Global pensions soar to new US$56 trillion record

Pension funds globally now hold over US$56 trillion – doubling in a decade
Defined contribution (DC) pensions now 54% of assets in largest markets
UK regains second place for countries’ total pension funds, overtaking Japan

London, Wednesday 16 February 2022 – Global institutional pension fund assets in the 22 largest markets (the “P22”) have reached a new record, totalling US$56.6 trillion by the end of 2021, according to the latest figures in the Thinking Ahead Institute’s Global Pension Assets Study.

This new record follows year-on-year growth of 6.9% in P22 assets in 2021, up from US$52.9 trillion in the previous year – when global pension assets first surpassed the US$50 trillion mark.

Continued growth during 2021 means global pension assets have now almost doubled in the last decade – since standing at US$29.3 trillion in 2011.

Split geographically, such growth has been driven in large part by anglosphere countries. During the same annual period, pension assets have grown in USD terms, by 11.6% in Australia, 8.5% in the US and 7.7% in the UK. Meanwhile a 1.1% fall in Japan’s pension assets means the UK has overtaken Japan to reclaim the position of second largest pensions market.

New pensions models are also a factor, with defined contribution (DC) pensions showing strong growth in particular. After surpassing 50% of assets in the seven largest pensions markets for the first time ever in 2020, DC pensions have continued their steady ascendancy throughout 2021, to now top 54%.

Concentration in pensions markets has increased, even as relatively smaller countries have also seen growth in their pension assets. As of the new 2021 data, the United States, with US$35 trillion in pension funds alone, now represents 62% of the entire ‘P22’ total. This US share of pension assets has grown considerably since 2011 when the US represented 52% of the ‘P22’ total at the time.

The seven largest markets for pension assets (the “P7”) – Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK and the US – collectively account for 92% of the P22, remain unchanged from the previous year.

Pension assets have also grown substantially compared to economic output. Global pension assets for the ‘P22’ reached a fresh record compared to the same countries’ collective domestic product – hitting 76.3% of GDP by the end of 2021.

Individually, the Netherlands has the highest ratio of pension assets to GDP (213%) followed by Australia (172%), Canada (170%), Switzerland (157%), the US (153%) and the UK (124%). This ratio reflects a number of factors from market valuations and allocations to pension inflows – but captures how pension assets have substantially outpaced economic growth in each respective country in recent years.

During the last ten years, the pension assets to GDP ratio increased the most in the Netherlands (up 94pp), Australia (+79pp), Switzerland (+64pp) and the US (up 54pp).

Marisa Hall, co-head of the Thinking Ahead Institute said: “Pensions are becoming better funded in many countries but have also been subject to the growth in value of financial markets.

“Looking back on a near-doubling in pension assets over the last decade, it is clear this extraordinary valuation of the world’s retirement dreams could bring both challenges and opportunities. High valuations imply financial security but also pose difficult questions about future allocations – and will encourage many pension schemes to continue looking beyond the traditional asset classes, in order to maintain returns.

“Investing for sustained growth is going to become an even more nuanced question in future decades. Doubling assets again in the next ten years will need global pension schemes to confront the unsustainability of the global carbon economy and look with renewed imagination at the fundamentals of sources of return.

“Alongside maybe this ‘steepest’ decade of decarbonisation, other long-term challenges are at play too. After the tumult of a global pandemic, inflationary pressures and supply chain issues are joining forces, fresh challenges for the western service economies – and renewed scrutiny of the social responsibility of business in the 21st century. Pensions professionals face structural shifts too, with defined contribution funds seemingly the future in most global pensions markets, regulatory pressure and a growing demand from end-savers for easy access to information and an openness about investment decisions.

“Leaders in the pensions industry will face a host of challenges – but also fresh investment opportunities – as they navigate a new vista beyond today’s economic, financial and institutional fork in the road.”

About the Thinking Ahead Institute

The Thinking Ahead Institute was established in January 2015 and is a global not-for-profit investment research and innovation member group made up of engaged institutional asset owners and service providers committed to changing and improving the investment industry for the benefit of the end saver. It has 45 members around the world and is an outgrowth of Willis Towers Watson Investments’ Thinking Ahead Group, which was set up in 2002.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas – the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential. Learn more at