The 5th of IJ’s interviews with investment professionals is with Noriko Ogawa, Director of Benesse Group Pension Fund. Ms. Ogawa discusses her current thoughts on investing and her background in asset management, pointing out that communication is the key to growth.
Thinking of Investment: A pension fund with strong governance
Until the mid-2000s, Benesse Group Pension Fund followed a passive vanilla investment policy based on domestic stocks and bonds and foreign stocks and bonds. Investment decisions were made exclusively by a chief director. In 2007, an executive from our sponsor company assumed leadership of the pension fund board and instituted substantial changes in operations. Having overhauled corporate governance at the sponsor, the new chair was tasked with doing the same for the pension fund. I was assigned to restructure our organization with stronger governance. With the help of consultants, we discussed what kind of system we should establish. We finalized the policy in 2008 and began the project in earnest the following year.
The newly reorganized fund established a “Pension Investment Committee” and “Pension Finance Committee” to supplement the Board of Delegates and the Board of Directors. The Pension Investment Committee is a decision-making and executive body with authority delegated by the Board of Directors to make unanimous decisions on return policies, including the selection of investment products. The Pension Finance Committee defines risk tolerance for investments and reports investment results to the sponsor companies’ boards.
The current Director-in-chief, who is taking over this structure, has experience as an equity investment manager, which makes our fund a more professional organization. The two new committees are functioning effectively and have been recognized for increasing the speed of decision-making, improving the quality of discussions, and helping sponsor companies gain a better understanding of the fund. We closed the last fiscal year with positive results and were able to minimize the impact of the Corona pandemic by locking in profits when stock prices were high, reducing our equity ratio, and diversifying into alternative assets. Our current operational focus is finding the appropriate balance between offensive and defensive postures. As an offensive measure, we are considering additional investments in alternative assets. In terms of defense, we are reviewing our bond portfolio with an eye toward increasing downside protection by reducing credit-based strategies in favor of hedged foreign equities and the like that will pay dividends.
Management History: Sharing with other managers helped me grow as an investor
I started my career as an accountant and secretary to the Chairman at Benesse Mutual Aid Club (welfare foundation) in 2001. Since the chairman was in charge of managing corporate health insurance and the pension fund, I was indirectly involved in investment by reporting to the chairman on market conditions. My inexperience as an investor made me afraid of losing money in the stock markets.
In 2005, I moved to Benesse Group Pension Fund and was placed in charge of investment management at full scale. I felt great pressure from the responsibility for investment management reporting after only a short time with the Group. I didn’t understand the industry jargon and misinterpreted a number of terms. Shortly after I became managing director in 2007, the financial crisis precipitated by the Lehman bankruptcy hit the markets.
Despite starting my new position during a crisis, I was supported by interactions with managers at other pension funds outside the corporate framework. I shared what was bothering me and we discussed similar concerns. I have found cultivating relationships with other pension fund managers and sharing common concerns to be great assets. I maintain these relationships, but due to COVID-19, face-to-face meetings are far less frequent. Nevertheless, I use online tools to exchange ideas with other pension funds about communicating more effectively with investment managers and fund management, etc.
In my management work, I’ve learned to value a neutral perspective and the Zen precept to “Check for yourself whether it is cold or hot (i.e., spiritual enlightenment only comes through personal experience).” I apply the maxim by never ducking from a challenge, even in the financial markets where the unexpected always happens. I try to maintain a neutral perspective and not be biased toward any one side in my thinking. In this regard, information obtained from communicating with other funds and investment management companies is very helpful. I continue to make new contacts at seminars and through personal introductions from fellow investment managers. I am always willing to help others who might be struggling as I once was.
Benesse Group Pension Fund is a combined-employer pension organization benefitting employees of Benesse Group corporations. Assets of its defined benefit pension totaled JPY 22.8 billion, with a 2% assumed interest rate and 4.5% assumed risk level. As of the end of September 2020, its portfolio consists of 34.6% bonds, 9.6% equities, 28% alternatives, 18.1% general accounts, and 9.6% short-term assets.
Benesse Group Pension Fund
About Benesse Group: https://www.benesse-hd.co.jp/en/