I would first of all like to congratulate President Obama on his Nobel Peace Prize, the merits are debatable, but it is a good thing for World Peace that one of it's main drivers gets the award.

It has been a week since my last article on agricultural reform. In that week I have been thinking of what to include in my newest article. It was a tough choice amongst a raft of ideas and even recommendations from some friends and even some lecturers. However, I have stuck on the issue of the National Social Security Fund and it's effects on savings and inevitably capital accumulation in Kenya. My friends and family know that I am a big proponent of dismantling the NSSF in it's entirety and moving the pension system from a publicly funded PAYGO system to a private account system. I hope to give a short discourse on the importance of such a move through its contribution to GDP growth.

The subject of pensions is an important one in any civilisation. Mechanisms need to be in place where employees and workers in general can save some money to avoid old age poverty. Old age poverty is a really regrettable situation in that old people are not as productive as their younger colleagues. Furthermore, after 30 or so years of work, one needs to kick back to enjoy the last years of his/her life without the rigours that have been a constant in their last thirty years of work. Therefore it's a no brainer that pensions and savings are mandatory in any country.

I remember speaking to a friend of mine about the NSSF and its pension system. He told me about his father whom upon retiring went to claim his benefits from the NSSF. To his utter bemusement, he was handed a cheque of 700 shillings ($10) after they processed his case. It took 2 months to process the payment. So, after years of working and two months of processing his payment, he only had 700 shillings to show for it. I remember laughing because after cheque processing fees at the bank, he would only be left with half that amount. Maybe my laughing was tempered by the fact that over the course of his life, he had invested wisely and was even on the board of one of the big corporations whose shares are listed on the NSE. However, if he had just worked and hoped that his pensions would take care of him at the twilight of his life, then it would have been a very sad case. Here, I would like to introduce the concept of replacement ratios. The replacement ratio is the percentage of working income that is received during retirement. Let us posit that he was receiving 500,000 shillings per year (a conservative estimate) during his last few years at work, then this pension would leave him with a replacement ratio of around 0.14%. At this point I would urge you to keep this figure in mind as it may be needed for comparative purposes later on.

Clearly then, the NSSF has failed in its mandate. Further issues arise when we peer further into the system. Its contribution rates are similar to those of the National Hospital Insurance Fund and are pegged to incomes that have yet to be revised since 1988. Therefore, the highest income bracket starts from 15,000 shillings. Clearly the intellectuals at NSSF have failed to keep up with inflation in adjusting its income brackets. The annualised rate of inflation from 1961-2007 as calculated using data from the National Bureau of Statistics is approximately 10% per annum. This means that if you want to maintain your income levels over the years, your employer should be giving you a 10% pay rise each year. However, back to the subject of the NSSF, the administrative inefficiencies that have been apparent over the years eventually leading to the organisation being taken into receivership is a big drag for capital mobility in the country.Furthermore, the minister of Finance Mr Uhuru Kenyatta in his proposed Finance Bill 2010 intends to limit the investments by the NSSF to government bonds and treasury bills. This has been met with opposition from the current head of the NSSF Mr. Kazongo who is the Managing Trustee.

However no amount of reform in the NSSF would improve its efficiency. It is a bureaucratic organisation run by the government "intellectuals". As Milton Friedman would say "Erratic free markets often make better choices than government intellectuals". NSSF has in its portfolio assets worth approximately 90 billion shillings, of which approximately 1/3 is invested in the illiquid real estate market. On top of this, the real estate issue with the NSSF has been a big source of corruption as well connected individuals have benefited from buying the NSSF properties and making clean profits off of them. It is a malignant form of inefficiency that has caused many retirees headaches and eaten into tax payer funds. So what to be done?.

With this in mind, I recommend that Kenya as well as many other African countries take up the Chilean pension reform model instituted in 1981. Chile under General Pinochet who was advised by the Chicago Boys, a group of prominent Chilean economists who had studied under the great economists at University of Chicago, decided that moving from a publicly funded defined benefit program to a privately funded defined contribution program was the best choice to reform its capital markets and improve liquidity which had been a major issue with Latin American economies. Under the reform, new employees had to join the new program and current employees were given the option of remaining in the public system or moving to the private system. It is no wonder that majority of them chose to move to the private program. The public system had proven to be a fiscal drain on the government budget and provided a deadweight loss on the economy. Private administration proved to be much more efficient than the public system.

It is estimated that after the shift, most pension funds averaged a real return of 10% per year. The real return is that adjusted for inflation, in Economics we have to do this to distinguish from nominal/ apparent growth and real growth. What this means for a pensioner is that if you had invested 10000 shillings with them in your first year of work, then after 20 years your 10000 shillings would have grown to 67275 shillings. If we recalculate the above after factoring in the monthly contributions of 1000 shillings, then your money would have grown to about 759,368 shillings after 20 years. Furthermore, economists from the IMF have shown that a change of 100 basis points (1% to the layman) in your real return sustained over your working life would have increased your average pension by 25%. This means that our previously calculated pension would have grown to 949210 shillings if the real return changed to 11%. The statistics are really phenomenal, what's more, stock market capitalisation in Chile grew from 28.4% of GDP in 1988 to about 124.4% of GDP in 2004. Back to the earlier mentioned case of replacement ratios, in the early 90's workers who had worked consistently over their lives enjoyed replacement ratios of 100% meaning that they got their full net annual income at retirement. Compare this with our paltry 0.14% that was handed to our unfortunate pensioner and it speaks volumes. Another issue that could be particularly significant for Kenya is that banks faced with the prospects of increased deposits will have to raise their saving rates to attract the extra cash. This would reduce the interest rate spreads which currently hover at around 13% and increase their supply of loanable funds.

We can really get stuck into the statistics but the picture is clear. Chile's Economy through the pension reform has seen increased capital mobility, better financial systems and sensible savings rates which in turn have lead to Economic growth. The same can be accomplished in Kenya, However for this to be accomplished, Economists from BBVA economic research have shown that policy makers have to ensure that there are strong political and market institutions, sufficient protection of property rights and an adequate and flexible regulatory mechanism for financial markets.

The possibilities for wealth creation and growth would be limitless under such a regime. However factors such as our political climate, erratic and unpredictable labour markets, high levels of informal employment and a lack of strong property protection laws will prove to be a substantial stumbling block to such reform. Too often government intellectuals (a term that readers and followers of this blog will have to get used to) think that they have the best interests of the civilians at heart. However Martin Fieldstein from Harvard University once posited that the industries that are thought to be luxuries and thus left to the market have benefited the poor of those Nations better than the essentials that the governments have kept to themselves. An immaculate example in Kenya is the spread of mobile telephony that has seen more people access the service compared to essentials such as electricity and water. It is clear that erratic markets make better choices than government intellectuals. Pension reform should therefore be seen as a luxury and hopefully the benefits would slowly begin to materialise to hard working Kenyan workers.