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January 23, 2019

NSSF must be barred from deciding on our funds

The towering PwC Delta towers in Westlands are almost as impressive as PwC’s gleaming premises in Canary Wharf, London. They were built by Delta Corporation associated with Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani and sold to PwC and the University of Nairobi pension fund for a reported Sh4billion; a handsome profit.

In Upper Hill, Delta Corp. also sold a new building to the World Bank for Sh2billion. Including other smaller projects by the firm in Kenya, it has earned Sh2billion in profit almost double what it invested in 2007.

These, unfortunately, are not the kind of stories you hear from the National Social Security Fund’s activity in the real estate market. If it is not stupefying transactions where property bought at Sh2billion plus over 10-15 years ago is sold at almost the same price over a decade later, in a booming sector, it is forking out of gigantic claims against abandoned works, works that never started or works that have not even been sanctioned by the board so no one is even aware that they exist.

Any news about this body has always been depressing news. Real Estate where it inanely keeps going back to remains a gaping cauldron of unaccountability where pensioners hard earned sweat disappears never to be seen again.

Why is Delta or Erdemann or China Wu Yi, Eden Square and so on making money on real estate while the NSSF bleeds? Is the NSSF not able to get similar contractors since they are in this country? Is it not able to negotiate similar prices so that it can then sell them for a profit?

The reality, most likely is that it is capable of all this but someone is choosing not to do so. And this is why the NSFF should not be entrusted with any more money by the working public until it has undergone serious reforms.

Far be it from me to suggest that the President was misadvised when he signed the new NSSF bill into law, allowing it to seize six per cent of a worker’s pensionable pay and demand matching terms from the employer, but I highly doubt he would entrust a significant amount of his money with the NSSF.

From history and ongoing events, and from best practice in regulating the handling of public funds, it seems like a very bad idea. The only way we should move forward with the NSSF Act is if independent investment/fund managers are given the responsibility of investing these funds which should be held in custodian accounts at commercial banks where NSSF brass have no access.

The NSSF should only be granted an administrative fee to take care of its wages and salaries and the few overheads it will have since with reduced responsibilities, it should have a lean, mean workforce.

There is nothing special about the people who currently work at the NSSF to attach them to pensioners’ money; from the cleaner to the Managing Trustee to sections of the board.

They don’t contribute more than the Sh200 everyone else contributes, they do not represent the biggest employers in this country to claim they are looking out for employees’ contributions, they are not owed anything by NSSF beyond that month’s wages, and they are not the crème de la crème of investment managers in this country to justify them being there. They are mere office administrators.

So there is no advantage to pensioners whatsoever of leaving investment decisions in their hands- unlike management at private companies, NSSF staff are under no special obligation to see that the pensioner gets a decent return, shareholder maximization so to speak.

Let the staff ensure compliance with the contributions and consolidate reports from independent investment managers showing performance of investments.

As it stands, Kenyans could end up losing in more ways than one. For starters, they have no guarantee the six per cent they contribute will not be embezzled.

Two, many companies unhappy with being made to match the six per cent could abandon existing pension plans where they pay even more than six per cent for their employees as this will be a cheaper option. This leaves workers worse off than before.

It could also in turn starve private pension funds of business leading them to close yet they have been able mobilizers of funds which are invested in government bonds for their clients.

Additionally, the way the board of Trustees is constituted must reflect who owns those funds the NSSF collects. Giving the Federation of Kenyan Employers makes sense if employers will also be forking out six per cent but giving the same to the Confederation of Trade Unions (COTU) does not.

COTU should get one seat. Out of the 2 million formal workers in Kenya, those belonging to unions are less than half. The other one can be nominated by professional associations like LSK, PRSK and so on.

Finally, NSSF must be brought under the Retirement Benefits Authority. If it wants to be a pension fund, it must be regulated as a pension fund. All other entities that collect money from the public have independent regulators to ensure safety of those funds including banks, insurance companies and pension funds.

Failing that, NSSF should only be granted the Sh200 it has been getting, but be given the freedom to compete for business with other pension funds. Good luck with that if they don’t demonstrate transparency.

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