Pension Scheme Data, Trustees and a 12 Step Programme

Neil Copeland

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I’m thinking of founding Administrators Anonymous. A bit like Alcoholics Anonymous but for those trying to wean themselves off final salary pension schemes.

My Doctor did once ask me if I had a problem with alcohol but I explained to her that, on the contrary, I really quite liked it. However, I did come across an article about Alcoholics Anonymous the other day, as you do, which quoted the Serenity Prayer and was immediately struck by the latter’s applicability to pension scheme trustees.

For those of you not familiar with the prayer, they key part is reproduced below.

Grant me the serenity;
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage, to change the things I can;
And the wisdom, to know the difference.

It seems to me that trustees and employers spend inordinate amounts of time and money on having actuaries and consultants run all sorts of models with all sorts of assumptions, fretting about risks over which they have no control. For example, neither trustees, employers nor their advisers have any real control over future investment returns, future inflation, future legislation, future life expectancy or the future security of sovereign debt. I’m not suggesting for one minute that trustees should blithely ignore these risks – clearly they need to assess and understand them – however, trustees seem to be less engaged with at least one serious risk over which they do have control and which they can change.

Data.

Trustees – serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom are needed here and needed now! We’ve blogged on the consequences of poor data before, but to recap, without accurate data all the actual valuations and investment strategies you can think of are seriously flawed. Incorrect or missing data impacts on all key areas of scheme management. If your data is poor, that funding plan that you’ve agonised over with the employer isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

So I’ve come up with a 12 step programme to help trustees cope with their data problems based on the principles that have helped alcoholics, gamblers and sex addicts successfully confront their various demons over the years.

DISCLAIMER No inferences about my personal proclivities should be drawn from the entirely random set of addictions noted in the previous sentence.

12 Step Programmes invariably invoke a higher power for assistance, which in this particular context, is clearly Spence & Partners. Bearing that in mind, the 12 Step Programme for trustees struggling with data demons would look something like this:

  1. Admit to yourselves and Spence & Partners that you have a problem
  2. Believe that Spence & Partners can restore your data to an acceptable level
  3. Make a decision to turn your data over to Spence & Partners
  4. Make a searching and fearless inventory of your data and its shortcomings
  5. Admit to Spence & Partners, to yourselves, and to your current administrator the exact nature of your data problems.
  6. Be entirely ready to have Spence & Partners remove all these defects in your data.
  7. Humbly ask Spence & Partners to remove your data shortcomings.
  8. Make a list of all members harmed by your incorrect data in the past and be willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Make direct amends to such members wherever possible.
  10. Continue to review and maintain your data and when you find it is wrong promptly admit it and correct it.
  11. Through monitoring and review continue to improve your data, seeking guidance where necessary from Spence & Partners
  12. Having realised as the result of these steps that your data was deficient in the past , tell others about the tremendous change worked by Spence & Partners on your data quality, and see what other areas Spence & Partners can help you in

As always with these self help programmes, Step 1 is the most difficult, but you will feel so much better about yourself for having taken it.

There is a serious point to this – there usually is to my ramblings but sometimes it is extremely well hidden. Trustees and administrators (and, whisper it quietly, despite the 12 Step Programme outlined above the latter doesn’t have to be Spence & Partners) need to engage and have an honest discussion about scheme data and how it can be improved. It’s no longer an option to sweep this under the carpet. For a more considered assessment of how trustees can really take control of their data and comply with the Pensions Regulator’s guidance in this area see our previous blogs on the matter or contact my colleague Mark Johnson or I to discuss our Pensions Data Service .

And finally, a couple of hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. The first says, “I think I’ve lost an electron.” The second says, “Are you sure?” The first says, “Yes, I’m positive…”

Neil Copeland

Post by Neil Copeland

Director, pensions consultant and adviser to trustees and employers on all aspects of work based pension schemes.