A number of Dutch pension funds – including four of the largest – have fallen further into the danger zone as a result of falling equity markets and declining interest rates in December, with potential benefit cuts looming on the horizon.
Following market declines in early October and December, discounts to pension payments and accrued benefits have become a more real prospect. Consultancy Mercer said that schemes’ coverage ratio had fallen 4 percentage points to 104% on average in December.
Mercer added that the “policy funding” level – the 12-month average of the coverage ratio, and the main criterion for cuts and indexation decisions under the Netherlands’ financial assessment framework – had fallen by 1 percentage point to stand at 108% at December-end.
During a presentation of its third-quarter figures, the €47bn metal scheme PME indicated that it was already worried about the potential for further recovery of its funding position, which required rising interest rates, according to Eric Uijen, chairman of the executive board.
PME’s policy funding level had already dropped to 101.6% at November-end, when its €72bn sister scheme PMT reported a coverage of 102.5%.
Both metal schemes have been underfunded since 2015. In order to avoid benefit cuts, their policy funding levels must improve to at least 104.3% by the end of 2019 when their five-year recovery plans expire.
Meanwhile, at the end of November, the policy funding level of the €206bn healthcare scheme PFZW stood at 101.6%. The coverage ratio of the €406bn civil service pension fund ABP dropped to 104.4% at the same point.
Funding of both schemes must be at least 104.3% at the end of 2020 in order to avoid having to cut accrued benefits and payments to pensioners.
In November, the policy funding level of BpfBouw, the €58bn pension fund for the construction industry, stood at the relatively safe level of 118.7%.
Market and interest rate developments
Mercer said that developed market equities lost 8.2% in December, for Dutch investors operating a 50% hedge of the main currencies. Investments without a currency hedge lost 8.4%. Emerging market equities incurred a 3.5% loss.
According to Aon Hewitt, equity markets fell 5% over the course of last year.
In addition, interest rates continued to slide. Following a drop of 4bps in November, the 30-year euro swap rate – the main criterion for discounting liabilities – fell by 9bps to 1.37% in December, according to Mercer.
The consultancy attributed the development to lower inflation expectations, as well as a flight to AAA-rated government bonds.
Aon Hewitt estimated that the interest rate fall in November had increased Dutch pension funds’ aggregate liabilities by 1.7%.
Mercer reported that only bonds posted gains in December, with euro-denominated government bonds and credit generating 0.9% and 0.3%, respectively.
Listed property and commodities lost 6.3% and 7.8%, respectively, it said.
According to Aon Hewitt, pension funds’ investment portfolios lost 2.3% on average in December.
Mortality data offers small reprieve
The consultancies said the only substantial windfall for Dutch pension funds last year was the switch to new mortality tables, which meant a funding improvement of approximately 1 percentage point on average.
Based on Mercer’s funding figures, the financial position of Dutch schemes was little changed over the course of last year: at 2017-end, the average policy funding stood at 107% on average. Relative to the introduction of the new financial assessment framework (nFTK) in 2015, when policy funding was 110% on average, pension funds’ financial health has actually deteriorated.
Frank Driessen, Aon’s head of pensions, highlighted that the pensions sector did not have additional time for adjustments necessary to implement a new pension agreement. However, he also said that past experience had shown that politics would not allow new cuts to pension payments.
“Under specific conditions, sudden adjustments have turned out to be possible,” he said, adding that “even the tiniest cuts would have an enormous impact on the image of pensions”.
UK schemes hit by asset price volatility
Meanwhile, in the UK, JLT Employee Benefits has estimated that December’s volatile market conditions caused the combined shortfall of UK defined benefit pension schemes to increase by £59bn (€65.1bn), more than doubling the aggregate deficit in the space of a month.
Across all private sector DB funds the aggregate funding level fell to 93%, from 97% at the end of November and 99% at the end of July – the highest level recorded by JLT during 2018.
Over the course of last year, the overall funding level of UK schemes improved slightly from 92% to 93%, as the aggregate deficit improved from a shortfall of £150bn at the end of 2017 to £107bn as of 31 December 2018, JLT said.
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