Opening up the USS Joint Expert Panel

Number 25: #USSbriefs25

Felicity Callard
Jul 4, 2018 · 10 min read

Felicity Callard, Birkbeck, University of London

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This is a USSbrief that belongs to the OpenUPP (Open USS Pension Panel) series.

Introducing OpenUPP

The JEP was the outcome of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) negotiation between Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU). The promise of the JEP convinced UCU members to suspend a period of sustained industrial action that had begun in February 2018 and was scheduled to continue throughout the rest of the academic year.

OpenUPP launched as the JEP began its work at the end of May 2018, and is designed to run parallel to the JEP, which is expected to issue its first report in September 2018. Crucially, OpenUPP, unlike the JEP, is designed to operate in public rather than behind closed doors.

OpenUPP takes its initial inspiration from JEP’s own Terms of Reference (ToR), which were finalised jointly by UUK and UCU at the end of April 2018. USSbriefs22 asked UCU members whether this was the JEP they had voted for — and argued for much greater accountability and transparency on the part of the JEP than was set out in the Terms of Reference. OpenUPP is one response to the challenge posed in USSbriefs22: it is intended to put pressure on the JEP to open up its workings, the evidence it considers, and its conclusions.

OpenUPP invites all those who want to engage creatively and critically with the JEP’s Terms of Reference — on the methodologies surrounding the valuation of USS, on the 2017 valuation in particular, on equality considerations, on intergenerational fairness, and so on — to submit to OpenUPP. This can take the form of making a submission to JEP public through submitting simultaneously to OpenUPP, or of writing something specifically for OpenUPP. While operating in accordance with our usual editorial practices, we shall ensure that submissions to OpenUPP have a public airing.

This brief, the first of the OpenUPP series, starts the process of opening up the JEP by reflecting on the experts who have been appointed to the JEP by UUK and UCU.

Who is on the JEP?

The Chair

UUK nominees

Sally Bridgeland, like her fellow UUK panellist Ronnie Bowie, is a consultant and actuary with a record of transferring risk from employers to scheme members. The first woman to be appointed as Master of the Worshipful Company of Actuaries, she spent 20 years, up till 2007, with the pensions firm Aon Hewitt. (See USSbriefs5 for details of Aon Hewitt’s role in relation to the USS pension dispute). As former CEO of the BP Pension Fund, Bridgeland devised and implemented a new funding strategy after the fallout from the 2010 Deepwater oil disaster. The strategy involved reducing equity risk and increasing low-yield, liability-seeking assets, in a similar manner to the ‘de-risking’ planned by USS. This strategy eventually led to the complete closure of the BP final salary scheme. In defending these changes, Bridgeland insisted that ‘the pension scheme should not be corralled into taking more investment risk in an attempt to compensate for the resultant rise in its liabilities’. Bridgeland has an interest in what it means to take on risk in the changed, post-2008 landscape — and might well focus on opportunities for USS to take on more risk with some of its assets. She regards ‘plan governance and execution capabilities’ as one of the means to improve investment performance — worrying that many pension trustees end up ‘managing the easy things that don’t matter’. She is likely to have a keen eye on the relationship between the USS Trustees and USS executive team.

Chris Curry is the only UUK-appointed panellist whose record suggests he might actively challenge USS’s investment strategy so as to support a long-term commitment to DB pensions. Having started his career as an economic adviser at the Department of Social Security (now the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP]), he is currently Director of the Pensions Policy Institute. Curry’s presentation in 2017 on ‘The future security of defined benefit pensions’ indicated that while DB has been ‘declining’, things might not be in as bad a shape as was feared: the challenge lay in ‘improving the security of vulnerable schemes without reducing benefits in more secure schemes’. Under Curry’s direction, the PPI has also argued for increased scrutiny of pension scheme governance. Its 2017 submission to the DWP call for evidence on ‘Defined benefit pension schemes: security and sustainability’ noted that ‘One area of weakness cited in research is overall board diversity, competency and the competency of individual trustees/board members in particular in relation to investments and risk management’.

UCU nominees

Saul Jacka is a longstanding, prominent, and forthright critic of USS who is known for challenging the scheme’s valuation methodologies and its claim that it is in deficit. Jacka is a professor in the Department of Statistics at University of Warwick, and much of his research in mathematical finance has focused on its links with actuarial science. He was lead signatory of the October 2014 letter ‘False assumptions of the USS’, which challenged the Employers Pensions Forum document ‘Proposed Changes to USS — Myths, Misconceptions and Misunderstandings’ (see also USSbriefs8). The signatories argued that the assumptions were ‘inadequately justified’ and were, cumulatively, ‘unreasonably pessimistic and incoherent’. Jacka and Jane Hutton (now a UCU-appointed USS trustee) met Bill Galvin, CEO of USS, in March 2015, after querying the method USS had used to estimate the alleged deficit. Hutton’s report from this meeting indicated that she and Jacka did not make further progress in their demands for openness and transparency. In October 2017, Jacka co-wrote letters to Janet Beer, President of UUK, and Frank Field, Chair of the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee, arguing that the pessimistic investment returns assumption ‘beggars belief’. In Jacka’s ‘light-hearted look at USS terminology’ (dated 14 February 2018) the entry for ‘crisis’ reads: ‘created by USS using an outdated and incorrect methodology to show that a scheme with over £60 billion of assets and positive cash flow every year is having problems. This notion of crisis has been taken up and made worse by the media’.

Deborah Mabbett, in her work on the JEP, is likely to be particularly attentive to taking into account the ‘equality considerations’ mentioned in the ToR. She has a strong interest in exposing inequalities (particularly in relation to gender) that are produced and nurtured by a ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ agenda, including DC pensions. She is a professor in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her doctorate is in economics, though most of her research has focused on public policy — and includes a focus on welfare and inequality, in relation both to anti-discrimination policy and to macroeconomic policies. She has undertaken work for the New Zealand Treasury and the World Bank. She has written on sex discrimination in private insurance in the European Union — analysing how privatisation (including the rise in DC pensions) often ‘magnif[ies] the disadvantages faced by women in the labour market’. In writing on pension risks and regulatory responses in the US and the UK in 2012, Mabbett emphasised the ‘riskiness’ of DC pensions — noting how behavioral economics demonstrates that ‘free and informed market exchange’, the principle which underpins the competition and choice agenda, does not produce ‘welfare-enhancing’ outcomes.

The JEP panel at work

Open Up!

OpenUPP provides the platform through which we aim to showcase evidence and arguments — from people and organisations who have different kinds of expertise and different starting points — that robustly interrogate the evidence, the models, and the methodological frameworks that we have been given by USS and accepted without demur by UUK. We are unlikely ever to know enough about what circulates in the room in which the JEP meets. We invite you, then, to bring fresh air into the JEP by submitting to OpenUPP.

If you wish to submit to OpenUPP, contact USSbriefs via Twitter or email us on USSbriefs@gmail.com.

Acknowledgements

This is a USSbrief that belongs to the OpenUPP (Open USS Pension Panel) series. This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtags #USSbriefs25 and #OpenUPP2018; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

USSbriefs

A set of papers written by University Staff and Students…

USSbriefs

A set of papers written by University Staff and Students, on University Staff and Students, for University Staff and Students. We are also on https://ussbriefs.com/

Felicity Callard

Written by

Professor of Human Geography, University of Glasgow. Editor of @HistHum. Founding member of @USSBriefs.

USSbriefs

A set of papers written by University Staff and Students, on University Staff and Students, for University Staff and Students. We are also on https://ussbriefs.com/

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