Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Icelandic Pension System: Only 700 billion missing

The FSA in Iceland recently posted a new set of figures regarding the pension system back home. The bottom line: only 674 billion ISK missing (i.e. the total actuarial position is negative by 674 billion). That translates into just over 39% of GDP which is an improvement from the 2009 figure when the gap was a considerably worse 50% of GDP. So even if the current situation is bad - good luck finding money nearly equal to the whole government's, local and state, income for a whole year! - it isn't as bad as four years ago.

Or is it?

The Icelandic pension system is often held up high as one of the best ones in the world (at least in Iceland). Again, looking at other pension systems, I suppose this is true but that's not because the Icelandic system is so great but rather because most other systems are so bad! At least Iceland had the wits to store some of the pension-tax that is collected from its citizens, creating somewhat of a buffer for the public finances once the baby-boomers retired and their grandchildren entered the tax... sorry... labour force. Consequently, we have assets in the system worth around 129% of GDP (which, taking the deficit into the account, means that we, and our unborn children, have promised ourselves to pay ourselves pension worth 168% of GDP... we just don't have the money to do so... yet... but that's a problem for future generations, right?)

Not doing too bad in comparison to many others. Bankrupt by 700 billion ISK all the same.

Seemingly slowly recovering

The second graph above might give the impression that the system is recovering after the 2008 crash. What it doesn't show however is that the funds cut down the benefits of their clients by 130 billion already by year end 2011. So the majority of the improvement in their actuarial position comes from these cuts. The 2012 improvement is certainly helped by a convenient increase in domestic stock prices at the end of the year.

What's wrong?

The fundamental problem of the Icelandic pension system is that it implicitly promises a rate of return that is impossible to get in the long run. This rate of return is around 3.5%. Nobody in fact knows it for sure for it hinges on the development of factors such as wages and expected longevity. And since nobody knows for sure how exactly those factors will change, the only thing we can do is to estimate the needed rate of return to fulfil the pension promises. And the best estimate: 3.5% real rate of return per annum. Consequently, this figure is in the actuarial accounting for the pension system to try and keep balance between the future cash flows that will affect the asset side of their balance sheet on one hand and the liabilities side on the other.

But think about this: in an economy with limited resources and in fact where the annual GDP growth is already below 3% on average, is it realistic to promise a 3.5% rate of return on your pension assets?

If the impossibility of this promise doesn't immediately pop up in front of your eyes, think of it this way: would you trust a person who promises to pay you a 3.5% real rate of return on the funds you are going to lend to her when you expect that this person will only earn 3.0% real rate of return on her investments?

If I would show up at the bank with such an investment plan, I should be rightfully laughed at and tossed out!

The beauty however of macroeconomics is that we can run such an unrealistic system for quite a while by racking up gross debt - owed by the households themselves, firms and the state - in the early stages of the system. The newly created debt will act as somebody's income and spur increases in asset prices, consequently improving the balance sheets of those who hold the assets in question. So while the debt increases, the system will report a rate of return higher than the growth of GDP. In the end however, the debt burden brings the system down and it collapses. This is why I've repeatedly called the Icelandic pension system a Ponzi scheme.

That is the essential problem of the Icelandic pension system: it promises more than it can deliver. On top of that comes the very important side effects of pushing the rate of interest in the Icelandic economy upwards. This happens due to the funds' gigantic size in the economy while they demand such a high rate of return on whatever they buy: to fund an investment project, it is not unlikely that at least some of the money will come, one way or the other, from the Icelandic funds which demand a 3.5% rate of return. Consequently, the rate of interest is pushed upwards, killing the economic recovery.

I only realised this in 2010 and went public (e.g. here, here, and here) with this rather blatant truth once one just stops and thinks about it. Already in 2010 I repeatedly warned that the system needed reform to lower the dreaded 3.5% minimum rate of return. I also warned that if the pension system would not be reformed, the rate of interest would stay too high and kill off any gross investment in the economy. It wasn't done and, as expected, the level of gross investment in the economy hit a historical low! The high rate of interest, pushed upwards by the pension system, was one of the culprits.

We would have had a proper recovery if the pension system had been reformed

The Icelandic Pension Fund Association publicly replied and said I was wrong. One of the foremost specialists on the system, Bjarni Thordarson (who has now passed away), claimed my stating of the case a "nonsense" (i. dómadagsrugl). The president of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, Gylfi Arnbjornsson, thought that my "misunderstanding" about how the system worked was becoming "awkward".

Now, finally, we have news that they are going to do something about it: the system is being reformed although it seems as if they are mainly going to reform it such that the government-backed up part and the private part will be coordinated with each other. They are going to jack up the pension age from today's 67 years though. Overall, reports are still hazy and the final plan has not been formalised.

Let's wait and see and hope that they will actually improve the system but not just reform it.

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