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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Scottish pension funds and infrastructure investment

MSP’s have highlighted today how local government pension funds could make a useful contribution to infrastructure in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee has published a report on pension fund investment in infrastructure and City Deal spend. This is a good analysis of the current position and they examine the barriers to infrastructure and other socially useful investment.

The Committee draws attention to the UNISON Scotland report Funding and building the homes Scotland needs 2013. I wrote this paper with assistance from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. It called for local authority pension funds, with Government backing, to invest in Registered Social Landlords providing low risk and socially useful investment. Sadly, nearly three years later, there has been only a limited take up of this proposal, while £billions have been invested in overseas equities – not to mention arms companies, tobacco firms and fossil fuels.

The Committee identifies a number of barriers to infrastructure investment. Most of these have been recognised by the Scheme Advisory Board (SAB) for the Scottish LGPS and are included in their current workplan.

The investment regulations limit the amount of investment each fund is allowed to invest in infrastructure and other categories. These are overly prescriptive and the SAB at its last meeting recommended abolishing them and replacing the regulations with a more flexible code of practice.

Another barrier is lack of expertise. In effect pension funds invest in what they are comfortable with or as the Government Actuary Department (GAD) put it: “GAD considered funds didn’t invest in infrastructure because of a lack of necessary expertise to assess and quantify the risks involved, so they preferred to invest in assets with an established income stream.”

The obvious solution is to recruit the expertise. This is linked to an over reliance on expensive external investment managers. Lothian Pension Fund is probably one of the better examples of building in-house capacity in Scotland, but the best UK example is West Yorkshire, as the report notes:

37. Our attention was also drawn to WYPF and its approach to in-house investment management. In its written submission, it gave a number of advantages over externally managed funds, namely the speed of identifying potential infrastructure opportunities, the speed of authorisation for new infrastructure investments and the ability to manage investments over the longer term as in-house investment managers were free to make investment decisions based on a long-term assessment of the investment and returns.

38. This in-house approach enabled the Fund to gear its strategy towards low risk investments, over a longer period of time, and to keep fee costs down to achieve a 96% funded scheme.”

Fiduciary duty is also claimed to be a barrier to infrastructure investment. In my view this has been interpreted too conservatively by some funds in advice to their pension committee/boards. The report urges funds; “which haven’t yet considered these types of investment, to challenge themselves to do likewise and give a degree of priority to investing members’ funds more locally and building in elements of public good”. This is sound advice and I have written a briefing on fiduciary duty for our members on pension boards that sets out how this can be done. The SAB has also commissioned further legal advice and plans to issue guidance to funds on this issue next year. As the committee puts it; “We make the point that without some degree of risk taking, innovation will not happen. We see parallels with the taking of a narrow interpretation of the fiduciary duty

The report briefly touches on the pooling of funds as one way over reducing costs and building expertise. This follows the UK Government’s decision to push funds in England and Wales into six ‘wealth funds’. Guidance on this was published last week as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The Committee was ‘less attracted’ to this formal approach, drawing attention to the informal links that exist between funds in Scotland. The SAB has this issue in its workplan and is starting with new data collection tools that should inform this exercise. Pooling investment is not just an issue for infrastructure investment. It is also a means of improving transparency and reducing the very high costs of external investment.

Finally, the Committee looked at the topical issue of ethical investment and concluded:

43. While considering rates of return, it would be remiss of us not to consider investments in certain industries, for example, fossil fuels, arms and tobacco. These might provide a high rate of return but we question whether local government pension funds should be investing in such industries given social, environmental and ethical considerations. We note Strathclyde Pension Fund’s view these industries would be less responsible if public pensions did not invest and also that collective action by investors can have a greater influence on the industry. We consider funds should be guided by consultation with their members on this issue.”

The Committee is right to question such investments as UNISON representatives have been doing at pension boards. While pension funds are part of local government they are also bound by public law duties that government has placed on councils, such as climate change.

Overall, this short inquiry is a useful overview of pension funds and infrastructure investment and well worth a read. Most of the issues they have identified are being taken forward by the SAB, but there is also an issue of pension fund culture to be addressed. That may be a more intractable challenge.