The role of pensions: Exploring the link between pension funds, monetary policy and economic performance

Macroeconomic Policy and Financial Markets master project by Diljá Matthíasardóttir and Lara Zarges ’21

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Editor’s note: This post is part of a series showcasing BSE master projects. The project is a required component of all Master’s programs at the Barcelona School of Economics.

Abstract

Shocks to the European Central bank’s unconventional monetary policy trigger Dutch pension funds to search for yield: A structural VAR analysis shows that the pension funds reallocate their asset holdings from bonds towards equity and alternatives. The latter suggests the existence of a portfolio-rebalancing channel through institutional investors in the euro area. Moreover, we emphasize that the portfolio reallocation induced by monetary policy has increased the overall riskiness of the funds’ investments, which has potentially systemic risk implications. As the pension sector has evolved into a key player in the Dutch financial market, we additionally investigate the domestic real effects of a further increase in its size. In this context, a second SVAR approach shows that an expansive shock to total asset holdings boosts economic growth. As this link also works in the reverse direction, we point out the potential problems of a sudden dissaving of pension funds. Our results are of general interest for the aging societies in Europe as they improve the understanding of pension funds’ potential importance for economic policy in a period of demographic change. This paper hence urges future research to contribute to a better understanding of the link between demographic change, growing pension systems and central bank policies.

Conclusions

We infer that the change in the portfolio composition following a monetary shock to the ECB shadow rate after 2008 is driven by unconventional monetary policy succeeding in lowering the long-term interest rates. The resulting rise in equity and alternatives in the pension fund’s asset holdings can therefore be interpreted as evidence for the existence of a portfolio rebalancing transmission channel of quantitative easing in the euro area.

These findings also imply that due to unconventional monetary policy the riskiness of Dutch pension funds’ portfolios has been increasing gradually. Together with the sheer size of the Dutch pension sector and the funds’ tendency to herd-behavior this might be affecting local financial stability and with it the safety of Dutch pensions.

We further show that the size of the pension sector is a factor influencing economic growth and unemployment in the Netherlands.

Due to structural drivers such as demographic change, interest rates are likely to be lower for longer. We therefore stress the importance of future research on demographic effects such as the evolution of the size of funded pension systems on monetary policy conduction. This is e.g. important considering that the change of the Dutch pension system towards a full DC system in 2027 will most likely alter the consumption and saving patterns of citizens. The importance of bank deposits could shrink, impeding the supply of bank loans to the corporate sector. Firms would then likely turn towards financial securities to finance their operations. This would imply an overall decline in the importance of the credit channel for monetary policy transmission regardless of unconventional times. Therefore, a deeper understanding of the influence of central bank policies on institutional investors and insurers is required. This is especially important since the number of private, complementary pension schemes has been growing in many member states following the European Directive 2003/41/EC.

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