How to Meet Member Promises

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How should pension schemes be invested to improve chances of paying member benefits in full and on time?

This is the perennial question facing DB schemes as they mature and look to move into a position where they can pay benefits to members without being dependent on more contributions from the corporate sponsor.

This report looks at investment strategy choices pension funds have, by directly measuring their effect on the outcome a DB pension fund is aiming for. We do this by measuring the likelihood of meeting the benefits promised to members in full and on time, and then optimising the strategy to improve that outcome.

This paper provides a number of key insights, and two main conclusions.

1. In order to determine how likely it is to meet member promises there is merit in adding a new lens to track the probability of paying pensions due.

2. We then examined the impact of investing in contractual assets and have proven their value in improving the probability of paying pensions.

The position however varies depending on the funding level of your particular fund. We have looked at what funding levels benefit from pulling specific investment and risk management levers.

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Is It Too Late to Hedge?

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Nothing seems to polarise opinion in investment circles more than the level and future direction of interest rates. This is problematic, as moves in long-dated rates have been the main driver of Defined Benefit pension fund financial health over the last decade.
DB pension schemes that hedged their interest rate risks before the summer of 2016 will have had the pain of recent falls in interest rates partly or fully mitigated. But many schemes have not – with long-dated gilt rates now below 2%p.a. have these schemes now missed the boat? Is it too late to hedge? In this piece we take a balanced look at the arguments for and against interest rate hedging at these levels and provide a framework to help all stakeholders move discussions forward.

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Certain investors have a primary focus on ‘hunting alpha’. Their aim is to invest for long term asset growth through a focus on high investment returns (and not on liabilities). This has historically lead to equity-heavy portfolios, often actively managed. Over recent years and decades these portfolios have generally done well. However, generating equivalent levels of return from here may be more challenging. Is it possible to go after these kinds of returns without relying on equities, and the skills of equity managers, alone? In this piece we will show how equities can sit alongside other forms of high-returning investments. In particular, how you can combine illiquid and credit-focused asset classes. These combinations create diversified high-returning portfolios. Portfolios which aren’t solely dependent on equities for their returns.

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True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.

— Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics

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The complexity and challenge inherent in the role of today’s trustees makes the job hard, and very few decisions are straightforward.
Two of the key reasons for this are the complex framing of decisions, and the long-term timescale involved make it very hard to get meaningful feedback on a given decision in a way that would allow corrective action to be taken or to “replay” decisions.
Trainee pilots spend many hours in a computer simulator before they reach the cockpit. By providing a safe environment for practicing and obtaining feedback, simulations can also help trustees become more informed, confident and effective decision-makers.

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Derivatives can be powerful risk management tools for pension schemes, but the amount of assets that need to be held as collateral (to provide a buffer against adverse market movements) needs to be set carefully and monitored regularly as part of the scheme’s overall strategic asset allocation. The amount is likely to be between 26% and 40% of assets, depending on which stage the scheme is in.

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Stages of a Pension Schems

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Every pension scheme is unique. Each differs in its current position, where it is looking to go and also by the constraints it faces.

That said, there are commonalities which can help schemes understand where they are now and prepare for where they go next. Using the language of chess, we believe there are three distinct and progressive stages in which all schemes operate:

  • Opening Game
  • Middle Game
  • End Game

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Investors are Paying for Equity Alpha, but are they getting it?

The landscape for equity investors (whether DB pension funds, DC schemes or individuals) has changed and evolved hugely in recent years. Much of what was previously considered “alpha” can now be explained by well documented factors and systematic approaches. True alpha still exists beyond this, but equity portfolios probably need fewer managers than has been historically the case.

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