David Chaplin 's Opinion

A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

Inside Money: Quake-shaken fund plans for new foundation

Photo / File
Photo / File

There is probably no better illustration of the link between the financial and the physical worlds than the most recent annual report of the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

The shockwaves from the multiple Christchurch earthquakes reverberate plainly through the EQC accounts, which despite all the years of saving and investment as well as reinsurance arrangements, fall an estimated $1.6 billion short of meeting expected liabilities.

The shortfall will, of course, be made up by taxpayers, most of whom, you'd hope, wouldn't begrudge the expense. As the EQC report reveals, despite paying out more than $2.8 billion and repairing 17,000 homes in the year to June 30 there's a massive job still ahead of it.

"... with 80,000 more properties to repair and others to pay out on, the task we face remains immense," EQC chief executive, Ian Simpson, says in the report.

Costs naturally balloon. For example, the number of EQC employees earning over $100,000 has doubled from 13 in the previous financial year to 26 in the current period.

The EQC staff and management have copped a lot of criticism along numerous fronts, including nest-feathering accusations and, rightly, when such vast sums of money are flowing through the system it should be transparently disclosed.

But there are other hidden costs. A couple of EQC frontline assessors told me they're getting frustrated by the amount of shoddy work being turned in by some contractors, skimming on quality but claiming full whack from the taxpayer.

"It's fraud," one particularly dogged assessor told me, "and it makes me really angry both as a professional and a taxpayer."

He showed me pictures of a foundation repair job where the mortar could be scraped out like it was pure sand.

"How big's the problem?" I asked him.

"It's huge," he said.

Of course, it's just about impossible to gauge the truth of this anecdotal evidence isn't enough.

But the EQC has been spending its funds faster than anticipated. According to the 2012 report, the EQC fund is down to its last $3 billion or so (while it's also due another $4.1 billion in reinsurance money).

By May this year it had sold down all its equity holdings, including $1.4 billion of global shares, with the remainder held in NZ government stock and bank securities.

The rapid sell-down of the EQC equities investments has also had another, possibly expensive, effect.

"A significant portion of the investment portfolio was sold down before EQC's 10-year target could be achieved," the 2012 report says. "For the five years to 30 June 2012, the actual total portfolio return was 5.1 per cent versus the target of 9.9 per cent."

For the time-being the investment strategy of the EQC fund will obviously be moot but, as with the city of Christchurch itself, its rebuild is underway.

"... EQC's premium increased from 5 cents to 15 cents per $100 sum insured from 1 February," the report says. "This will increase the Commission's annual levy revenue from about $86 million to about $260 million."

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David Chaplin

A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

David is a freelance journalist who has covered the financial services business on both sides of the Tasman for over 15 years. He is the editor of industry website Investment News. David has edited magazines and websites for the financial advice, investment and superannuation industries.

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