Opening up the USS Joint Expert Panel

Number 25: #USSbriefs25

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 Open USS Pension Panel 2018 (OpenUPP; pronounced ‘Open Up’) is an ‘initiative from USSbriefs that intervenes in the ongoing USS pension dispute by tracking the USS Joint Expert Panel (JEP).

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 JEP comprises a Chair and six panel members. There are three UUK nominees and three UCU nominees. While we do not know the criteria used to select the UUK nominees, those putting themselves forward for potential selection as UCU nominees were asked to demonstrate that they had a high-level understanding of current debates within pension funds; an understanding of the wider importance of the commitment by UCU and UUK to a guaranteed Defined Benefit (DB) pension; expertise in and experience of working on panels; an ability to assimilate large quantities of complex information rapidly; a deep knowledge of higher education and/or industrial relations; and expertise in and commitment to equalities.

The Chair

Joanne Segars has been an advocate of making DB pensions sustainable while acknowledging the need for potentially ‘radical’ approaches so that they do not die a slow death. She has had many prominent roles in the UK pensions world, and holds degrees in economics and industrial relations. She has been senior policy adviser for pensions at the Trades Union Congress from 1988 to 2001, and Chief Executive of the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA). As Chief Executive of the PLSA, she launched a taskforce in 2016 to tackle the problems faced by DB pension schemes, noting that while the ‘difficulties facing defined benefit schemes are much talked about, and they often seem too complex or enormous to address… those problems aren’t going away any time soon’. She has also insisted that public sector pensions do not need to meet the same fate as private sector schemes. She was recommended for the position of Chair by Acas.

UUK nominees

Ronnie Bowie is a pensions consultant with a record of scepticism about the viability of DB schemes, often based on arguments about ‘intergenerational fairness’. He has argued against final salary schemes on the grounds that they they risk depriving younger employees and those not in such schemes of an appropriate pension. Bowie is currently Chair of Court at the University of Dundee, and a member of their Pensions Sub-Group. His thinking appears to be reflected in Dundee’s response to the infamous September 2017 UUK employer consultation (see USSbriefs12), which urged USS to reduce the risk in its valuation methods and investment strategy. The response also noted that the university was ‘very aware of the inter-generational issues caused by a significant reduction in benefits’ — and hence was perhaps willing ‘to pay something above 18% for a short period if this helped to reduce intergenerational issues as long as this was paid towards a Defined Contribution benefit and not increasing the already risky DB accrual’. Bowie is a partner at Hymans Robertson, having joined the company in 1980. He has not only witnessed but helped shape changes in actuarial practice in the last few decades — celebrating the emergence of the corporate risk manager as a ‘sexy and exciting post’ that rose, phoenix-like, after the severe blows to the actuarial profession as a consequence of the 2008 economic crisis.

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

Catherine Donnelly is a consultant and actuary turned academic (she is an Associate Professor in Heriot-Watt University’s Department of Actuarial Mathematics and Statistics), whose work examines ways in which pension schemes can pool investments and distribute risk between members rather than concentrating it in individual members or, for that matter, sponsoring employers. Her 2017 paper, ‘A discussion of a risk-sharing pension plan’, argues that ‘risk-sharing pension plans can reduce some of the shortcomings of defined benefit and defined contributions plans’ — and that the risk-sharing plan she presents ‘aims to improve the stability of benefits paid to generations of members, while allowing them to enjoy the expected advantages of a risky investment strategy’. Her proposal is similar to a CDC (Collective Defined Contribution) plan. Donnelly’s work on risk-sharing has also covered the collective pooling of mortality risk in particular — as evident in her 2018 talk titled ‘Capitalising on pensions freedom: reinventing the life annuity’.

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

To understand how a panel works, one needs to understand its dynamics. It is of little use simply to consider individuals on their own without considering how the Chair operates, how the group as a whole operates, and how differences in opinion, approach, and judgement are addressed and documented. Each of these elements is unknown to us. Reports from the JEP comprise Chair’s reports. Thus far, these reports have only noted the organisations from which the panel is taking evidence and the topics of discussion (for example: the ‘quality and range of demographic data on USS members including mortality and retirement assumptions’). No details have been provided about the panel members’ reactions to any of these issues, or about any points of contention among them. The Chair’s report, then, gives us little to go on in determining how the JEP is functioning.

Open Up!

The Chair of the JEP has stated that she believes ‘it is critical that USS members and employers feel that they can influence the work of the JEP’ and that she ‘will warmly welcome submissions on any issue relevant to our work’. We at USSbriefs contend that one of the most powerful ways USS members — and their allies — can influence the work of the JEP is by encouraging public debate, deliberation and contestation over the assumptions and methods used to determine the valuation of the USS scheme. For, as USSbriefs19 argued, ‘expert advice tends to prioritise what is already known over what is unknown or beyond immediate reach’. OpenUPP aims to bring to visibility what might not yet be known, or recognised, or considered to be important.

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

Felicity Callard thanks Andrew Chitty, Jo Grady and Leon Rocha for some of the research that underpins this brief.


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.