UK - The latest National Association of Pension Funds gathering in Edinburgh found three or four hundred industry veterans in astonishingly good spirits, considering their frankly dire predicament.
For a few short hours, concerns around political interference, stark underfunding and creeping regulation evaporated in the heat of an overcrowded venue and a little Laphroaig (no ice).
Under a projected image of some soaring ruined columns which I am assured were near Edinburgh, but which looked distinctly Greek, the observation from after-dinner speaker Gyles Brandreth that delegates appeared to be friends rather than mere colleagues was well received. His Hilaire Belloc quote - "From quiet homes and first beginning, out to the undiscovered ends, there's nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends", raised an appreciative cheer.
Guests who had enjoyed Incisive Media's rowdy Global Pensions Awards the week before soon realised that Brandreth was delivering, to the last thunderous inflexion, an identical speech, substituting only the names, years and numbers in his perfectly-rehearsed jokes.
No matter. The generous NAPF crowd, used to the impossible challenges and burdens of their industry, bore the familiar, friendly pain with that bulldog spirit we love to call our national characteristic.
Cheerful acceptance of their subject state has been a default condition, and probably the most dignified achievable.
However, the limits of that generosity became clear. The love-in between the buyside and the sell-side that usually characterises such trade events had a definite edge this year. Like other investors, pension fund trustees feel they have been ill-served by their asset managers over the recession, and in contrast to previous jamborees, it was the product providers on the back foot, given a nudge, of course, by the investment consultants. Belligerent it was not.
But in the nicest possible way, asset management firms were advised of a new vigilance among institutional clients for waffle, procrastination, self serving strategies and conflicts of interest. It evidently came as quite a shock to firms used to trotting out exasperated complaints at how, like wayward children, trustees are financially illiterate and unsophisticated.
However, before any real hostilities broke out, both parties found a common enemy: politicians.
Much of the privately discussed assessment of the abilities and grasp of the current pensions spokespeople is unprintable, but the industry clearly feels it is bereft of a any knowledgeable champion just weeks before the most important general election for a generation.
Since the Labour Party came to power, there have been nine secretaries of state and 11 pensions ministers. Retirement provision is such a politically explosive and financially complex subject that the portfolio is quickly passed around.
As Brandreth - himself briefly a pensions minister in the previous government, noted, few politicians embrace it. A few are bright enough to master the brief in a short time, and so must be directed to a more testing political post to keep them quiet (Alistair Darling). One had such expertise that it quickly embarrassed the government (Frank Field). And the others...?
Their legacy is usually a new piece of legislation, preferably swaddled in training, reporting or enforcing duties that ensure real progress towards fully funded provision slows further. The industry needs to start using its considerable weight to get issues to the top of the political agenda. Or else, within a decade, the UK may not have a pensions industry to talk about.
To quote another of Belloc's ditties: "Is there any reward? I'm beginning to doubt it. I am broken and bored, Is there any reward? Reassure me Good Lord, And inform me about it. Is there any reward? I'm beginning to doubt it." Caroline Allen is investment editor of Incisive Media's financial services division
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