The search for returns:
Innovation will be key


Anthony Kirui

Managing Director, Head of Global Markets,
Africa Regional Operations


Continued innovation in the African Pension Fund ecosystem will be critical to ensure that investors are able to navigate the current challenging investment landscape.

Investors have faced a myriad of investment challenges over the last 3 years with the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, inflation taking hold in both developed and emerging markets, rising global interest rates and more recently the aggressive sell-off in popular growth markets like US technology stocks.

With stagflation – inflation, benign economic activity and rising unemployment – also becoming a talking point for many markets, it is critical that pension fund managers have an array of tools at their disposal to respond to changing market conditions.

As a pension fund manager, you are asking yourself one key question: “How do I go about making sure we are not losing pensioners money?”

In answer to this question, pension fund managers need to focus on identifying a handful of key risks and opportunities.

The first and most obvious one is the relatively small investment universe that African pension fund administrators are exposed to. Much has been made of the major de-listings trend on the JSE and the restrictions that are imposed through Regulation 28 around offshore investment assets. Considering that the JSE and its associated debt markets are comfortably Africa’s most developed, one appreciates that the challenge is accentuated in other markets. A quick look at the African Financial Markets Index (AFMI) shows that turnover figures across the continent are low as investors are effectively adopting a “buy-and-hold” strategy as they do not have sufficient tools to be more tactical with their asset allocation in the face of changing market conditions.

While there are clearly challenges, it is not all negative and one of the benefits of being a key financial services player in the continent is that we have been able to witness some positive developments across the continent. Botswana for example has made changes in its asset manager portfolio allocations to allow for investment in domestic assets and Tanzania has recently passed new foreign exchange regulations which allow for investment in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) without having to seek approval from the bank of Tanzania (BOT).

The African Exchanges Linkage Project (AELP) is another exciting project driven by the African Securities Exchanges Association (ASEA) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) to facilitate cross-border trading of securities in Africa. This is expected to drive securities trade across a diverse range of countries including Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius and South Africa.

These developments immediately drive increased liquidity.

In response to the asset allocation challenge, we have been particularly excited about some of the innovation taking place in the alternative investment market and the opportunities it presents. The commodity market – specifically gold – have been a popular choice for pension fund managers looking to hedge against both inflation and market volatility. Absa has one of the largest suite of Exchange Traded Products (ETPs) in the precious metals space and these are powerful tools for those looking for more tactical asset allocation.

Inflation-linked government bonds are another tool which are attracting a lot of attention from our clients. In a world where inflation is rising sharply at the same time as both equities and bonds are being sold off, these tools offer a combination of income and inflation hedging with a high degree of security due to their sovereign backing.

The next opportunity which cannot be ignored is that presented by alternative investments which align with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics or with the UN Sustainable Development Goals – particularly for multinationals looking to participate in the lucrative South African commodity sector. While there are opportunities for shorter-term, more tactical tools for African pension fund managers, we should not lose sight of the fact that pension funds by their nature are long-term investments and managers need to be able to also think strategically about how they will deploy funds for long-term returns and this is where ESG-aligned tools become particularly important.

Absa has invested significant resources to create a suite of products which include affordable housing, renewable energy and green bonds which all offer unique investment tools for the longer term manager looking at strategic asset allocation. We are already starting to see the benefits of investing in human capital who truly understand the nuances of the African market.

The African pension fund market faces a number of headwinds as they mature but in all challenges, there are also significant opportunities for innovators. Developments in the pension fund space will deliver the opportunity for better returns for savers and help build the domestic capital base.

We are excited to be driving this innovation and we believe that we can deliver tools that will be of broad-based benefit to the African pension fund market in the coming years. Whatever challenges and opportunities the market presents, we believe that we can are ready for the ride.

Anthony Kirui

Managing Director, Head of Global Markets, Africa Regional Operations, Absa.

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