September 11, 2011

The Canada Pension Plan and moral hazard

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:37

An interesting post at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative looks at the overlooked failure in pension markets. I found this bit of information to be quite interesting, as it addresses a conversation I had with Dark Water Muse a few months ago:

Governments provide pensions in one of two ways. Pay As You Go (PAYG) plans use current contributions to fund current benefits. The Canada and Quebec Pension Plan were, when they were first introduced, PAYG plans. The moral hazard risk a worker faces with these plans is political: a politician will design the plan so as to maximize his or her chances of re-election.

The design of Canada and Quebec Pension Plan has created large benefits for the first generation of recipients (current voters) and a much lower rate of return for future recipients (future voters). Now those gainers were the generation that entered the labour market in the Great Depression and fought in World War II, so one could argue that the windfall gain they experienced was merited on equity grounds. The point here is merely that the design of PAYG pension plans reflects the interests of the designers (for re-election) as well as the interests of the contributors and recipients.

The Canada and Quebec Pension Plans are now transitioning into fully-funded plans. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board was, as of June 30th 2011, managing $153 billion in assets. Some is managed directly by the board, the rest is managed by “partners” ranging from Istanbul-based Actera Group to New York-based Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe. I suspect that the CPP, roaming the world with billions to invest, is able to negotiate low management fees, and there must be savings associated with economies of scale in investing. But the possibility of moral hazard — someone getting rich by diverting away a tiny percentage of the return on $153 billion, or a politician exerting pressure on the CPP investment board to make electorally-sound investments — remains.

In sum, while private pension markets suffer from moral hazard, it’s not clear that governments can solve the problem.

In my discussion with DWM, I claimed that the CPP was a PAYG system (in extreme examples, like the US social security system, this can be compared to a Ponzi Scheme), while DWM — claimed that the system was fully funded from investments. As the quoted section above shows, we each had part of the answer.

It’s hard to believe that the CPPIB (the organization that handles the investments of the CPP) can remain immune to government meddling — buy this company’s stock, invest in that company’s risky-but-located-in-a-marginal-riding new venture, etc. As long at the CPPIB can remain independent of political pressure, the system might work.

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