Faced with the gaps between the assets and the liabilities of its pension fund, the New York Times reports that Diageo, the maker of Johnnie Walker whisky, has transferred $645 million worth of maturing whisky to its pension fund. Meanwhile, the State of Alabama is stocking its pension system with something even more leisurely: eleven golf courses.
And on Friday, the New York Times reported that Dairy Crest, one of Britain’s biggest producers of dairy products, has made a major new breakthrough: it is adding $92 million worth of Cheddar cheese to its pension fund. Stocking pension funds with whisky, cheese and golf courses? What could possibly go wrong here?
Diageo and Dairy Crest and Alabama are not alone. According to a report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued last week, these moves are part of an alarming trend: pension funds are increasingly “gambling on resurrection.”
What’s that? Gambling on resurrection is what happens when a fund or a business or even a government starts running into financial trouble. The responsible thing for financial managers in such situations would be to face up to the problem with investors or constituents and discuss what to do, accepting the possibility that they may be held accountable for creating the problem.
The trickier thing to do is the opposite. You gamble on resurrection. You play down the problem and bet big with a high-risk/high-return strategy; if your bets pay off, you’re solvent, and if not, well, what the hell? You’re already insolvent. And it’s not your money that you’re playing with. With any luck, you’ll be out of there long before the problems are obvious.