The European pensions industry has been contemplating the idea of ‘trust’ for some time, as a growing number of consumers lose faith in the sector. In light of a number of less-than-favourable events, ranging from the Maxwell case in the UK to recent rights cuts in the Netherlands, many feel that pensions, rather than secure income in retirement, will simply let them down. Whether by one means pension funds, trustees, insurance companies or asset managers when referring to the “industry” makes little difference. In the eyes of consumers, they’re all the same – providers providing only for themselves. 

But none of this is new. Since the financial crisis, financial services in general have seen little good light, with one delegate at this year’s World Pension Summit in The Hague lamenting how it had even fallen behind the press in terms of trustworthiness.

Restoring trust in pensions has become a staple of almost any conference these days. But an idea floated by the interim director of the National Pensions Commission in Nigeria succeeds in bringing together two very hot conference topics – trust and infrastructure – and discusses how they could help each other.

Chinelo Anohu-Amazu told delegates in The Hague about the first-pillar pensions system in her country pre-2004. It was not one that invoked confidence among the people. Many citizens retired expecting the unfunded system to provide them with promised benefits. However, the financing of the scheme became unsustainable, and many participants ended up in long queues awaiting payment, with some never seeing their promised benefits at all.

In 2004, the government, backed by political consensus, moved to reform the system, and after drawing inspiration from Chile and Mexico, created a defined contribution system, with payments taken directly from salaries and managed by the private sector, away from government hands. In the 10 years since, the scheme has moved from being $15bn (€12bn) in debt to acquiring assets of around $27bn. It now has more than 6m savers with individual accounts.

This year, the country then amended the system, which increased coverage and allowed greater investment freedom for the scheme’s assets. The investment amendments allow the scheme to invest in classes Anohu-Amazu said can “assist the pensioner” – namely real estate and infrastructure.

Trust was still an issue given the disastrous systems of the past, and Anohu-Amazu said new reforms added education to help build trust. But there was more to be done, more information, and a convergence with investments. “Investment into assets that contributors can see,” she said. “Better roads, rail and housing. It will make the reforms more acceptable and more involving.”

Let us take this idea forward, and combine it with calls from almost all EU states for infrastructure investment from pension funds, the long-term investment platform announced by the European Commission, and the need for pension funds to invest in long-dated, inflation-linked assets, and you could almost have a perfect pie.

Of course, it is not that simple, but the basic premise is positive. Investment in infrastructure is a popular concept but difficult to implement. And the trust issues faced by pension schemes are arguably, and ironically, down to schemes falling victim to the very same reasons members no longer trust financial services.

But, pension schemes are unfortunately banded together with financial services. One way to shed that might be to show the schemes are not merely out for themselves. Building bridges with members – as well as for them – might just be a start.