Outlook 2018: Gripping the thorny stem of pension reform

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Pension reform will remain a major issue in Latin America in 2018 and beyond as governments work to ease the burden on state coffers while addressing issues such as low pensions, poverty, contribution rates and changing demographics.

Some countries made legislative headway in 2017 – notably Argentina, Chile and Brazil. But others – Colombia, Mexico and Peru – are still on the starting blocks.

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It's a thorny issue for lawmakers – most recently demonstrated by pension protests in Chile and Argentina – but one they still must tackle.

In an interview with Chilean paper Diario Financiero, Neil Shearing of research firm Capital Economics said governments in the region must grab the bull by the horns as soon as possible.

"Now is the time that Latin America must start debating the issue of pensions," Shearing was quoted as saying. "If you wait it will only become more difficult."

A prime example is Colombia, where private pension fund manager association Asofondos has urged the next administration to take action, citing the pension burden on state coffers.

"We have a pensions time bomb and we hope the next government makes it a priority," Asofondos president Santiago Montenegro said.

President Juan Manuel Santos has said reform needs tackling but that it was a task for the next administration. Colombia's next presidential elections take place in May.

Pension systems across the world are under pressure, said David Knox, senior partner at global consulting firm Mercer, in a report published in 2017.

Many challenges relate to ageing populations. But there are more factors at play, among them low-growth macroeconomic environments, an increased prevalence of defined contribution schemes, a lack of easy access to pension plans, and government debt.

Knox said: "We know there is no perfect system that can be applied universally, but there are many common features that can be shared for better outcomes."

Jacques Goulet, president of health and wealth at Mercer, said: "Increasing life expectancies and low investment returns are having significant long-term impacts on the ability of many systems around the world to deliver adequate retirement benefits both now and into the future. These pressures have alerted policy makers to the growing importance of intergenerational equity issues."

In Chile, whose system was ranked the best in the region in a recent Mercer study measuring 30 across the world, pensions are a huge topic. The two candidates in the country's recent presidential election were aware of it, with center-right president-elect Sebastián Piñera even pondering the creation of a state-run pension fund – a center-left idea.

CHILE

Pension reform was heavily debated during the run-up to the recent elections. The current system has come under fire because of the low pensions many affiliates of the country's private pension fund system receive.

The outgoing government of President Michelle Bachelet is trying to push through a series of reforms before its term ends in March 2018. One major bill, which gets employers to contribute 5%, is unlikely to be passed before president-elect Sebastián Piñera takes office. Piñera has proposed a 4% contribution and indicated he would open up the country's private pension fund, or AFP system, to new players.

ARGENTINA

Amid violent protests, in the closing days of 2017 the government of President Mauricio Macri managed to obtain approval of its pension reform bill.

The bill essentially changes how pension and other outlays are calculated, which will shrink the pension bill and help, indirectly, reduce the country's fiscal deficit, Moody's said in a report on the business-friendly government's reform push.

Based on the facts both contribution and replacement rates tend to be low, the population is aging and the government has a large deficit, further reforms will eventually be needed to strengthen the system, ranked the worst globally in the Mercer report.

BRAZIL

big question mark hangs over whether Latin America's biggest economy can reform its pension system.

In December, the head of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, said that a congressional vote on a key reform bill is now expected to take place in February after the end-of-year recess.

Viewed by analysts and economists as necessary to restore the health of public finances and investor confidence, the reform is unpopular among the general public.

The reforms include increasing the minimum retirement age and upping pension contributions of workers.

COLOMBIA

Colombia's next government will likely tackle the issue of major pension reform.

"Reform won't happen during this government, it's a pending task for the country," President Santos said in December. "Studies have been conducted but we've run out of time and for that reason it's a job for the next government."

This year 38tn pesos (around US$13bn) will be needed to pay for pensions and 41.1tn pesos next year, local paper El Tiempo reported in September, citing data from the national association of financial institutions, Anif.

Asofondos president Montenegro said the subsidy system needs overhauling so that the subsidizing of larger pensions ends. A large fiscal gap is "eating up a quarter of government revenue," he added.

PERU

A report produced in 2017 by the finance ministry's so-called social protection commission, said the pension system has a series of shortcomings that prevent it from operating properly.

The current pension model is "highly fragmented and lacking overall vision," said the report, in which economists and public officials were involved.

Pension cover provided under the current system – in which a public and a private scheme compete to sign up formal sector workers – is "low and falling."

The commission has proposed some major changes including the creation of a central body to administer worker contributions – a role currently played by the country's private pension fund managers, or AFPs. The report's authors also propose introducing a universal, basic pension and reforming a law which today allows workers to withdraw up to 95.5% of their pension savings on retirement.

It is now up to lawmakers to decide whether to adopt the proposals and draw up associated draft legislation.

MEXICO

Despite repeated calls for legislative action, pension reform in Mexico will have to wait until a three-party agreement between the government, the private sector and workers is achieved, finance undersecretary Vanessa Rubio said in November.

Rubio said all three parties must now think about how to raise the current contribution rates of 6.5% for private sector workers and 11.6% for public sector employees.

Guillermo Arthur, president of international AFP association FIAP, said the recent pension unrest in Chile should serve as a warning to countries like Mexico that have yet to enact substantial pension reforms.

Arthur said Mexico and other nations should take positive steps, seeing Chile's situation "as a warning to push through those changes needed to provide better pensions for their workers."