Wednesday, 3 June 2015


Much has been made of the role of pensions reform in the last stretch of our negotiations with the troika institutions.Yet amazingly, the discussion has focused on negotiating tactics over substance - namely the viability of the Greek social security funds. In this post, partly a translation of my 22 May post on the same topic, I will attempt to shed some light on the less transparent aspects of this debate.

UPDATE 5/1/2016: Despite its name, this post has always been focused on Greek pension funds. It's important to remember, however, that about EUR7bn of pensions and other benefits are additionally paid to Greek state employees past and present, directly by central government. These are of course unfunded.


I have to start with the following graph, based on Eurostat data, which depicts all sources of income for Greek social security funds from 2006 to 2014. Each rectangle's area is proportionate to the amount of money it represents, providing an intuitive overview of the dependencies in our pension and benefits system. I am indebted for this idea to veteran blog reader @dalagiorgos.

The key takeaway from this graph is the enormous dependence of social security funds on subsidies, whether in the form of tax revenue ring-fenced for the funds or direct top-ups from the government budget. You see, the sum of workers' and employers' contributions into the funds and the funds' own investment income (including capital gains, interest on bonds and deposits and rents on property) came up to just 57% of the funds' income in 2014. You might dismiss this as a crisis-era aberration - after all employment is probably near all-time lows. But this share peaked at a mere 65% in the growth years (2007). Put simply, the Greek social security funds were never self-financing and social security as we know it (even in the austerity era) would cease to exist without the Government's top-up.

This life-saving subsidy to the funds amounts to EUR13bn per annum - equal to 14-15% of all Greek government revenue. A legal obligation of the state, it was, as of 2014, still up by 6% compared to the 2006-8 average, in order to compensate for a 23% drop in contributions, a 74% drop in tax revenue ring-fenced for the funds, and a 81% drop in the funds' investment income. Total flows into the funds fell by 18%.

So are the funds viable?

It might sound a little redundant to ask the question when funds are dependent on a government top-up for close to half of their income, but it is a matter of some debate whether Greek social security funds are viable. Our new government rubbished the past few years' worth of actuarial studies recently, claiming that they did not take into account the funds' non-financial portfolios. For once they are actually right; the methodology of these reports does not involve making any assumptions on returns on (non-financial) assets. It merely compares the present value of predicted in-flows and out-flows. But as I shall demonstrate, taking into account these assets would make next to no difference.

There's reasonably good data out there on the assets of social security funds, so you can test this for yourselves.

You can see the funds' financial balance sheet here. At a total of ca. EUR21bn, these assets would barely cover nine months' worth of pensions and benefits if they could somehow be liquidated under non-fire-sale conditions. Even had the funds not taken PSI losses of ca. EUR10bn in 2012 (more here), the total would still only come up to a year's worth of spending. The funds could never hope to live off the returns on this.

Estimates of the value of non-financial assets aren't as forthcoming, however a first census has been taken in 2013 as part of the implementation of the 'Hestia' database and the results can be seen here. Unfortunately, these are mark-to-algorithm values based on the Greek system of 'objective values' - which are nothing of the sort. Still, the objective values algorithm had just been rebased  to approximate market values when the Hestia census was taken in July 2013, and the Census estimate of funds' non-financial assets ran to barely EUR1.4bn. This means that the value of the funds' entire property portfolio would cover just over two weeks' worth of pensions and benefits. Nor would it be possible to close the gap merely by sweating the assets and increasing returns.

Barely 31% of the properties making up the funds' real estate empire by value were being rented out in mid-2013, and those that were yielded just 3.3% of their 'objective' values. A tenth by value were vacant, and the rest (58% by value) were reserved by the funds and wider public sector for own use. Rental income was a mere EUR20m - not one thousandth of a year's worth of fund expenditures.

As for the funds' financial assets, it's plain to see here that three quarters are made up of government bonds, cash and deposits, yielding next to nothing. This distribution is dictated by law and cost them 2-3 percentage points worth of returns per year in the good times. One sixth of the funds' financial balance sheets are made up of debtors - overdue contributions, the returns on which after defaults are presumably negative.

To cut a long story short, the total assets of the greek social security funds would not pay for ten months' worth of pensions and benefits, even if we could somehow liquidate them all without causing a fire sale. I have nothing but respect for the actuarial profession, but an actuary's work right now would not be to discuss what pensions are affordable or what the pensionable age ought to be; it would be to discuss how much of the Greek public sector's wealth would need to be injected into the funds to make them halfway viable while targeting modest outcomes.

Couldn't employers pay more? 

One of my readers objects that Greek pension funds might be more viable if employers would pay more by way of contributions. After all, at 4%-5% of GDP their contributions have consistently been slightly smaller than household contributions, and way lower than the EU average (almost half). 

I think it's a great idea to better enforce mandatory employer contributions, as a matter of principle. However, as I explain here, Greeks are much less likely to have an employer than other Europeans. We are more than twice as likely to be self-employed and three times as likely to be 'contributing family workers', some of whom are unpaid. Account for this and the fact that employer contributions in Greece are proportionately lower than in Europe becomes a matter of labour market structure as opposed to unscrupulous employers. In fact, the latest available data (2008 and 2012) suggest that social security contributions were not a low share of the total payroll cost of Greek employers by EU standards (higher than in Germany, for one) and their share of labour costs grew during the crisis. 

So increasing the headline or effective rate of employer contributions would make little financial difference, unless we could also a) increase real wages without reducing employment and/or b) restructure the Greek economy away from small and family businesses and further towards larger businesses. 

The welfare parastate

When I first posted this article, I got a very astute response from a Facebook user, which I reproduce below:

One might say that this pension top-up compensates for (typically insufficent or nonexistent) housing, unemployment and subsistence benefits for relatives (first, second or higher degree,  perhaps even friends). This social spending is instead delegated to the old and wise to distribute as they see fit among their extended family - a means, however unusual of supporting the family. 

This is 100% accurate. As I explain here, family income is more likely to be pooled in Greece than elsewhere in Europe. In the good years, the people sought, and governments gave, pension benefits in order to make up for other shortcomings of the welfare state - effectively outsourcing welfare to the pensioners. In auterity-era Greece, the heart-wrenching stereotype is of grandparents hanging their heads in shame as they find themselves unable to buy their grandkids a chocolate bar. But in reality, pension income was supporting a wider range of more basic needs, from education all the way to food.

Did Greece's welfare-delegation experiment ever work, though? This post (and the graphs to the right) summarises the outcomes using a wide range of inequality statistics for working-age and pensionable-age Greeks. In terms of narrowing or restraining inequality, the Greek welfare state only ever seemed to work for pensioners; it still did in the early crisis years.

As I keep saying, the latest data, and older data too, show that Greece’s welfare state has for years been the worst in the OECD at tackling poverty – in terms of how much it manages to reduce the risk of poverty per Euro spent. The misdirection of the pension top-up from welfare to pensions is at the heart of this weakness.

Generous or treacherous?

Famously, Greek pensions are not overly generous - at least not on a per capita basis. Greece has a lot more people of pensionable age (the WSJ takes that to mean 65+) and therefore the higher expense to match. The FT has recently reported Government claims that the average pension is EUR750 per month - which are true enough of the primary pension, but overlook the fact that one in two Greek pensioners receives more than one pension (p 6 here).

But [update 11/5/2016] pensions don't have to be generous to be unsustainable. Matsagganis and Leventi (2015) calculate that, from the first time they became insured to the moment of their death, the average member of Greece's IKA fund (the default private sector social security fund) was subsidised to the tune of ca EUR115k pre-crisis and ca 35k even post crisis. For some perspective one this, multiply the first number by ca 3m, a reasonable adjusted estimate of the number of people who have passed through all stages of the system over the last 40 years, and then by 35% (the typical share of pension funds' income that was provided directly by the state pre-crisis), and you get EUR121bn - that's almost half our pre-crisis debt burden.  

As I've explained here, Greeks on average don't retire much earlier than other Europeans, but they tend to have had shorter working lives when they do. Worse, a sizeable chunk of our labour force in major state-owned organisations have historically tended to retire very early, leaving the self-employed to lift the average retirement age.

How can we test this claim? Well, Eurostat provides detailed estimates of the share of EU countries' inactive population that are retired, by sex and age group, here. It also provides estimates of the share of the population that is inactive here. By multiplying the two, you can figure out the percentage of the population at each age group that is retired and thus entitled to some kind of pension. Run these figures and the result is astounding. Just under one in six Greeks between the ages of 50 and 59 is retired - more than 4 times the Eurozone average, and lagging only Turkey, Croatia and Slovenia. The total value of the pensions of people in their fifties comes up to almost 300m per month, and they draw the largest pensions out of any age group (p. 7 here). 

The problem isn't just that these guys (and very often ladies) will be drawing for years on benefits they can't possibly have earned. It's also that they are trapped into inactivity. Once you've retired from an office job at 50, or 55, it's fair to say you won't work again even if you wish to. 

Is this a real priority?

Back in February 2015, Yanis Varoufakis publicly stated that reforming pensions was not a priority area for reform; our efforts, he claimed, would be better spent battling corruption, e.g. in public procurement. But there's a catch. The pension fund top-up (EUR13bn per annum as already established, plus another EUR7bn in public sector pensions and benefits), is way, way larger than the entire Greek public procurement bill, right down to the last paperclip, which came up to a mere EUR8bn as of 2014. It has been larger as far back as the data go. And while not all procurement spending is unnecessary or corrupt, the pension top-up is going almost entirely to the wrong people, since it's generally not means-tested and inaccessible to, e.g., the young unemployed. The result is that Greece could be lifting more people out of poverty than it currently is through social spending, but we choose not to. Why wouldn't a left-wing government care about that? 

Where next?

Clearly, this system needs radical reform, the kind that would take years to achieve. In my view, pensions need to be cut down eventually to what the funds can pay for without further subsidy (i.e. almost cut in half). Their social policy functions should be moved instead to where they properly belong - the state budget, in the form of a means-tested guaranteed minimum income scheme. Greece piloted one such scheme, at the insistence of the Troika, in 2014. The IMF proposed this in March 2012, and Syriza - today's government - endorsed this as a matter of urgency in June 2012, before dismissing the 2014 pilot as 'crumbs of state charity', only to then reintroduce a nominal reference to a 'basic income' to its rhetoric in February 2015.

The second part of the necessary reform is to give pension funds a proper source of investment income. Syriza's Thessaloniki programme proposed to cede some of the government's real estate portfolio over to the funds. That's definitely a welcome idea. But at ca. EUR100bn on last count (2012), and even assuming every last asset can be rented out at the same nominal yield of 3.3%  as the funds' existing assets, the entire non-financial wealth of the Greek government would only give social security funds a 3.3bn lifeline per year - a fifth of what is needed to replace the current state budget top-up.

Thus, with interest rates predicted to stay low for some time, some discussion needs to be had about allowing funds to invest more of their assets in assets other than Greek bonds and bank deposits. Greek stocks are volatile and pension fund allocations would move the market excessively; but overseas stocks and emerging market bonds other asset classes, including foreign assets, might provide returns while also breaking the feedback loop between the state of the Greek economy and the returns on social security fund assets, which in a perfect world I'd hope would be counter-cyclical.

(Update 5/1/2015: I've been accused of proposing that Greek pension funds take on risk in a 'search for yield'. I think there's definitely a health warning there and I might have spoken too soon. But Greek pension funds have, as the analysis of returns on assets above shows, been ignoring yield for decades. In any case, even if yield is bad, diversification surely is good?)

The third part of the reform would be to realign the Greek welfare state to formally acknowledge pooled (extended) family budgets and balance sheets, thus applying tax free thresholds to family as opposed to individual income, or acknowledging shared use of property and shared debt in wealth taxation. This might allow families to, for instance, set bank and utility arrears off against property tax due but would not favour better-off pensioners against young people as our current system does. 

The final part is to make some provision for the people trapped into financial inactivity by early retirement. While I do not believe these are true victims of the system, they were nonetheless often lured into retirement by financial incentives, as a matter of government policy; and in any case they will not be able to earn a living again, so they are the burden of the state unless we decide to just shoot them. A means-tested guaranteed minimum income would address part of the financial problem of these individuals, but this may not be the only problem on the table.

None of this can be done quickly, or painlessly. The institutions ought to be willing to wait, and ideally to subsidise some of the transition costs, including actuarial studies, systems design and implementation. But our current predicament is such that no one trusts the Greek government with time or money unless they're bound by the conditionalities of a bailout programme. I don't trust them either.  A long-term programme, with a debt relief carrot at the end of it, just might do the trick; but things are not heading in that direction.

Either way, pensions will always be toxic as they involve a cross-subsidy from the active to the inactive, and sometimes from the poorer young to the better-off old. Within a nation state, we justify these things by appealing to people's sense of self-interest and (extended) family values and by glamorising the struggles of past generations. Across borders, none of this works.

(Update 5/1/2015: I will reiterate here what I've said in comments below: pension spending that cannot be supported by the funds' contributions and investment income needs to be treated as what it is: welfare. It's acceptable even to (my kind of) libertarians for the state to take on an unfunded welfare liability, but the public needs to know they are paying for this essentially through taxes; and benefits need to be means-tested. Failing to make the distinction only provides political cover for rentiers.)


  1. Great article. Learned a lot. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, I've been trying to understand the predicaments of the Greek pension system better for a while now; finally some decent information. Once again, blogs > media.

  3. The Greek pension system’s dismal state is not a unique phenomenon. Defined benefit systems are severely underfunded almost across the Developed World. No plan ever managed to fully invest itself out of this predicament, even when the most extreme investment strategies were applied (plus this is not always socially responsible—wouldn’t be ironic hiring a hedge fund that would short the Greek economy?). The key word I think is “underfunded.” You should perhaps take a close look at why this is the case (and why employee contributions are not fully matched by employers—going all the way back to 2006, which is not that far back after all).

    As to the idea or realigning the Greek social security system to acknowledge family budgets, with all due respect, but that gives too much power to (and the wrong incentive for) a centralized model of family keen to share wealth/power in a non-meritocratic way.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I've tried to respond to your comment on employers' contributions above. Regarding returns on pension fund assets I agree it would not be possible to earn huge returns on financial assets. But even simple diversified portfolios would have outperformed Greek pension funds allocations enormously in the pre and post crisis years. I've linked to one study above which illustrates this. There's no need to go from 75pc bonds and deposits to 100pc hedge funds and no one had ever advocated this.

      As for your view on family benefits I'm sure there are problems with my proposal. Happy to discuss further. The key question to me is how we move resources out of pensions and into means-tested welfare in a way that reflects people's means and needs. If you disagree, we have a more fundamental disagreement. If you agree then happy to hear alternatives.

    2. Thanks for the reply (and the update), Manos. I do agree with your “self-employed” claim, although I’m not sure this is a unique Greek characteristic. However, I partly laid the argument to explain how the system ended up being insolvent, not as a way forward. Obviously, no increases in employer contributions would make much difference today. Also, it would be too risky in the current state of massive unemployment to demand employers to pay more for new hires and old employees. Yet historically there is no question, even with the data you provided (btw so frustrating Eurostat’s data are so poor), that Greek employers underfunded the system. See the percentage within the Eurozone. If you take the EU as a whole, former soviet countries distort the average, plus most of them are outside the “straitjacket” of the Euro, so it’s not fair—in my opinion--to compare labor costs and their ensuing productivity with Greece’s. The German comparison is also a distortion, again for historical reasons post-unification etc.

      With regards to the investment outlook, though, of course a single allocation is a remnant of some older era and that should definitely change. But that wasn’t my point. My point is that this is secondary. My professional area of focus is the American retirement system, or better say, its many fragments (thanks to ERISA, which ironically enough was voted to protect private pensions). I’ve seen that happening so many times; first an employer starving their defined benefit plan. Then promises of super investments that will save it. Failure. Then “concessions” are being requested from the employees, e.g. the plan is “frozen,” then the supplementary defined contribution plan becomes the primary and practically people are left with no retirement savings (almost 50% of the American middle class, easily find multiple sources confirming that).So, I have no qualms to call the bs behind the invest-your-way-out idea. Make sure I’m well aware you never said that investments the Greek pension system. But I personally feel it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees that is the state of permanent (and intentional) “underfundedness” of the system. Btw, the anonymous from June 17 is having a very good point: Why not fund pensions through a general tax revenue? That’s the case with Social Security in the US, legacy of the great FDR.

      P.S For me there is no question between pensions and welfare. I progressive, modern state should have both. I’m worried abt the incentives you give out in case you acknowledge that family should be at the receiving end instead of the individual. See pension benefits for daughters of deceased.

      P.S.1. I might be a bit passionate about the whole issue, but it’s something I’m dealing with on a daily basis 

  4. Fantastic blog

    I've been wondering about this sentence in YV's letter to Eurogroup which seems to have dropped down the memory hole. Was he simply mistaken in his numbers, and if so, did he get an unpleasant suprprise on assuming office that his reform for cash ideas were more unattanable than he thought:

    "Identify cost saving measures through a thorough spending review of every Ministry and rationalization of non-salary and non-pension expenditures which, at present, account for an astounding 56% of total public expenditure. "

    1. Hi Gaspard. YV is wrong. Even if you consider all social benefits in kind (e.g. medical services to the insured) to be 'non-pension' and work all non-payroll, non-pension spending as a share of primary expenditure, it comes up to btw. 32% and 40% for most recent years; 32% in 2014. YV was talking out of his arse, or possibly mixing up State Budget figures with General Government Budget figures.

      The figures you need are here:,C,X,0;NA_ITEM,L,Y,0;UNIT,L,Z,0;SECTOR,L,Z,1;GEO,L,Z,2;INDICATORS,C,Z,3;&zSelection=DS-416345GEO,EL;DS-416345UNIT,MIO_EUR;DS-416345SECTOR,S13;DS-416345INDICATORS,OBS_FLAG;&rankName1=UNIT_1_2_-1_2&rankName2=GEO_1_2_-1_2&rankName3=SECTOR_1_2_-1_2&rankName4=INDICATORS_1_2_-1_2&rankName5=TIME_1_0_0_0&rankName6=NA-ITEM_1_2_0_1&sortC=ASC_-1_FIRST&rStp=&cStp=&rDCh=&cDCh=&rDM=true&cDM=true&footnes=false&empty=false&wai=false&time_mode=NONE&time_most_recent=false&lang=EN&cfo=%23%23%23%2C%23%23%23.%23%23%23

    2. Many thanks!!! Amazing nobody told him otherwise, does not bode well for endgame.

  5. Regarding the early pensioners' counter-incentives to work again, please take into account that, if they do, their pension is very likely to suffer severe cuts!

  6. This is a very good description of the situation, but the author makes the same fundamental mistake as so many others, to assume that a pension system should be self-financing. That is the basis for his entire argument: a way must be found to make the pension funds sustainable without injections from the state and, as long as that has not happened, the pension funds are a big problem.

    Why is that? Why should pensions not be funded by the state, out of general tax revenue? I have never seen any sensible argument to that effect. Only dogma.

    At the bottom of this is the question of what is a state and what is within a state's responsibilities or not. Play with the thought of transposing the article's arguments regarding pensions to the military. As things stand, almost 100% of military spending is funded by general tax revenue. Should the military be self-financing? Should it rely on income from mercenary wars and looting for its expenses? Is the military an enterprise that should be self-sustainable without state subsidies? If not, then why pensions?

    Someone please answer that. Until then, the entire argument about the need for the pension system to be self-financing is based on nothing but dogma.

    1. Actually, I beg to differ My 'dogma' is that anything that is called a pension should be self-financing and reflect savings and returns on them. Anything else should be called 'welfare' and be means-tested. That's all I'm saying. Nothing wrong with welfare, as long as you do it right and don't pretend it's something it is not.

    2. So we could assume that military spending is part of "welfare"? :D :D

  7. Excellent work, well researched, sources opened. I learned a lot.

  8. excellent analysis!!

  9. really excellent....just some omissions..
    .who cares...?...

  10. so what? ....why should pensions be financed through social contributions only ? .... open your mind, my friend, you might see beyond...
    cf. WB 2014 Report THE INVERTING PYRAMID. Pension Systems Facing Demographic Challenges in Europe and Central Asia

  11. ops..."My 'dogma' that anything that is called a pension should be self-financing and reflect savings and returns on them. Anything else should be called 'welfare' and be means-tested." wow!!
    I fear you have to re-start from the very basics..may I suggest you to read Esping-Andersen's 1990 volume ? ayway, the world does not need dogma in 2015... you know ....Galileo spent his life and Giordano Bruno actually gave his to go beyond dogmas...

  12. Three comments:
    Regarding „The FT has recently reported Government claims that the average pension is EUR750 per month - which are true enough of the primary pension, but overlook the fact that one in two Greek pensioners receives more than one pension (p 6 here).“

    Does this mean the average pensioneer receives about 1,7 pensions of EUR750?

    Regarding „In fact, the latest available data (2008 and 2012) suggest that social security contributions were not a low share of the total payroll cost of Greek employers by EU standards (higher than in Germany, for one) and their share of labour costs grew during the crisis.“

    More realistic are comparisons to competitors like Ireland, Bulgary, the Baltics or Turkey. Labour costs have to be reduced in order to regain competitiveness. Therefore employers should pay LESS or NOTHING during the crisis. Most urgent is to use more of the existing resources, to modernize them including better collaberation and many fusions, stimulating transparency, competition, flexibility and technology in order to gain new employment.
    New employment in large companies (less in the public administration) helps the social systems finally.

    Regarding „employment is probably near all-time lows“

    Why that? The assumption is dangerous and too popular that things could no longer get much worse. Employment might go down as long as parts of the greek administration do not focus on the real problems that caused the economic weakness but fight scapegoats

  13. I appreciate all your work but I would find the graph much more interesting if, instead of splitting employers/ees contribution(sth I think you would agree is nothing else than a cheap trickery), you also splitted the private and public parts of the big squares. Sth like:
    public sector(employer+ee)
    **private sector (employer+ee) sector**
    greek gov bonds
    **other bonds**
    transfer payments.

    My reasoning for this is that real income(or if you don't like the word, income more difficult to possess), is the one that originates from private sector. Public income only needs an accountant's pen.

    It will also make the following facts more obvious:
    -You can raise the contributions sum directly just by raising the wages of public sector.
    -Primary budget surplus doesn't mean you can afford pensions budget unless you include the costs of greek bonds owned by pensioners funds.
    -Income from greek gov bonds can relatively easy(default) become budget transfer payments, as it did with PSI(OSI).

  14. Very good article. It helps a lot to make sense of things...



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