EUROPE - For all the talk of 'once in a lifetime' value in credit, the speed of the recovery in asset values and the decision-making structures at Europe's pension funds may have left many unable fully to exploit what was a very narrow window of opportunity.

This is the finding from interviews and surveys that will appear in a special report forthcoming from IPE.

Even the giants of European pensions community took a slow-and-steady approach to the credit markets in 2009.  

Denmark's ATP went into the crisis well-positioned, not least thanks to the fact that its recently adopted 'investment-driven liabilities' policy left it favourably exposed to tumbling rates during 2008.

It had started to build out its fixed income portfolio with assets like high yield and emerging market debt at the beginning of the decade, but remained under-exposed.

However, it did not spend 2009 "piling in". Allocations were made to senior and mezzanine debt, and credit in general was doubled - but from a low base.

CIO Henrik Gade Jepsen said: "We did not buy them for short-term tactical reasons."

In the Netherlands, APG Asset Management was a little more adventurous. It too went for "relatively low-risk" mezzanine and bank loan funds, and later into hedge fund allocations that included some distressed debt, asset backed and commercial mortgage backed securities. During 2010 it added real estate debt.

Herman Slooijer, credits manager, said: "We were interested in finding pockets of opportunities where we could add value."

But he added: "Overall, we run a balanced portfolio and are long term and not short-term tactical investors."

Elsewhere, a much more hesitant picture emerges. A 'straw-poll' survey of our pension fund readership during April 2011 gathered responses from institutions with assets under administration ranging from €20m to €5bn.

One sizeable UK local authority pension fund had no credit-spread allocation at all before 2008 - and did not take advantage of the value opportunity of 2009, either.

Only one respondent increased its allocation significantly after the crisis, and others appear to have been put off of credit having been caught in the maelstrom of 2008 with sizeable allocations.

Nonetheless, those investors who were able to move added exposures that would have been very difficult to find in a pension fund portfolio before the crisis - such as high yield, convertibles and local currency emerging market bonds.

'The Search for Yield', will appear with the June 2011 issue of IPE magazine. It takes a tour of the credit markets through the crisis and assesses the outlook for different credit spread products in a rising rate environment.