Selected Issues


Selected Issues

Nicaragua’s Social Security System: Pathways to Sustainability1

Nicaragua’s social security system (INSS) is projected to run out of liquid reserves by 2019, several years earlier than anticipated. To avoid burdening the budget, reforms to the system are urgently needed. This note examines the causes of the imbalances and focuses specifically on reform options for the IVM pension system.

A. Background and Regional Context

System Overview

1. Nicaragua’s social security system provides pension, disability and healthcare benefits to its members. There are several components to the system, which is managed by the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social or INSS). The pension system (known as Invalidez, Vejez y Muerte or IVM) is a defined benefit, pay-as-you-go system, which provides pension, disability and survivor benefits. Additional INSS programs include health insurance (Enfermedad-Maternidad), occupational risks (Riesgos Profesionales or RP) and disability and survivor benefits for victims of the civil war (Víctimas de la Guerra or VG). Beneficiaries of occupational risks civil war-related disability and survivor benefits will typically shift to receiving an IVM pension once they reach age 60.

2. Benefits are financed by mandatory employer and employee contributions, as well as interest revenue from the INSS reserve fund. All formal private sector and most public sector workers are eligible to participate in the INSS.2 Contributors can opt only for the pension and occupational risks insurance (Régimen de IVM-RP) or they can add health insurance as well (Régimen Integral). Self-employed workers may contribute voluntarily (Régimen Facultativo), and may choose to be covered for both pension and health care benefits (Régimen Facultativo Integral) or pension benefits only, at a lower contribution rate (Régimen Facultativo IVM).

3. Pension benefits are determined by base salary and years of contributions. INSS members become eligible for a pension when they turn 60 and have at least 750 weeks (about 15 years) of contributions, which do not need to be continuous. There is a special retirement age of 55 for teachers and miners. Benefits are determined by a formula based on the average salary and the number of weeks of contributions. The system has an element of progressivity as there are two different formulas, one for those with a base salary which is less than two minimum wages, which covers about 70 percent of all pensioners, and another for those with a base salary above this level (see Annex for a full description of the formula). The minimum starting pension cannot be lower than the minimum wage. Pensioners also receive a thirteenth payment in December.

4. Healthcare benefits provide access to a better quality of care. Households without health insurance can access free services provided by the Ministry of Health (MINSA), but MINSA facilities are often under-resourced and services are perceived to be of lower quality compared with those that can be accessed with INSS insurance. Alternatively, households pay out-of-pocket for care from private sector providers (Thornton et al, 2010). One of the strategies to increase INSS membership has therefore been to offer improved healthcare benefits to its members, including extending the geographic area where health services are available and through a focus on prevention and early detection of diseases. Cancer treatment and hemodialysis programs were introduced in 2007, and have expanded in scope. To provide benefits, INSS contracts with private and public healthcare providers. It pays a fixed per capita amount per member to providers, and has pre-negotiated tariffs for specific events. Members require three months of continuous contributions to receive healthcare benefits. Children are covered up to the age of 12, and female spouses or partners are covered for maternity benefits.

5. Other benefits provided by the INSS system include those of the RP and War Victims programs. The RP provides insurance coverage for medical expenses and wages lost due to workplace-related accidents or illnesses for about 15,000 people at end-2016. The War Victims program, which is funded by a 1.5 percent contribution from employers, provides disability and survivor pensions for those affected by the armed conflicts of the late 1970s and 1980s, and currently covers about 32,000 people. Finally, there are “special pensions” which are granted to people who have not contributed to the system but who the state deems to be deserving (currently about 2,000 people); these pensions are financed by both the IVM and the RP programs. Both the war victims and the special pensions have been declining as a percentage of both total INSS pensioners and total pension payments, and the absolute number of these pensioners has declined considerably since the 1990s.3

6. Coverage is relatively low but has shown strong gains. It is estimated that about 80 percent of businesses operate informally in Nicaragua (COSEP, 2015), and the low active coverage of INSS reflects this. To increase coverage by making it easier for independent workers to pay the monthly contribution, INSS has expanded its physical presence across the country through a network of branches. Thus, the RF, aimed at independent and informal sector workers, has grown rapidly from a low base. At the same time, the share of the population receiving an INSS pension has expanded, partly due to the introduction of the reduced pension in 2013. The tendency has been for elderly family members in Nicaragua to reside with their children, partly mitigating the need for an old age pension. Nevertheless, this characteristic of Nicaraguan society is likely to change over time, with changing demographics and social norms, making a wider social safety net for the elderly more of a priority in the future.

7. A law reforming the pension system was passed in 2013. Recognizing that the sustainability of the pension system was in jeopardy, a discussion was initiated in 2007 between the private sector, labor unions and the government on a pension reform. Agreement was eventually reached on the following components:

  • An increase in the contribution rate for employers from 7 to 10 percent, implemented between 2014 and 2017.

  • An increase in the maximum monthly pensionable salary to C$72,000 (US$2,774), with annual adjustments in line with the growth of the average wage.

  • Minimum pensions to be adjusted in line with average wage growth, rather than with the minimum wage, which historically has grown faster than average wages. However, the link between the minimum starting pension and the minimum wage was maintained.

  • The benefit formula for people earning at least twice the minimum wage was changed to make it somewhat less generous. The indexation mechanism for these pensions was changed to 5 percent annually, in line with the rate of crawl of the exchange rate against the U.S. dollar.

  • An agreement was reached with the state to pay a debt to INSS through an annual payment of US$10 million over 50 years. The obligation of US$500 million arose from the non-payment by the budgetary central government of the 0.25 percent contribution required on the total wage bill (see Table 1), and which had been accumulating arrears since 1979. Despite the agreement to settle the outstanding debt at end-2013, the 0.25 percent contribution to INSS continues not to be included in the government budget.

Table 1.

INSS Current Contribution Rates

(Percent of pensionable salary)

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Source: INSS
Table 2.

INSS Revenue and Expenditure, 2012-16

(Percent of GDP)

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Includes investment income from the reserve fund.

Includes subsidies for funerals, marriages, infant formula, and for maintenance of children, as well as for days missed from work due to accidents, illness or maternity.

Including expenditure on wages, goods and services, and capital expenditure.

Table 3.

Coverage Indicators for INSS (2006 and 2016)

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Total labor force, including informal sector

Sources: INSS, UNPOP, ILO and IMF staff calculations

INSS estimates that savings from the reform were about 1 percent of GDP in 2016, with about four-fifths coming from an increase in contributions, due both to the higher rate and the increase in the maximum pensionable salary.

8. Savings from the reform began to be eroded immediately as a partial pension benefit was introduced in 2013. The pensión reducida (“reduced pension”) covers those participants with 250–750 weeks of contributions, insufficient to qualify for a full pension. The amounts of the reduced pension are related to the number of contribution weeks, are fixed in law, and are not indexed to the exchange rate, inflation, or wages. The average monthly reduced pension in 2016 amounted to about $83, or 27 percent of the average wage. The number of reduced pension recipients has been growing rapidly as more participants have come forward to claim their benefits; as of March 2017, 46,071 pensioners (out of a total of 236,565) were receiving the reduced pension. The estimated cost of the reduced pension in 2016 was about 0.36 percent of GDP.

9. The investment policy of the INSS has resulted in a reduction of financial income and a rapid depletion of liquid funds. From 2007–2012, the INSS ran surpluses, which were invested in financial assets, largely government securities. The assets of the INSS reserve fund, which covers all branches of INSS (not only IVM), increased from US$392 million in 2007 to US$592 million in 2012. However, since 2013, the size of the fund has been declining, and stood at US$410 million (3.1 percent of GDP) at end-2016. The composition of investments has shifted away from government bonds and central bank securities towards investments in real assets, including medical facilities which provide services to INSS. There has been significant investment in real estate development, which does not appear to be connected to the nature of INSS operations or those of the reserve fund. Funds from INSS have been used to finance mortgage loans at subsidized rates through the banking system. Thus, the revenue from the reserve fund has been declining in recent years, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total revenue, and, per INSS’s projections, is expected to be very low relative to historical trends going forward (Figure 1). This has left INSS with only a small portion of reserves that are liquid and can be used to cover its deficits.1

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Assets and Revenues of the Reserve Fund, end-2016

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

Sources: INSS and IMF staff calculations.

10. The parametric changes introduced in the 2013 reform were insufficient to ensure long-term financial sustainability. The pension benefits provided under the IVM system continue to be large compared with the financial capacity of the country and the size of contributions (Figure 2). The gross replacement rate2 for an average income earner was estimated at 97 percent by the OECD/IDB/World Bank (2014), while the average old age pension in 2016 was about 80 percent of the average wage.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

NPV of Contributions and Pensions, by Salary Level and Contribution Period

(Thousands of córdobas)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

Sources: INSS and staff calculations

11. Pensions are not necessarily high in absolute terms,3 but they are large relative to contributions, and the minimum pension is high enough to create some distortions in the system. To investigate this, we calculate the net present value (NPV) of the expected stream of pension payments for various base salary and contribution periods, assuming an average life expectancy after retirement of 15 years. These numbers are then compared with the corresponding NPV of the stream of contributions. The calculations demonstrate some perverse incentives. For example, whether minimum wage earners contribute 15 or 20 years makes no difference to their pensions, because the minimum starting pension cannot be less than the minimum wage. Also, although those earning an average wage contribute significantly more than those earning a minimum wage, their pensions will be very close in value (Figure 2). It should be noted that the NPV calculations are based on an assumed retirement date of end-2016, and so reflect lower contribution rates in the past (IVM contribution rates were as low as 5.5 percent up to 2001). Thus, going forward, the gap between contributions and pensions should decrease, but remain significant.

12. Public pension expenditure in percentage of GDP terms is the highest among Central American countries. Guatemala and Honduras are the two Central American countries which, like Nicaragua, maintain pure defined benefit systems, but unlike Nicaragua’s, these systems have low contribution rates and very low coverage. Pension expenditure in percentage of GDP is relatively low in both Guatemala and Honduras. On the other hand, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and El Salvador closed their defined benefit system to new entrants and introduced new defined contribution or mixed systems. A large portion of El Salvador and Panama’s pension expenditures are currently a result of transition costs. Also, the gross replacement rate in Nicaragua is high compared to other countries in the region (Table 4), about 15 percentage points above Costa Rica’s, the second most generous pension system. Nicaragua therefore stands out due to its combination of relatively high contribution rates, replacement rates, and pension expenditure. Also notable is that all countries in the region, except for Nicaragua, have introduced a social pension, which is typically targeted to the most vulnerable.

Table 4.

Pension Systems in Central America and the Dominican Republic, 2015

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Total contribution rates include both employer and employee contributions.

Source: IMF (forthcoming)

B. Current Challenges

13. Demographic changes will place additional pressure on Nicaragua’s social security system in the coming years as retirees live for longer. Nicaragua’s population is still relatively young, but, like other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is undergoing significant demographic change. Fertility rates have declined from five children per women in 1990 to 2.3 in 2015, while life expectancy has risen from 62 years in 1990 to 75 years in 2015. According to the United Nations, currently only five percent of the population is over 64; however, this is expected to rise to 12 percent by 2040. The old age dependency ratio—the ratio of the population 65+ to the population aged 15–64—is expected to increase from 7.8 percent to 17.8 percent by 2040. This is much lower than comparable ratios in advanced countries, and lower than the average for the Latin America and Caribbean region, and unlike in many other countries, the working age population will continue to expand well beyond the next 20 years. Nevertheless, population aging will place increasing pressure on the finances of the INSS in the next 20 years, as retirees live for longer.1

IVM Pension System

14. Revenues from contributions have grown strongly over the past decade, but expenditure growth has outpaced that of revenues. Higher revenues can be attributed to the recent pension reform and a strong increase in affiliates, in addition to the growth in pensionable salary. Contributions increased from 2.4 percent of GDP in 2013, before the reform, to 3.1 percent of GDP in 2016. Total pension spending has more than doubled in percentage of GDP terms, from 1.4 percent of GDP in 2006 to 3.0 percent in 2016. The major driving forces for this increase have been the increases in the minimum wage, to which the minimum pension was indexed, particularly in 2008 and 2009, a doubling of the number of ordinary pensioners, as well as the introduction and steady take-up of the reduced pension (about 0.4 percent of GDP in 2016).

15. Pension costs are projected to rise in percentage of GDP terms as the population ages. Staff uses projections from INSS for revenue and expenditure for the 2017–2020 period. Beyond 2020, a model developed by the Fiscal Affairs Department is employed, based on Clements et al (2013). The model projects that, by 2040, the expenditure of the IVM pension system will reach 5.9 percent of GDP. On the revenue side, IVM contributions are projected to continue growing rapidly until 2020 as INSS continues its efforts to recruit and retain more affiliates, and then to stabilize at around 3.4 percent of GDP from 2020 onwards.

Other Elements of the Social Security System

16. Healthcare expenditure has risen sharply. While the number of insured has approximately doubled since 2006, healthcare expenditure has increased almost six-fold and expenditure on healthcare has exceeded contributions since 2015. In general, cost growth has been driven by a rapid increase in coverage, and an expansion of treatment for catastrophic conditions. Over the past two years, the INSS has attempted to contain healthcare cost growth. Strategies have included negotiating better tariffs with service providers and using the reserve fund to purchase of stakes in health service providers and generic drug manufacturers to better control costs. In 2016, health care expenditure per capita in the INSS system fell by 3 percent.

17. The growth in administrative spending over the last 10 years appears excessive. INSS’s administrative expenditures have increased from 0.3 percent of GDP in 2006 to 0.9 percent of GDP in 2016. INSS has had unusually large capital expenditures in recent years, as it expands its branch network and increases coverage by providing easier access to services. Moreover, a significant proportion of this spending since 2014 has been destined to the rehabilitation of the Olof Palme Convention Center, which is owned by INSS. Personnel expenditure has more than doubled, from 0.2 percent of GDP in 2006 to 0.5 percent of GDP in 2016. The INSS Statistical Yearbook indicates that it had 4,090 staff on the payroll at end-2016, 65 percent of which earned a monthly salary of C$20,001 or more.2 INSS staff also benefit from a so-called “doble aguinaldo”—two extra months of salary every year (the public sector only has one “aguinaldo”). However, the latest medium-term expenditure projections from INSS imply a 14 percent reduction in administrative expenditure in nominal terms in 2017, with cuts planned to both personnel expenditure and capital expenditure.

18. The war victims and occupational risks programs appear to be in balance. The most recent actuarial reports for these programs indicate that expenditures are projected to remain lower than contributions over the long term. For the war victims program, the number of pension recipients should gradually decline as will expenditure in percentage of GDP terms, from 0.2 percent of GDP currently to 0.01 percent of GDP by 2040. For the occupational risks program, expenditure should to remain at 0.1 percent of GDP over the long term.

19. The social security system is projected to have exhausted its liquid reserves by 2019. INSS has run a deficit since 2013, which it has financed from its reserve fund. The share of liquid assets in the reserve fund has been reduced significantly, due to investment in real assets.

C. Options for Reform

Pension Reforms

20. This section considers various scenarios for reforming the IVM pension system. It should be noted that this analysis is intended mostly to give an idea of the magnitude of the reforms that may be required to achieve sustainability, and the scenarios described should not be taken as policy recommendations. The solution should consider both technical aspects specific to the pension system of Nicaragua, including but not constrained to parametric changes, and political constraints. Nonetheless, any acceptable solution should be sufficient to restore the necessary equilibrium to the INSS finances.

21. Seeking to increase active coverage alone is unlikely to resolve the problem and may damage sustainability in the long run. Recent efforts by INSS to achieve sustainability have focused on expanding contributions. Increased active coverage would indeed raise additional revenues, but the size of the increase in coverage needed to cover the deficit, without reforms in other areas, would be substantial. Projections for 2017–2020 incorporate the authorities’ assumption that the strong growth in coverage will continue, with an almost 6 percentage point increase in labor force coverage between end-2016 and 2020. This increase is, however, insufficient to close the gap between revenue and expenditures. After 2020, coverage is assumed to stabilize at about 37 percent of the labor force. Figure 4 shows the results of a simulation of the number of additional contributors that would be required to close the gap between revenue and expenditure, beginning in 2021, and assuming that contribution rates remain unchanged.3 Coverage would need to increase to about 90 percent of the labor force by 2040, which seems very ambitious.4 Not taken into account in this analysis is that in the long run, additional contributors are likely to worsen INSS’s financial prospects, given that benefits tend to exceed the value of contributions (Figure 2).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Population Pyramids, 2015 and 2050

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

Source: UN Population Division, 2015 (medium variant projections)
Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Closing the Gap with Additional Contributors

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

Sources: INSS and IMF staff calculations

22. Figure 5 demonstrates the individual impact of various reforms on the balance of the INSS. These are (i) scenario 1: a gradual increase in the retirement age to 63 by 2025; (ii) scenario 2: keeping pensions fixed in dollar terms (iii) scenario 3: increasing contributions by 1 percent in 2020 and a further 1 percent in 2021; (iv) scenario 4: reducing average benefits by 20 percent. On their own, none of these reform simulations achieves full sustainability over the next 20 years. Nevertheless, a combination of these measures could be implemented to achieve sustainability.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Impact of Individual Reforms on the IVM Balance

(Percent of GDP)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

Source: IMF staff calculations

23. There is a compelling case to be made for increasing the retirement age. Average life expectancy in Nicaragua is now 13 years higher than in 1990, while there has been no change in the retirement age over the same period. An increase in the retirement age can be an effective way to improve the sustainability of a defined benefit pension system, as it increases the number of contributors while also reducing the number of beneficiaries.5 Increases can be introduced gradually, and the option of retirement at 60 can be retained, but with a penalty. An important caveat to this argument is that, while the average life expectancy has risen, gains have likely not been equally distributed amongst workers. Some workers, particularly those in physically demanding jobs such as agricultural workers6 and miners, typically have shorter lifespans. Nicaragua currently has a lower retirement age of 55 years for miners for this reason, as well as an article in the law which allows exceptions to the legal retirement age on medical grounds. Teachers are also afforded a retirement age of 55 years; the reasons for this are less clear and so consideration could be given to increasing their retirement age to at least 60.

24. There does not appear to be much scope to increase contribution rates. Higher contribution rates for employers were the most salient aspect of the previous pension reform and it is likely to be difficult to get the private sector to agree to an additional increase. Overall, the contribution rate to INSS in Nicaragua is high compared with other countries in the region, at 25¼ percent of wages. An additional increase in contribution rates is also likely to act as a disincentive for employers to formalize.

25. A reduction in pension costs could be achieved by bringing benefits more in line with those in the rest of the region. Average replacement rates could be brought down to levels closer to the OECD average of 53 percent through an overhaul of the formula. However, if benefits are to be reduced, there may also be an impact on coverage, as fewer workers and employers decide it is worth their while to contribute. The most recent pension reform served to make Nicaragua’s pension system more progressive, with higher income earners now having a lower replacement rate relative to those earning below two minimum wages. Care should therefore be taken not to increase this gap, as the perceived unfairness would be a disincentive for higher income earners to contribute. Social support to low income earners should rather be channeled through an expansion of non-contributory pensions, as considered below.

26. There is room for further reform of the indexation mechanism. The 2013 pension reform attempted to curb the growth in pension costs by delinking annual pension increases from the minimum wage. Staff’s calculations suggest that the average IVM pension, not including the reduced pension, has increased by about 9 percent annually since the reform, less than in previous years and less than the increase in the minimum wage in the industrial sector (11 percent annually) but still well above inflation, which has averaged 4.5 percent over the same period. The change in indexation modeled above would imply delinking the minimum starting pension from the minimum wage, and indexing all pensions to the depreciation of the exchange rate against the dollar7 or past-year inflation, whichever is lower.

27. Certain expenditures could be shifted to the budget on a very limited basis. Ideally the non-contributive pensions in the system—i.e. those for war victims and special pensions—should be financed by tax revenue rather than employer and employee contributions. The payment of these pensions could continue to be performed by INSS but it could be financed through budgetary allocations. This would free up some resources for the IVM system if contribution rates are maintained at the same overall level, i.e. the contributions previously paid for war victims could be folded into contributions for the IVM system.

28. There are various combinations of individual reforms which would keep the IVM system in balance until 2040. Table 5 and Figure 6 illustrate some of the potential reform packages that would achieve this objective. These do not consider other programs besides IVM, and do not take into account administrative expenditures, which also need to be financed from contribution revenues, and in Nicaragua’s case are relatively substantial. The various packages are merely indicative and consider only very broad reforms, given the limitations of the model. All reforms are assumed to be implemented over the period 2020–2025, with some (e.g. indexation changes) implemented immediately, and others (e.g. reduction of benefits, increased retirement age) over the 5-year period. The simulations show that the parametric reforms needed would be significant but manageable. A full actuarial analysis should be conducted to inform any decisions on pension reform.

Table 5.

Illustrative Reform Packages

(All numbers in percent of GDP)

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Inflation is assumed to be 7 percent p.a. over the long term.

Refers to the shifting the financing of the war victims and special pensions to the budget and using contributions for the war victims’ pensions (1.5 percent of the wage bill) for IVM pensions instead.

Source: Own calculations
Figure 6.
Figure 6.

IVM Pension System Balance Under Reform Scenarios

(Percent of GDP)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2017, 174; 10.5089/9781484305645.002.A001

29. A shift to a defined contribution system does not seem appropriate at the current juncture, although a mixed system could be a long-term solution. The experience of many Latin American countries with defined contribution systems has been problematic, with low real rates of return and low contribution densities, resulting in pensions which are below adequate levels (IMF, forthcoming). In addition, the transition costs which would arise from closing the current system—meeting pension expenditure commitments without current contributions—would be unmanageable at the current juncture. In fact, in Nicaragua’s case, a defined contribution scheme was legislated in the early 2000s but never introduced, partly due to the potential size of the transition costs. Alternatively, after reforming the existing defined benefit system, the authorities may want to start the design and implementation of a mixed system incorporating a defined benefit component for lower salaries and a defined contribution component for higher income individuals, financed by additional contributions. Introduction of a defined contribution segment could be phased in slowly to avoid unmanageable transition costs.

30. The reduced pension has created distortions and inequities which need to be addressed. The number of potential beneficiaries of the reduced pension was much larger than initially foreseen, which was a major factor behind the recent rapid deterioration of INSS finances While beneficiaries of the reduced pension contributed to the IVM system, the NPV of their contributions is substantially below the benefits they are entitled to, even considering that these benefits are not indexed. Any pension reform should therefore also involve the beneficiaries of the reduced pension; otherwise they will effectively be receiving a cross-subsidy from other contributors. Consideration could be given to re-scaling benefits so that they match the NPV of actual contributions. This should include both pensions and any associated health benefits. Alternatively, closing off the reduced pension to new beneficiaries and replacing it with a non-contributory pension targeted to families below the poverty line, could be considered.

31. If fiscal space permits, a targeted non-contributory pension could be introduced. Many countries in Latin America have introduced non-contributory pensions as a means of increasing pension coverage without the challenges of a contributory system. Such a pension could be means-tested and set as some proportion of the average or minimum wage, or a fixed dollar amount, and funded through the budget. For example, a pension of $24 per month (equivalent to 15 percent of the minimum wage or about 1.1 percent of GDP per capita) benefiting one-quarter of the population 65+, would cost about 0.2 percent of GDP.

Table 6.

Social Pensions in Selected Latin American Countries

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Sources: IMF (forthcoming), own calculations

Administrative Reforms

32. The scenarios presented above do not include administrative expenditures. Expenditure on wages, goods and services, and capital spending is difficult to attribute to one branch of INSS or another. Nevertheless, it is important to take these aspects into account in Nicaragua’s case, because administrative costs are well above most pension systems in relative terms, and have increased substantially in recent years. The baseline scenario already factors in the cuts to administrative expenditure planned by the authorities, starting in 2017, which drive the slight improvement in the INSS balance observed between 2017–2019. Administrative costs are assumed to decline from the 0.9 percent of GDP observed in 2016, stabilizing after 2020 at around 0.6 percent of GDP.

33. A reduction in costs through improvements in INSS’s operational efficiency would benefit both members and INSS finances, provided service quality is not affected. Reducing the running costs of INSS by itself would not be sufficient to restore sustainability to the system. However, if administrative expenditures bear some of the burden of the reform through an increase in efficiency, there would be less of a need to reduce benefits or raise contributions. While a detailed analysis of operational efficiency is beyond the scope of this paper, several areas stand out as potential candidates for savings. By outsourcing payment of pensions to banks and non-bank financial institutions rather than investing heavily in a branch network, the INSS will be able to reduce expenditure on staff, equipment and maintenance. Furthermore, the sale of a large part of the existing branch network may generate additional income.

34. Bringing the INSS payroll more in line with the rest of the Nicaraguan public sector would also save resources. In 2016, the average annual salary of an INSS employee is estimated at C$417,000 ($14,570), which is 3.2 times that of the average salary in the central government. Even considering that INSS might employ a higher proportion of professionals relative to the central government, this seems very high—in 2007, the same ratio was 1.9. Bringing the ratio back down to 2007 levels would result in a saving of about 0.2 percentage points of GDP, equivalent to reducing the average pension benefit by five percent or a 0.75 percent increase in the contribution rate.

Other Reforms

35. Additional efficiency gains in healthcare could be identified. Ideally a reduction in expenditures should be achieved through efficiency gains rather than reducing benefits. A more thorough investigation of the potential for efficiency gains is needed, however, which is beyond the scope of this analysis.

36. Any reform package should also consider modernizing the management of INSS’s reserves and improving overall governance. The current social security law does not regulate INSS’s investment fund. It is standard practice for the reserves of public pension systems to be invested in low risk assets which yield a steady return, such as government bonds. However, recent investment decisions have departed from traditional investments. This is especially problematic when coupled with the lack of disclosure to its members as to how the reserve fund is invested. There are also no constraints on shifting reserves from one regime (e.g. IVM) to another (e.g. healthcare). While this gives the INSS management more flexibility, it is less transparent and can lead to practices that could be perceived as being unfair—for example, if reserves from one program are used to finance another program.

37. This paper has indicated that there are various pathways to sustainability for INSS’s pension system. A deep actuarial, economic and operational analysis is required to design a comprehensive reform program, and ensure that the defined benefit, pay-as-you-go system can sustain itself for another generation of workers and that the improved healthcare benefits can be maintained. A politically acceptable, pragmatic solution appears within reach. However, the authorities should act quickly to avoid a costly bailout of the system.

Annex I. Technical Annex

A. Formula for the Old Age Pension1

  • The starting point for the calculation is the Monthly Remuneration Base (RBM), which is the average pensionable salary earned over the past “n” weeks, depending on the total number of weeks of contributions.

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  • Second, the Excess Contribution Weeks Factor (FSCE) is calculated:

    • FSCE = (Weeks of Contributions – 150)/52

  • If the RBM is less or equal to two times the minimum wage, the following formula will be applied to obtain the base pension (Formula 1):

    • Base pension = RBM * (0.45+0.01591*FSCE)

    Under this formula, the base pension is limited to 100 percent of the RBM, plus the family benefits of 15 percent for spouse and 10 percent for each child younger than 21.

  • If RBM is greater than two times the minimum wage, the following formula will be applied to obtain the base pension (Formula 2):

    • Base pension = RBM * (0.37 + 0.01150*FSCE)

    Under this second formula, the base pension is limited to 80 percent of the RBM, plus the 15 percent benefits for spouse and 10 percent for each child younger than 21. The sum of the base pension and the family benefits cannot exceed 100 percent of the RB. The amount of the base pension under this second formula cannot be less than the base pension calculation under formula 1.

    The total pension, including family benefits, cannot exceed US$1,500 monthly.

B. Reduced Pension2

The following monthly amounts are currently applicable:

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C. Pension Identity

The model uses the following pension identity:


where PE/GDP denotes the ratio of pension spending to GDP, population 65+ is the population aged 65 years or older, and population 15 – 64 is the population between ages of 15 and 64. The employment ratio (labor force participation) and the labor income share of GDP are typically assumed to be constant over time (Clements et al, 2013).

Key Assumptions for IVM Pension Projections 2017–2040

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IMF staff calculations, based on the authorities’ revenue and expenditure projections and staff forecasts of nominal GDP and other macro variables, as well as U.N. population forecasts (medium variant).


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Prepared by Rosalind Mowatt. Helpful comments and inputs were provided by Mauricio Soto (FAD) and Vimal Thakoor (AFR).


As of end-2016, the INSS had about 857,000 active contributors. There are two other social security systems in Nicaragua, one for the military and one for the police, firefighters, and prison employees. There is no published data on these systems and, unlike the INSS, they are not included in public sector accounts.


In 1995, recipients of war victims and special pensions made up about 50 percent of all pensioners, and these programs accounted for about 27 percent of total pension expenditure (Mesa Lago et al, 1997).


According to INSS figures, liquid assets amounted to about $91m at end-2016, or 22 percent of the total, taking into account that not all classes of government bonds are liquid.


This measure reflects the “theoretical” replacement rate, based on a full set of contributions. “Gross” refers to before taxes; this distinction is not important in Nicaragua’s case because pensions are not subject to taxation. (OECD/IDB/World Bank pp. 52)


Moreover, as of end-2016, 42 percent of pensioners were receiving a minimum pension; 33 percent a reduced pension, and only 26 percent a pension higher than the minimum pension.


As a caveat, it should be noted that specific demographic information on the INSS population was not available to the mission. The demographics of INSS may not mirror exactly those of the population as a whole. Since the INSS population is wealthier on average than the uninsured population, one may assume that the population aging process may be more advanced. INSS also has a history which may influence its demographic profile; it has been affected by the turbulence of the 1980s, the structural adjustment programs of the 1990s, and changes in policies in the 2000s.


For context, the average economy-wide monthly salary in 2016 was C$9,386. The average salary in the central government was C$10,131.


The simulation does not project an increase in pension expenditure relative to the baseline. The additional pension spending due to additional beneficiaries is assumed to occur beyond the projection horizon, although in reality, as reduced pensions can be drawn after only 5 years of contributions, new members may retire before 2040. Provision is made for the likelihood that new affiliates will not contribute every month till the end of their careers, by assuming a contribution density of 75 percent, i.e. that new affiliates will contribute only nine months out of every 12, on average.


Low employment coverage has been a problem for many Latin American pension systems, linked to high levels of informality, and few have successfully addressed it. The example of Brazil stands out here in a regional context. Brazil implemented several initiatives which have increased social contributions, including a simplification of the tax regime for SMEs, and incentive programs for independent workers and microentrepreneurs to join the social security system. There is also a robust education program for workers on social security issues. (Schwarzer & Liberal Ferreira de Santana, 2015).


It may also result in higher average pensions, however, as average contribution periods will be extended (this potential impact is not modeled above).


Currently 5 percent annually. This is already done for a portion of pensions.


From Reforma al Decreto No. 975 “Reglamento General A La Ley de Seguridad Social”.


See Decreto 12–2015 “Decreto Aumento Pensión Reducida”.

Nicaragua: Selected Issues
Author: International Monetary Fund. Western Hemisphere Dept.