This autumn, we at Wasserdicht Pension Funds in the Netherlands are touring some of our factories around the country to talk to members and pensioners about the pension fund. We are a multinational engineering country with roots in Germany, but we specialise in flood-protection equipment, so we have a big presence here at home.
I drive with our chairman of the trustee board, Ronald, a former Shell executive, up to Groningen for a meeting with about 75 workers at one of our smaller plants. They have a lot of questions and most of them wear blue overalls with our logo on. ‘How secure are our pensions?’ asks one middle-aged worker.
Here I have to be careful not to make any promises in case I get in trouble with the regulator. ‘We use the most modern portfolio management techniques, optimising risk/return while hedging unrewarded risks. We believe this will allow us to pay inflation-indexed pensions over the medium term but there is no guarantee,’ I say. There is a look of bafflement in the room. ‘We are trying our best’, adds Ronald.
‘Why do you use so many American managers to look after our money?’ asks one pensioner. ‘Well,’ I answer. ‘The fund is managed here, but we use our Dutch skill to seek out the best managers from all over the world. Some are American but others are, indeed, Dutch.’
‘Do you give our money to the feckless Greeks?’ asks another pensioner. ‘We don’t want to make moral judgements about fellow Europeans but we do make investment decisions,’ I say. ‘In fact, we sold out of Greek bonds in 2009. Now we mainly invest in Dutch and German debt, along with some Finnish and Austrian.’
‘What about the cover ratio?’ asks another worker in overalls. ‘Due to our strategic hedges and our position in high quality government debt we have a good coverage ratio, currently comfortably over the 105%,’ I reply.
Broadly, while the workers want to know about their financial security, the pensioners are more interested in the emotive questions.
Eventually, Ronald and I get away, driving off just as the light is fading. Down the road we stop for a coffee. ‘It’s hard getting complex topics across so our members can understand,’ I say. ‘And I could do without some of the pensioners who won’t stop talking.’ ‘I know what you mean but you did an excellent job,’ Ronald tells me. ‘But, Pieter,’ he continues, ‘one thing we haven’t discussed in our investment committee meetings is our crisis strategy for a euro break-up. What do you think?’
‘If the regulator will let us, I would say buy gold and the bonds of Norway, Canada and Australia. At least those countries are creditworthy and have natural resources.’
‘Oh the regulator will let us do that for sure,’ says Ronald. ‘If the euro collapses they will have to go back to central banking and won’t have time to think about us pension funds.’
Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds