These days, information is everywhere. If I want to know what the weather is like outside in the morning I no longer have to look into our garden. I can just consult my phone.
Likewise, I don’t have to listen for the traffic report on the radio as my phone will also tell me how long my journey to work will take, down to the minute. And I can see the news headlines instantly at any time of the day. Information is everywhere.
The same goes for pensions funds, or so it seems. A few weeks ago I sat down with the relationship manager of our global custodian. Elise is business-like and always has a business-like answer. And if she doesn’t know the answer she knows how to find out.
At our last meeting, Elise took me through updates to the pension fund app that her firm launched a couple of years ago. Using the app means the trustees and investment office can check the market value of the asset portfolio and the coverage ratio at any time.
Custodians are like the plumbers of the institutional investment world. They see how things really work – not just at the pension funds but at the asset managers, too.
‘Our app is state-of-the-art, of course,’ Elise says. ‘But the information that comes out is only as good as the information that goes in, so there could always be errors if the data we receive is not correct for any reason. And we still receive some of the data on Excel spreadsheets, for your illiquid asset portfolios in particular, of course.’
Some of us are more interested in the technology than others. The trustee board members mostly prefer to look at our monthly summary reports and, like me, Rolf is one of those who prefer to look at the facts behind the numbers. ‘Less haste, more speed,’ he says. ‘Numbers alone don’t help you decide whether to buy or sell.’
Personally, I look at the total portfolio data about once a month, as I am only too aware of the temptations that a short-term focus on asset values can bring. The market price of an asset is only the price someone thinks it is worth at a moment in time.
Later that week, I am working on a presentation for our main corporate board and I need some figures. ‘What is the total value of Dutch pension assets and liabilities?’ I ask Geert, our bright young strategist in the investment
department. ‘The president of the regulatory authority says the assets are €1.3trn,’ he replies. ‘So how much of that is pensions money and
how much is insurance money?’ I ask. ‘Actually they don’t know,’ Geert says. ‘So how did they come up with the figure?’ ‘They use an internal model’.
‘Ongeloofelijk,’ seems the most appropriate reply. ‘They collect all that data from us, so what do they do with it?’
Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds