Does Canada Need a Pension Champion?

Gavin Benjamin, a partner of retirement solutions at LifeWorks Inc., wrote a comment for Benefits Canada on whether Canada needs a pension champion:

In the Expert Commission on Pensions’ 2008 review of Ontario’s pension system, it recommended an agency or unit of the provincial government serve as a pension champion.

According to the commission, the pension champion’s responsibilities would include working closely with stakeholders, promoting and facilitating innovation in the pension system and leading policy development efforts in the pension field.

The concept of a pension champion on a national level is pertinent, in light of some recent developments that appear contradictory from a pension policy perspective:

  • Funding reform

In recent years, several provinces have implemented private sector pension funding reform with the objective of increasing the sustainability of defined benefit pension plans by either making solvency funding requirements less onerous or completely eliminating the requirement to fund solvency deficits.

Funding reform has also made it more feasible for pension plan sponsors to allocate a higher proportion of plan assets to riskier investments with the objective of decreasing the expected long-term cost of providing benefits. For these provinces, a deliberate policy decision was made to accept lower pension funding levels in exchange for slowing the decline of DB pension coverage in the private sector (or for those who are more optimistic, possibly even increasing coverage).

  • Bill C-228

Last month, the House of Commons passed Bill C-228, which is now under review by Canada’s senate. If it becomes law, it will give super-priority to DB pension plan members in the event of employer insolvency.

The goal of Bill C-228 is to protect the pensions of employees and retirees. While this goal is laudable, borrowing will likely become more difficult and expensive for some private sector companies that sponsor a DB pension plan, particularly those that are facing financial difficulty or on the verge of becoming insolvent. This could lead to some companies deciding to wind up their DB pension plan.

Bill C-228 will also likely incentivize companies that decide to maintain their DB plans to fully fund the plans and reduce investment risk in order to improve the company’s ability to borrow at an affordable rate. Regardless of whether or not one is in favour of Bill C-228, it should be clear that the potential effects of this bill becoming law contradict the key objective of pension funding reform discussed above.

  • Real-return bonds

In November, the federal government announced it will immediately cease issuing real-return bonds. For pension plans that are indexed to inflation, real-return bonds serve to protect the plan against inflation risk.

Therefore, the shortage of real-return bonds that’s expected to emerge over time will impede the ability of certain plans to reduce inflation risk. Also, in order to hedge inflation risk, insurers will often use real-return bonds to back group annuity purchases for pensions that provide indexing.

A shortage of real-return bonds may therefore increase the price of group annuity purchases for indexed pensions. An increase in annuity pricing will make it more expensive for certain plan sponsors to de-risk through a group annuity purchase and will increase the windup deficit (or reduce the windup surplus) for indexed plans.

This new development will also make it more challenging for sponsors of indexed plans to address the unintended consequences of Bill C-228, should it become law.

The challenges that exist in Canada’s pension system raise the question as to whether it would be more vibrant and coherent if there was an entity whose mandate includes advocating for the pension system, working with stakeholders and leading the development of consistent pension policy. Could a pension champion on a national level fill the current void?

Let me begin by stating I think Canada needs a pension champion at the national level and even a Minister of Pensions like they have in the UK.

I would recommend Derek Dobson, CEO and Plan Manager of the CAAT Pension Plan to lead this national entity. He would make an awesome pension champion:

Since joining as CEO in April 2009, Derek has applied his expertise in funding, risk management, strategic planning, governance, and stakeholder relations to strengthen the CAAT Plan, and more recently, guide its growth. In addition to leading one of Canada’s model pension plans, he plays an active role in various industry groups, notably as Co-Chair of the Canadian Public Pension Leadership Council, as a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Canadian Pension Management, and as a founding faculty member of the Masters of Trust Management Standards of the International Foundation of Employee Benefits and Pensions. Derek’s pension management expertise and engaging presentation style make him a sought-after speaker in Canada and abroad on a variety of topics, including the need for national aging and retirement strategies. Derek is an Associate of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries with a degree in mathematics from the University of Waterloo.

Derek is busy getting the word out to many underfunded and even fully funded corporate DB and DC plans that CAAT's DBplus is a cost-effective way to attract and retain talent and it provides employees with peace of mind that their retirement needs are well taken care of no matter what happens to their company.

I've long recommended that the federal government passes legislation to forbid companies from managing DB and DC plans internally.

Instead, the federal and provincial governments should create a new version of CPP Investments which only focuses on managing corporate DB pensions and I would force companies to offload their DB and DC pension plans to this new entity which will be backstopped by the full faith and credit of the Government of Canada.

In other words, let businesses focus on their business, not their DB pension plan.

I know, there are corporations who manage their DB pension internally and they're doing a great job but then hire these people to work at this new entity I am proposing.

I don't know why Canadian politicians can't keep it simple and THINK before they propose new legislation, like scrapping real return bonds (RRBs).

Barbara Shecter of the National Post reports that Freeland's rationale for ending inflation-adjusted bonds is 'not legitimate' according to Jim Keohane, former CEO of HOOPP:
The justification for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s controversial decision to cancel a series of inflation-protected bonds “is not legitimate,” said Jim Keohane, a veteran pension executive and director at Alberta Investment Management Corp. (AIMCo), joining a group of fixed-income investors overseen by the Bank of Canada in criticizing the move.

Freeland abruptly decided last month to cease issuance of real return bonds, a useful inflation hedge for pension funds and other investors with long-term liabilities. Among the reasons stated for the decision was the bonds are illiquid and in low demand. Keohane said the securities rarely trade because institutional investors value them too much to give them up.

“The reason why the liquidity is lower is because the buyers are generally long term, hold-to-maturity buyers such as pension funds and insurance companies,” said Keohane, adding that bonds linked to inflation are particularly popular for funds that offer cost-of-living adjustments on pension payments.

“Lack of trading doesn’t equate to lack of demand,” he said.

Furthermore, because these long-term holders don’t trade the bonds, the only way to buy them is when the government issues them. And whenever that happens, they are snapped up.

“It is my experience that anytime the government has issued RRBs (real return bonds) they are oversubscribed,” he said.

Keohane spent two decades as chief investment officer and then chief executive of the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) before being appointed to AIMCo’s board of directors in May 2021. He described a symbiotic relationship between the government that issues the bonds and investors with long-term liabilities that buy them.

Pension funds benefit in periods of rising inflation because cost of living adjustments are almost always tied to the consumer price index. The coupon on the bond is also tied to the index, so it pays out more, which offsets the pension fund’s liability.

The government has the opposite exposure because in times of higher inflation, government revenues rise.

“For example, in periods of high inflation, HST revenues will be higher because it is a fixed percentage of that inflated price,” Keohane said. “It is also a good hedge for governments in periods of lower inflation because the coupon payout on the bonds would be lower.”

Nevertheless, Keohane acknowledged that there could be reasons the government would opt against issuing real return bonds in certain economic cycles.

“If the current environment and pricing is not attractive for issuing real return bonds, there is nothing compelling the government to issue them,” he said, adding that Ottawa could simply switch to issuing nominal bonds until market conditions are more attractive.

Still, “that is certainly not a reason to cancel the program,” Keohane said.

The government said it had consulted with market participants before making the decision, and cited low demand as a principal reason for ceasing issuance of real return bonds. However, pushback from institutional investors was clear in the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Canadian Fixed-Income Forum, a group set up by the Bank of Canada to share information on the Canadian fixed-income market.

The 15-member group, which includes representatives from Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of America, HOOPP and Canadian National Railway Co.’s investing division, “disagreed with the government’s reasons” for ending the program, according to minutes of the Nov. 29 meeting that were posted on the Bank of Canada’s website Dec. 16.

They said inflation-linked bonds “are a very important asset class that serves a crucial role in allowing Canadian investors to manage their exposure to inflation and, in a well-functioning market, provides central banks and markets participants with an important measure of inflation expectations.”

Moreover, the decision to eliminate new real return bond issuance deprived market participants of a way to express their inflation views, with some members indicating the decision “may create a perception that the government may not have full confidence in containing inflation,” the group said.

The fixed income forum committee is co-chaired by Jim Byrd, who is also co-chair of RBC Capital Markets, and Bank of Canada deputy governor Toni Gravelle. However, Bank of Canada officials recused themselves from the discussion of real return bonds because the central bank manages the federal government’s debt strategy, according to the minutes.

Some members of the fixed-income investor group felt Freeland’s handling of the government’s debt strategy “could lead to less demand or participation in the whole (Government of Canada) bond market going forward, and ultimately resulting in higher borrowing costs for the government than any potential cost saving it could get with the cessation of RRB issuance.”

In line with Keohane’s views, several members said demand for the real return bonds has increased in the current higher inflationary environment and is expected to increase further with the aging of the Canadian population, according to the minutes. They also pointed to the fact that Canada is now the only G7 country not issuing new sovereign inflation index-linked bonds.

“For retail and institutional investors, the cancellation removes a risk-free security that helps them manage short and longer-term inflation risks,” the group said.

Bert Clark, chief executive of Investment Management Corporation of Ontario (IMCO), which manages more than $70 billion of assets for public-sector clients in Canada’s largest province, said his organization owns real-return bonds and was surprised by the government’s decision to cease issuing them.  

“I hope that’s a decision they would be willing to reconsider,” Clark said in an interview Monday.

“They play an important part in our portfolio construction (and) provide effective protection against inflation, which is something that’s important for us because we manage liabilities, many liabilities that are inflation indexed.”

He also questioned the notion that limited trading means there isn’t demand for the bonds in the market.

“When when we buy them, we buy them to hold them because they match client liabilities well, and they serve as effective protection from inflation,” he said.  “We don’t buy them to trade them.”

Clark said IMCO was not consulted and received no warning ahead of the government’s decision.

“We didn’t see it coming and it was a surprise and (I) don’t have any idea of how it came about,” he said.

Reuters reported last month that the Canadian Bond Investors’ Association, which represents investors that manage over $1.2 trillion in fixed income assets, had sent a letter urging the government to reverse its decision on ending the issuance of real-return bonds, saying that there is a strong and “possibly growing demand” for them with current inflation levels far above the Bank of Canada’s target rate of two per cent.
Jim Keohane is another person who I'd recommend as Canada's pension champion.

My former boss at the National Bank now Senator, Clément Gignac, is also among critics calling for Ottawa to bring back real return bonds:

Canadian Senator Clément Gignac is among those speaking out against Ottawa’s decision to stop issuing real return bonds, a key inflation hedge for pension funds and insurers to help meet long-term obligations, and said he hopes Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will reconsider her decision in the new year.

“My intention will be to continue to put maximum pressure on Finance and BoC (the Bank of Canada) to revisit their decisions,” he said in an email Monday, adding that he has already taken up the issue in the Senate.

In a LinkedIn post on Friday, Gignac, an economist and former Quebec cabinet minister, called on Freeland and the Department of Finance to conduct “a ‘real’ and broad consultation” on the government’s debt management strategy and real return bond issuance.

The government said there had been consultation with market participants before Freeland decided last month to cease issuance of real return bonds, citing low demand.

However, the decision was controversial, and buy-side investors are increasingly speaking out about it — including Alberta Investment Management Corp. (AIMCo) director Jim Keohane, and Bert Clark, chief executive of Investment Management Corporation of Ontario (IMCO), who this week questioned the government’s rationale. 

Both pension experts said that infrequent trading does not indicate low demand, noting that long-term investors such as pension funds tend to buy and hold the real-return bonds and do not trade them.

Moreover, Keohane said that in his experience, which spanned two decades at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan before he joined AIMCo, any government issue of real return bonds would be “oversubscribed.”

Clark said real return bonds are an important component of portfolio construction at IMCO, which manages more than $70 billion of assets for public-sector clients in Ontario, providing effective inflation protection.

The change in the government’s debt-management strategy with regard to real return bonds has been on Gignac’s radar since November. In a LinkedIn post last month, the senator called for the public release of the Bank of Canada’s opinion on the Finance department’s edict. He said this would be “transparent” and “protect the BOC credibility.”

I support Clément in asking the Bank of Canada to release its opinion on this matter.

On LinkedIn, I ripped into this decision by Finance Canada to scrap real return bonds:

It’s not only ‘not legitimate’, it’s completely asinine and downright dangerous. I thought Michael Sabia was hired at Finance Canada to “coach” Ms. Freeland so she can avoid making huge blunders like this. She reminds me of the mayor of Montreal, lots of platitudes that appeal to ill-informed citizens, but they’re both completely incompetent and shouldn’t be in the positions of power they hold. I honestly don’t know which amateurs advised her to scrap real return bonds (RRBs) but they’d be fired by now if they worked in the private sector. As for Michael Sabia, if he’s still working at Finance, he should quit, it’s a complete sh*t show and I’d be embarrassed to be associated with these policies. 

Please note these are my views, not those of Jim Keohane or Mark Wiseman who are much more diplomatic than me.

Michael Sabia still reads my blog and I wonder if he was aware of what an uproar this decision would cause. He should have consulted Marc Cormier and others at CDPQ and other large pension funds before approving such a decision (if he knew about it).

Anyway, the older I get, the less tolerance I have for fluff and incompetent policymakers making asinine policies like this one:

I shared my thoughts on LinkedIn and didn't hold back:

More Liberal ESG fluff which isn't well thought out. The real question is whether our electric grids can handle all these electric vehicles without causing widespread power outages (answer is a definite NO!). Also, we are about to enter a nasty and prolonged recession, good luck forcing Canadians to buy expensive EVs and forcing condos to put EV chargers in their garage over the next two years. Conservatives will kill this policy if they get in power. 

i wish politicians would use their heads before making silly policy decisions!!

Alright let me end it there as I'm getting hungry and cranky.

Below, watch the video to learn why employers across Canada are choosing to participate in the CAAT Pension Plan. 

A Modern defined benefit pension plan, like DBplus, is the pension of choice for both employees and employers. Employers have peace of mind by improving their talent and retention strategy and securing predictable, fixed rates – to name a few. While employees/members enjoy peace of mind having their investments taken care of, and knowing they will receive lifetime retirement income. 

I dream of a day when all Canadians will have access to a large, well governed and well managed DB plan. Let's get a pension champion in there to make this a reality.

Update: After reading my post, CAAT CEO and Plan Manager Derek Dobson shared this with me:

I sincerely appreciate your support of CAAT and our efforts to improve outcomes for employers AND employees.

You and other pension promoters have been a primary force in raising awareness of pensions as a required workplace and Canadian solution. Since the beginning of 2021, we have welcomed 180 new organizations from 14 industries.

These organizations now have a competitive advantage by improving their attraction, retention, wellness, and productivity. This is even more important in the marathon for talent. It is also the right thing to do.

The social and economic value of a strong pension system is undeniable. It will make Canada stronger and more competitive on the world stage, especially where the marathon for talent is fierce. Building a stronger pension system now is critical, given our evolving demographic conditions.

Canadians, our workplaces, and our wonderful country can all benefit from further pension innovations, improved coverage, reducing risks, and leveraging the benefits of pooling.

I thank Derek and wish him and all of CAAT’s employees a happy holiday season.