Looking to the future

The Labour Chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, has written to the top 25 pension funds to enquire about what they are doing to “safeguard people’s pensions from the financial risk of climate change”. Ms Creagh was reported in City AM on 5 March as saying that “a young person today may be 45 years away from retirement. Over that time scale climate change risks will inevitably grow”.

The lack of understanding implied by this statement is breath-taking. Setting aside the problem that personal pensions[i] , the kind subject to auto- enrolment that pension funds provide – represent poor value for money because of the level of management fees and other expenses and place all the risk on the employee, the issue here is a failure to understand the kind of risk that climate change brings.

Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) holds that there are two kinds of risk: systemic and unsystemic. As we all live on the one planet, the risk associated with climate change is systemic. It is born by everyone and is independent of any investment decision the individual may make. With systemic risk there are no hedges available, no clever portfolio strategies by which it can be reduced. Ms Creagh might just as well have written to the Met Office to ask about what steps they were taking to stop climate change.

The primary interest of pension funds is to flog their product. They need to attract and retain customers – and the government’s requirement for auto-enrolment ensures a steady stream of these. They market their product by stressing their skill at achieving a good investment return and, to a lesser extent, the level of their fees. MPT holds that the future return on investments is largely independent of investment skill and, perhaps somewhat optimistically, the return will follow the long run average – no more than around 5% per annum real rate of return[ii]. Funds that imply a higher return are either in the snake oil business or taking on more risk that the punter realises. Rock bottom management fees of 0.5% per annum still represent 10% of this anticipated future return. Many management fees and other hidden costs are significantly higher than 0.5% per annum.

The horizons of pension funds are also determined by MPT. At the heart of MPT is the concept of discounting the future. This too is done at the 5% per annum real rate of return. Thus a certain loss in 45 years of £1 is treated as equivalent a certain loss of only some 10 pence today. Even if the pension funds had any way of influencing global warming in 45 years time, this interest would only represent one tenth of their concern about a similar risk today.

We need a solution to global warming, but it isn’t going to come from pension funds – or, regrettably it seems, from Ms Creagh. The only way out of the crisis we face is through genuine democratic control – the kind that promotes the interests of all workers, living and unborn. It’s called Communism.

[i] The alternative is a defined benefit scheme provided by an employer, but they are fast disappearing and, in the case of university and college lecturers, under current attack.

[ii] The only exception is when insider information is exploited. This is only possible for crooks and the super-rich.

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