of 2017. Many factors drove the evolution the funding ration and the asset- liability management of DB pension plans: a) low interest rates, b) composition of assets, c) number of members and wages, d) benefits paid, e) age structure of members, f) aggregate price level.


Table 1.  DB pension plans: contributions and benefits in OECD selected countries, 2017, in %

 OECD Countries Contributions Benefits
New Zealand 18.3 -23.3
Iceland 9.6 -13.0
Norway 8.4 -3.6
Switzerland 8.3 -5.0
Germany 7.7 -5.0
Spain 5.6 -7.9
Canada 5.2 -5.4
Portugal 4.6 -3.3
Indonesia 4.6 -8.3
Belgium 4.0 -2.8
Netherlands 3.9 -3.3
Namibia 3.8 -3.0
Guyana 3.3 -2.6
Finland 2.5 -3.5
Denmark 1.6 -3.5
Costa Rica 0.5 -7.4

Source: OECD

Ten years after the global crisis, the funding ratio of occupation defined benefit (DB) pension plans was below their pre-financial crisis levels in most of the OECD reporting countries. However, in Iceland, Indonesia, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United State the funding ratio had already been below 100% for several years. Therefore, one of the main issue at stake is the path of evolution of benefits and contributions in different types of pension plans and how this evolution may affect the financial sustainability of pension funds.

Considering this background, pension funds´ managers have been searching for alternative investments outside of traditional stocks and bonds. The 2017 Preqin Alternative Assets Performance Monitor also highlights that pension funds (public 30%, private 15%) are increasingly allocating more of their assets to PE today. In truth, between 2008 and 2017, most of pension funds (public and private of all sizes) in developed markets had expanded their allocations to alternative asset classes from 7.2% of assets under management in 2008 to 11.8% in 2017. In emerging markets, on average, pension funds increased their alternative investments from 0.97% in 2008 to 6.6% in 2017. In the past 10 years, pension funds reported median net returns in their private equity allocations ranging between 7.5% and 11.5%. These returns have been above those obtained for fixed income, listed equity, hedge funds and even real estate assets.

Alternative investments like private equity assets might prove to be controversial choices for pension funds because of the PE governance historically focused on the extraction of short-term returns in private companies. At the heart of our argument is that the capital accumulation process involves social relations driven by profit and competition. As the private equity investors´ motive is not growth per se, but value extraction, the social losses in terms of unemployment, working conditions, workers´ rights and income distribution could be relevant.








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