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IPE special report May 2018

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Swiss watchdog laments 'rudimentary' data on pension fund risks

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Vera Kupper Staub – former chief executive of the Pensionskasse for Zurich and now vice-president of Switzerland’s top supervisor, the Oberaufsichtskommission (OAK) – told delegates at the 2014 Swiss Pension Conference (SPC) that pension funds’ investment risks remained “the most difficult to assess”.

She said the data on investment risk collected for the OAK’s annual report was “too rudimentary”, with only a “rough breakdown” of the portfolio into equities, bonds, real estate, alternatives, liquidity and unhedged FX-exposure.

“But, based on this, it is difficult to really assess the investment risk of a pension fund,” she said.

She confirmed that supervisors, pension fund representatives and experts were now discussing new parameters for assessing the risk of pension fund investments, adding that the debate was still “completely open”.

Kupper Staub stressed that the OAK was not aiming for a Swiss solvency test for pension funds along the lines of what the Finma, the supervisor for insurers, has put in place for its institutions.

For her, the OAK’s main challenges are to “establish a risk dialogue with pension funds”, advance the risk assessment and “establish an understanding that mistakes do happen”.

In a personal statement unrelated to her position at the OAK, she noted that the government’s proposal to cap investment in alternatives – as part of the Altersvorsorge 2020 reform – according to a maximum fee level for each pension fund “might not be a good idea”.

She pointed out that this would be “a major infringement” on the autonomy of pension fund boards.

She added that, under the current system, with trustee boards comprising representatives from both social partners as well as experts, “we have to leave the responsibility for the investment strategy with them”.

Kupper Staub noted there was an alternative recommendation by the government to prohibit investments in “opaque” alternative investments, “which is something I can understand”.

She also argued that trends towards the individualisation of choices for members within the second pillar were “not in line with the system” or the purposes for which it was created.

She said this related particularly to a proposal brought forward by an MP to create tax incentives for pension funds to allow people with higher incomes to take on responsibility to choose their own asset allocation.

To date, only a handful of Swiss pension funds have introduced these so-called 1e-plans.

Kupper Staub said most people had been shown to make “irrational” choices when it came to long-term savings.

“I am not sure whether all these tendencies towards individualisation are really helping the idea behind a Pensionskassen system as a whole,” she said. 

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