Analysis | UK Pension Funds Shouldn’t Be This Exciting

Pension funds are supposed to be among the least exciting financial institutions. Their job is to make long-term investments to meet the predictable needs of future retirees. They should be immune to short-term shocks. Yet last week in the UK, they were the center of an incipient financial crisis.

What led to this was a novel variation on a well-known theme: Leverage meets unforeseen events. The danger when these two collide isn’t confined to any one country or market, so regulators everywhere ought to take note. Banks are somewhat safer than they were before the crash of 2008, but risks that start outside the traditional financial system still require greater attention.

The UK pension funds’ embarrassment shows how subtle those risks can be. The funds used derivatives, so they believed, to hedge their positions — that is, to make their portfolios safer. Using a popular technique called “liability driven investment,” they guarded against the risk that lower interest rates would increase their liabilities (the present value of future pension payments) more than it boosted their assets (government bonds, stocks and other investments). They did this, in effect, by borrowing to increase their exposure to government bonds.

Unfortunately, reducing the risk from lower interest rates failed to take account of the possibility that rates might abruptly and dramatically rise — which is what happened after the UK government announced a reckless new fiscal policy on Sept. 23. Higher rates (lower bond prices) reduced the pension funds’ long-term liabilities — but also caused the funds’ derivative counterparties to demand more collateral up front. That meant selling bonds, driving their prices still lower, which called for more collateral, and so on — a vicious cycle that, for many, evoked the Lehman Brothers moment of 2008.

The Bank of England interrupted this downward spiral by promising to buy bonds at “whatever scale is necessary” to restore orderly markets. It’s too soon to say how the story ends. The debacle has made investors everywhere more anxious, and the central bank’s intervention, to put it mildly, complicates its efforts to tighten monetary policy and curb inflation.

For regulators, the lesson is this: The details of last week’s breakdown are new, but the central dynamic isn’t. Just about every case of financial contagion and crisis, from the 2008 mortgage meltdown to last year’s implosion of Archegos Capital Management, shares the same basic features.

The more leverage held by non-banks such as pension funds, hedge funds and insurers, the greater the chance that dislocations will proliferate and threaten the broader system. Regulators limit bank leverage by imposing capital requirements. In the world of so-called shadow banking, this is largely up to the counterparties. In good times, they often set collateral requirements too low, leading to huge calls for additional collateral in bad times, when markets are most stressed and least able to deliver it.

Back in 2018, the Bank of England was aware that pension funds would be hit with margin calls when interest rates went up — yet concluded all was well. Its worst-case scenario envisaged interest rates rising by 100 basis points. At the time, that seemed a lot. Already moving up, they spiked by more than that in the space of a few days — and would have gone up much more if the bank hadn’t stepped in.

Regulators need to remember that low-probability events aren’t zero-probability events: Eventually they happen, and when they do, the damage can be huge. Looking beyond banks across the ever-widening landscape of non-bank finance, they need to examine leverage in all its forms more closely — and set margin requirements and other rules that reflect how much markets can move when things go wrong.

One day, if regulators do their job, pension funds will be boring again.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• UK Pensions Got Margin Calls: Matt Levine

• Problems Facing the Gilt Market Aren’t Unique to the UK: Richard Cookson

• Corporate Bond Doomsayers Are a Little Premature: Jonathan Levin

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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