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LOW SOLVENCY PRIORITISES PERFORMANCE

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Performance is becoming a high priority in the wake of the low solvency levels revealed by last year's pension fund...
Performance is becoming a high priority in the wake of the low solvency levels revealed by last year's pension fund valuation, delegates to the fifth LGC pension funds and public responsibility symposium were told, Edward Dimbylow reports.

'Performance is becoming key,' Richard Cockcroft, Gloucestershire CC director of corporate services and head of paid service, told the symposium in July.

But this focus comes at a time when the performance of local authority pension funds failed to match the returns of superannuation funds in the economy as a whole, according to the WM Company.

Bedfordshire CC finance director Bernard Phelps said his council would have to find an extra £6.5 million a year for its pension fund by 1998-99. 'That is 2% of our budget and is very significant,' he said.

Mr Cockcroft said the valuation had surprised treasurers. 'Many felt they had kept contribution rates up,' he said.

Since early retirements are a major cause of low funding levels, the problem is particularly acute where local government has been reorganised. Politicians are becoming increasingly aware of the cost of early retirements, the symposium was told.

'Local authorities are beginning to question whether they can afford to be so generous,' said Mr Cockcroft.

Members are inevitably keeping a close watch on performance too. But many are also realising their pension funds can wield influence over big corporations.

James Andrews, finance director of Glasgow City Council, which took over the administration of the Strathclyde regional fund in April, said his members were likely to step-up their voting activity.

However, Peter Haig, South Tyneside MBC director of corporate services, pointed out that corporate governance could become a diversion. Finance directors have to keep members focused on performance, he said.

-- A widespread review of fund managers' contracts in Scotland is likely over the next year, David Dorward, Dundee City Council finance director, (pictured above) told the symposium.

Mr Dorward said most of the nine mainland funds in Scotland examined the performance of their managers on a three-year cycle, but a number of reviews had been delayed because of local government reorganisation.

A survey conducted by Mr Dorward for the symposium showed that 80% of the total £7.84 billion of funds in Scotland are handled by six fund managers - Morgan Grenfell, Schroders, Gartmore, Mercury, PDFM and Baillie Gifford.

It also showed that reorganisation had seen a loss of expertise in Scotland's pension funds. Of the nine former finance directors, eight had retired and one was now working for a unitary with no pension fund responsibility. Mr Dorward said there had been a 25% reduction in experienced staff in charge of the daily running of the nine mainland funds, which were taken over by nine unitary councils in April. There had also been a loss of members with experience, he said. Of the 61 members operating as fund trustees before April, 60% were considered highly experienced. This has now fallen to around 18%.

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