Before Christmas, we at Wasserdicht Pension Funds took a call from a research company. They were visiting Dutch pension funds, they said, to carry out a study of attitudes among institutional investors.
I carry out some due dilligence and phone Ronald, my old friend who works at the pension fund for fork-lift truck drivers, Pensioenfonds Vorkhef. He has spoken to the company and says their reports are good.
Arlene and Roger arrive on 5 December, which is the day we in the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, which means plenty of present giving, laughing children and tears among the naughty ones.
The pair of researchers look smart but a little casual. Roger has a pony tail and is wearing a suit but no tie. Arlene is wearing a long red corduroy skirt and dangly earrings. In the spirit of the day, I offer them mandarin oranges and speculaas biscuits with their coffee.
First they ask about the portfolio. What we invest in, for how long, who manages it and why. ‘Performance this year has been disappointing and the volatility, in particular, is hard for our trustees to deal with,’ I tell them. ‘But our coverage ratio is above the minimum.’
Then come questions about asset classes, risks and risk management. ‘We count the risk of a euro break-up to be 20% but ultimately we believe that a political solution will be found for the euro crisis,’ I tell them.
Next comes a long list of questions about asset managers. Then they ask about consultants. ‘In my opinion, consultants offer only cookie-cutter advice. For a truly independent view, you need a well-resourced team.’
About fiduciary management I am also forthright: ‘Most do not offer a truly customised approach to their clients. For a first-class strategy, again you need your own team, so you might as well be your own fiduciary manager.’
After an hour, the questionnaire has been completed. Arlene and Roger will send me a copy of the report in the new year when the research is over and the conclusions are ready.
In the evening I walk through the streets of Utrecht to do some early Christmas shopping. Although we traditionally give presents on St Nicholas’s day, the Anglo-Saxon Christmas present-giving tradition is taking over and nowadays the children expect gifts on both days.
I soon get bored looking at the latest video games and toys in the department store. Then I notice the store’s own Sinterklaas and his assistant Zwarte Piet handing out presents to the children. Here in the Netherlands, only the good children get presents from Sinterklaas and the bad ones have to go home empty handed.
I think about the survey and the incentives we pay to our asset managers. If only we could act like Sinterklaas if they don’t perform well, I tell myself. Then we could just send them home completely empty-handed.
Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds