Pooling pension funds makes perfect sense

Far from the hysteria about "Granny tax II", London's pension investment plan can't come soon enough

Pension funds and infrastructure investment have enjoyed a recent revival in policy discourse. Last month Prime Minister David Cameron used a major speech on the economy to discuss infrastructure, ‘the magic ingredient in so much of modern life.’ In Budget 2012 Chancellor George Osborne announced a new Pension Infrastructure Platform. Yesterday they were the talk of the town in London.

The proposal to pool the pension funds of London boroughs and to invest these assets through a new infrastructure vehicle is good news both for the public purse and good news for the essential upgrades – to transport, utilities and communications – that the capital requires. However, a new debt vehicle will only go so far. To drive economic growth London councils should consider more fundamental reforms to the pooling of both finance and risk.

Pension funds have long time horizons. This means that they are well placed to invest in the infrastructure that is crucial to economic growth but will not realise immediate returns, such as new transport connections. In fact, there is a near perfect match between pension funds' appetite for long term assets and the need for long term financing of infrastructure.

Although underdeveloped in the UK the investment model has been pursued abroad; Canadian public pension funds are amongst the most active backers of infrastructure in the world. London councils are reportedly modelling their new approach on the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (OMERS).

The scale of the OMERS model encourages collaborative working. This has provided the stability required for Ontario investment managers to build up management expertise. In the UK, councils that collaborate on investment decisions – through arrangements like those in place in Greater Manchester or under discussion in the Leeds city region – can raise far more money than those that work alone. In the absence of a clear national strategy for growth such local prioritisation and investment certainty is crucial.

OMERS holds CAD $55 bn in assets which makes it slightly smaller than the proposed £30 bn London fund. As of December 2010 OMERS had committed 15.5 per cent of its total portfolio to infrastructure. Its target allocation of 21.5 per cent dwarfs the investment planned by London council’s: 7.5 per cent of pension fund assets or £2.25 bn.

OMERS invests through its Borealis infrastructure vehicle. Borealis was established in 1999 and has built up sufficient expertise to run a varied infrastructure portfolio. London councils should consider establishing a similar independent vehicle so that decisions are based on the best business case for investment and the fiduciary duty of trustees, rather than political short-termism.

The relatively small scale of the Canadian infrastructure market means that OMERS has invested in international markets in order to meet its portfolio target. London boroughs may prefer to invest solely in projects in and around the capital, such as Crossrail or the proposed extension of the Northern Line to Battersea. However, prioritising local investments will undermine portfolio diversity. The boroughs will have to take a more holistic view of infrastructure for local economic growth.

London council’s may want to consider channelling local investments through a revolving investment fund (RIF). This would provide a vehicle through which councils could co-operate on the use of existing capital spending allocations and prudential borrowing. Greater Manchester has recently established a £1.2 billion RIF and agreed a city deal with the government that gives councils the opportunity to "earn back" up to £30m a year of tax for the growth it creates through infrastructure investments. This could include both corporate and income tax and demonstrates that Government is willing to consider potential funding opportunities that go way beyond the current plans for local business rate retention.

London boroughs could look to negotiate a similar deal, assessing infrastructure investment not only on stand-alone returns but on how they will underpin the development of London’s businesses.  If they succeed in this they could well have found a "magic ingredient" for economic growth. They may even have a few ideas to offer the Canadians.

London boroughs are planning to pool their pension liabilities. Credit: Getty

Joe is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit