The Dutch pension system is again rated the best this year in the Mercer Index. Why is that and how is pension arranged in other countries? We asked two experts.
We like to complain about it, but with relatively little reason: the Dutch pension system is the best in the world. In the Mercer Global Pension Index, that compares all pension systems in the world on several crucial points, ‘we’ are rated at the top position, just like last year. “No other country scores this good on all of those points as we do”, says Rob Bauer, professor Institutional Investors at the University of Maastricht. The index assesses the adequacy, durability and integrity of a pension scheme. Are the payouts sufficient for the participants? Is it affordable in the long term? And how honest and transparent is the system?
The Netherlands scores quite alright on all of these three points, also says Onno Steenbeek who is responsible for strategic portfolio advice at APG and works as a professor in risk management of pension funds at the Erasmus University. “The entire world is jealous of the Netherlands”, he says. “What makes us unique within Europe is the fact that we have saved a lot of money labelled pension.”
That’s something the people in a country such as the United States can only dream about. With a ranking at the 16th position on the international list, the US is not scoring very well. The paternalistic model of the Netherlands, in which it is mandatory for us all to save for our pension once we are employed somewhere, is just unthinkable in the US, says Bauer. Annuity, having your pension paid periodically, is in many cases a choice over there instead of an obligation, like it is in the Netherlands. That is to say, if you receive pension at all. “There has been an enormous trend in the US from collective to individual systems, or even no pension system at all. The public pension funds that still exist, are of states and cities. Some cities have already gone bankrupt.”
One of the related causes is the weak legislation, says Bauer. “There are guidelines in place, but the funds have a lot more freedom to do whatever they want. That’s a big problem. They are allowed to take too much risk which means they can achieve high yields, but also suffer major losses.”
Moreover, the funds in the US work with a much more optimistic calculation of the coverage ratio, but even with that calculation method it is way worse than in the Netherlands. Bauer: “The largest pension fund of America has a coverage ratio of approximately 70 percent. But if they would calculate the coverage ratio according to the Dutch legislation, it would only be 30 percent.”
Bauer believes that Americans find us too strict in the Netherlands. “You could say that we act as if the world is ending, while they act as if nothing is going on.”
UK and Denmark
The United Kingdom, ranked at the 14th position, is not performing much better than the US. The UK has also made a move from collective to individual, says Bauer. About five years ago, pensioners there were given the freedom to withdraw their pension after the age of 55 in one go, instead of having it paid every month for the rest of their lives. Bauer is horrified by this ‘Lamborghini pension’. “We have arranged that a lot better with our mandatory annuity. It is the smartest choice economically speaking.”
In terms of the system, the English scheme is closest to the one in the Netherlands, according to Steenbeek. People save money through their employer and the employer also contributes. “However, a large part of the population is not covered by a pension scheme.” Where 90 percent of the employed people in the Netherlands is affiliated to a pension fund, that percentage in the UK, but also in countries such as the US and Canada, is only about 40 percent. Another fact is that the English only put 8 percent of their income aside (the employer pays half), while that’s approximately 20 percent in the Netherlands.
Denmark has a high score internationally speaking, with a second position on the ranking. They mainly owe that position, according to Steenbeek, to the fact that they have a state pension in place, the same as our AOW, a well-organized and financed collective basic pension for every resident. Besides that, most of them have a supplementary pension, linked to income and assets.”