It’s like deja-vu all over again

The Pensions Regulator has a consultation on the go. In fact they have two: regulating defined benefit pension schemes and regulating public service pension schemes. Both started in December and are due to wind up in February. The defined benefit pension schemes one alone runs to over 160 pages across the four documents published. All at the busiest time of the year for most pensions actuaries, caught between the 31 December 2013 accounting disclosures and the looming deadlines for submitting the 31 December 2012 scheme funding assessments. Could it be that they are rather hoping to limit the feedback they get?

Because the changes that are being proposed to the funding regime known as scheme specific funding which has run for 8 years are dramatic. Under the pretext of only making changes to allow the introduction of the Regulator’s new objective to “minimise any adverse impact on the sustainable growth of an employer” (see my previous post on this), they have effectively announced the death of scheme specific funding and proposed a system which looks very much like the Minimum Funding Requirement (or MFR – the previous discredited funding regulations) mark two to me, although the Regulator insists that it will be completely different this time.

The main problem with the MFR was that it was a one-size-fits-all approach (although it did vary in strength depending on how far on average members had to go until benefits were paid – known as the duration of the scheme), which encouraged an inappropriate level of contributions for many schemes (the minimum funding requirement effectively became a maximum funding requirement in many cases).

Fast forward to now, and the new proposed funding approach based around something called the Balanced Funding Outcome (BFO). This calculates a required level of assets for each scheme on an “objective liability measure, independent of the scheme’s funding assumptions”. The actual assets will be compared with the required amount and a recommended level of contributions to get up to the required level will then be calculated by the Regulator. The contributions the scheme trustees have agreed with the scheme’s employer will then be assessed to see if they measure up. Where MFR varied by duration, BFO will vary by duration and covenant (how likely the employer is to stick around to pay the last pensioner). So, as you can see, completely different!

At the end of Appendix G of the 50 page draft funding policy, we finally find the problem that I think the Pensions Regulator really wants to solve:

TPR graph

Look at all those dots. They’re all over the place. There is currently absolutely no correlation between the deficit reduction contributions (DRCs) employers are paying and the funding level in their schemes. The Regulator is determined to change that, by giving trustees and employers sight of their preferred contribution number during their negotiations. The contribution number won’t be compulsory of course, but if you use it then the Regulator will leave you alone. It is almost as if they have never heard of Daniel Kahneman or behavioural economics.

What will happen? Well who knows but here’s a guess. Schemes to the bottom left of the chart above (ie low assets and contributions) are already being subjected to extra scrutiny and generally have employers in such a poor financial state that there is very little they can do about it. But those in the top right will effectively have been given permission to swoop down to the blue line with a whoop of “Pensions Regulator’s new objective”. It will be like the 90s all over again when pension schemes took contribution holidays because they were measuring their funding in an unrealistic way. It will be seen as financially stupid to be in the top right of the Regulator’s graph. Group think will be in charge once more. But, to use another quote from Yogi Berra, the baseball icon, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else”.

If we agree to this we will be making the pensions system more fragile. The model used by the Regulator will not anticipate the next defaulting economy or other Black Swan that throws currency and financial markets into meltdown (no one was suggesting Argentina would default a month ago) and reduces everyone’s level of funding, so when that happens everyone will be in trouble rather than just the proportion of schemes in difficulties we have now. The overall funding risk of defined benefit pension schemes will be inflated so much that the system may not easily recover.

It gets worse. There is a lot in this consultation about governance, and also references to asset liability modelling, due diligence, reverse stress testing, scenario testing and covenant advice. These are all things which are likely to be a problem for small schemes, which I pointed out previously when they were proposed by EIOPA (because, let’s be clear, it is compliance with prospective EU legislation which has driven many of these proposals). But guess which group are going to see an almost total reduction in the scrutiny they get from the Regulator under the new regime? That’s right: small schemes.

There is still time to register your opposition to reliving the last 15 years of defined benefit pensions all over again: the consultation runs until 7 February.

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