Investing Novices Are Calling the Shots for $4 Trillion at US Pensions

Link: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-01-04/us-public-pension-plans-run-by-investing-novices-are-on-the-edge-of-a-crisis?cmpid%3D=socialflow-twitter-economics&utm_campaign=socialflow-organic&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=economics

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In the US, a lineup of unpaid union-backed reps, retirees and political appointees are the vanguards of a $4 trillion slice of the economy that looks after the nation’s retired public servants. They’re proving to be no match for a system that’s exploded in size and complexity.

The disparity is dragging on state and local finances and — together with headwinds that include a growing ratio of retirees to workers and lenient accounting standards — gobbling up an increasing share of government budgets. Precisely how much it’s costing Americans is hard to say. But a Bloomberg News analysis of data from CEM Benchmarking, which tracks industry performance, indicates that the price tag over the past decade could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

….

The disconnect was on display at a 2021 investment committee meeting of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which provides benefits to more than 750,000 individuals. An external adviser warned board members that the boom in blank-check companies was a sign of froth in financial markets.

“I had never heard of those,” chairwoman Theresa Taylor told her fellow directors of the then-sizzling products known as SPACs, according to a transcript of the meeting.

….

Systems are underfunded partly because public officials face greater pressure to fulfill today’s demands than to fund obligations 20 or 30 years away. And because hikes in taxes and contributions are unpopular, there’s an incentive to downplay the problem.

Instead, plans are investing in higher risk assets, which make up about one-third of holdings, according to data from Preqin. That allocation has more than doubled since just before the 2008 financial crisis as plans have poured $1 trillion into alternatives.

….

Many pension advisers make smart recommendations: the guidance that CalPERS should stay away from SPACs, for one, was proven sound once regulators ramped up scrutiny of that market, which has all but ground to a halt. Yet it remains unclear how closely individual directors evaluate investments that get put in front of them.

“I served with one director for about 15 years and never saw him ask a question” about his system’s investments, said Herb Meiberger, a finance professor who sat on the board of the $36 billion San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System until 2017. A spokesman for the system said it takes governance and fiduciary duty very seriously, and that board members receive training to help them execute their duties.

Harvard finance professor Emil Siriwardane has researched why some US plans have put more money into alternatives. It wasn’t the worst-funded or those with the most aggressive performance targets. “By a factor of eight-to-ten,” the closest correlation is the investment consultants that pension plans hire, Siriwardane found.

….

Canada’s detour from the American-style model began in the late 1980s, when Ontario’s government and teacher federation decided to reboot a plan that was invested in non-marketable provincial bonds. They set up the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 1990, concluding the province could save $1.2 billion over a decade by operating more like a business.

Ontario Teachers’ first board chairman was a former Bank of Canada governor and its first finance chief was a corporate finance veteran. It soon began investing directly in private markets and infrastructure, opened offices in Europe and Asia and acquired a large real estate firm. The system pays its board members close to what corporate directors make, and manages 80% of its investments internally. Those practices have put it on a solid financial base: Ontario Teachers’ says it’s been fully funded for the past nine years, with a current funding ratio of 107%.

Until the 2008 financial crisis, boards in the Netherlands — where traditional public sector pensions are common — looked a lot like those in the US. Then the country’s central bank was given authority to assess candidates. It looked at directors’ combined risk management, actuarial and other expertise.

Many smaller Dutch funds didn’t make the cut. The regulatory hurdles helped set off a wave of mergers that, over the past decade, has reduced the number of plans by over two-thirds. The system has sprouted professional directors who serve more than one at a time. 

Few US boards are following suit. Only 19 of 113 funds studied made changes to their board composition from 1990 to 2012, a paper published in The Review of Financial Studies in 2017 found.

 “A lot of funds in the US like the idea of transforming, want to transform, but don’t have the political fortitude to do it,” said Brad Kelly of Global Governance Advisors, a Toronto-based firm that works with US and Canadian pension funds.

Author(s): Neil Weinberg

Publication Date: 3 Jan 2023

Publication Site: Bloomberg

The Currency Swaps Time Bomb in Global Finance – Rob Johnson

Link: https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2023/01/the-currency-swaps-time-bomb-in-global-finance-rob-johnson.html

Excerpt:

Yves here. While this post gives an introduction to the problem of the magnitude of currency swaps, I suspect readers will find it a bit frustrating because it raises more questions than it answers. I feel I should provide far more than I do in this intro, but it is a big topic to address properly, so I hope to keep chipping away at it over time.

Some initial observations:

First, the size of the dollar-related swaps market belies the idea that the dollar is going to be displaced all that soon.

Second, and not to sound Pollyannish, but there was a lot of currency volatility last year, yet nothing blew up. That may be due to dumb luck. But also recall that the Bank of International Settlements has been a Cassandra. It first flagged rapidly rising housing prices and related increases in lending as a risk…in 2003.

Third, interviewer Paul Jay keeps pushing on the idea that shouldn’t this activity be regulated? Wellie, it never has been and I don’t see how you can put that genie in the bottle. Foreign exchange trading has always been over the counter.

And non-US banks are regulated not by the US but by their home country under what is called the “home host” practice. So it is France’s job to see that French banks fly right, even when they are trading dollars and other non-Eurozone currencies. If a French bank gets in trouble, even on its dollar exposures, it is France that has to bail them out or put it down. That is why, during the financial crisis, when French and even much more so German banks bought a lot of bad US subprime debt and CDOs and then had a lot of losses, they needed dollar funding to cover the holes in their dollar book (as in no one would provide them with short-term dollar funding to keep funding these dollar assets and no one would buy them at any reasonable price if they had tried to sell them). But the ECB could only lend dollars to these Eurobanks, which would not solve this funding problem. So the Fed opened up big currency swap lines with the major central banks. These central banks then swapped to get dollars so they could provide emergency dollar funding to their banks.

Author(s): Yves Smith, Rob Johnson, Paul Jay

Publication Date: 3 Jan 2023

Publication Site: Naked Capitalism, theAnalysis.news

GE to End $2.5B Long-Term Care Insurance Reinsurance Arrangement

Link: https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2022/10/26/ge-to-end-2-5b-long-term-care-insurance-reinsurance-arrangement

Excerpt:

General Electric has agreed to end a long-term care insurance reinsurance relationship backed by $2.5 billion in assets.

The Boston-based company said Tuesday that it hopes to get the assets back by the end of the year.

….

For GE, the end of the reinsurance arrangement means that the company will face less worry about whether it can collect on reinsurance claims.

“This reduces counterparty risk,” Happe said.

GE will also have $2.5 billion in extra cash to reinvest.

Author(s): Allison Bell

Publication Date: 26 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Think Advisor

Insurers Increasingly Withdraw From Fossil Fuel Projects: Climate Activists’ Report

Link: https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2022/10/20/691030.htm?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Excerpt:

Insurance companies that have long said they’ll cover anything, at the right price, are increasingly ruling out fossil fuel projects because of climate change – to cheers from environmental campaigners.

More than a dozen groups that track what policies insurers have on high-emissions activities say the industry is turning its back on oil, gas and coal.

The alliance, Insure Our Future, said Wednesday that 62% of reinsurance companies – which help other insurers spread their risks – have plans to stop covering coal projects, while 38% are now excluding some oil and natural gas projects. (The Insure Our Future report on re/insurers’ fossil fuel activities can be viewed here).

In part, investors are demanding it. But insurers have also begun to make the link between fossil fuel infrastructure, such as mines and pipelines, and the impact that greenhouse gas emissions are having on other parts of their business.

Publication Date: 20 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Insurance Journal

Why do pension schemes use liability-driven investment?

Link: https://lotsmoore.co.uk/why-do-pension-schemes-use-liability-driven-investment/

Excerpt:

Liability-driven investment allows schemes to invest in the growth assets they need to close the funding gap while reducing the impact of interest rates on the liabilities. This is achieved by assigning a portion of a portfolio to an LDI fund. Rather than this fund just holding gilts, it holds a mixture of gilts and gilt repos.

A gilt repo is re-purchase agreement. The LDI manager sells a gilt to a counterparty bank while arranging to buy back that gilt at a later date for an agreed price. This gilt repurchase agreement provides cash to the pension scheme which it can then use to invest in other assets.

This mixture of gilts and gilt repos in an LDI fund uses leverage to provide capital to the pension fund. It is akin to using a mortgage to buy a house. Different levels of leverage were available in the funds – the more leverage, the greater the ratio of gilt repos to gilts in a fund.

The more leverage in a fund, the less capital a pension scheme had to lock up in government debt and the more it could use to invest in assets which could help to close its funding gap. This was helpful when interest rates were low but became problematic when gilt yields rose.

Author(s): Charlotte Moore

Publication Date: 17 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Lots Moore

Bank of England Bought Only Small Amounts of Bonds even Today, Warns Pension Funds They Have “Only Three Days Left” to Unwind Derivatives with BOE Support

Link: https://wolfstreet.com/2022/10/11/bank-of-england-bought-only-small-amounts-of-bonds-even-today-warns-pension-funds-they-have-only-three-days-left-to-unwind-derivatives-with-boe-support/

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The relatively puny amounts of actual purchases show that the BOE is trying to calm the waters around the gilts market enough to give the pension funds some time to unwind in a more or less orderly manner whatever portion of the £1 trillion in “liability driven investment” (LDI) funds they cannot maintain.

The small scale of the intervention also shows that the BOE is not too upset with the gilts yields that rose sharply in the run-up to the crisis, triggering the pension crisis, and have roughly remained at those levels. The 10-year gilt yield today at 4.44% was roughly unchanged from yesterday and just below the September 27 spike peak.

And it makes sense to have these kinds of yields in the UK, and it would make sense for these yields to be much higher, given that inflation has spiked to 10%, and yields have not kept up with it, nor have they caught up with it. And to fight this raging inflation, the BOE will need to maneuver those yields far higher still:

So today, BOE Governor Andrew Bailey, speaking at the Institute of International Finance annual meeting in Washington D.C., warned these pension fund managers that the BOE will only provide this level of support, however little it may be, through the end of the week, to smoothen the gilt market and give the pension funds a chance to unwind in a more or less orderly manner the portions of their LDI funds that they cannot maintain.

Author(s): Wolf Richter

Publication Date: 11 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Wolf Street

Decentralized Insurance Alternatives: Market Landscape, Opportunities and Challenges

Link: https://www.soa.org/resources/research-reports/2022/decentralized-ins-alt/

Report: https://www.soa.org/4a6cf6/globalassets/assets/files/resources/research-report/2022/decentralized-ins-alt.pdf

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The DeFi ecosystem has been expanding rapidly in the past few years, growing from less than USD $1 billion in 2020 to USD $61.6 billion as of June 2022 as measured by Total Value Locked (TVL), the amount of crypto asset deposited in the DeFi protocols.

With continuous innovation in product design and delivery, the potential of DeFi adoption is massive. However, the rise of DeFi is marred by security issues. Nearly 200 blockchain hacking incidents have taken place in 2021 with approximately USD $7 billion in stolen funds (Cointelegraph, 2021). These hacking events have a wide range of causes including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Smart contract vulnerabilities exploited by hackers to steal funds
  • Manipulation of oracles to cause price feed deviation
  • Attack on governance where a small group of individuals took over the protocol’s governance decisionmaking mechanism

Author(s):

Alvin Kwock
OneDegree

Erik Lie, FSA, CERA
Hailstone Labs

Gwen Weng, FSA, CERA, FCIA
Hailstone Labs

Rex Zhang, ASA
OneDegree

Publication Date: Sept 2022

Publication Site: Society of Actuaries

Bank of England to Treasury, House of Commons

Link: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/30136/documents/174584/default/

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LDI strategies enable DB pension funds to use leverage (i.e. to borrow) to increase their
exposure to long-term gilts, while also holding riskier and higher-yielding assets such as
equities in order to boost their returns. The LDI funds maintain a cushion between the
value of their assets and liabilities, intended to absorb any losses on the gilts. If losses
exceed this cushion, the DB pension fund investor is asked to provide additional funds
to increase it, a process known as rebalancing. This can be a more difficult process for
pooled LDI funds, in part because they manage investment from a large number of small
and medium sized DB pension funds.

Diagram 1 gives a stylised example of how the gilt market dynamics last week could
have affected a DB pension fund that was investing in an LDI fund. In this illustrative and simplified example, the left hand side of the diagram shows that the scheme is underfunded (in deficit) before any change in gilt yields, with the value of its assets lower than
the value of its liabilities. More than 20% of UK DB pension funds were in deficit in August
2022 and more than 40% were a year earlier. In this example, the fund is holding growth
assets to boost returns and has also invested in an LDI fund to increase holdings of longterm gilts, funded by repo borrowing at 2 times leverage (i.e. half of the holding of gilts in
the LDI fund is funded by borrowing). The cushion (labelled ‘capital’) is half the size of
the gilt holdings.

The right hand side of the diagram shows what would happen should gilt yields rise (and
gilt prices fall). The value of the gilts that are held in the LDI fund falls, in this example by
around 30%. This severely erodes the cushion in the LDI fund. If gilt prices fell further, it
would risk eroding the entire cushion, leaving the LDI fund with zero net asset value and
leading to default on the repo borrowing. This would mean the bank counterparty would
take ownership of the gilts. It should be noted that in this example, the DB pension fund
might be better off overall as a result of the increase in gilt yields. This is because the
market value of its equity and shorter-term bond holdings (‘other assets’) would not fall
by as much as the present value of its pension liabilities, as the latter are more sensitive
to long-term market interest rates. The erosion of the cushion of the LDI fund would lead the LDI fund either to sell gilts to reduce its leverage or to ask the DB pension fund
investors to provide additional funds.


In practice, the move in gilt yields last week threatened to exceed the size of the cushion
for many LDI funds, requiring them to either sell gilts into a falling market or to ask DB
pension plan trustees to raise funds to provide more capital.

Author(s): Sir John Cunliffe, Deputy Governor, Financial Stability

Publication Date: 5 Oct 2022

Publication Site: UK Parliament

Bank of England says pension funds were hours from disaster before it intervened

Link: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/06/bank-of-england-says-pension-funds-were-hours-from-disaster-before-it-intervened.html

Excerpt:

The Bank of England told lawmakers that a number of pension funds were hours from collapse when it decided to intervene in the U.K. long-dated bond market last week.

The central bank’s Financial Policy Committee stepped in after a massive sell-off of U.K. government bonds — known as “gilts” — following the new government’s fiscal policy announcements on Sept. 23.

The emergency measures included a two-week purchase program for long-dated bonds and the delay of the bank’s planned gilt sales, part of its unwinding of Covid pandemic-era stimulus.

The plunge in bond values caused panic in particular for Britain’s £1.5 trillion ($1.69 trillion) in so-called liability-driven investment funds (LDIs). Long-dated gilts account for around two-thirds of LDI holdings.

…..

The 30-year gilt yield fell more than 100 basis points after the bank announced its emergency package on Wednesday Sept. 28, offering markets a much-needed reprieve.

Cunliffe noted that the scale of the moves in gilt yields during this period was “unprecedented,” with two daily increases of more than 35 basis points in 30-year yields.

“Measured over a four day period, the increase in 30 year gilt yields was more than twice as large as the largest move since 2000, which occurred during the ‘dash for cash’ in 2020,” he said.

Author(s): Elliot Smith

Publication Date: 6 Oct 2022

Publication Site: CNBC

U.K.’s LDI-related turmoil puts spotlight on use of derivatives

Link: https://www.pionline.com/pension-funds/uks-ldi-related-turmoil-could-spread-experts-say

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The Bank of England’s emergency bond-buying last week helped shore up U.K. pension funds and threw a spotlight on a popular strategy among corporate plans known as LDI – or liability-driven investing.

Total assets in LDI strategies in the U.K. rose to almost £1.6 trillion ($1.8 trillion) at the end of 2021, quadrupling from £400 billion in 2011, according to the Investment Association, a trade group that represents U.K. managers. Many LDI mandates allow for the use of derivatives to hedge inflation and interest rate risk.

….

Here’s how LDI works: Liability-driven investing is employed by many pension funds to mitigate the risk of unfunded liabilities by matching their asset allocation and investment policy with current and expected future liabilities. The LDI portion of a pension fund’s portfolio utilizes liability-hedging strategies to reduce interest-rate risk, which could include long government and credit bonds and derivatives exposure.

Jeff Passmore, LDI solutions strategist at MetLife Investment Management, said the situation with U.K. pension plans “has been challenging, and the heavy use of derivatives in the U.K. LDI model has made the current situation worse than it would otherwise be.”

While most U.S. LDI portfolios rely on bonds rather than derivatives, ‘”those U.S. plan sponsors who have leaned heavily on derivatives and leverage should take a cautionary lesson from what we’re seeing currently across the Atlantic.”

….

The U.K. pension debacle “is a plain-and-simple problem of leverage,” Charles Van Vleet, assistant treasurer and chief investment officer at Textron, said in an email.

Many U.K. pension plans were interest rate-hedged at 70%, while also holding 60% in growth assets, suggesting 30% leverage, he said. The portfolio’s growth assets have lost around 20% of value if held in public equities and fixed income or about 5% down if held in private equity, he noted.

“Therefore, to make margin calls on their derivative rate exposure they had to sell growth assets – in some cases, selling physical-gilts to meet derivative-gilt margin calls,” Mr. Van Vleet said.

“The problem is worse for plans who gain rate exposure with leveraged ETFs. The leverage in those funds is commonly via cleared interest rate swaps. Margin calls for cleared swaps can only be met with cash – not posted collateral. Therefore, again selling physical-gilts to meet derivative-gilt margin calls.”

Author(s):

BRIAN CROCE
COURTNEY DEGEN
PALASH GHOSH
ROB KOZLOWSKI

Publication Date: 5 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Pensions & Investments

NAIC 2021 Annual/2022 Quarterly Financial Analysis Handbook

Link: https://content.naic.org/sites/default/files/publication-fah-zu-financial-analysis-handbook.pdf

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The risk-focused surveillance framework is designed to provide continuous regulatory oversight. The risk-focused approach requires fully coordinated efforts between the financial examination function and the financial analysis function. There should be a continuous exchange of information between the field examination function and the financial analysis function to ensure that all members of the state insurance department are properly informed of solvency issues related to the state’s domestic insurers.

The regulatory Risk-Focused Surveillance Cycle involves five functions, most of which are performed under the current financial solvency oversight role. The enhancements coordinate all of these functions in a more integrated manner that should be consistently applied by state insurance regulators. The five functions of the risk assessment process are illustrated within the Risk-Focused Surveillance Cycle.


As illustrated in the Risk-Focused Surveillance Cycle diagram, elements from the five identified functions
contribute to the development of an IPS. Each state will maintain an IPS for its domestic companies. State
insurance regulators that wish to review an IPS for a non-domestic company will be able to request the IPS from the domestic or lead state. The documentation contained in the IPS is considered proprietary, confidential information that is not intended to be distributed to individuals other than state insurance regulators.

Please note that once the Risk-Focused Surveillance Cycle has begun, any of the inputs to the IPS can be changed at any time to reflect the changing environment of an insurer’s operation and financial condition.

Author(s): NAIC staff

Publication Date: 1 Jan 2022

Publication Site: NAIC

Government Worker Shortages Worsen Crisis Response

Link: https://www.governing.com/work/government-worker-shortages-worsen-crisis-response

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States and cities all over the country have seen a loss of workers over the past several years, and many are struggling to hire new ones. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local governments lost more than 600,000 workers between the start of the pandemic and June of this year. Those shortages have begun to affect basic services, including many that are critical to safety and quality of life. According to a Center for American Progress report from March, there were 10,000 fewer water and wastewater treatment plant operators in 2021 than there were in 2019.

…..

The obvious reason why governments have struggled to hire and retain workers over the past few years, says Brad Hershbein, senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, is that they can’t improve pay rates as quickly as the private sector can in response to worker demands for better wages. Another reason is that lots of government work has become newly politicized during the pandemic — public workers can be “heroes one day and villains the next,” he says. And a third factor is that staff shortages tend to make work that much more difficult for people who remain, contributing to unattractive working conditions.

“The burnout gets worse,” Hershbein says. “You get a spiral, where fewer people are stuck trying to handle the same amount of work and the whole thing collapses. That’s a real risk at a lot of agencies.”

Author(s): Jared Brey

Publication Date: 3 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Governing