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Diary of an Investor: Independent spirit

My friends at BIG Asset Management are here for one of their regular client visits. At Wasserdicht we don’t do lunches and the format is the traditional Dutch one, with rolls and buttermilk. As I tell Geert, our head of investment research, it’s a good way of letting people know that we intend to get down to business.

The delegation from BIG files into our meeting room. Agnes, our account director is accompanied by Rich, global head of institutional clients from the New York office and the London-based fixed income head, a youngish man called James.

James is here to do a presentation on trends in the credit market and Rich wants to ‘fill us in’ on developments at BIG and the ‘investor-manager enhancements on the advice and solutions front’. Geert and I want to hear what they have to say. We also want to ask about a new acquisition they made in the US, a credit and loans specialist. But first of all we will discuss a recent specialist credit mandate we recently awarded them.

Luckily the portfolio has performed relatively well in the first six months since the transition. We talk about the portfolio and changes in the team before moving to the outlook. Overall we are happy but it is early days.

We then move on to talk about credit spreads, default rates and the deterioration in high-yield covenants. ‘We share your concerns in these areas,’ purrs James, ‘and we are underweight in multi-asset portfolios. Nevertheless, we do see opportunities in CLOs, not to mention floating rate loans.’

Rich’s presentation looks like a thinly veiled pitch for fiduciary management, and Geert and I both tell him so. He looks defensive. ‘I can categorically state that we don’t want to move to fiduciary management and we are happy with the arrangements the way they are,’ I say.

I go on to explain our corporate parent’s plans for pensions, in outline at least, including some of the more contentious parts, like moving the domicile of the plan to Belgium. This has caused uproar in Wasserdicht’s Dutch employee council and the press has caught on to the plans. 

‘Your guess is as good as mine but the employees are fearful of regulatory arbitrage since the Belgian financial services regulator is known to be less strict on funding and recovery periods than our own Dutch National Bank,’ I explain.

The proposals for a centralised pensions and risk management are still embryonic, so I do not elaborate. Like she has done before, Agnes is clearly fishing for information about whether there will be more or less decision-making at Wasserdicht’s Dutch headquarters in future.

‘You are very lucky to have kept your independence for so long,’ Agnes says. ‘And of course, the sponsor can’t force through any of these changes. Your future is in the hands of your trustees and they have a reputation for dogged independence.’ I can’t disagree.

Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds

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