Government regulations for defined benefit pension schemes, as they stand at present, under the Pensions Act 2004, are a major factor contributing to the pensions crisis that has seen the closure of scheme after scheme.
The problem stems from the rule requiring schemes to be judged on a simple comparison of market-based capitalized values of assets and liabilities every time there is a valuation, every three years. This rule is misguided for two reasons: because it is arbitrary in that it does not provide a meaningful comparison; and because it greatly magnifies risk, costing a lot of money to offset.
The rule is arbitrary because of the inconsistent way it requires assets and liabilities to be compared. The assets must be valued at market prices on the valuation date. But the value of liabilities, which is not priced in a market, must be estimated as some kind of present value of the pension promises. Since pensions consist of a stream of payments to retirees for many years into the future, there is no asset that can be traded in a market, and the regulations do not prescribe precisely how calculation should be done. The liabilities value is therefore essentially a notional sum.
The two sides of the balance sheet are calculated using very different methods. I will discuss the problems with the assets side later but first consider the liabilities figure. This is meant to be an amount of capital today that would, if invested, yield just enough to pay the pension benefits.
This thought experiment is a matter left to the trustees, with general guidance from the regulations and actuarial advice. They must decide whether – hypothetically – to invest in ‘safe’ bonds or ‘risky’ equities and other growth assets, or a mixture, subject only to the need for having regard to prudence. A sensible choice – you might think – would be to use the actual asset portfolio they have invested in. That would be consistent. However they often find themselves under great pressure from professional advice not to do that but to assume a ‘risk-free rate’ such as the return on long term gilts. Accountants would probably say it is mandated by FRS102. (By the way, even if they switched their portfolio into government bonds it would not be risk free.)
Thus, assets and liabilities are constructed using different – inconsistent – methodologies, making the difference between them – the ‘deficit’ or ‘surplus’ pretty arbitrary. A scheme that is open to accrual can be in ‘deficit’ even though it may have positive net cash flow and is not having to sell capital: in other words it is not in deficit in the way we usually understand the word. That a scheme is in ‘deficit’ is often – usually – reported as a bald fact without a proper health warning.
A notable example that is attracting a lot of ill-informed comment is the country’s largest funded scheme, the scheme for the older or pre-92 universities, the USS; the employees’ union, the UCU, is making my point but the USS executive show little sign that they are willing to listen. However the employers’ body, the UUK, have said they are willing to look at it in a joint experts’ panel with the union.
When a scheme is in notional deficit – as most currently are because near-zero gilt rates have blown up the liabilities – the regulator requires employers to make recovery payments. For an open scheme this often presents an existential threat if the employer cannot afford the payments.
Clearly, the valuation of liabilities is a serious problem which means that deficits or surpluses are arbitrary. Since they are the difference between two large and imprecise numbers they are also very volatile.
But things get much worse when we consider what the valuation of the assets means.
The regulations require assets to be valued at market prices. But, if the scheme is open, asset prices are the wrong indicator because pensions are paid out of earnings. In theory this should not matter because asset prices should exactly reflect the underlying earnings in dividends, rents, interest and so on. But markets are not perfect – in fact far from it – and this equivalence does not hold in practice.
This point is widely ignored by financial economists, even though it is well known to economists. Studies by the Yale economist Robert Shiller and others, have compared asset prices with their theoretical values based on discounted future earnings, and found them to be massively too volatile in practice. Equity prices, for example, are known to be many times more volatile than the economic fundamentals, that is, expected dividends, would suggest. The same is true of bonds and real estate.
It cannot be stressed enough that excess volatility is large. For example, in his book “Irrational Exuberance”, Shiller reports that “only 27 percent of annual return volatility of the US stock market might be justified in terms of genuine information about future dividends”. This would imply excess volatility of equity market prices by a factor of around four.
This does not matter much for a closed scheme where the assets must be enough to cover the liabilities whatever discount rate is used. The focus is on aligning finite assets and liabilities. Market valuations are inescapable.
But it matters a lot for an open scheme that holds its investments long term for income. Rather than at market prices, assets should be valued as the capitalized value of projected future expected earnings, using the same discount rate as for liabilities. This is much less volatile than asset prices.
But the regulations insist on using asset prices, with the result that volatility – which otherwise would be inessential to an open scheme – must be treated as a source of risk. The regulations therefore pose a major threat to an otherwise healthy and sustainable scheme because the notional ‘deficit’ will need to include an allowance to cover the risk due to excess volatility. Yet this market volatility is irrelevant to the financing of the scheme on an ongoing basis.
The regulations are intended to protect accrued pensions benefits against company sponsor failure. But there is two-way causation and schemes may close because the cost to the employer of plugging ‘deficits’ is too high. This has been a major factor in schemes closing. If deficits are over-stated because the rules treat market volatility as risk, then the rules themselves are unfit for purpose.
This therefore suggests two recommendations for reform. First, value an open scheme on an ongoing basis, rather than using market asset prices, which is an implicit assumption it is about to close. Rather than comparing market-priced assets against capitalized liabilities, trustees would get a better picture by comparing the profile of projected income and outgo. That would avoid both the arbitrary choice of a discount rate and the increased risk due to excess volatility of market prices. This reform would remove the reverse causality of an artificial deficit undermining the covenant. There still remains risk of the loss of employer support.
The second reform would deal with that risk. The Pension Protection Fund should protect open schemes as well as closed ones. A pension scheme does not have to close on employer bankruptcy if the work of the employee members continues with or without another employer sponsor. In extremis the PPF could act as sponsor. As a statutory body the PPF can afford to be a patient investor, investing for the long term to gain the equity premium. This means that the a scheme transferred to the PPF would have a lower deficit or surplus when valued as above.
The PPF will be able to support open schemes as well as closed ones. This would reduce the pressure on open schemes to close. The PPF should become a real safety net enabling companies to take a long view of their open schemes, thereby saving them having to make provision for short run market volatility as risk, reducing the cost of pensions. A consequence of this will be greater confidence in DB schemes many fewer scheme closures.