Managers steady as volatility hits
Europe's financial markets may well have been badly shaken on the recent turbulent trampoline of global investment insecurity, with the Swiss at one stage reporting a slump of almost 40%. But the overall message being broadcast by the continent's pension funds is of minimal change in their long term investment trajectories.
If anything, many funds are finding themselves in the same situation they were in at the start of the year - with returns cut back to former levels by the global crisis.
Nevertheless, most are all too aware of the possible prospects now available through low equity prices, and many are weighing up their options in the present uncertain economic climate.
Geof Pearson, pension fund manager at UK supermarket group Sainsbury's, explains that the £2bn fund's long term strategic asset allocation policy has built-in 'shock absorbers' in order to tolerate such market turbulence.
However, he adds that the tolerance benchmarks have been breached once during the current fluctuations, prompting remedial action.
One of our UK tracker funds, which has 66% in UK equities, was knocked out of line in the recent equity slump, as the level dipped slightly below the 64% set limit and the bond component rose relatively high. Therefore, we stepped in and bought £60m of UK equities, when they were cheap - below the FTSE 5000 level, to even things out."
Overall though, Pearson believes the current investment strategy is robust and will not change as a result of the present market rollercoaster ride. "We have tried to make it so that alarm bells don't go off every five minutes when the market seems to be having a crisis, because our long term investment to meet the company's pensions liabilities is obviously what we are concerned with. I suspect most pension fund trustees in the UK have a system like ours, which is equally averse to buffeting by the market," he says.
The Sainsbury's fund presently has a portfolio weighting of 55% UK equities, 20% UK bonds and gilts, including index-linked gilts, 5% cash and the remainder in foreign equities.
Pearson believes most UK funds will merely ride out the storm keeping their asset allocation as it stands.
"I don't think there is any sense of panic, and any portfolio rebalancing will, I'm sure, be very minor. I haven't, for example, heard of any funds reading the market so well that they sold expensive and bought cheap," he adds.
Gerry Degaute, director of pensions finance at the UK Post Office Pension Scheme, which has assets of around £14bn, says the company does a strategic review of investments once every three years, but that in the meantime minor tactical adjustments are carried out by overlay managers.
"These operate within set ranges and tracking errors and all positions are taken around our customised benchmarks. As a result of the current market turbulence our long held position is now underweight in US equities and the most contrary weighting to that is in European equities. Not so long ago we were generally underweight in equities and the inverse in bonds." Hugh Wheelan"