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Ireland seeks 'significant' pension fund investment for social housing

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Ireland’s government hopes to attract pension fund capital to its social housing market, as it pledges to treble the number of units under construction by 2020.

The coalition government said its construction programme would be made possible by attracting “significant” new sources of finance, naming the European Investment Bank (EIB), the €6.9bn Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) and the pensions sector as possible co-investors.

Outlining its priorities for the remaining two years in office, the coalition also promised a roadmap and timeline for the introduction of a universal supplementary pension scheme would be published before the end of 2015.

Minister for social protection Joan Burton, whose promotion to leader of the junior coalition Labour party led to the government’s outlining its priorities, in March this year said the proposed roadmap would be published in the coming months, and suggested the scheme could be christened MySaver.

The 2015 publication date, therefore, seems to be an admission of significant delays, although Burton previously acknowledged that the launch of the new scheme would be linked to a number of undisclosed economic indicators unlikely to be met until Ireland’s unemployment fell below June’s 13.3%.

The statement of government priorities said its proposals for the housing market were based around a recent report recommending a cost rental model, whereby social tenants’ rents would be directly linked to the debt burden imposed by the construction costs.

The National Economic and Social Council, a government think tank, suggested pension funds and other retail savings schemes could be attracted to the funding of housing construction due to the low annuity rates offered by the low-yielding underlying bonds.

In a speech last week, Burton said: “We will set in train a construction programme to triple the number of houses built to 25,000 a year by 2020.”

The government said it would publish its proposal for the housing markets by the end of the year, indicating it would draw inspiration from the Swedish rental market’s municipal housing companies.

“We will assist approved housing bodies to avail of these sources of funding through new aggregators and financial instruments,” the policy document added.

“We will examine the possibilities for new and innovative roles for local authorities in housing provision, via means such as Municipal Housing Companies and arm’s-length management organisations.”

Jerry Moriarty, chief executive of the Irish Association of Pension Funds, said that how the resulting issuance interacted with the 10% risk reserve requirements for defined benefit funds – which can currently only be offset with cash or certain government or semi-government bonds – would be a factor in his sector’s interest in social housing.

Mention of the ISIF, which will draw its capital from the discretionary portfolio of the National Pensions Reserve Fund once legislation passes through Parliament, could also indicate hopes that the sovereign development fund will act as a cornerstone investor in a housing vehicle, similar to its approach to domestic infrastructure and SME loan funds.

Moriarty added that the potential for ISIF as a cornerstone investor could be a way of attracting pension investors, as a direct investment approach would require a significant workload for a comparatively small commitment, due to the size of the country’s social housing market.

He said there would be questions over whether time involved could “outweigh the benefits”.

The EIB, meanwhile, recently committed to part-fund a new SME bank, the Strategic Banking Corporation Ireland, also backed by Germany’s Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau.

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