Dennis Leech is Professor of Economics at Warwick University. He has written several times on the current dispute over the future of the USS, most notably here , where he asks if the USS is really in crisis and here where he argues that the proposed changes to USS would be a disaster (but are preventable)
Here he is writing about this article appearing in FT Adviser
This is my response to what Sally Hunt, the General Secretary of the University and College Union, has written about the latest develpments in the USS dispute on the FTAdviser website.
What is puzzling is why the union has asked for the employers to increase their contributions, and agreed that members should pay more, when the key issue is the valuation methodology which points in the opposite direction. The union committed a strategic error when it did this. It is to be hoped that it can retrieve itself from it.
Fundamentally the dispute centres on the strength of the employer covenant: that is, the member institutions’ ability and willingness to support the scheme. Because the employers can collectively stand behind the scheme indefinitely, due to its “last-man-standing” structure, the covenant is patently strong. The UCU should not compromise on this point in any way.
This means that the USS can remain open to new members and accrual indefinitely and put its spare funds into investments that will make a high return over the long term. Remember that the scheme makes a large surplus every year – almost £1 billion – and this is what it has been doing very successfully for many years. Forecasts of income and outgo, going well into the distant future, that have been made by the UCU actuary, have shown that continuing with this strategy can provide the pension benefits promised to members. On this basis, there is not a large so-called deficit. There is probably a surplus – for example as is indicated by the Best Estimate valuation in the September USS consultation document.
The problem is that the different valuation methodology being insisted on by the employers (and the USS executive) contains a sleight of hand that makes it seem like there is a large deficit. They use circular reasoning that contains a serious inconsistency. The negotiations and industrial action should have been – and should still be – directed at this, in effect, big lie.
We know that the design of the scheme is ‘last-man-standing’ where all the institutional members support one another against the prospect of individual institutions being unable to support the scheme. The bankruptcy of one university, for example, leaves all its member staff’s pensions entitlements unaffected. This is obviously a very strong covenant because simultaneous bankruptcy is not a plausible eventuality given that all the pre-92 universities are well established institutions of great public benefit and always will continue to be so collectively, even allowing for some reorganization, such as mergers and closures of some institutions.
But if, on the other hand, we consider a scheme for employees of – let us say – a private company that operates in a risky market place, there could only be a very weak covenant. There would be a lot of risk. The scheme’s portfolio investments would need to be in low risk assets such as bonds in order for the scheme to be able to pay the pensions in the not unlikely event that the business eventually closes. This means more cash must be provided to pay the benefits, and the liabilities, must be very much higher than if the covenant is strong.
Therefore it is clear that an assessment of the covenant should be based on an objective appraisal of the likelihood of the scheme closing, independently of the pensions liabilities. Having a high pension liability is not in itself an argument for saying the covenant is weak. That would be circular reasoning because the estimate of the liabilities depends on the strength of the covenant.
Yet that is precisely what the UUK employers and the USS executive (and even the pensions regulator) are doing. They all base their covenant assessment on a hypothetical view of the ability of the sector to support the scheme in financial terms. This puts the cart before the horse because their liabilities estimate assumes there to be a high risk of failure – a weak covenant in the first place. They are using circular reasoning and have slipped in the conclusion they appear to wish to arrive at: that the scheme is too risky to be sustainable.
The UCU negotiators should point this out. And they should not accept these arguments that show the covenant to be weak based on an implicit assumption that it is weak in the first place.
Best Estimate valuation
As an aside, we are told that the Best Estimate valuation can’t be used because it will be correct only 50 percent of the time, therefore as likely to be wrong as right. This is both wrong and irrelevant. Where the employer covenant is strong, the scheme trustees need not worry about short-term volatility of its investment portfolio, and can invest in high-return assets for long term income. The liabilities should be estimated using the Best Estimate of the portfolio return, with a suitable margin for proper prudence, of course.
What is an Independent Review?
Finally, there is the question of the proposed panel of independent experts. It is a very unwise move for the union to agree to this. Not only does it beg a number of questions about the composition of, and procedures to be followed by, this group, it also says that the union has little confidence in the case it is putting forward.
How will the members of this group of experts from academia and the pensions industry be selected? There are very many senior academics who are expert in accounting and finance who do not question the received industry norms of what are often called generally accepted principles. There are even Nobel prizewinning economists among them. Yet it is precisely such principles that we must challenge. The UCU policy is in fact to argue against the application of the conventional valuation of pension schemes used by company accountants.
Many if not most actuaries have been persuaded that they should employ the tools of modern finance theory such as the efficient markets hypothesis. Such is evident from some of the statements by the pension regulator and the USS Executive, also many actuaries. Would we expect an independent expert to agree with or criticize this kind of analysis? The actuarial profession was told a few years ago, in several reports, that they ought to use ‘modern finance theory’. They have taken this advice to heart. Yet this is precisely where the problem lies, and to call for the whole matter to be delegated to an independent panel of experts is to back away from dealing with the issue.
Then there is the question of how the expert body will be constituted. Will it include members who have expressed views in the debate already, or does the word independent preclude them? Will it meet in public? Will its deliberations be open to scrutiny? Will its membership be limited in number? In other words, will this independent group be subject to the normal modalities of academic enquiry and discourse? It is after all the function of academia to find out the truth by open, free debate. That is what universities are for.