Dec 31, 2011

Sylvester: ABP, Cut Pensions?

At the end of 2011, let's take a short view on the madness around cutting pensions.

As a leading example, I'll discuss ABP, a Dutch 240 billion pension fund and one of the largest pension funds in the world.

Being fanatic blog readers and actuaries, you're probably 'in' for a teasing joke on Sylvester or 'New Years Eve'.

As you all know communication is key in the pension business. However, as pension investment results get more volatile and complex (in  time) to explain, communication about pension issues becomes more and more Chinese for ordinary pension members.

The latest threat, cutting pension benefits, urges board members to develop themselves to a kind of  'five-legged sheep' ....  The new 'normal' pension board member is undoubtedly the ideal combination of an actuary, accountant, investment specialist, communication expert, ICT specialist and - on top of - a keen psychologist.

Communication is a Profession
I'll give a short slightly exaggerated demonstration to all pension board members and actuaries of how difficult reading and understanding a well meant pension board message is, to an average pension member.

In order to 'save what can be saved' ABP's Vice-Chair Joop van Lunteren pleads for political help in ABP's 2011 Q3 Press Release.
Besides the question if a press release is indeed the right place for such a call, most pension members will have a hard time to understand what Mr. Van Lunteren wants so rightfully to express. For these pension members Mr. van Lunteren's message is more like Chinese...

ABP's Q3 Results: Cutting Pensions?
Now to more serious business...  Altough ABP's Q3 results are indeed not splendid,

the call for a more long term sustainable valuation system that makes pension funds less dependent upon volatile interest rates makes sense!

Also, there no need for panic (direct cutting measures), as from the 2010 annual report we can find that the annual benefits payments summed up to around € 7.5 billion on a total of assets of around € 240 Billion. If ABP would be allowed to wait for the effects of taken measures en developing markets for another five years, a 10% cutting of benefits would only have an impact of around € 4 to 6 billion on the total assets of around € 240 mln.
More info about Cutting Pension rights on Actuary Info....

Happy Silvester and good luck ABP!

- ABP Q3 Press Release
- ABP Annual Report 2010 
- Ming Imperial Fonts

Dec 12, 2011

Forecast Period Principle

As actuaries we mostly try to shape the data for our models (ALM, Stress Tests, Assessments, Etc.)  on basis of economic scenarios.

Recently we have experienced (Sub prime crisis, Bank crisis, Country crisis, Currency crisis, Debt crisis, etc) that our economy isn't that stable as we might perhaps have estimated or hoped (what's the difference nowadays?) .............

In other words:

Our Economy is chaotic by nature

Therefore, to learn how to shape our data, models and equations in a more chaotic or fuzzy way, let's take a look at the more chaotic processes of nature self.

Sea Level Rising
As an example let's pick out a major discussion: Sea level rising!
The discussion around this topic resembles the fuzzy way we discuss our economic and financial system. Some say sea level is rising and our (grand)children will surely drown. Others tell us not to worry. Who's right?

As the above graph - based on data of the University of Colorado - clearly shows, sea level is rising (Trend: ~3.1mm/year).

But just like in risk management models, the devil is in the details and (on the other hand) God's wisdom rules in time......

Actuarial devil watchers will have noticed a strange 'hockey schtick' in the above graph: Sea level is actually declining since 2007. 

This leads to the key question: 

What is a reliable Sea Level long term forecast?

How to answer this question...

Forecast Period Principle
To draw sensible forecast conclusions, the period of the measured and analyzed historical facts and their (explaining) context, has to be of  the same order of magnitude as the period we use to (context-dependable) project our data in the future.

So if we want to say something about for instance the next 14000 years, we should (also) look back 14000 years:

From the above chart it's clear that forecasts about sea level forecast on basis of 4, 10 or even  50 years are madman's exercises and useless.

On the long term (10-100 years) sea level will most likely keep rising at an average 3-4mm/year rate. So you don't need to calculate if your home will turn into an houseboat, unless....

Pension Funds and 'Forecast Period Principle'
Now let's apply the 'Forecast Period Principle' on pension funds...
  • Pension funds have a life span of more than hundred years, pension fund members have a life span of about 70-80 years.
  • Therefore projections and valuation of pension funds should also take place on basis of periods and (long) term discount rates of the same order of magnitude (10-50-100 years) as their life span. 
  • This implies that calculating coverage ratio's on a daily basis is perhaps a nice way to make a living as actuary, but practical completely inadequate. As it serves no goal, leads to unnecessary worries  and misleads pension board members. 
  • Lesson: calculate coverage ratios on 1,5 and 10 year basis and take action if all these coverage ratios start pointing in the same direction....

Unless.... : Langton Warning Principle

Yet, if you calculated your forecast on basis of the 'Forecast Period Principle', do not go to sleep peacefully!

Even if your models and visual inspection indicate a steady development, there's always the risk of a sudden 'Langton's Event' (loss).

In other words:

  1. Sea levels could suddenly Rise..
  2. Study Suddenly Rise Scenarios to prevent false alarm

    So take the 'Langton Warning Principle' serious and try to stay alert as risk manager in every possible circumstance.

    Do you want to learn more about Langton's principle? Read: Langton's Actuarial Ant

    'Crisis' will become business as usual for actuaries. Coming years, our short term 'Langton Warning Principle models' will be just as important as our steady forecasts on basis of  the 'Forecast Period Principle'. Don't mix them up!!

    Keep in mind the warning of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco:

    We have good reason to believe that what happened this year is not an anomaly, but instead is a harbinger of what is to come.
                                      NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (2011)

    Key Question
    Finally, the crisis key question will be:
    Are we Sinking or Thinking?

    Answer: It's all a matter of communication!

    Related links/Sources
    - Langton's Actuarial Ant
    - Colorado University: Sea level 
    - Some Actuarial Formula of Life Insurance for Fuzzy Markets
    - Google books: Actuaries' survival guide: how to succeed
    - Fractals & Actuaries (1997)
    - What about my town, when sea level rises X meter?
    - actual and historical sea levels: sea levels online
    - Sea levels Online
    - NOAA Report
    - Sea level Spredsheet of this Blog 
    - Original Picture: Climate Change Science Compendium 2009

    Dec 5, 2011

    River Deep Mountain High Actuary

    As actuaries we execute Risk management by the book. We dive deep into the tails of our risk sea and try to catch every small risk until we reach the value of the Planck constant.

    This approach was a proven method to success during the last decades. Our current financial crisis shows us that no asset class is free of risk. This crisis forces us not only to dive deep but also to look at the high mountains of economic risks and emotional winds.....

    In other words, to survive the next decades, we have to practice risk management

    River Deep, Mountain High

    In an excellent presentation Chris Martenson shows us that the constant doubling of debt is about tot collapse and that our economy has to make a turn.

    If you got some time left in your busy actuarial life, enjoy the full presentation of Chris and define for yourself which asset classes will be strong enough to survive this mother of all crises. Determine how you're going to embed these conclusions in your actuarial models...

    Chris Martenson’s presentation at the Gold & Silver Meeting in Madrid

    Here's the PPT presentation of Chris.

    Martenson Gold Silver Meeting Madrid 20111

    Rethink your Asset Mix
    If one thing becomes clear in this presentation, it's that your 'In crisis Asset Mix' will differ substantially from your 'Before Crisis Asset Mix'. By means of economic scenarios and combining financial facts with common sense, you and your board are challenged to find the right asset combination that de-risks your portfolio......

    After studying Chris' presentation I'm sure you'll be a qualified 'River Deep, Mountain High Actuary' !

    Sources/related Links:
    - Homepage Chris Martenson
    - Picture Rochat

    'Trying'  is hard: Youtube