Universities unveil firm pension proposals

Universities have set out their plans to reform the sector’s largest pension scheme.

October 13, 2014

In a document published on 13 October, Universities UK confirms that it wants to a document explaining “myths misconceptions and misunderstandings” about its proposals - added.

The changes are designed to eliminate an estimated deficit of about £8 billion, caused largely by a fall after the post-2007 financial crisis in expected investment returns.

However, that deficit may be as large as £13 billion once the USS de-risks its investment portfolio, leading to lower but more stable returns, and adjusts its longevity assumptions.

The UUK proposals will now be put to the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC), which comprises an equal number of UUK and University and College Union representatives and an independent chair, on 22 October.

A JNC recommendation will later be put to the USS Trustee Board, with a formal consultation with scheme members likely to take place early in 2015.

The UCU is already balloting members in 67 universities for industrial action to oppose mooted changes to the USS, with the ballot due to close on 20 October.


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Reader's comments (9)

In the 5 years since the 2007 to 2009 crash, the assets of the USS scheme have risen from £21bn to their highest ever level, £41bn*, a much faster and more extensive recovery than FTSE. The USS investment team have done well. The calculated £8bn deficit in the scheme amounts to little more than two year's investment performance*. The scheme is in annual cash surplus (contributions plus investment income, minus pensions paid out) of well over £1bn*, a performance sustained over the past 5 years and more*. There seems to be little wrong with the USS, and the justification for change appears entirely arbitrary. (*Figures from successive USS Annual Reports to members.)
I also have taken the figures from the ARs, and they just about match the FTSE total return (i.e. with dividends reinvested). Since dividends are about 3.5% pa, over 5 years that makes quite a difference. The USS fund performance has in fact matched the FTSE TR pretty closely since 2001, the earliest report on the USS site. The expensive "USS investment team" is merely mediocre. And just in case you haven't noticed, the FTSE is down about 9% since the end of August. So two years' investment performance like that will put the USS exactly where? Although there is a net surplus, that is decreasing rapidly. Give it 10 years, and they'll be digging into capital. What is wrong is that final salary pensions schemes were always an open-ended commitment, and that high-flyers - whose salaries are flying ever-higher - enjoy a subsidy from those on a flatter career path. A CRB-type scheme is fairer, but the current one includes a built-in subsidy for the FS - there is only one fund, which is not segregated between the two schemes. Each employer pays a 'blended' contribution rate across member employees, irrespective of the actual proportions of CRB and FS. So there's a cross-subsidy between member institutions as well. Without the burden of paying for the FS deficit, a decent independent CRB could be designed.
The FTSE comparison I used was taken at end of March each year, to match the USS Annual Reporting timeframe. You'd be foolish to re-jig a long-term pension scheme on the basis of even 1 or 2 years poor stock market performance, let alone the last 2 months. So, to answer your question, yes, I had noticed. And the USS investment performance last year was greater than 7%, according to Annual Reports. To quote from this year's AR: "Over the last three years the total fund has returned 8.1% p.a." They are getting better. The net cash surplus in the USS scheme is NOT declining rapidly. It more than doubled from 2002 to about £1.1bn in 2008, dipped to a low of about 900m in 2011 and 2012, and recovered to its present £1.15bn this year, slightly less than in 2013. The point is that in recorded history (since 2001) it's ALWAYS been in substantial surplus, and the trend is upwards. No sign of digging into capital for a while yet. No argument that a decent CRB could be designed, but it's a poor one that is on offer, with a move to Defined Contribution also introduced that we must anticipate is UUK's plan for the future.
To turn your comment around, you would also be foolish to decline to rejig ...... good stockmarket performance. What do you think would have happened if the triennial valuation had been a year different and had happened in March 2003 and 2009 when the FTSE was down 50%? Choosing an arbitrary date every three years is insane, whatever gloss you choose to put on a specific set of figures. The investment performance not getting better - the fund return has closely followed the FTSE TR. Giving an absolute figure might sound good in comparison with a savings account, but you have to compare like with like. Regarding the cashflow surplus, presumably you have seen the membership distribution? Approx 70% of pensioners are under 70 and will mostly still be receiving their pensions in 10 years, and the figures for new retirees indicates an extra £100m pa outgoings in pensions each year. All index-linked while salaries and hence contributions stagnate. Also the surplus is 200m. If you use the FTSE TR for comparison, the fund income is counted there, not in the cashflow with members. You're trying to count the odd 1bn twice. At least we agree that a decent CRB is feasible, if not on offer. However, with hindsight, I'd have preferred a DC and be allowed to invest in a low-cost FTSE tracker. If it's deferred pay, I'd prefer to defer it in my own way, thanks, without subsidising others.
@Richard @RB Richard I disagree with you about the solvency of USS in the long term. This is a hideously complicated area and involves many assumptions and some guess work. The actuarial valuations are set out and you can challenge the assumptions and recalculate. The ones that really matter are longevity, contribution, real returns on investment and salary progression; the rest is actuarial arithmetic. If you can show clearly how reasonable different assumptions here get us a solvent long term scheme with same deal as now you should do so. The current cash surplus is neither here nor there. I do not see any reason to believe the actuarial assumptions are hugely flawed so I accept USS is bust long term. Predictably there is some shroud waving from the boss class that distorts what we should do about it. @RB for me the problem with individual DC is what happens if you retire on the day the market is a historic low? Since you cannot a priori know the market years away, some form of pooling of risk (temporal averaging) should create an insurance type scheme that smooths out chance effects (ie winners who retire the day market hits an all time high get less and those who retire at all time lows get more). I think the BBC CRB scheme is quite a good model. By restricting the temporal averaging to a rolling seven year window, then long term shifts in returns can be gradually introduced.
@JIM_STA. Well, pensions reform means that you no longer have to buy an annuity (and under certain circumstances, that's been true for a number of years). However, the whole edifice of pensions is suspect - the tax advantages are overwhelmingly for the higher-paid; in fact, there is no tax advantage for those who pay basic rate tax both in employment and retirement. And there is a huge rake-off by financial services. For DC schemes that has been repeatedly exposed. For DB schemes there is no way of knowing. I'm tending to the opinion that pensions either have to be payg state schemes, where political necessity will balance pensions with taxation, or alternatively self-directed private savings.
@RB? I agree about the tax thing, its a huge transfer of wealth from lower paid. Many members of UCU are higher tax payers, they have hugely benefitted and the employer contribution is not taxed. I also agree the financial pension industry is a parasite. There has been incompetence and slack management at USS for years and the whole beat the market is a con. However I disagree that DC is right for everyone, for the better paid delaying annuity by relying on savings or taking drawdown for five years till the market recovers and self directed investment is an option, maybe not such good options for less well paid (who lack savings or have enough of a pot to make drawdown work). As to the PAYG schemes, they are indeed on their face reasonable for stable employment numbers. However, they do rely on the politicians not doing you over if push comes to shove in the future. What a choice, rely on bankers or politicians
@JIM_STA. 'Twas I. As soon as you delegate the management of your savings to someone else, you're signing up for contributions to their yacht fund. That's why I favour direct control. Since the goods and services consumed by future pensioners are produced by those who are economically active at the time, politics will always play a part in how that is redistributed, through tax policy on earnings vs savings income vs capital, rights of ownership, etc. Perhaps the solution is to have a large and loving family??
I'm also quite amused by the ads at the right -- annuties and will-writing so far. Hope the next one's not a funeral director.