A number of bloggers have in recent months referred to the Bank of England’s interesting decision to switch most of its pension fund into Index linked securities at a time when it was in public worrying about deflation and possible falling prices. By the Annual Pension fund report in February 2010 the reorganisation of the fund was complete. The fund showed:
UK gilts (fixed interest loans to HM government) £108 million 4.6%
Index linked gilts (loans to HMG) £1915.9million 81.8%
Other Index linked securities £330.4 million 12.9%
Total assets £2357 million
Their investment strategy, which looked smart when share markets were falling in 2008-9, looked less rewarding in a year of share market recovery. The fund managed a return of 12% to February 2010, well below returns on funds with substantial investments in real assets. The authors of the Report, aware of possible criticisms of the performance, stated ” It should be noted that the investment strategy now being followed is not designed to maximise return, but rather to maximise the probability that the Fund will be adequate to meet its liabilities in all future economic and financial conditions”.
This concentration on managing risk and cutting the deficit on the fund also resulted in an agreement to pay into the fund 55% of pensionable earnings of all the full members of the scheme in employment from March 2010, a very high contribution level. The £2.357 billion of assets provides for a total of 13,300 members and their dependents.
Some have raised eyebrows that the Bank, agonising about too little inflation and worrying about deflation and double dips, should at the same time be putting in such extensive and expensive inflation proofing to its own pension assets. The Pension trustes and their advisers have had the better of the argument over inflation than the Monetary Policy Committee. The MPC tasked with curbing inflation have consistently underestimated it or refused to take it seriously. The Trustees in contrast have made it the one risk they wish to cover fully, so they have been less good at pursuing better returns on this large sum of public money in the better asset market conditons of 2009-11.
Meanwhile the Bank’s own balance sheet shows just what quantitative easing does to the financial shape of an old lady placed on a crash binge. The balance sheet has shot up from £44 billion in Janaury 2007 before the crisis, to £246 billion today. The £246 billion balance sheet is supported on just £4.2 billion of share capital and reserves. This maans the Bank is now more than 58 times geared. It’s a good job Central Banks have full government support and play by different rules from commercial banks. No commercial bank today would be allowed to gear like that.
We all look forward to the Bank delivering on its inflation target. The trouble is there will be some more rough months ahead before it starts to do so, owing to past decisions.