Don't Gamble With Employee Pensions

What is the Big Idea?


Pension funds have gone from a state of surplus to a state of deficit in the last decade and no matter what measures are taken to mitigate the risks, struggling companies can't seem to catch a break. 

Stock market crashes, a heavy reliance on equity investment, inflation and low interest rates have contributed to a perfect storm of operational, regulatory and financial risk for company leaders. 

Frank Oldham, pension expert and Senior Partner at Mercer, warns CEOs and CFOs that financial risk is the "most critical one to mitigate." He also offers some actionable advice for companies mired in pension shortfalls:

  • Take action to better match assets to liabilities so that some of that volatility and exposure to market movements and changes in the economic environment can be reduced.
  • Liabilities can be managed by making changes to the nature of those liabilities, offering member options where they can select less risky options.
  • Provide employees with options to cash out their benefits in favor of a lump sum or a transfer value out of the plan.
  • Watch Frank Oldham talk about the importance of mitigating pension risks:

    What is the Significance?

    Simply put: Pension obligations are long term liabilities and therefore require a long term plan. The lack of a long term plan poses additional risks and opportunity costs. When funding levels improved in the last few years, benefit sponsors in many parts of the world failed to act in a way that helps them take pension risk off the table. 

    "The pension world is full of regret risk in terms of opportunities that potentially have been missed," said Oldham. 

    The U.K.’s largest 350 companies put £20 billion ($31 billion USD) into their direct benefit (DB) schemes over the 12 months to March 2012, yet deficits increased by £17 billion, according to a Mercer report.

    The picture is equally grim for the U.S. At the end of 2011, the S&P 1500 companies contributed an additional $70 billion to their pension plans over the course of the year, yet deficits increased by $169 billion to reach $484 billion.

    Pension deficits are large and volatile, and increased transparency of accounting standards means deficits are on a company's balance sheet for all to see. 

    "This is one of the reasons why companies need to get their arms around this issue and around the financial issue now." he said. 

    There is, however, a silver lining. 

    "I think now more organizations see the benefit of having a longer term plan in place, a plan with triggers against which the organization can take prompt action to de-risk, to implement changes in investment strategy when you hit those triggers," said Oldham.

    What does the pension picture look like in other parts of the world, like the U.K., Canada and Ireland? Dr. David Blake, Professor of Pension Economics at Cass Business School, gives us a glimpse.

    About “Inside Employers’ Minds”

    “Inside Employers’ Minds: Confronting Critical Workforce Challenges” features a dedicated website (www.mercer.com/insideemployersminds) which contains a number of resources focused on addressing each key issue.

    Photo courtesy of Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock.com.

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    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

    Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.