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I founded and co-founded a couple of companies: Redington and mallowstreet; I write about issues of the day that touch me and make me think. Mostly about how to make things better.

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How to crash a pension fund in five steps

These days, air travel is super-safe. That wasn’t always the case. In the seventies and eighties, either planes were getting hijacked by the Baader Meinhof Gangor they were crashing on a semi-frequent basis.

No more. These days,  “Security” has sharpened up their act and you can’t even take a bottle of Evian on board. And the safety regulations are super demanding. So now it’s a rare thing for a mainstream airline to crash – Air France Flight 447 being the notable exception in 2009.

The same is not true everywhere. Some airlines still keep crashing their planes. Don’t flyCubana Airlines anytime soon. It boasts an insane 1,077% above-average accident rate.

The “plane crash algorithm” typically goes something like this:

  1. Pilot takes off and all is normal, early on;
  2. Pilot encounters a malfunction – usually, an event of a type that pilots are trained to deal with;
  3. Pilot has 60 seconds to go through the emergency drill and sort things out;
  4. Pilot spends 55 seconds not going through the drill, and not sorting it out. He is only human, and, in the unforgiving minute, he freezes up and can’t remember all the steps;
  5. Time runs out.

Now think of a defined benefit pension plan, any defined benefit pension plan. It is a type of airliner being flown (as one might expect) by pilots. The question is, which type of pilot?

Here are three pilot categories:

  1. The pilots are ex-Tornado fighter crew who have spent hundreds of hours in a Thales Full Flight Simulator, and are highly trained to deal with virtually any eventuality that may arise during the flight;
  2. The pilots have done a few hours in a very old simulator in downtown Havana, but not for a while. They haven’t flown this type of aircraft for very long. They wouldn’t get past the door at Singapore Airlines.
  3. The pilots have never been in a simulator of any description. They have never heard of Thales and they have only flown light aircraft. They are completely unqualified to fly this plane type. But they are very enthusiastic and full of hope.


Your pension fund’s pilots fall into one of the categories above, and:

  1. The weather at 38,000 feet is currently very severe (high turbulence / lightning storms / strong headwinds / volcanic ash);
  2. Engine One has failed and the plane is slowly losing height;
  3. You are flying over the Himalayas.
  4. Sixty seconds starts now!

The chance of your pension-fund-plane reaching its final destination safely [read, “achieving full funding”] and on time, is directly correlated with your pilots’ categorisation.

Worth finding out?


One comment on “How to crash a pension fund in five steps

  • Essan Soobratty
    October 9, 2012 | 3:33 pm

    Very much the same problem here in the US -especially with Municipal, State run pension funds. To continue with you analogy, not only are pilots "enthusiastic and full of hope" but the air traffic controllers (read: regulators) are telling the pilots that their assumptions about future outomes are realistic and that they are doing a fine job under the circumstances, and that everything will be okay….. Ignorance is bliss I suppose.

Love to get your thoughts

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