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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.