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June 19, 2019 | High Fees and Risky Bets Not in Best Interests of Canadians

Danielle Park

Portfolio Manager and President of Venable Park Investment Counsel (www.venablepark.com) Ms Park is a financial analyst, attorney, finance author and regular guest on North American media. She is also the author of the best-selling myth-busting book "Juggling Dynamite: An insider's wisdom on money management, markets and wealth that lasts," and a popular daily financial blog: www.jugglingdynamite.com

Andrew Coyne points out some startling figures about the Canada Pension Plan on which the majority of Canadians depend for retirement income.  See Canada Pension Plan gets lucky with active management, for now. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Switching to a new ‘active’ management strategy in 2006,  the number of Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) employees has risen tenfold over the last 13 years (from 164 in the year ended March 31, 2006, to 1,661 in fiscal 2019).
  • Transaction costs and management fees are now 17 and 44 x what they were under passive management.  Operating costs, at $1.2 billion, are now 22x what they were in 2006 — 5x as much, relative to assets.
  • Total annual costs have risen 28x from $118 million to $3.3 billion annually (or from 0.12% of assets to 0.83%).
  • For all of this, the CPP says that it has beaten a “reference portfolio” of stock and bond indexes — by an average of 0.6% annually since 2006.
  •  While the CPPIB holds 56% of its portfolio in equities today, these are predominantly private equity, real estate and infrastructure projects which are less liquid than market assets and considered thus risk-equivalent to an 85% weight in equities, up from a 65% equivalency in 2015.

As always, there’s no free lunch.  The plan’s high risk-exposure also sets it up for higher than market losses in the next downturn, just as more and more retirees are applying for pensions, and fewer workers are paying into the fund. The critical importance of stable pensions and reliable payouts was the very reason that some 96% of public pension assets were held in fixed-income bonds and cash into the 1950’s, with strict limits on the amount of risky bets permitted (Federal Reserve’s US Financial Accounts).

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the fact that one may win at gambling for a given period does not make it a legitimate or prudent investment strategy.  Coyne comes to a similar analogy:

“Suppose, as an alternative scenario, the CPPIB’s managers had bet the fund on the fifth race at Woodbine, and suppose their their horse had won. It wouldn’t mean either that betting on the horses was a good investment, or that the CPPIB knew how to pick horses. It would just mean they got lucky…

Will it still be ahead of the game 13 years from now? We shall see. But by then the money will have been spent, and the managers paid, and it will be too late to ask for it back.”

High operating costs and risks do not bode well for the Canada Pension Plan’s promise to an aging, under-saved population; nor for Canadian taxpayers and a consumption-driven economy.  It will no doubt need restructuring to defer retirement ages by several years as well as increase funding in the years ahead.  All will be difficult for Canadians to afford.

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June 19th, 2019

Posted In: Juggling Dynamite

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