Tenth anniversary of pension reform in Kazakhstan, celebrated by special conference, did not cause as much enthusiasm and exaltation as one might expect for the first jubilee. Partly it might be because the celebrations were inconsistent with financial markets experiencing difficulties both in September and August, but, perhaps, it was more because the conception of pension reform inevitably will be subject to somewhat serious changes. Grigoriy Marchenko and Oraz Zhandosov, the “Founding Fathers” of pension reform, did not deliver their planned speeches, and this also lessened the number of possible lyrical digressions.
Anvar Saidenov, the head of National Bank, made one of the few reports, stating that condition of budget and low oil price at world market before Asian and Russian crises were two reasons that the reform was implemented in such radical form and implied complete transition to accumulative system without consent from significant part of population. The statistical prognoses, including the forecasts of economical growth and increase of contributions to pension funds, strongly indicated the inability of the government to meet its liabilities to future pensioners.
Pension model will be corrected, probably, at the opposite point of economical development cycle, where the economy has large incomes from oil and budget surplus. According to popular doctrine, truly deep structural reforms are enacted out of necessity and despair, because at more economically favorable conditions the government has to listen to lobbyists and deny many of the resources to the market. The attempt of introducing mandatory contributions to accumulative pension system in Russia at the beginning of the new century failed, as only one tenth percent of workers chose private pension funds. It is evident that at any other situation, but the one 10 years ago, when significant delays of payments existed in many regions, this reform could not be implemented in Kazakhstan as well.
The phenomenon of assuming that reforms are enacted only in critical times evokes some kind of expectation of new crisis, initiating new wave of uncompromising reforms. And accumulative pension system in Kazakhstan is a great illustration of these reforms, where the advantages turn into disadvantages, and which can hardly be corrected without changing its main goals.
Fairness and absolutely transparent mechanism of pension contributions’ formation, enabling to observe the pension accumulations at any period of time, are the main advantages of accumulative system. Contrary to solidarity system, it does not have impersonal provision of pensions. For the last ten years future pensioners in Kazakhstan have not acquired strong motivation to increase their pension contributions and, generally, have not fully trusted the pension system. Strong competition for pension assets during last three years, in spite of great differences among yields of funds at times, did not lead to establishment of “retail pension market” and to thoughtful choice of funds by workers. As before, funds are competing for employers, who are influencing the choice of the majority of workers.
Changes in the regulations of market, particularly transfer of all pension accumulations of workers to State center of payments by one payment order, did not lead to significant changes, although pension officials are informing about the competition and considerable flows of clients among funds. Probably, the introduction of 3 investment portfolios with different risk levels within the funds will play a more significant role in initiating the choice of funds by workers. This change is the closest and already sided on in the plans of pension reform, besides, it is closely related to the initial content of reform and serves as its development. The main advantage of the changes will be the possibility to correctly evaluate the quality of pension assets’ management, i.e. common rules will be applied to identical portfolios of different funds, as till now the difference in investment strategies caused the difference in yields.
Funds and the regulator disagree at the principle: the funds support the scheme one depositor – one fund, and at first stage even one depositor – one portfolio, while the regulator offers to give contributors wider choice. At the most radical form, the disagreement implies liquidating pension funds, leaving on the market pension assets management companies with various portfolios. This is one of the possible steps to diminish harmful, as many say, affiliation of funds and banks. (Ministry of labor and social protection suggests to decrease the maximum participation in the capital of pension fund for any legal entity to 25 %, which will diminish influence of banking groups on investment decisions).
The main danger of this suggestion is the risk to stability of the system and quality of management. For 10 years the funds were involved in small number of investment scandals. The involved ones, which invested into the bonds of “Shakharmunaygas” and “ValutTransit Bank”, were not the largest of them and possessed no affiliation risk.
Investors of “ValutTransit fund” suffered losses from bankruptcy of maternal bank; however, it affected 90 % of their savings because the rule, suggesting that no more than 10 % of accumulations could be invested into assets of affiliated company, was in place. Nevertheless, establishment of truly competitive market, both for the funds and issuers, probably is the highest priority, thus the market will further develop towards restrictions on affiliation with banks.
One of the highest priorities in creation of pension funds is their transformation into one of the most important institutional investors, possessing the money with the longest crediting period for economy. At this point the results of the decade are contradictory. On the one hand, the deficit of institutional instruments and yield of funds lower than inflation level existed in years 2004 and 2005. On the other hand, for a long time Kazakhstan, thanks to pension funds, was the most developed bond market at post-Soviet area, and the rapid growth of mortgage loans was possible because those funds participated in refinancing. Subsequent investing of pension money is mainly connected with newly evolving projects, related to infrastructure bonds and mechanisms of state-private sector partnership, and building up “yield curve” for state securities.
The fact that long-term investment projects are implemented only after a decade barely has connection to the problems of pension system; rather it is related to the situation in specific industries, for instance, in power industry, which lacks conditions for repayment of investments. Availability of pension resources, in general, stimulates new long-term projects. According to Nurzhan Alimuhambetov, the vice-chairman of Halyk Bank’s pension fund, the functions of pension fund are to stimulate the development of securities market and serve as “macroeconomic buffer”, and be a source of investments during the periods of declined foreign investments. (To be successful in both functions, the pension system needs to be larger , because the gap between growth rate of assets in banking and pension systems make the latter a small-sized guarantor).
The number one problem of pension system, which, in fact, dictates the need for significant changes, is the extremely low pensions at the time of mass retirement of system participants. It equals to, including “live up period”, 30 % of wage for men and 16 % for women. According to Bolat Zhamishev, one of the authors of the reform, who headed the AFS (Agency of Financial Supervision and occupied the leading posts in Ministry of Labor, the calculations of wage replacement rate indicated that the yield in pension funds should exceed the inflation by no less than 3%. At the beginning, level of yield was much higher, but at some point funds started to get yield lower than inflation. Meanwhile, in opinion of Mr.Zhamishev, the elimination of the replacement rate problem by increasing the level of minimal solidarity pension is not the best decision, as it would decrease the level of motivation to increase the accumulative part of pension.
The alternative in the form of increasing percentage of contributions to accumulative part of the pension is not popular and the head of National Bank Anvar Saidenov believes that changes would not go that way.
As a result, there are great hopes to the growth of yield on pension contributions to newly created investment portfolios. However, the choice of portfolios may decrease materialistic expectations of the society, assuming that high pensions are guaranteed. It is obvious that the dilemma – the higher level of risks or the lower level of pensions, will be perceived by society within the next few years. Meanwhile, there is an impression that the accumulative pension reform will not stay in its initial form and, probably the government will have to more actively participate as a donor of pension system. It is extremely important, however, that the future pensioner realized his responsibility and had a wider choice for money investment.