Update from USS Group CEO, Bill Galvin, following the publication of the Annual Report and Accounts 2017

USS’s Annual Report and Accounts were published last week for the year ending 31 March 2017.

In a letter sent to scheme members on Monday 31 July, USS’s Group Chief Executive Bill Galvin has addressed some of the key facts covered in the report:

  • Scheme funding levels (based on interest rates at 31 March 2017) remained stable at 83% in the year despite challenging economic conditions. They continue to be lower than the 89% level judged at the last formal valuation in 2014.
  • Strong absolute investment returns of over 20% in the year sees the scheme fund grow to over £60bn.
  • The absolute level of the funding shortfall would increase from £10bn (2016) to £12.6bn as at 31 March 2017, based on market interest rates on that day.
  • Relative to our investment performance benchmarks, the investment team added £1.1bn in value to the scheme over the last five years, making a substantial contribution to the funding position.
  • Scheme benefits changes agreed in 2015 were implemented during 2016, including increased member and employer contributions.
  • Major transformation of USS systems were successfully completed to deliver the scheme changes.

Scheme funding

The main reason for the growth in deficit is the large drop in long term interest rates in the year.

Members may have seen a larger deficit reported in the media recently, of £17.5bn. That calculation is based on accounting rules; it is not the figure that drives the benefit and contribution decisions for the scheme. The current accounting rules place a present value on the future cash flows required to pay the pensions promised by USS using a discount rate derived from the returns due on loans made by large, high quality businesses (“corporate debt”). For accounting purposes this provides a consistent and objective basis by which all such pension obligations can be measured. The scheme’s funding plan uses a prudent expected rate of return for the scheme’s assets to place a present value on the liabilities to determine the future contribution requirements. The scheme’s assets are invested in a diversified portfolio of equities, government and corporate debt, as well as infrastructure and other assets. These assets are expected to produce higher returns, even after allowing for a margin of prudence, than corporate debt so the funding plan will address a much lower deficit than identified under the accounting rules at present. Should the actual returns on the scheme assets fall short of the expected returns, then employers will need to make good any shortfall. Therefore we do not want to take more risk than the employers are collectively willing and able to support and we agree this risk budget with employers as part of the valuation process.

The funding position deals in some large numbers, but the sector is large too. The payroll of contributing members is £8bn with £2.1bn in new contributions to the scheme every year. Over 350 employers back the scheme with total net assets exceeding £50bn. The position is within the affordable limits of the employers which has very close oversight, led by Universities UK.

Members pensions earned to date are secure.

2017 valuation

The 2017 valuation is underway with a full review of all assumptions. We plan to consult with employers on our proposed assumptions and the associated results in September. Initial analysis points to expected future investment returns being lower across all asset classes.

This would lead to a rise in the expected cost of future pension benefits - for everyone in society whether your pension is with USS or not. Universities Superannuation Scheme Limited, the trustee company, deals with these issues transparently and openly with its employer and member stakeholders. Decisions on the impact are ultimately taken by the Joint Negotiating Committee, made up of equal representations from employers and union with an independent chair, and fully consulted on with employers and members.

The trustee is keeping members informed through a dedicated section on the website.

Investment performance and management

USS is a long term pension provider and investor for a long term sector. We measure our performance over five years. This is to allow the teams to take longer term positions that may not pay off over any single 12-month period. The teams are measured and rewarded on five-year targets, incentivised to make good decisions for the long term. Our returns have exceeded 12% per annum over the past five years, and in this period the teams have added £1.1bn of value to the scheme above market returns for equivalent asset classes. In the year to March 31 2017, performance was 2% below the benchmark, largely as a result of a short position versus our benchmark in UK government debt; this is not necessarily an indicator of poor long term performance.

It is crucial, particularly in times of economic uncertainty and reduced market outlook, that we can attract good-quality investment staff who are able to achieve such strong long-term results for the benefit of the scheme – but, for the fund management sector, we do not pay market leading rates.

The £1bn of added value achieved over the five years to March is net of investment management costs. We achieve such strong results at much lower costs than our peers – independent benchmarking says around £34m per annum cheaper – in part because we actively manage more than 70% of our assets in-house, rather than paying external management fees.

Our goal is a diverse portfolio enjoying the benefits from global growth. On the scheme’s behalf, we have invested in Heathrow, we own a port in Virginia, USA, and the toll roads and gas distribution networks in Spain; these investments have, generally, done very well for the scheme. USS has the scale to make these investments at lower overall management costs than other organisations, and we look to ensure we have the talent necessary to manage these programmes.

We are confident that the breadth and diversity of assets and capabilities deployed for the scheme will continue to pay off over longer periods.

Summary

USS is run solely for the benefit of members and, in turn, their employer’s benefit. It is both a well-run and well-governed scheme that provides secure and very good value pensions.

Despite the difficult times in the global economy, it will continue to do so, with the backing of the sector's employers and the comprehensive skills and capabilities it has built up over many years.

Comments and suggestions can be submitted here.

The website has the full report and accounts; comprehensive details of our governance structures, and information on the 2017 valuation. I would encourage you to learn more about the scheme here, and form your own opinions on how we have performed.

Bill Galvin
Group Chief Executive Officer

Last updated: about 3 months ago
Valuation update