UN’s $54 Billion Pension Fund in Power Struggle Over New Rules

  • Fund pays out $2.3 billion annually in 15 different currencies
  • Over past decade, UN fund has performed in line with Calpers

The United Nations needs some financial peacekeepers.

A dispute over whether new regulations governing the $54 billion UN Joint Staff Pension Fund will result in higher fees paid to outside bankers or modernize oversight of the 67-year-old trust has divided fund CEO Sergio Arvizu and union leaders, sparking accusations of mismanagement.

Lost in the fight is the fund’s performance: the account returned 5 percent the past decade, according to a June 30 report by Northern Trust Corp. That 10-year performance compares with 5.1 percent for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest in the U.S., and the 5.7 percent median for U.S. public pensions, according to Keith Brainard, who tracks pensions for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

Yet internal rules approved this month that shift authority over issues such as staffing and budgeting from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office to Arvizu have fueled the spat. At stake is a fund with more than 126,000 participants which pays about 71,000 retirees in 190 countries. Those payments go out in 15 currencies, including dollars, euros, kroners and rupees.

“We have arguably one of the most complex pension plan designs,” said Arvizu, a 55-year-old former director of investments at Mexico’s social security institute, via e-mail.

Divided Leadership

Adding to the complexity is the pension’s structure. Arvizu oversees benefits and operations and reports directly to the UN General Assembly, the main body representing all 193 member countries. The investment division is headed by Carolyn Boykin, a former president of Bolton Partners Investment Consulting Group. Boykin reports to Ban.

The fund’s broad investments are typical for a pension: it holds 61.3 percent of assets in stocks and 29 percent in fixed income, according to an internal report. It also has 6.9 percent in categories such as real estate, timberland and infrastructure and 2.7 percent in alternative investments, including private equity, commodities and hedge funds.

Moreover, the UN pension is 91 percent funded, above the 73.7 percent median for state pensions, Brainard said. If a plan can meet its projected payments, “it’s in good shape,” he said.

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With backing from the UN General Assembly, Arvizu in 2014 began campaigning for changes he said were needed to modernize pension management at an institution famous for its Cold War-era bureaucracy. His argument: running an investment fund can’t be judged the same way you measure success for a humanitarian mission.

The union pushed back, seeing in the proposals the potential for managers to direct more investments to external institutions, undermining UN oversight and undercutting returns.

“This is a plan to move the pension fund outside the UN financial regulations,’’ said Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations of the UN system, which has more than 60,000 members. “We don’t feel this management should get flexibility over how to manage the fund without all the checks and balances.’’

‘Outsourcing to Wall Street’

Allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interests followed. On its website, the main UN union urged its members to “protect our pension fund: stop its exit from the UN at a time of outsourcing to Wall Street.”

In a letter to members last year, Arvizu said he was facing a “malicious campaign with gross misrepresentations.” The allegations triggered an internal investigation by the UN’s anti-corruption watchdog, which cleared Arvizu.

Fund officials reject the idea that they are planning to outsource management.

“There are no plans to privatize the pension fund, it’s not even an issue,’’ Lee Woodyear, the spokesman for the fund, said in a phone interview. “There are a lot of checks and balances in place and the new rules solidify what’s already taking place in practice.’’

Yet Arvizu, who joined the UN fund in 2006, argues he does need flexibility to hire and promote employees with specialized experience.

“The expertise to carry out this work -- including entitlements, risk management, plan design, asset liability management, and client services -- are different from other parts of the United Nations system,” he said.

Measuring Risk

The UN also needed to adopt modern tools for measuring risk and ensuring transparency, he said. Asset liability management studies, which help managers assess risk and strategy, “were not done before in the fund,” Arvizu said via e-mail.

Relations between management and the unions soured further when benefits management software installed in 2015 had delays enrolling beneficiaries. Thousands of new retirees, some of whom had to wait six months before receiving payments, were enraged.

“No doubt more could have been done with 20/20 hindsight to ensure that no new retiree was delayed,’’ said Woodyear. “There were delays, and the fund was slow to communicate clearly on the delays.’’

‘Compliance Risks’

Yet disputes keep flaring up. In July, the fund’s Asset and Liabilities Monitoring committee warned the pension was “exposed to significant governance, investment, operational and compliance risks.’’

According to an analysis by the UN union, the fund faces “significant concentration risks’’ from its two biggest portfolios, North American Equity and Global Fixed Income, which combined account for $30.5 billion. Two senior investment officers run these funds and vacancies in risk management have not been filled. 

That’s now underway, Boykin said, hinting at the fund’s broader concerns about bringing capable professionals into the global body.

“The hiring process at the UN is lengthy,” she said.

Union leaders say they’ll keep pressing for the backlog of beneficiary payments to be fixed and on management to scale back the scope of the new regulations. But like other battles at the UN, little can happen quickly: the next fund review won’t take place until July 2017.

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