PAYING for pensions is like one of those never-ending historical wars; a confusing series of small battles and skirmishes that can obscure the long-term trend. The latest conflict is in Britain where university lecturers are indulging in strike action over changes to their future benefits.
Let us start by making the long-term trends clear.
1. People are living longer and retirement ages have not kept pace. This increases the cost of paying pensions
2 Interest rates and bond yields have fallen. This increases the cost of generating an income from a given pension pot
3. Private sector employers have reacted to this cost by closing their defined benefit (DB) schemes (which link pensions to salaries) and switching to defined contribution (DC) schemes (which simply generate a savings pot)
British universities have reacted in a similar way; they are proposing switching future benefits to a DC basis. To avoid confusion, this means that past benefits will be unaltered; if you are 50, and have worked for 25 years, you will still have 25 years of DB benefits. But since pensions are deferred pay, it does mean that the total benefits of academics are being cut so one can see why they are upset.
But there is still plenty of confusion, as this piece in the Independent illustrates all too well (to cite just one example, in a piece about workplace benefits, it quotes OECD numbers on state-pension replacement rates). There are three big areas where the debate gets muddled.
1. Investment risk. If there is a pension fund, then there is investment risk regardless of whether this is a DB or a DC scheme. The difference is on whom the risk falls. In a DC scheme, it does fall on the employee. In a DB scheme, it rests largely on the employer. But in a sector heavily funded by the public sector that could mean the taxpayer.
2. Accounting. The real cost of pensions can’t be measured in cash flow terms: how much is being paid out this year, as opposed to the contributions being put in. They are a long-term commitment in which one must work out the cost of future benefits, allowing for longevity, inflation etc. These future payments must then be discounted at some rate to get to a present value.
This column has always argued for the use of a bond yield as the discount rate. That is because pensions are a debt which must be paid. The problem is that low bond yields have forced up the present value of future benefits and widened deficits. The unions in the university case argue this is too conservative and that one can reasonably expect higher investment returns. But this rather contradicts another element of their case. On the one hand, they are saying that DC pensions are too risky for employees because the markets might not deliver; on the other hand, they are saying the markets will be fine so the employer should keep promising DB.
In the US, public pension schemes do assume a high rate of return on their investments and they are in a mess, with a $4trn deficit. In one school district I visited, the entire budget increase was eaten up by higher pensions payments.
The true test of a pension cost is “what would it cost to get rid of it”. Insurance companies will take over pension schemes but when they do, they use a bond yield as their discount rate. This buyout basis makes deficits look bigger.
3. With public pensions, the rich tend to subsidise the poor. They are also run on a pay-as-you-go basis with today’s workers paying the pensions of current retirees. What you put in is not what you get out. With public pensions, the rich tend to subsidise the poor. They are also run on a pay-as-you-go basis with today’s workers paying the pensions of current retirees. But in a DC scheme, contributions are very important. Yes, returns matter a lot. But the real reason that DC pensions are lower is that total contributions are smaller; that is why employers are switching after all. In the US, some employers make no contribution at all. In Britain, matching is fairly common. still, the ONS reckons that total contributions averaged 21% of payroll in British DB schemes and just 4% in DC.
That is the big issue; not investment risk and not management costs. As it happens, the university scheme is offering a fairly generous 13.25% from the employers. But that is still a lot less than they might be expected to contribute to bring the DB scheme back into balance.
So the real issue for workers is this; how much is the employer contributing? And the same is true in a sector heavily funded by taxpayers? If the scheme requires more money where will it come from? Higher taxpayer grants? Higher student fees (which will lead to more taxpayer support if the fees are ulitmately unpaid)? Or worse services?
Japan still has great influence on global financial markets
IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.
“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds.
This week the board of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to leave its monetary policy broadly unchanged. But leading up to its policy meeting, rumours that it might make a substantial change caused a few jitters in global bond markets. The anxiety was justified. A sudden change of tack by the BoJ would be felt far beyond Japan’s shores.
One reason is that Japan’s influence on global asset markets has kept growing as decades of the country’s surplus savings have piled up. Japan’s net foreign assets—what its residents own abroad minus what they owe to foreigners—have risen to around $3trn, or 60% of the country’s annual GDP (see top chart).
But it is also a consequence of very loose monetary policy. The BoJ has deployed an arsenal of special measures to battle Japan’s persistently low inflation. Its benchmark interest rate is negative (-0.1%). It is committed to purchasing ¥80trn ($715bn) of government bonds each year with the aim of keeping Japan’s ten-year bond yield around zero. And it is buying baskets of Japan’s leading stocks to the tune of ¥6trn a year.
Tokyo storm warning
These measures, once unorthodox but now familiar, have pushed Japan’s banks, insurance firms and ordinary savers into buying foreign stocks and bonds that offer better returns than they can get at home. Indeed, Japanese investors have loaded up on short-term foreign debt to enable them to buy even more. Holdings of foreign assets in Japan rose from 111% of GDP in 2010 to 185% in 2017 (see bottom chart). The impact of capital outflows is evident in currency markets. The yen is cheap. On The Economist’s Big Mac index, a gauge based on burger prices, it is the most undervalued of any major currency.
Investors from Japan have also kept a lid on bond yields in the rich world. They own almost a tenth of the sovereign bonds issued by France, for instance, and more than 15% of those issued by Australia and Sweden, according to analysts at J.P. Morgan. Japanese insurance companies own lots of corporate bonds in America, although this year the rising cost of hedging dollars has caused a switch into European corporate bonds. The value of Japan’s holdings of foreign equities has tripled since 2012. They now make up almost a fifth of its overseas assets.
What happens in Japan thus matters a great deal to an array of global asset prices. A meaningful shift in monetary policy would probably have a dramatic effect. It is not natural for Japan to be the cheapest place to buy a Big Mac, a latté or an iPad, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale. The yen would surge. A retreat from special measures by the BoJ would be a signal that the era of quantitative easing was truly ending. Broader market turbulence would be likely. Yet a corollary is that as long as the BoJ maintains its current policies—and it seems minded to do so for a while—it will continue to be a prop to global asset prices.
Rabbit’s sales patter seemed to have a similar foundation. Anyone sceptical of his mileage figures would be referred to the April issue of Consumer Reports. Yet one part of his spiel proved suspect. The dollar, which he thought was decaying in 1979, was actually about to revive. This recovery owed a lot to a big increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It was also, in part, made in Japan. In 1980 Japan liberalised its capital account. Its investors began selling yen to buy dollars. The shopping spree for foreign assets that started then has yet to cease.
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