The controversy over the University Superannuation Scheme’s current valuation sums up all that’s gone wrong with defined benefit pension schemes.
Let’s start with the view of John Kay, one of Britain’s most respected and outspoken economists.
John Kay, one of the UK’s leading economists, has weighed into the latest wrangle over the future of the the giant #Universties Superannuation Scheme.
Kay says it is “intrinsically absurd” that the £80bn defined benefit pension plan is regarded by employers as unaffordable.
— Josephine Cumbo (@JosephineCumbo) April 14, 2021
Kay argues that scheme valuations should not be the sole basis for deciding contributions levels from members and employers backing DB schemes, saying short-term asset price volatility is irrelevant to pension funding.
— Josephine Cumbo (@JosephineCumbo) April 14, 2021
Kay’s comments meet predictable incredulity
Perhaps John Kay can tell us what he think is the annual cost of new #USS pension promises, and how universities are expected to pay for this, given the cost has ballooned in recent years? https://t.co/pjRfqhQrQE
— John Ralfe (@JohnRalfe1) April 16, 2021
And so the conversation continues. It must have been like this watching prize fighters slug it out over hundreds of rounds in the 19th century.
There really is no end in sight to this fight. Someone is going to have to intervene and it doesn’t look as if the USS trustees , TPR or even the DWP have got any way of separating the pugilists.
There has got to be a better way (than burning down the house)
This long standing dispute is not going to be resolved by either side backing down.
It is clear that tPR and the trustees do not share John Kay’s view that the valuation is the starting point and USS will not be treated as a special case. The supposed deficit will have to be met with real money which will come out of overall reward for university teachers.
The cost of pensions to the UUK will eventually get too great, pressure will be put on academic wages and numbers and standards will fall. In the meantime we are likely to see more strikes and a generation of students who have lost out through previous strikes and through the impact of the pandemic, will leave with degrees but a downgraded education.
Today , Professional Pensions published a word cloud of how pension professionals saw their profession.
And yet there is £80bn in the USS pension, more than £2tr in funded pensions and as much again in unfunded public pension liabilities.
Why there has to be a radical solution to the USS problem
Closing USS to future accrual would not help solve the challenge pensions pose to the Universities. Mike Otsuka has pointed this out
Employers in @USSEmployers who maintain that we must find a way to operate within the costings of the valuation:
— Michael Otsuka (@MikeOtsuka) April 15, 2021
Kevin Wesbroom hopes that the scheme can be kept open by moving the valuation basis from focusing on technical provisions to a more optimistic best estimate basis
One way or another it feels to me that a sensible outcome to the percentage of salary contributions for this valuation should start with a 3, rather than a 5 or 6. And to forestall any future amazement or depression, I am talking in tens not hundreds!
This looks to me like putting the cork back in the bottle only for the wine to further ferment and blow the bottle next valuation.
If the bottle does explode and there is no future accrual , we are into the nightmare death spiral – laid out by First Actuarial
The investment strategy has to reflect a shortening time-horizon, meaning it switches the scheme assets to low growth defensive positioning. This puts up the costs of the scheme as it struggles for self-sufficiency and we end up with reduced pensions at very little cost saving.
Simply playing with the dials is not enough, it is leaving pension professionals with profound depression and the country with good reason to dislike pensions,
A way forward
The slough of despond in which pension professionals find themselves in , may have something to do with pensions having turned from a solution to the problems Britain faced with old age to a barrier put up to the proper running of businesses and institutions like our universities.
Instead of viewing pensions as integrated into a just society, as Beveridge and others conceived them, pensions are deemed anti-social by those having to fund them and divisive , by those due to receive them.
To turn this situation around will need some vision from those at the top. I mean right at the top- those who lead our universities, who represent staff and those in Government responsible for setting the rules by which pensions are paid.
At the heart of the problems is the G-word, the pensions guarantee – that is now so expensive that it creates valuations which – while right in terms of guarantees – are wrong in terms of common sense. Both those approving the valuation and those questioning it are right. But the question should not be about the valuation process , it should be about what is being valued.
Last week I got a couple of direct messages (too contentious for email) from a friend.
The first read
You need to blog that not only should USS go CDC for future accrual bud it should do work on how a DB scheme can apply CDC to accrued rights.
The second read
It is the logical conclusion of the numbers Derek (Benstead) and Red Actuary (Hilary Salt) put out today. Or at least a start. They could argue that though the assumptions are best estimates for the current USS investment strategy, the strategy could/would change if it were CDC. It would be a good start for kicking off the sensible debate in the trade-off between guarantees and risk and cost (which is a debate which has not been discussed on the new DB code but will be).
So while RM (Royal Mail) sort of opens the issue for new accruals, USS could sensibly extend the debate to accrued rights and New Brunswick in Canada points the way.
Perhaps now is the time for us to look at a way forwards, that is sustainable over time.