‘If the basis isn’t in order, you lose people’s trust’
APG can look back over a financially strong year. But some things also went wrong due to mistakes in the pension administration. The bar must be raised, say Chairman Gerard van Olphen and CFRO Annette Mosman. But first it’s all hands on deck to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis.
Even APG’s Executive Board is working from home on account of the coronavirus crisis. Just like nearly all the three thousand other employees who now work from their dining tables or their attics to look after the pensions of 4.7 million participants (nearly a third of the Dutch population) for the eight affiliated pension funds including ABP, bpfBOUW and SPW. Pleased that the switch to working from home has gone so smoothly, Gerard van Olphen and Annette Mosman - responsible for finance, risk management and data - look back via video call over the first few weeks.
As a result of the coronavirus crisis everything that came before suddenly seems far removed. And yet it’s worth pausing to look back at 2019. It was a strong year for APG: pension values were further increased by good financial results, a fine return on investment and lower costs. But there were challenges too: for example APG as an investor slightly underperformed the market average, a few things went wrong with pension administration, and APG has some work to do to catch up in terms of making its own corporate management sustainable. So this year too there’s plenty of work to be done.
First of all, the coronavirus crisis: how is APG dealing with it?
Gerard: ‘First of all we're taking good care of our employees, both in the Netherlands and in Hong Kong and New York. We’re supporting people maximally in working from home and we’re paying extra attention to internal communication. We also understand and pay attention to the difficult situation that some colleagues are currently in, such as combining work with taking care of their child, informal care or other situations. We also pay special attention to the health of our people. We’re also offering our help externally. Employees with a background in care can be placed with hospitals on full pay. On behalf of the funds we have also made student accommodation that we own or rent available as emergency hospitals, and we are supporting hospitals in the North of Italy in which we invest. Furthermore we have invested nearly ninety million euros in corona bonds for our clients: the funds raised are used to combat the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences. In consultation with the affiliated funds we are also adopting an accommodating stance with companies in problem sectors with regard to possible reductions or holidays in contributions or dividends.’
Many people in the Netherlands are afraid their pensions will be reduced.
Gerard: ‘Well, we’re certainly not going to reduce them during the year. At the end of the year we will look and see whether that is necessary. In the first quarter of 2020 the coverage ratios of the pension funds fell as a result of falling stock prices and turbulent financial markets, but for any decision to reduce pensions we do not look at the current situation.’
Annette: ‘Pension is uncertain and subject to numerous influences that we explain to participants as best we can. So we can’t take away the growing uncertainty about future pensions, but we will see to it that monthly pension payments continue normally even in these uncertain times. People can count on their income just as always, and that contributes to peace and confidence in society.’
How do you look back at 2019?
Annette: ‘Financially it was a good year. First of all we sold our insurance company Loyalis in order to concentrate on our core activities. As a result we were able to pay a super dividend to the affiliated funds, which will largely end up in participants’ pensions. At the same time total revenues increased and we managed to reduce costs. In this way we maximize pension value and make sure that as big a proportion as possible of each euro paid in works to the benefit of the participants. It also enables us to invest more in communication with participants and employers, for which we have set up a new business unit.’
Not everything went well last year: for example there was negative publicity about errors in the pension administration.
Gerard: ‘Yes, there were a number of things that we simply didn’t do right. For example, at the beginning of last year, it was discovered that over 500 ABP participants had for years been receiving a partner supplement to which they were not entitled. In some cases people were suddenly asked to pay back thousands of euros. We came in for a lot of criticism over this. We hadn’t fully realized what an impact this would have on participants and hadn’t properly thought about an equitable solution. In the end, ABP called a halt to the demands for reimbursement and gave back the money that had been reimbursed. Conversely some 600 participants had received too little supplement; they have since been paid with retroactive effect. And then we found out that there were 16,000 people who hadn’t applied for disability pension because they didn’t know they were entitled to it. We immediately contacted these people to tell them how they could apply for this pension.’
Shouldn’t APG have opened up sooner about the mistakes and how they were dealt with? Participants had to take them to TV consumer programs like ‘Kassa’ and ‘Meldpunt’.
Annette: ‘The affiliated pension funds are the interface and the point of contact for the participant. So we must be more transparent toward the pension funds concerned about mistakes, problems with data and the possible solutions to them. If they’re informed in good time that something has gone wrong, they can pro-actively communicate with their participants and seek solutions. This would partly avoid problems ending up on Kassa.’
Gerard: ‘The annoying thing is that when we do something wrong, it’s the fund concerned that has to face the music. As administrator, we can’t take part in Kassa ourselves, much as we might like to take responsibility. For example, there was one couple on Kassa who had received three letters with corrections in two years. That damages credibility. It’s only natural that people then start to wonder about reliability and competence in general. It’s a struggle. This year we really need to pull our socks up and improve our quality.’
What specifically are you doing to prevent these kinds of incidents in the future?
Annette: ‘We learn from them. Together with the pension funds we’ve set to work determinedly on further simplifying pension regulations, systems and application procedures and we're busy with data cleansing and verification. We’re making employees aware that the bar’s been raised and we’re making use of new technology to be able to take the next step.’
Gerard: ‘The basis must be in order. Because if the pension administration is not right, you lose people’s trust, however much you might invest in communication with participants. With the new pension contract the bar will soon be raised even higher: all data will have to be correct and complete and seamlessly dovetailing with the data of the UWV (Employee Insurance Agency) and the National Insurance and Pension Agency. So we really need to work our way up from Premier League to Champions League.’
In view of the current crisis, does it still make sense to agree on a new pension contract that shifts the risk more toward the participant?
Gerard: ‘We’re going from a pension guarantee to a pension ambition: an estimate of future returns. The old system is no longer sustainable, but in the new system as far as we're concerned three principles remain unchanged: collectivity, solidarity between generations and an obligation to save for later. The coronavirus crisis does make it all the more urgent to cut through knots in the debate about the new pension contract. APG is actively thinking about this. We are working out how various scenarios would be, suggesting alternatives and looking at the specific implications for participants and employers, with the emphasis on comprehensibility and feasibility.’
Annette: ‘We also want to help people now to think about their future financial situation and making the right choices in good time. With this in mind, we’ve developed Clear Overview & Insight, with which you can compare your expected pension with your current pattern of income and expenditure and see whether you're going to have enough. APG aims to present itself as a trusted guide, offering people insight into their income now, in the near future and later.’
APG also positions itself as a responsible investor, and makes demands of its investees in terms of sustainability. However APG itself seems not yet to be meeting these demands overall. How are you going to change this?
Gerard: ‘The affiliated funds, particularly ABP, but also bpfBOUW, aim to be global forerunners in sustainability policy: responsible conduct in the areas of environment, working conditions, diversity and human rights. Together we have established firm ambitions which are aligned with the Climate Agreement, for example for CO2 emissions of the equity portfolio. We take account of these in our investment decisions and we talk to investee companies about them. But this of course implies that we must also set a good example, and that's where we still fall short. Our CO2 emissions as an organization are relatively high, from our establishments in the Netherlands, Asia and the US and because we travel a lot. We’re looking now at how we can reduce our environmental footprint, for example by making our offices more sustainable, more videoconferencing and thus less travel between establishments and for our work.’
Annette: ‘We aim to be transparent about our sustainability performance too, both as regards the investment policy pursued on behalf of the funds and in our own business management. This year we’ve taken the first step toward integrated reporting: one annual report in which we render account of progress toward both financial and non-financial objectives. That’s actually quite difficult. For example, before you can report properly on sustainability, you first have to know what goals you want to make measurable and to what extent. That’s what we're busy with now, so that next year we’ll be able to show what we’ve achieved across the entire breadth of our business, what’s going well and anything that still isn’t. There are many benefits to be derived from this. This transparency can also contribute to society’s confidence in us.’
Read the interview with Ronald Wuijster: ‘In both our investment and our remuneration decisions we look to the long term’