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Liam Kennedy: Advice, please

Few consultants wear their heart on their sleeve when it comes to the outcome of their advice to pension funds in terms of hard numbers.

One of them is PSolve, an offshoot of the UK mid-sized actuarial consultancy Punter Southall, which has just published details of its total investment governance solution (TIGS). This return-seeking strategy has returned 9.5% per annum since inception in 2004, which comfortably beats both its composite equity benchmark and its liability related benchmark of UK gilts plus 3%.

In fact PSolve is something of a poster-child for transparency. Mercer developed pooled multi-manager funds in in 2006 but is secretive about their performance. The firm used to publish details of its performance, but now only does so on its Australian website. It is not possible to take the published performance numbers of a representative client as a proxy either, since the liabilities (should) determine the investment strategy for each individual fund.

Larger consultants have - more or less successfully, depending on the case - positioned themselves as fiduciary asset managers or implemented consultants in recent years, especially in the UK. This is the result of a multi-year process that saw them register as investment managers, then, in some cases, launch either multi-manager funds or bespoke advanced or implemented consulting services. The consensus now is that the latter corresponds to fiduciary management.

Aside from their portfolio construction and manager selection skills, this expansion is in part predicated on their depth of understanding of how retirement funds work, including their actuarial insights. This is meant to encompass the holistic interplay of the interests of different stakeholders, the effect of the liabilities and the role of long-term risks like longevity.

As our special report on Europe's pension consultants in this issue shows, the large players have beefed up their risk management and LDI execution skills considerably in the last few years, including in areas like alternative investments. But questions remain. For example, do consultants' execution skills measure up to those of asset managers, for whom trading is their lifeblood?

Another question: will asset managers continue to provide information to consultants' manager selection teams if they suspect that this is finding its way to pooled multi-manager fund teams, or if consultants cross fertilise their activities by having staff work in both areas? The signs are that managers and clients are happy with the potential conflicts of interest - so far.

But the only real answer to these questions, for the moment, is to hire another consultant to perform due diligence on consultants and fiduciary managers. More transparency would be welcome.
 

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