As long-term expected portfolio returns settle at modest annual rates of well under 10%, basis points really do count as the pension fund community - and its sponsoring stakeholders - look to deliver pensions at a reasonable cost to all concerned.
For some, this might involve an all-round organisational rethink centred on governance. For a number of years now, best advice has been to view expenditure on all investment items, including external manager fees and staff costs, as a single unit and optimise according to the realistic goals of the fund. For a larger fund, this might mean creating a pensions bureau staffed with the right people. For a smaller fund, it might mean ending some high-fee alternative investment engagements and, instead, employing an extra member of full time staff - possibly a CIO.
Some very large global pension funds have sought to remove financial intermediaries by owning investment capabilities in key areas such as alternative investments. This thinking has led to the acquisition of teams and even whole companies, as in the case of APG and PGGM, which were until recently owners of the €32bn Alpinvest, which was sold to Carlyle in January 2011. That deal might have been counterintuitive but the model still holds, as exemplified by Teachers' Private Capital, wholly owned by Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, which dates back to 1991. APG still owns New Holland Capital.
This form of disintermediation is increasingly open to smaller pension funds where one answer is to pool resources. For example, infrastructure is an asset class that is intuitively attractive to pension funds because of its real-asset and inflation-generating characteristics, but which is highly complex to understand in terms of its income stream and the necessary structures in which to invest.
There are a number of co-investment opportunities in the market right now, some of which involve consultants. As we reported in February in IPE.com, Feri in Germany is looking for German and Austrian mid-sized pension funds to co-invest in an infrastructure fund that will target sub-€1bn deals. At least one consultant in the UK is looking to do the something similar, albeit acquiring an existing infrastructure book on the secondary market. And OMERS, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Scheme, has for the past 15 months been working on a €15bn infrastructure fund that will allocate four-fifths of its assets to European projects. OMERS recently acquired the UK's high-speed rail link to the continent of Europe together with Ontario Teachers.
This kind of thinking is spilling over into other areas. Excitingly, one pension fund is right now looking for co-investors in its own bespoke investment vehicle having looked in the market in vain for the type of investment strategy or structure it wants. This kind of vehicle could invest in different types of alternative strategies, or it could invest across a range of asset classes with a focus on sustainability, for example.
Resource optimisation is a definite trend - as exemplified in the Netherlands, where the admirable multi-OPF operates somewhat like a mini cross-border IORP structure, allowing pension funds of different corporate sponsors to pool their structure but retain their individual governance control.
Now that pension fund managers are networked together as never before through professional and social media, there is ample scope for co-operation with like-minded peers in all manner of ways.
Providing good, low cost pensions is a complicated long-term goal that requires much more thought than in the days when asset returns were simply low-hanging fruit. Sometimes the solutions to help pension funds along that path are much closer to home than they might think.