Global Investing

Pension funds’ hedging dilemma

Pension funds have no shortage of concerns: their funding deficits are rapidly growing in the current low-return environment, and ageing populations are stretching their liabilities.

But a recent survey of pension funds trustees by French business school EDHEC has found that their biggest worry, cited by nearly 77% of the respondents, is the risk that their sponsor — the entity or employer that administers the  pension plan for employees – could go bust. Yet 84% of respondents fail to manage the sponsor risk.

So how do you hedge against such a risk?

You could buy credit default swaps of the sponsor company or buy out-of-the-money equity put derivatives to seek protection. But both options are costly and illiquid. Moreover, it might send a negative signal to the market: after all, if the company’s pension fund is seen effectively shorting the company in an aggressive manner, investors may wonder “What do they know that we don’t?”

Erwan Boscher, head of Liability-Driven Investing and Fiduciary Management at AXA Investment Managers, says:

“Using market instruments like CDS and out of the money equity puts were suggested as a way of hedging sponsor risks, but we seldom see them implemented because of the cost, liquidity or reputational risks for the sponsor.”

Trash heap for sovereign CDS?

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps — at least those covering richer developed economies. In short, the agreement reached in Brussels last night outlined a haircut on Greek government bonds of some 50 percent as a way to keep the country’s debt mountain sustainable over time. But anyone who had bought default insurance on the debt in the form of CDS would not get compensated as long as the “restructuring” was voluntary, or so says a top lawyer for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association — the arbiter of CDS contracts.

ISDA general counsel  David Geen said there would be no change in the ruling to account for the size of the haircut:

As far we can see it’s still a voluntary arrangement and therefore we are in the same position as we were with the 21 percent when that was agreed (in July)

Regulate Us? We’re Hurt.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

The popular image of Wall Street institutions involve swagger: the ability to absorb the competition’s blows, taking no prisoners, raking in the money… until it seems like the government could force them to rein in their excesses. It’s at that point that Wall Street’s tough guys suddenly sound wounded.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, an article about the derivatives legislation being considered in Washington has this comment from Bank of America spokesman James Mahoney—the bank is “concerned that we won’t be able to provide our customers with financial products they need to manage risk and grow and that foreign banks will step in and take that business.”

There are several layers of bruised egos at work here – the assertion that America’s economic future is imperiled by the regulation of derivatives, and the boogeyman specter of a “foreign bank” that will take over. Add the obligatory reference to customers (which recalls the braying from various corners about how the threat to BP’s dividends are really an attack on “pensioners” and “retirees”), and there’s a lot of guilt being laid on in the statement.