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Inside investment: Refined benefits

Defined benefit pensions are rapidly being supplanted by defined contribution plans, especially in the UK and US. However, it is increasingly clear that many DC schemes are not fit for purpose.


For fashionistas Zadig & Voltaire is a chic French brand. For those of a more literary bent Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747) is the forerunner of the detective novel. It tells of the fate of Babylonian philosopher Zadig, who ends up being accused of sorcery because he can describe a missing dog and horse without ever having seen them, drawing his conclusions from minute observations.

It is often said that statistics are a dark art, used to obfuscate rather than illuminate. However, every once in a while a scrap of data comes along that the likes of Zadig, Poirot or Inspector Morse would seize on to build a case around. In that spirit the Towers Watson global pension asset study makes fascinating reading.

The report examines the world’s 13 largest pensions markets and $23.2 trillion in total assets. There is enough detail to satisfy any data junkie. But one profoundly counter-intuitive statistic leaps off the page. In 2009 global defined benefit assets grew by 4% and defined contribution assets fell.

Reluctant guinea pigs

This is completely at odds with every headline declaring the death of defined benefit pension schemes as well as the experience of millions of employees who have become reluctant guinea pigs in the great defined contribution pensions experiment.

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