Every pension scheme is different. It follows then, that every group of trustees is different, in the issues that they face in their schemes, the relationship with the sponsoring employer, the members and other stakeholders.
That said, there is a great deal of evidence, not only in our own experience but across the pensions industry, that trustees share more things in common than might otherwise have been thought.
The most common concern is the negotiations which have to take place with the sponsoring employer when the results of the scheme actuarial valuation are in. Some of the concerns are about dealing with conflicts of interest, others about trying to balance the views of the different stakeholders including the Pensions Regulator’s wish to see the funding deficit cleared as soon as possible. From this it seems clear that shared experiences are invaluable.
Keeping to the subject of the Pensions Regulator, like most regulators, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. That said, some of the war stories about the Pensions Regulator seem to suggest that they are sometimes struggling to maintain the delicate balance of their primary concern of safeguarding member interests, with demands upon trustees and financial pressure put on the sponsoring employer. Having witnessed these issues at first hand, resources, and in particular of these, time, has to be committed to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Most trustees realise that an operational sponsor is of much greater value to them than a bankrupt one who was forced into paying off debts too quickly. Getting that point across can sometimes be trickier than it should.
Scheme investments concentrate the minds of most trustees. Those with defined contributions schemes have concerns about their default fund, whether it’s appropriate to the members, represents fair value for money and that the membership understands how it works. Since defined contribution schemes provide benefits based on contributions paid in + investment return earned – fees and charges, communicating this to members in an effective way can take up huge amounts of time and energy. Trustees with defined benefit schemes, where investment growth is needed to help reduce the deficits, spend considerable amounts of time looking at investment strategy and asset allocation. This is a sea change from not that long ago, when trustees spent too much time looking at individual stocks and shares, not on the planning and monitoring of the scheme investment strategy. Coupled with the increasingly complexity of investment solutions in the market, the management of scheme funds is an area where the trustees need to be able to rely on the support offered by their advisers.
Talking of advisers, one area which concerns many trustees is the fees being charged and the service provided by some of them. Here at least, the answer is reasonably straightforward, if the fees are not transparent, fair and agreed, or the work is not tailored to the needs of the trustees, think about finding an adviser who will work to this fee model. It’s important not to say goodbye to an adviser solely because of fee concerns but many trustees need to understand their advisers better and advisers better understand their clients.
It was often said that pension scheme trustees didn’t have to be mad to do this, but it helped! What is true is that the demands put upon trustees have increased dramatically over the last ten or even five years and many feel that they are struggling to do the job as well as they would like. Keeping up to date with changes in legislation is hard enough for the pensions industry let alone for those for whom pensions is not their day job. The e-learning tool from the Pensions Regulator is a start but does not suit everyone. There are also concerns about generic trustee training, which has its place, but is not suitable for trustees facing specific scheme issues, when the scheme rules may limit the choices open to the trustees. There is an increasing trend for ‘just in time’ training for trustees, such as before kicking off a scheme valuation or investment review. For this to work effectively, the trustees need to have someone maintaining the year planner to ensure that opportunities are not missed.
Trustees are concerned about how members perceive their benefits, if they can demonstrate they are acting professionally, planning for the future including succession planning for when their terms of office expire or they move onto new employers. Trustees are constantly looking for effective ways to engage with their members, partly because it helps in getting messages across but also because members may become trustees in the future.
From this, trustees have lots in common with each other, whether for a large, medium or small scheme. There are differences, but these are out weighted by the similarities. One thing is common, trustees need the support of a trusted adviser who is not conflicted by other scheme relationships and who can help trustees in their duties, responsibilities and obligations and in so doing ensure the trustees deliver their agreed strategy.
Sounds like a plan?