‘How was it for you, darling?’ is the question being asked by pension funds across Europe. Having had a peek at their own performance, they are wondering how it was for others - that is their returns for 2006.

The early results are of course inconclusive by their nature. But some of the headline data is beginning to deliver a picture.

Let’s take the biggest industries in terms of assets, the UK and the Netherlands. The British funds ended up with overall returns of 10%, according to WM Performance’s analysis, which covers two thirds of this massive industry. The UK’s other pension fund performance measurer Mellon produced average returns of 8.8% over €300m of pensions assets.

A short hop across the North Sea, the Dutch industry achieved combined returns on their €650m pile of assets, of around 7.2%, compared with 14.2% in 2005, again according to WM figures.

The smattering of market results in so far from other countries include the creditable results from Portuguese funds surveyed by Watson Wyatt, which came in at 8.8%, down from 9.2% in the previous year.

So far, it is the Irish managed funds, which are the star performers of 2006, returning 13% last year, though a full eight percentage points below last year’s results, according to Mercer figures for the market.

The general consensus is that blame hovers over equity performance. For the Irish, equities, particularly North American and Japanese equity performance came in much below the 2005 results. So with an average 76% equity exposure, these managed funds did well.

For other dedicated equity investors, the UK funds, equities (other than Japan) performed well generally, says WM, but the gains in foreign markets could not be used fully as funds were not currency hedged in the face of strong sterling. The contribution from bonds was flat with market returns being put at just 1% for UK bonds and 6% for overseas bonds.

The Portuguese performed well on the equities side, with domestic markets up over 32%, while the Euro-zone finished nearly 22% up. The average pension fund allocation to equities in Portugal was 36% in equities overall and just under 20% domestically.

In the Netherlands, it was again the equity story, boosted by real estate, says WM, who particularly point to the contribution coming from currency hedging, which “were substantial and boosted the total return by 1.4%”. This news about currency has yet to cross to the UK, it seems.

The major Dutch funds have given preliminary figures for 2006 and they are something of a mixed bag. Health care sector fund PGGM saw assets grow overall by over 4% to around €81bn, with a sparking 11% total investment return. Equities and real estate, forming 58% of the portfolio, drove the returns, but the best performing individual asset class was private equity with a 9.1% result.

The real Dutch heavyweight the ABP fund for civil servants, saw asset hit €209bn as a result of 9.5% overall return. Its positive results came from equity up 13.5%, private equity 29.8% and real estate 36%.

The positive contributors to the 8.7% return reported by metal working industry fund PMT, came from real estate which produced 22% and equities 13.9%, with emerging markets playing a significant part; assets at year end were €31bn. For the other metal industry fund PME, with €20.5bn in assets, returns came in at a disappointing 3.4%. Overall returns had been halved from 6.8% as a result of interest rate hedging, the fund said. Its equity, real estate and fixed returned 17.9%, 10.3% and 2.1% respectively.

A feature of the results of these major funds was the returns from commodities. PME reckons the asset returned a negative 18% last year (ABP had a similar loss), where it had a 6% exposure. PMT also reports a negative return as does PGGM, one of the first funds into commodities, which commented that it was the fund’s only class last year with a negative return.

Other individual funds indicating their returns for last year, include ÖPAG, one of Austria’s multi-employer pension funds, which saw returns fall to 5% in 2006 from 12% the year before, being hit by poorly performing equities in early 2006.

The preliminary figures do give some inklings as to what can be expected from the rest of the industry, figures probably significantly down on last year, due to equity markets being not as buoyant at the previous year. But as ÖPAG comments 2005 was an exceptionally good year, which will not always be repeated.

But there will always be exceptional results: the Hannoversche Kassen, a German multi-employer fund says assets climb by 21% to €113m mainly due to appreciation of investments. While the €19bn Irish reserve fund NRPF in Ireland saw its performance come at 12.3%, due mainly, it says, to its European equities.