Social services


Social insecurity

The financialisation of healthcare and pensions in developing countries

16 July 2010 | Reports


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Executive summary

This paper aims to raise awareness of private financial institutions’ influence on healthcare and pensions in developing countries. ‘Financialisation’ – the expanding systemic power and scope of finance and financial markets and actors – has persisted, even through the financial crisis, without adequate debate or scrutiny. The extensive scope of private finance and its impact on social outcomes highlights the need for development practitioners, policy makers and activists to better understand the financial system.

With global health spending at $5.3 trillion and global pensions assets at $29.5 trillion, national health and pension funds represent significant opportunities for financial corporations.

This paper looks at:

  • the structural short-comings of the privatisation reforms that have been proposed by multilateral actors, including the World Bank, in meeting the developmental needs of the South;
  • the various motives and drivers behind the reforms, including multilateral agencies, national elites and corporate and financial interests; and
  • the role of private pension funds and health insurance companies in financial markets, and their strategies in developing countries

Section 1 argues that the privatisation reforms have failed to adequately address the social risks of old age, poverty and poor health. Far from increasing efficiency, the reforms have proved costly and have drained public resources through lavish tax incentives and significant administrative and regulatory expenses. In Chile, the private pensions system absorbs around a third of the overall government budget and 42 per cent of public social expenditure. The administrative costs associated with private health insurance have been estimated to be up to ten times higher than the administration costs of social insurance. There has been a failure to increase coverage, as only those who can afford to pay premiums can benefit from private schemes and high risk individuals are excluded. Women, who make up a large proportion of informal workers and the poor, often receive significantly lower benefits, and are doubly hit in the face of declining public expenditure on social security.

Section 2 looks at who has been driving the pensions and healthcare reforms. Even though the privatisation reforms are failing to benefit the majority, national governments – pressed by local elites, multilateral agencies and global corporate and financial interests – have contributed significant public resources towards enacting the reforms. It is also acknowledged that the liberalisation of trade and the relocation of multilateral health corporations to developing country markets have contributed to the privatisation of health. Several US-based managed-care organisations have entered Latin America and Asia, seeking access to public social security funds.

In section 3, the links between social security reform and financialisation are explored. Over the last three decades, finance has grown rapidly in terms of activities, markets, institutions and profits. By the end of 2008, the global insurance industry held $18.7 trillion of funds under management, with global insurance premiums at $4.3 trillion. Banks and insurance companies earn interest spreads, fees and commissions directly off worker health insurance and pensions contributions, including from the poorest layers of society.

The role of private financial institutions in the reform process are examined by considering two case studies: private pensions in Chile and private health insurance in Argentina.

In 1981, Chile was the first country to push through private pension reform, serving as a model for other developing countries. However, many private pension fund management companies are in the hands of foreign financial conglomerates. Chile’s largest private pension manager, Provida, with $36.1 billion under management, is owned by Spain’s largest financial institution BBVA. Between 1981 and 2006, Chilean workers contributed approximately $50 billion from their salaries towards the private pension schemes, of which private pension mangers and related insurance companies kept one third as commissions and profit.

In Argentina, the healthcare reforms enacted in the 1990s have also benefited financial corporations, who have extracted large profits and moved capital outside of the health system and the country. According to professor Celia Iriart from the University of New Mexico, US-owned private health insurer Exxel Group, used high levels of debt to evade tax, transferred capital from Argentina to foreign private accounts by paying high interest on the junk bonds it issued, and drained government resources by keeping part of the revenue of public hospitals it was managing.

Section 4 concludes that private and poorly regulated financial institutions have played a central role in the failures of the social security reforms to overcome the challenges of healthcare access and old age poverty in many developing countries. The global financial crisis further served to expose the fragility of the financial system, with many pension funds and insurance companies collapsing. At the same time, the resulting rise in unemployment and poverty following the financial crisis in developing countries makes the issue of social security even more vital. There is an urgent need for more research to be done on the role and impact of private financial institutions in the pensions and health insurance sectors in developing countries.

Social Insecurity: The financialisation of healthcare and pensions in developing countries
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