Pension system reform requires drastic ICT operation
The Netherlands is on the eve of the largest-ever pension system reform in the world. That transition is causing quite a few headaches in the sector. One of the challenges is whether pension administrators’ existing ICT systems are suitable for this major change to the system. And if that is not the case, is there still enough time to set up a completely new ICT architecture?
To start with the pressing question: can the current systems be adapted to accommodate the new contract? According to Wim Henk Steenpoorte, who is responsible for the transition to the new system at APG, the two systems that APG is currently using are "very good systems in and of themselves, which are currently working just fine. Of course, you can see if you can modify existing systems, which is why we are now doing research into this. But because the character of the system is changing so fundamentally, I’m not ready to make any big claims that that route is the most sensible. That is why we are consciously looking broadly at different options: build it ourselves or buy or create it through an alliance.”
The fundamental change Steenpoorte is referring to concerns the transition within the Dutch pension system from defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC). With a DB contract, the fund makes a promise about the amount of future pension benefits; in the case of a DC system, the participant knows what he or she is investing, but has less certainty about the amount of the pension payments.
According to Steenpoorte, what makes this ICT issue so difficult is that the administration of a pension contract becomes increasingly complicated over time. "They are contracts that store an enormous history. Changes are made every year. People get married or divorced, for example, and all those lifetime events have a major impact on the administration of their pension. This accumulation of changes makes administration intrinsically more and more complicated.”
A lot of pressure
In addition, apart from the two variants of the new pension contract, a number of other legislative changes already need to be implemented in the ICT systems. "I wish all we had to process was the new pension contract in whichever variant a fund chooses. But there is already a lot of pressure due to the bill on pension equalization, regarding divorce, lump-sum payment, standardization of survivor's pension, standardization of the partner concept, experimenting with legislation on pensions for the self-employed and evaluating communications regarding pensions. What we really want to avoid is having to make all these changes twice; once in the current system and once in the new system," says Steenpoorte. In any case, it going to be a very busy time for the people working on our current systems.
He doesn't have to think long about what the ideal circumstances would be to make the transition go smoothly. "To begin with, speed up the process of arriving at new legislation. It has now been promised that this will be completed in December 2021, and in order to achieve this there cannot be any obstacles. But it is imperative for the decision-making process at the level of social partners and pension funds. Secondly, everyone would benefit from clarity regarding the process in which funds choose their options – with respect to the form of the contract, but also, for example, about the design of the solidarity reserve. The third requirement for a workable transition, is the conditions that are imposed on the integration (transferring participants’ pension entitlements from the old system to the new system, ed.).
That integration is going to be a complex job to begin with, but if there is also going to be an option to make individual objections, that is going to really complicate things. That also applies to retroactive changes. For a DC contract, that is almost impossible to do. Suppose, for example, a year’s worth of pension premium is invested retroactively. That premium can then no longer be invested in the financial markets of a year ago, but the participant is entitled to any returns achieved during that year. How are you going to solve that? Because we can only process changes on the day they are reported to the fund and the administrator; the so-called timeliness principle.”
There is also a possible scenario in which there is no integration. "All participants would then receive two pension contracts, one for the old system and one for the new one. Changes would then have to be processed in both the old and the new system. When there are questions from participants, the two systems would both have to be examined to find an answer,” Steenpoorte says.
Will APG be able to deal with this? Steenpoorte: "We are imagining every scenario, and ultimately, there is a solution for everything. But this would really be a nightmare - for funds and their participants, and for APG.”