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As chief investment officer of the NZ Super Fund for the past four years, Matt Whineray quietly presided over a stellar run for the nation's retirement savings.

The fund has grown to nearly $40 billion and earned average returns of more than 10 per cent a year.

That's good news – we're going to need that money when a demographic wave of retirement crashes over the economy from the mid-2030s.


Fortunately, the fund has been boosted by the fair winds of a bull market – now into its ninth year.

But market commentators are nervous. Surely it can't last. We must be due a crash.

Now Whineray is in the hot seat, taking over last month as chief executive from Adrian Orr.

If he is worried about the risk of taking on the top job at the market's peak, he isn't showing it.

But then, he spends a lot of time managing risk.

"It would be big," he says, when I ask what a market crash would do to the fund. "It would have a big impact on our portfolios but that's within the range of outcomes we expect."

But growing the fund is not about picking stocks, he says.

"It's bigger picture than that. The big decision is: how much risk do you want? You get that as cheaply as you can and stick to it through time.

"We know it's going to be a bumpy ride and we'll have some big ups and some big downs.

"We will hit things like the GFC and that will affect the portfolio ... the key in that is to hold your nerve, because the worst thing you can do is to lose that at the wrong time. You'll crystallise all your losses and they'll never come back."

Whineray, 49, was an investment banker through the boom and GFC bust of last decade.

He started his career as a lawyer but switched to finance with an eye on living and working in New York.

He ended up a vice president at Credit Suisse First Boston in New York and from there spent time as managing director at First NZ Capital in New Zealand and in management with Credit Suisse in Hong Kong.

As Super Fund boss, he takes on one of the most important public service jobs in the country and also, famously - or perhaps infamously - the best paid.

Orr's pay, ultimately more than $1 million, copped an unprecedented degree of media scrutiny after it was targeted by former Finance Minister Bill English.

Orr's earnings soared on a cumulative series of performance targets – which he kept hitting.

So even when we know what the new base salary is, whether Whineray will surpass Orr's pay is highly uncertain.

Regardless, he says he is prepared for the public gaze and accepts that it goes with the territory.

"A lot of that depends on how we perform and that performance basis is done over a four-year time period because we want that to not be focused on a one-off thing," Whineray says, in a very matter-of-fact manner.

"But absolutely, scrutiny comes with the territory. We're a public entity, we're a guardian of the pūtea (savings fund), we're a guardian of the Crown's wealth. And we take that very seriously."

Actually, based on his career path with Credit Suisse, you could argue that Whineray has taken a pay cut to return home and work with the Super Fund.

"You could," he concedes, when I put that to him. "But you're trading off different things. I get the benefit of the purpose of this fund ... I think it has a fantastic reason for existing, it's got a wonderful horizon, a great bunch of people. And I get to live in this great place. You make those trade-offs. I've been happy to."

Whineray says the Super Fund team has a strong sense of purpose about its work.

"We have a big job, sometimes you can lose sight of the numbers. When you write $38.5 billion it's different from when you put the zeros on it. It's a big number. And it's a big chunk of the Government's wealth."

Liam Dann sits down with the new Super Fund CEO to cover a range of topics.

The Super Fund was in the media spotlight again this year after making a public pitch to invest in the proposed Auckland light rail network.

Questions have been asked about the political nature of backing a project that remains controversial.

"That is a commercial investment decision and all of our decisions are commercial investment decisions ... we have very clear operational independence from Government."

Whineray is very clear on the issue of political interference.

"We don't get any," he says. "We don't get calls to do this or do that."

In fact, he says, the operational separation from Government is one of the big advantages the Fund has because it allows it to invest with long term horizons.

It's that longer view that make infrastructure investment a useful part of the portfolio mix, he says.

"Infrastructure is like any other investment in that you invest capital in the front end. And in this case you end up with quite long-life assets."

There are different revenue models, depending on whether you invest in roads or schools, for example, he says.

"Sometimes you take demand risk, you care about how many people drive on the toll road. Sometimes you're providing it on an availability basis. You invest some money now, you might build the asset, and then you receive a stream of payments over its lifetime.

"We're invested in wind farm projects in the US and solar farms. You're thinking about how do I manage that set of risks so that it meets my investment hurdle? And that's exactly the same with the light rail."

Making investment calls that please everyone is a tough ask. But Whineray has been a driver of the move to a more ethical portfolio in the past few years.

"So, cluster munitions, whaling, nuclear weapons, tobacco are the big ones. It's much easier to say than it is to do. It takes quite a lot of work, having designed this framework, how do we actually implement?"

Reflecting New Zealand values starts with following the law, he says.

Then you try to incorporate international conventions, laws or treaties we have signed up to. Finally, if there is a major piece of government policy, that can act as a guide.

"Tobacco is not illegal," Whineray says. "But it's one of few products in the world which if used as directed will probably kill you. So that's a decision we took on the basis of clear national policy.

"Our job is not to make everybody happy; that's an impossible outcome."

One of those areas where some still remain unhappy is investment in carbon polluting sectors like oil and gas.

But even on that front, the Super Fund is making big changes and there is commercial logic too, Whineray says.

"Two years ago we announced a climate change investment strategy and as a result reduced our exposure to carbon emissions by 20 per cent and carbon reserves by about 20 per cent," he says.

"We've just been through another round of that as we reach our end of year ... and we'll further reduce our carbon emissions exposure and our carbon reserves."

"It comes down to saying, what are the risks presented by climate change? How long will it take for those things to manifest, what will the carbon price be in five or 10 or 15 years? Most likely it will be higher than it is today because as you get those physical impacts you'll get policy responses. We think that is under-priced in our portfolio ... we want to reduce that risk."

Despite all the media attention, ethical investing is not just about selling stuff, he says.

"That just reduces our exposure. The world's still got the problem. If we sell some shares someone else will own those shares and the world stays the same place."

Another strategy is to engage with companies and promote change as shareholders.

Then there is active investment in things such as solar and wind energy, he says.

"We'll go out and find investments that allow us to contribute to the reduction of climate change ... or benefit from reduction in climate change impact. It's reduced our risk against the under-priced carbon, we think."

Issues like climate change have to figure in Super Fund thinking because it has such a long investment horizon, Whineray says.

"Our task is to go and grow the pot as large as we can without undue risk," he says.

In the mid-2030s the Government will start to draw down the fund to help fund the nation's retirement.

"But we're going to continue to grow in nominal terms through until the end of the century. We'll peak as a percentage of GDP late in the century," he says. "We've got a long horizon and a big task ahead."

NZ Super Fund
Value: $38.5b (with update due next month)
Created: 2001 (inception of fund 2003)
Purpose: To help fund future superannuation costs
Performance: 10.22% a year since inception

Matt Whineray
Grew up: Palmerston North
Family: married to Sandra, two children. Brother of Mercury Energy CEO Fraser Whineray, nephew of All Black Great Wilson Whineray
Education: Palmerston North Boys' High, Auckland Grammar,
Auckland University - commerce and law
Last holiday: Matapouri
Last film seen: Thor Ragnarok