Employee Fun Factor and the Bottom Line

This first Monday in September finds millions of Americans and Canadians celebrating Labor Day 2016 with a day off from work or school. For some it marks the end of summer and a return to "no play" for awhile. Smart employers know otherwise and are implementing policies to encourage playtime at the office or plant as a way to boost productivity, encourage innovation and lower healthcare costs.

According to business executive Paul Harris, implementing play at work policies can be challenging, in part due to gender and age differences. Drawing from recent survey results, he explains that "While 51% of 16-24 year olds would like allocated 'fun time' at work, this drops to just 19% for 55-60 year olds." The good news is that certain activities such as shared birthday celebrations or board games appeal to broad groups and ought not to be overlooked by employers. Read "Why it pays to play: workplace fun breeds employee wellbeing and productivity" (HR Magazine, April 12, 2016).

Snack Nation, a commercial delivery service, has a snappy visual on its blog entitled "11 Shocking Employee Happiness Statistics That Will Blow Your Mind." Citing research from organizations such as Gallup, they reference greater sales, employee engagement and fewer sick days as some of the positives associated with workplace improvements. NPR extols the virtues of adult recess and Today Money highlights why big companies, "not just startups" are focused on fun at work. The National Institute for Play consults with business leaders who want "to more effectively access innovation in their operations," asserting that "science already provides data to show that playful ways of work lead to more creative, adaptable workers and teams."

Mark Schiff, a dentist friend of mine, credits his success as an award-winning painter in part to an ability and willingness to embrace his inner child and freely express himself. My husband, one of the hardest working people I know, regularly takes time to play. (He's a keen competitor in Scrabble.) I've attended lots of business development workshops that include seemingly silly exercises designed to encourage adults to think outside the box as a way to advance goals.

I love these words from Thomas A. Edison, inventor extraordinaire. I hope you do too: "I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun."

Con Keating Weighs In About Pension Liability Valuation

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Con Keating a few years ago when I visited London on business. We had been introduced by the then CEO of a UK-based pension consulting firm who knew of our mutual interest in governance. Since that time, Mr. Keating has been consistently generous with his views about real problems faced by retirement plan fiduciaries. This is no small gift given the breadth and depth of his experience as an advisor, investment manager, board member and academic. Click here to read Con Keating's bio.

In response to my August 5 essay entitled "Valuing Public Pension Fund Liabilities" and a request for feedback from industry practitioners, Mr. Keating sent an interesting paper from 2013 that I have finally been able to read. Entitled "Keep your lid on: A financial analyst's view of the cost and valuation of DB pension provision," he joins co-authors Ole Settergren and Andrew Slater in advocating for the use of a pension's Internal Growth Rate ("IGR") as the appropriate discount rate to adopt for purposes of reporting the financial health of a defined benefit ("DB") plan. To do otherwise would "lead to over or under estimates, bias and volatility," in part because exogenous metrics such as a risk-free rate "do not reflect scheme arrangements and dynamics." Instead, this analytical trio offers up the IGR as the only benchmark that adequately considers contributions and the concomitant impact on obligations. As they importantly point out, similar to the message of their U.S. peers, getting an accurate valuation is essential as it drives other key economic outcomes such as potential tax hikes levied to fund government pension plans in deficit. Applied to corporate plans, bad pension valuations can lead to a diminution of enterprise value. This is something I addressed at length in my Journal of Corporate Treasury Management article entitled "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability." (My current affiliation is Fiduciary Leadership, LLC.)

The issue of valuation is far from trivial. According to Pensions & Investments, the Society of Actuaries will soon publish a paper that looks at alternative ways to assess public plan liabilities, "reversing a previous position prohibiting any release of the paper."

Stay tuned for more discussions about how to evaluate funding gaps. As I've long maintained, if you can't measure something, you can't manage it.

Surveys Highlight Importance of Fiduciary Focus When Hiring Advisors

According to an August 17 press release from Fidelity Investments, "fiduciary responsibility tops plan sponsors' reasons for hiring advisors." What's more, this poll of nearly 1,000 defined contribution plan decision-makers makes clear that knowledgeable third parties have an edge in being hired and retained, especially if they can offer input about plan design and investment selection. Cited areas of concern include the following:

  • Increasing employee participation;
  • Properly measuring investment performance; and
  • Making sure that investment risk goals are heeded.

A 2016 Mass Mutual survey reveals similar findings that plan sponsors want help with plan design, discharging fiduciary duties and investment selection. Moreover, about two-thirds of respondents said they want an advisor who works with companies like theirs. 

It's no surprise then that educational initiatives continue to develop in response to changing regulations and an enhanced focus on fiduciary duties. As announced last month, the American Retirement Association has partnered with Morningstar "to develop a fiduciary education and best practices program for advisors."

April 2017 will be a busy month for many as they seek to comply with large chunks of the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule.

Reading Books For Longevity?

In celebration of National Book Lovers Day, it's worth noting that some scientists are extolling the virtues of words for good health. According to "Reading books could increase lifespan" by Honor Whiteman (Medical News Today, August 8, 2016), a new analysis suggests that regular readers have a greater chance of survival compared to those who use their time for other activities.

Utilizing Health and Retirement Study data for nearly 4,000 American adults, Yale professor Becca R. Levy, with Avni Bavishi and Martin David Slade found that "Books are protective regardless of gender, wealth, education or health" and "... are more advantageous for survival than newspapers and magazines in terms of cognitive benefits. (Click to purchase "A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier Ltd., September 2016.)

For bibliophiles everywhere, this discovery is good news indeed, assuming that their results apply to the population at large. 

Valuing Public Pension Fund Liabilities

In 2006, I penned "Will the Real Pension Deficit Please Stand Up?" as a way to draw attention to the urgent need to understand what reported numbers mean. Ten years later, questions remain about how best to measure defined benefit plan obligations. This is not a good situation, especially now when more than a few retirement plans are struggling. Click to review Governing.com's pension liability and funded status data for eighty plans.

Authors of a Citigroup paper entitled "The Coming Pensions Crisis" urge transparency regarding "the amount of underfunded governmental pension obligations." I concur but the challenge is knowing what information should be disclosed so that legislators, policy-makers, taxpayers and plan participants have confidence in what gets shared. I have often written that is hard to manage a problem if one cannot adequately measure the problem. 

In early July, Pensions & Investments' Hazel Bradford wrote about the Competitive Enterprise Institute's suggestion to use a "low-risk discount rate" tied to U.S. Treasury bond yields. Critics counter that this would grossly inflate the size of a deficit and perhaps lead to inappropriate actions. On August 3, it was reported that two actuarial groups disbanded a task force over the topic of how to best value public pension fund liabilities. (In terms of full disclosure, I co-authored a paper in 2008 with one of the groups mentioned, the Society of Actuaries. Click to read "Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process.")

As someone who has been trained as an appraiser, taught valuation principles and rendered opinions of value or reviewed those of others, I know firsthand that reasonable people can differ about inputs and assumptions. I likewise understand that snapshot pension debt levels do not necessarily convey a message about current or ongoing liquidity, debt capacity or the ability to tax. The goal is to reconcile differences so that anyone making decisions based on valuation numbers understands their strengths and weaknesses. 

Given the goal of this blog Pension Risk Matters to educate and share helpful information about the global retirement industry and investment risk governance, I welcome input from knowledgeable appraisers, accountants and actuaries. If you are interested in being interviewed or writing a guest blog post, please kindly email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com.

Company Worries About Retirement Readiness

According to a new report from Willis Towers Watson, corporations worry that employees cannot afford to leave the labor force on schedule. Fearing higher costs, many employers describe anemic retirement readiness as a "top risk" yet few monitor this on a regular basis. Researchers write "These findings suggest that sponsors have an opportunity to improve the governance of DC plans by increasing the frequency with which they monitor retirement readiness, as specific metrics on readiness would offer sponsors insight on the overall effectiveness of their plan." For a full read of this report, click to download "Unlocking Value From Effective Retirement Plan Governance."

Unfortunately, if results of a new FINRA Investor Education Foundation study reflect widespread reality, Corporate America may have an uphill and expensive battle on their hands. Nearly eighty percent of respondents self-identified as financially literate despite low scores on a quiz they took to test their knowledge. Making matters worse, financial education is a rarity. Six out of ten persons answered "No" when asked "Was financial education offered by a school or college you attended, or a workplace where you were employed?" 

Notably, the 2015 National Financial Capability Study reveals a financial literacy income gap with persons earning less money seemingly in need of greater help. If, as some predict, the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule makes it harder for smaller investors to access financial advice, employers may need to pick up the slack. If that occurs, expect companies in search of long-term labor cost savings to incur bigger short-term cash outflows to provide employees with adequate financial education (to the extent allowed).

The takeaway is that retirement plans have a bottom line impact on shareholders. Companies offer programs to attract and retain talent but are mindful of the cost-benefit tradeoff.

Emojis and Workplace Communications

In case you missed the party invitation, July 17 is World Emoji Day. There's even a snappy anthem if you feel like dancing and singing to celebrate this annual event. A Twitter search using the hashtag #WorldEmojiDay reveals favorites by country such as the yellow sad face (US, Canada, UK), red heart (Italy, France, Japan) and blue musical notes (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia). Interestingly, these emoticons are showing up in workplace communications on a regular basis.

According to "Nine perfectly reasonable reasons to use Emoji in a business context," the use of tiny images is said to add intimacy to otherwise impersonal messages, allow readers to "infer your mood and level of humor" and enliven "boring" presentations or corporate reports. Atlantic Magazine editor Bourree Lam explains in "Why Emoji Are Suddenly Acceptable at Work" that adding the popular happy face emoji can lessen the negative impact of "toneless" text that is typically interpreted in a negative way. Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore suggests senders should err on the side of caution by avoiding anything that depicts anger or romance. Client communiques should be formal.

My take as an investment risk governance expert is to play at home and not at work. Although I have inserted a smiley face or two during my career, my view (and that of many others) is that retirement plan communications are serious transmissions. Whether documenting fiduciary, investment and operational policies and procedures or giving instructions to employees about what to consider before signing up for benefits, there is a need for precision. Major lawsuits have centered on whether disclosures are sufficiently adequate. Binding regulations require transparency. Those in charge of implementing, monitoring and revising retirement plan decisions are ill-equipped when goals, restrictions and material facts and circumstances are vague.

I can't imagine a scenario where a happy face, pencil, bag of money or other type of cartoon clarifies versus confuses. Can you?

Pensions and Politics

Since I started this blog a decade ago, I've repeatedly lamented the unfortunate situations when investment decisions are determined by politics rather than based on prudent process. As I read "Teachers Union and Hedge Funds War Over Pension Billions" by Brody Mullins (Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2016), I can't help wonder if pensions are once again being used as political ping pong balls.

Mind you, I am not advocating a particular strategy or asset class for any of the teacher funds mentioned in the article. One would have to examine relevant facts and circumstances, investment goals and risk tolerance, at a minimum. However, as a taxpayer and fiduciary expert, I am disturbed by the possibility that asset managers are being lopped off an approval list (or added as the case may be) on the basis of whether they disagree (or agree) with the views of the American Federation of Teachers ("AFT").

In 2015, multiple organizations (including the AFT) published "All That Glitters Is Not Gold," a thirty-nine page analysis of eleven U.S. public pension plans that invested in hedge funds. Authors of the study urge decision-makers to:

  • Carry out "an asset allocation review to examine less costly and more effective diversification approaches" and
  • Mandate "full and public fee disclosure from hedge fund managers and consultants" to include information about performance.

These recommendations seem to make sense and should be applied to all asset classes with two qualifiers. First, cost is not necessarily the sole determinant. Selection and monitoring should consider numerous factors such as how an asset manager mitigates risks, safeguards against rogue traders and ensures operational excellence. Second, performance numbers should be consistently measured across asset managers, go beyond historical numbers, be adjusted for risk-taking and much more.

My prediction is that we'll have lots more news about politics and pensions. This could be a good thing if actions by lawmakers and public pension trustees evidence improved oversight and good governance. Otherwise, questions asked about dubious practices may get answers too late to effect meaningful change.

Note: In terms of full disclosure, I was part of the team that reviewed New York City Employee Retirement System ("NYCERS") operations. I was not involved with any discussions about changing asset allocations.

More About the Fiduciary Gap

Thanks to the many people who shared their insights about various state retirement arrangements for eligible private company employees and the need for a proverbial umbrella to address the fiduciary gap.

Let me start with the Nutmeg State program since I discussed it in two earlier posts. Interested parties can click to download the final legislation that sets up the Connecticut Retirement Security Exchange. (Note the new name.) Several changes caught my eye.

  • On page 156 of 298, there is a provision that "If a participant does not affirmatively select a specific vendor or investment option within the program, such participant's contribution shall be invested in an age-appropriate target date fund that most closely matches the participant's normal retirement age, rotationally assigned by the program." If "rotationally" means "random," it will be helpful to know how board members identify age cohorts and select (and monitor thereafter) a particular product for each group.
  • Regarding a provision that allows the sitting governor to individually select the board chair without the advice and consent of the General Assembly, a best practice is that the engagement process be transparent. Interested parties want to know that the appointment reflects the right person for the job
  • It would be helpful to know the basis for why the voluntary opt-in for small businesses with more than five employees was removed. After all, forced regulation could end up costing firms so much in terms of paperwork and payroll set-up that hiring plans are put on hold.
  • It would be helpful to know how the three percent default contribution level will be tracked so that legislators will know whether to seek an increase later on. It's a low number, especially given the math for what can be done privately. Suppose a person makes $50,000 per year in wages. The three percent deduction translates into $1,500. In 2016, the IRA contribution limit for someone younger than fifty years is $5,500. Should an individual decide to allocate the maximum, participation in the state program will logically require that the individual go elsewhere to invest the additional $4,000. Why doesn't that individual simply invest the full $5,500 with one reputable organization? I assume the counter argument is that an individual who would not max the annual IRA limit needs a nudge in the form of the state program.

As I wrote in "State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees," there are multiple state endeavors and one would need to examine the details of each one to assess economic impact and pension governance implications. Questions about federal programs exist as well. Putting aside dire long-term projections about the U.S. Social Security Trust Fund, absent reforms, several critics are unhappy with what they see as a fiduciary gap for anyone enrolled in the myRA program. By way of background, there are no fees to the individual enrollee. This is good but the guaranteed return is low because it is tied to federal debt security yields. For June 2016, the number is 1.875 percent APR. There is a lifetime maximum of $15,000 for eligible persons. A person's employer must agree to facilitate automatic deductions which means you must be employed.

One attorney I called today said he did not think there is a fiduciary in place for this federal product. Chris Carosa, editor of Fiduciary News, has another take. In "Does "myRA breach fiduciary duty?" he lays out reasons why he thinks the myRA product is "blatantly ill-suited for retirement savers." He decries the "oozing irony" of political leaders who want the Fiduciary Rule applied to others but not to themselves, adding there is no diversification potential and the selling firm (i.e. the U.S. Treasury) is conflicted by distributing its own product. Another retirement industry professional wants to know "What fiduciary would MANDATE that a twenty-five year old invest his or her retirement assets in a short to intermediate term government bond fund and expect to avoid liability?

You get the picture. We need to understand where the fiduciary gaps exist and then strive to close them as quickly and efficaciously as possible.

State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees

After posting "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps," a senior legal expert kindly informed me that Connecticut's legislation draws extensively from U.S. federal pension law. (ERISA does not directly apply to most government plans and the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a safe harbor that would exempt states from being tagged as ERISA fiduciaries.) Interestingly, a word search for "fiduciary" in the Public Act No. 16-29 document comes up empty. Specifically, as laid out in Section 6, entitled "Board Duty To Act With Prudence And In Interest of Participants," the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority board of directors are to act with the "care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of like character and with like aims" and solely "in the interests of the program's participants and beneficiaries."

Regarding legal redress, my understanding is that individuals who allow their employers to deduct three percent of their taxable wages to be placed in an "age-appropriate target date fund" or similarly allowed investment will not have the right to sue individual members of the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority Board nor will they have the right to sue the State of Connecticut. They will have to rely on authorized directors and the Attorney General to properly oversee selected service providers and take corrective action to improve things going forward. However, even if participants can demonstrate economic harm, they would not be able to recover past damages.

Programs offered by other states vary. One would have to research dozens of legal documents to compare and contrast governance, investment opportunities and conflict of interest avoidance mechanisms. Interested parties can visit the Pension Rights Center's State-based retirement plans for the private sector or the AARP's State Retirement Savings Resource Center. I am not sure how often these websites are updated.

I remain skeptical and am not alone. Michael Barry, president of the Plan Advisory Services Group, explains his reservations in "Are State Plans the Answer?" (Plan Sponsor, November 2015). Paul Schott Stevens, president and CEO of the Investment Company Institute, gives a thumbs up to private initiatives such as expanding multiple employer plans or MEPs to include smaller companies. Another way forward would be to simplify 401(k) plan regulations to encourage employers to better help their workforce save for retirement. See "State-Run Retirement? Better to Go Private" (Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2016).

My lack of enthusiasm for these state-run programs has more to do with philosophy and a desire to encourage economic growth. Here is some food for thought.

  • Small businesses around the world are drowning in a sea of regulations. According to an article in Small Business Trends, there is an inverse relationship between company formations and the number of pages in the Federal Register. These "little engines that could" create jobs are not leaving the train station, discouraged by too many rules.
  • As any free market economist can handily demonstrate, unintended consequences often occur, resulting in added expense and unwelcome behavior. Instead of spending X hours per month on growing sales and profit, a small business owner that is obliged to complete paperwork may now forego hiring new employees or cut back on existing perks.
  • Some of the states that are setting up retirement programs for private company workers have a poor track record as evidenced by underfunded pension plans for municipal staff.
  • Unless one is convinced that small company employees are unable or unlikely to set up an IRA on their own, these state-involved arrangements are not needed. CNBC reports that "Employees participating in auto enrollment tend to contribute less than people who sign up for 401(k) plans on their own, often because their employers set a low default contribution level."
  • It's not clear to me that individuals will have a better level of consumer protection by being part of a state-run program versus setting up an IRA account directly with a reputable financial institution. So far, no one has convinced me to the contrary.

I'm all for encouraging individuals to save for the long-term but I seriously wonder why government has to be involved with every decision someone makes. Hopefully I will be proven wrong and these state programs for private company employees will succeed.

Note: I welcome insightful essays and commentaries on this and other relevant pension governance topics. If you would like to be a guest contributor, please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com with your idea or write-up.