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Mariska van der Westen: A bumpy ride

It used to be that the pensions industry was considered staid and dependable and - let's face it - not the most exciting topic of conversation. But no more. After decades of quietly looking after the nation's pension savings with nary a hitch, Dutch pension fund managers suddenly find themselves riding a rollercoaster of fitful climbs and hair-raising plunges that has propelled them into the limelight of public attention.

The precipitous losses suffered in the 2008 crisis kicked up a media storm and although the attention waned a bit as coverage ratios recovered, last summer the heat was on again. With the discount interest rate circling the drain, news that up to 14 pension funds were forced to consider benefit cuts caused a ruckus.

Around the same time, the social partners began talks to decide on a new, future-proof pension deal. With the pension claims of millions in the balance, the ongoing negotiations to revise the pension system are followed closely and discussed in detail both in the media and at the office water cooler and supermarket check-out counter.

Pension funds are scrambling to catch up and meet the new demands for transparency, in part because informing the public isn't something they are accustomed to and in part because pension arrangements are incredibly complex and hard to explain.

While the industry plays catch-up, the media attention has, on occasion, provided a helpful nudge. But at times the nudge morphs into a hard-handed blow that is decidedly unhelpful. Such was the case in February when the Dutch news show Zembla claimed that Dutch pension funds had missed out on €146bn due to ‘bad management' and were short by €799bn due to insufficient contributions and premium restitutions.

Pension experts were quick to counter that the benchmarks used to show pension fund underperformance are questionable, and that the claimed €799bn contribution shortfall is off by €650bn due to ‘grave miscalculations'.

But, inevitably, some damage has been done. Over the coming months it seems clear that beleaguered pension funds cannot afford to focus only on coverage ratios, risk management and a new pensions deal - communication and public relations have become top priority.

 

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