Where is my pension?’ project has revealed who has been financed (environmental offenders, labor violators and companies investigated for corruption) with the retirement savings of more than 100 million formal workers in Latin America. How much money are we talking about? Above 500 billions USD, more than three times Bill Gates’ fortune. The amount and nature of the data collected required a systematization and a coding made from scratch to achieve our App. It is an unprecedented exercise in the region. More than 30 reporters, economists, web developers and designers participated in this transnational work supported by Pulitzer Center and
We share a selection of three impact examples:
• Colombia: The investigation was taken up by traditional media in the country and marked the public agenda for several weeks. The findings were cited in Congress for the proposal of a bill that would mark the path of pension reform in the country. This is the second most visited investigation in our media partner Cuestión Pública’s history, with more than 35,000 unique users. Citizens banded together on Facebook to share complaints about companies that had been funded by their retirement funds. Different reputable Colombian economists wrote columns in the mainstream media about our findings, which were also disseminated by presidency candidates and widely debated by citizens in social media.
• Peru: In a final interview with us, the pension manager’s union representative stated that they were willing to publish and make transparent the fees paid (charged to retirement funds) to third-party foreign fund managers. The representative also accepted the possibility of having caps on the collection of said fees. After the publication: 1) the investment manager of one of the private pension administrators confirmed the same openness in a newspaper column (with the largest circulation in the country), 2) the pension regulator finally assured its commitment to publish the fees paid to third-party foreign fund managers, in the first quarter of 2022.
• Mexico: A few days after publication, the president of the Mexican pension regulatory body (Consar) explained via Twitter why the entity opposed the publication of the pension investment data, as we revealed. His publication showed the lack of technical arguments to keep secret information that other countries publish periodically. Finally, the Institute of Transparency has legally defended the opening of the data, despite the fact that all the private pension administrators insist on not releasing it.
About the technical procedure. A total of 7,352,029 records (investment transaction information rows) were processed, and a unique list of companies or entities financed by pension funds was extracted from the local data of each country and each company or entity was assigned an ID, a number.
Each country’s list went through a first cleaning carried out by one of the team members, and a second one carried out by a different member. The objectives were to validate: 1) the correct spelling of the name, 2) avoid repetitions, 3) identify name changes. The names were validated online with the public company records of each country, the annual reports of the companies and specialized portals such as Morningstar and Bloomberg. MySql was used to generate and organize a new database with the verified names of the issuers and the other variables extracted from the local databases. A third and last revision was done to this new database.
Public visualizations. For the App on our regional website, these latest tools were also used, and the navigation route was designed for the user, who is asked to select only two variables: country and pension administrator. The objective was to get directly to the route of the money handled by their administrator. For investigators, we published this version that includes advanced visualizations: www.inversiones.adondevamipension.org/en.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most challenging parts were the data collection and cleaning. Through FOI requests, we turned to the relevant institutions in the nine countries at the end of 2019. Uniformly, we asked for the compositions of the investment portfolios detailed by the pension administrator, name of the financed company, financial instrument, type of fund risk, and investment amount at the end of each month.
In Mexico and Uruguay, detailed information on investments is considered confidential and we continue in extensive legal processes for accessing the information. In the Colombian case, it was necessary to resort to a second legal instance, while the first official reply was that the data was in “reserve”, under the category of “private information” owned by the pension administrators. El Salvador’s regulator provided very uneven data, only those corresponding to two years had a level of detail close to that requested, despite our insistence. And we officially collected complete data from the local pension regulators of Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic.
However, the data cleaning stage was the hardest without a doubt. Before extracting the chosen variables from local data, manual coding was necessary in some cases. For example, in the Peruvian case, two of the variables (company name and the type of financial instrument purchased) were listed in the same column in all the spreadsheets. We manually coded (with 0 for companies and 1 for financial instruments) each row of each monthly spreadsheet of the 10-year period analyzed. Around 60,000 rows were codified, with three rounds of verification by different team members. These members were first trained in the financial technical subject to correctly differentiate the two variables with ease.This manual coding was done before the company name verification process described in the previous question.
What can others learn from this project?
We believe this project can be inspiring for other colleagues in different senses. They can start to dimension the power of pension funds in their countries and how they generate agents of local power. Additionally, this transnational project is based on a pension model that emerged in Chile and was exported to 8 other Latin American countries, and we believe that it can serve as a starting point to identify what other apparatuses of economic power have been replicated regionally.
Through ‘Where is my pension?’ project, colleagues can also train their ability to generate investigative questions about pension systems. For example: Which companies with a history of corruption have been financed? Which labor or environmental offenders? And as a next step, you can see how you can achieve a systematization of technical economic data from journalism, bringing financial specialists to this field as part of the team, and with whom you can question methodological proposals until you find the best one. On a more detailed level, colleagues can learn the criterias to request, clean, verify and organize pension fund investment data, and produce intuitive Apps where any citizen can follow the route of their money.
We are confident that the 7 million records processed are definitely an unfinished source of stories. Therefore, in addition to the App standard version designed for a very intuitive user experience, we designed a second version for investigative journalists and finance experts. This version (www.inversiones.adondevamipension.org/en) allows you to view the data in at least six different comparative ways (year by year, throughout the ten-year period, by beneficiary company, by pension administrator, by type of fund risk, etc.) , and hopefully it marks the starting point for further stories published.