It’s time we tested the value we get for the charges we pay

If I had read the PLSA’s response to the DWP’s proposals to flex the pension charge cap, this time last year, I would have applauded it. I told the Pensions Minister to his (virtual) face that I saw no demand from the funders of commercial master trusts or employer DC trusts. I was wrong, while the barriers that the PLSA are still up for smaller schemes (and even the cash-starved People’s Pension), those master trusts moving to scale and those few employer trusts at scale are looking to allocate to private illiquid markets.

We learned this week that Nest has appointed CBRE Caledon and GLIL Infrastructure to invest £3bn into infrastructure equity by the end of the decade. This is on top of its initial allocation of £250m of its default fund to a partnership with Octopus energy to invest in renewable energy.

Stephen O’Neill, Nest’s head of private markets, told the FT :

“Nest’s investment strategy is evolving at pace in line with the growth in our assets under management, opening up new assets classes in the pursuit of the best risk-adjusted returns for our members.

We believe direct infrastructure equity investments can offer diversification benefits and a return premium to public market equities, at lower levels of risk.”

So when I read in the PLSA’s response to the DWP

we do not believe that the alterations will lead to a material change in investment in illiquids as there are a number of other important reasons why schemes do not invest in them. In particular, a focus on low charges in a competitive market, the prudent person principle which requires schemes to take careful consideration of risk and reward and this
is likely to always result in only a very low proportion of scheme investment in such assets and operational barriers, such as the flexibility to move pots when requested and daily dealing….

I have to question who the PLSA is speaking for.

It is not just Nest, there are a number of large DC pension schemes who are looking to invest from their margin, in more expensive assets, this can only be in the hope of improving member outcomes.

The PLSA may consider Nest misguided in putting outcomes above profit but they cannot deny that Nest have a plan in place and Nest is a member of the PLSA.

Is Nest a special case?

It might be argued that Nest is special because it enjoys the benefit of cheap Government debt and does not have the cash flow worries that beset many of its commercial rivals. It can better afford to take a long view and has a public obligation to tow the line. The line is being set by the Treasury and its agent the DWP.

The PLSA actually agree with the Treasury that investments such as those Nest are committing to, are in the long term interest of default investing savers.  So what are they caviling about?

It would seem they are assuming that DC pension schemes going forward look like DC pension schemes in the past. The DWP do not and make it clear that they want small DC schemes (by which they say schemes <£100m but really mean schemes <£1000m should not be investing at all, but folding into larger schemes that can afford to run illiquids in their defaults.

This is where the disagreements between the PLSA and the DWP/Treasury’s position seems to spring from. I can understand from a membership organization’s point of view, the collapse of small schemes into large schemes is not good news. A founding member of the PLSA’s Pension Quality Mark club – the Vodafone DC scheme- has already collapsed its assets into WTW’s Lifesight plan and if such a large scheme can go, what mightn’t. The PLSA are necessarily  concerned that we may find their role representing DC members limited to a few large schemes but that is what the DWP clearly sees the market offering them.

Nest is only a special case if you think its current size (£16bn+) will be exceptional within the time horizons the DWP have in mind. My feeling is that by the end of the decade there will be several large schemes with more than £30bn in them and that Nest will be challenging the largest DB schemes to be the largest funded pension in the land.

A changing landscape not a changing need.

The need for growth and income in the accumulation and decumulation of pensions does not change over time. The means of delivery changes, schemes in the future will no longer offer the sponsor’s covenant that defined income levels will materialize. So it is strange that the PLSA respond to the DWP that

“having a 5 per cent allocation to venture capital in the most popular “default” pension funds could “effectively double the total cost” of the investment portfolio. For this reason, private equity costs are not affordable within the default, and from a scheme perspective, appetite for this type of investment will also be tempered by the fact that higher costs, resource scaling-up and management will not guarantee higher returns”.

There are no guarantees on investment and you certainly don’t get certainty of better returns for paying a fund manager higher fees. But the risks of over concentration of capital in the most liquid markets suggests that value by continuing to rely on a single source of growth (passive equities) may be a false economy.  The need for reliable returns and the risk of not achieving them rest with the trustees who act on our behalf. The PLSA need to discuss with Nest and others why they are not relying on low charges to deliver to member’s needs and expectations.

It’s time we tested the value we get for the charges we pay

I agree with Con Keating that there is no reason for performance fees to manage most of the illiquid investments being considered by DC funds. Con suggests that many of the investments can be managed within investment trusts where the trust itself can declare a charge within the scope of the cap.

I also agree with Mick McAteer in considering the motives for industry pressure on the charge cap – self serving

However, I am also a pragmatist and I recognize that what the Government is really saying, by relaxing the charge cap to accommodate the smoothing of performance fees is a means of bringing alternative managers to the table.

So I am not against the flexing of the charge cap. I neither see it as necessary or deleterious. It is a sop to the hedge fund managers but no more than that.

What is needed is vigorous testing of the efficacy of the strategy being propose and this testing needs to be a field test, with real charges and using real DC member data. We know that the strategies of the managers touting for business have been back-tested, but have they been back tested in the context of the funds into which the managers want them allocated?

For the public to feel comfortable with these new illiquid strategies, it would be sensible for trustees and managers to abandon the usual non disclosure agreements and tell us what the strategies are, how they have worked in the past and what their impact will be on member outcomes. It’s important for people like Mick McAteer and Chris Sier. but even more for those invested in the defaults of schemes such as Nest.


About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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