Many Pension Funds Will Struggle To Close Their Funding Gap Unless They Reduce Their Reliance On Public Equities And Other Liquid Assets
New analysis shows pension funds could achieve the hat-trick of lowering risk, growing assets and maintaining sufficient ready capital to pay benefits if they considered reducing liquidity by switching from public equities to private investments
December 1, 2016 (London) – Pension funds are too focused on holding liquid assets to the detriment of the long-term health of their investment portfolio, according to research by global investment firm Cambridge Associates. If they considered switching from liquid public equities to illiquid private investments, they could improve their chances of closing the funding gap and reduce the likelihood to requiring additional capital injections to honour their commitments to pension fund members.
The average UK pension fund can have a staggering 90-95 per cent of their assets in liquid assets—those easily convertible into cash. This amount is far more than they need in order to be able to pay pension fund members. “Many schemes do not need to set aside more than 5-10 per cent of assets for benefit payments in any given year for the next 20 years,” according to Alex Koriath, head of Cambridge Associates’ European pensions practice. “By having such liquid portfolios, they are giving up return opportunities and face having to deal with the risk of a widening funding gap.”
Already, as of October 2016, the average UK pension scheme holds assets that cover just 77.5 per cent of their liabilities, according to data from the UK’s Pension Protection Fund. Even though the value of “growth” assets—such as equities—has soared over the past 5 years, this funding gap has continued to widen because the dramatic fall in interest rates has increased the value of liabilities at an even faster rate.
For a typical scheme, some 40 per cent of the liquid assets is invested in “liability-matching” assets such as gilts, while around 60 per cent is held in growth assets such as equities, credit and other such asset classes. Of the 60 per cent, some 5-10 per cent is invested in illiquid assets such as real estate, private equity, private credit, venture capital and other less liquid investments.
But this allocation may need to change because many pension funds are facing difficult choices. As their member population ages, trustees understandably want to “de-risk” by buying more liability-matching assets and selling more volatile assets such as equities. However, de-risking also means that fewer assets can earn the higher return that is needed to plug the large funding gap. Even a pension scheme that hedges just 40 per cent of its liabilities faces a more than one third chance of seeing its funding level fall by 10 per cent at least once during the next 20 years. “In other words,” said Mr Koriath, “the scheme could very well find itself needing a capital injection.”
A New Solution: The “Barbell Approach”
To close the funding gap, Cambridge Associates proposes considering a “barbell approach”. Here, trustees target substantially higher returns in a small part of the portfolio—say, 20 per cent—by focusing this portion on private investments. The rest of the portfolio—as much as 80 per cent—can then be focused on gilts and other liability-matching assets in order to reduce liability risk. Himanshu Chaturvedi, senior investment director at Cambridge Associates in London, said: “This approach to pension investing can deliver a hat-trick of benefits: plenty of liquidity, reduced volatility and appropriate rates of return to close the current funding gap.”
The 80 per cent allocation to liability-matching assets should address the volatility and liquidity issues facing pension funds. The increased hedging reduces the risk of a slump in funding levels, while the large allocation to liquid assets should provide ample liquidity to pay benefits without needing any liquidity from the growth assets. According to Cambridge Associates, a representative scheme that is mature and closed to future accrual (say 70 per cent funded on a buyout basis with liabilities split 75 per cent/25 per cent between deferred members and pensioners) only has to make annual benefit payments of between 3 per cent to 7 per cent of assets in any given year for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the 20 percent allocation to private investments should help address the return requirements of pension funds, allowing them to target higher return opportunities in return for accepting illiquidity in this small part of the overall portfolio.
Mr Chaturvedi said: “In our view, even a growth portfolio purely focused on public equities, typically the highest expected return option available in public markets, will not close the funding gap fast enough for most schemes.” In the 10 years to September 2015, the MSCI World Index saw returns of 6.4 per cent. By contrast, the Cambridge Associates Private Equity and Venture Capital Index saw annualised returns of 13.4 per cent.
The Challenges of the Barbell Approach
In its analysis, Cambridge Associates found that there were two important requirements for successful implementation of the barbell approach. One is governance. As Mr Chaturvedi said: “A program of private investments takes years to put into place—perhaps two cycles of trustees. So it can’t be the passion of one group of trustees.”
The other requirement is astute manager selection. “Finding high quality managers is not easy,” said Mr Koriath. “At Cambridge Associates, we track more than 20,000 funds across all private investments and in any given year we only see about 200 that merit our clients’ capital.” But the benefits of getting it right in private investments are substantial. Over a 10-year time frame, the annual difference between the top and bottom quartile managers of public equities is about 2 per cent. By contrast, for private equity and venture capital managers, the annual difference is as large as 12-18 per cent.
For more information, or to speak with Alex Koriath or Himanshu Chaturvedi, please contact Simon Targett, Sommerfield Communication, Inc., at +44 (0) 207 060 6551 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Cambridge Associates
Cambridge Associates is a global investment firm founded in 1973 that builds customised investment portfolios for institutional investors and private clients around the world. Working alongside its early clients, among them several leading universities, the firm pioneered the strategy of high equity orientation and broad diversification, which since the 1980s has been a primary driver of performance for these leading fiduciary investors. Cambridge Associates serves over 1,100 global investors – primarily foundations and endowments, pensions and family offices – and delivers a range of services, including outsourced investment (OCIO) solutions, traditional consulting services, and access to research and tools across global asset classes. Cambridge Associates has more than 1,300 employees – including over 150 research staff – serving its client base globally. The firm maintains offices in Arlington, VA; Boston; Dallas; Menlo Park and San Francisco, CA; London; Singapore; Sydney; and Beijing. Cambridge Associates consists of five global investment consulting affiliates that are all under common ownership and control. For more information about Cambridge Associates, please visit www.cambridgeassociates.com.
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