Creating A Life Plan Before It's Too Late

In case you missed the announcement, today is part of a seven day celebration of National Retirement Security Week. The event is sponsored by the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators, Inc. ("NAGDCA") and stems from Congressional action to:

  • Apprise employees about the need to be retirement ready in terms of personal finances;
  • Educate individuals about various ways to save for retirement; and
  • Help employers encourage their employees to save more.

While true that it's essential to address issues such as expected lifespan, job mobility, the power of compounding and taking advantage of a company match, money is not the only end goal. One could have a substantial piggy bank but end up lonely or in search of something satisfying to do. According to "How to Retire Happy" by Stan Hinden (AARP Bulletin, September 2014), it is important to ask what comes next. Some persons end up spending more time in retirement than the number of years they worked. Kerry Close reports for Time Money that a "record high number of retirees" are unhappy. She cites an Employee Benefit Research Institute study that shows a big drop in "very" satisfied retirees from 60.5 percent in 2012 to 48.6 percent in 2016.

One suggestion is to create (or update) a life plan, even if you are far from the gold watch party. According to a blog post by consultant and writer Royale Scuderi, this document should summarize "where you are now in all the areas that matter to you, where you want to improve and what you'd like your life to look like in the future." Easier said than done, pondering the big picture can be challenging but enlightening as well. As someone who is updating her life plan right now, I find the effort worthwhile. Acknowledging that you cannot recapture time reinforces the concept that one should be reflective about the past, grateful for the present and excited about the future. As Anthony Hopkin's character said in Meet Joe Black, the years go by "in a blink."

For those who want to give it a go, check out the the narrative provided by life coach Michael Hyatt. An online search yields additional educational resources. (Note: This blogger has no relationship with Michael Hyatt.)

Improving the RFP Process

A few months ago I was asked to complete a Request for Information ("RFI") by the sponsor of a large pension plan. Their goal was to hire an independent outside party to vet the investment management policies and procedures of its outsourced manager. I've long maintained that it is an excellent idea to have someone review operations and render a second opinion about how asset managers perform relative to a retirement plan's objectives, how much risk is being taken to generate returns, the extent to which the asset manager is mitigating risks and much more.

While this type of "kick the tires" engagement is not as common as many think it should be, that could change quickly. The Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") business model (sometimes referred to as the Delegated Investment Management or Fiduciary Management approach) is rapidly growing at the same time that recent mandates such as the U.S. Department of Labor's Fiduciary Rule, along with a flurry of lawsuits that allege breach, call more attention to how in-house plan fiduciaries hire and monitor their vendors.

Given the relative newness of this type of engagement and the fact that a review can mean different things to different people, I strongly recommend that the hiring party consider how much work they want done and what budget applies. In the case of the aforementioned invitation to submit a work plan and detailed budget, my colleagues and I were told by the plan sponsor they weren't really sure what should be done. Our suggestion was to carry out a preliminary review of existing policies, procedures and operations, report the findings to the trustees and then discuss what could be done as a subsequent and more granular assessment, if needed. This would get the ball rolling in terms of identifying urgent concerns and avoid having to write a big check. Even with an opportunity to ask questions of the hiring plan, there were still many unknowns. For example, would the plan sponsor be willing to pay for a complete investigation of items such as vendor's data security measures, adherence to its compliance manual, growth plans, risk management stance, employee personal trading safeguards, measures to avoid conflicts of interest, business strength, type of liability insurance in place and verification (if true) that back office cash management was separate from trading or instead have an examiner concentrate on a subset? When the plan sponsor said it wanted to have an outside reviewer look at historical investment performance numbers, was its goal to assess data frequently or over a longer period of time, relative to a selected benchmark, relative to an asset-liability management hurdle, based on risk per return units and so on?

Anyone who has reviewed bid documents from public and corporate plan sponsors will likely conclude that there is not much consistency, especially for due diligence and governance assignments. That's not ideal. Yes, it's true that facts and circumstances will differ but clarity in terms of what a hiring plan wants can be a plus for everyone. I think it would likewise be helpful for the bid document to state a budget number or "not to exceed" range and let the respondents suggest what work could be reasonably done for that fee. Both the buyer and seller would know at the outset whether it makes sense to proceed with discussions. Another way to go would have the plan sponsor hire someone to interview its in-house fiduciaries, identify and rank their major concerns and then use that information to create a structured Request for Information or Request for Proposal ("RFP") that would be distributed to potential review firms. This exercise would entail a short-run expense but could save money in the long-run by ensuring that the plan sponsor and the review team are in sync about expectations and deliverables.

The bidding process is often a tough one for both buyer and seller. In 2015, I interviewed the co-CEO of a company called InHub, Mr. Kent Costello. I have no economic connection with this company. I had asked for a demo after reading about the use of technology to help fiduciaries with their search and hiring of third parties. In answer to my question about the limitations of the existing RFP process for the buyer, Kent said "It can be difficult for investment committees to put together a list of questions that will help them to effectively compare firms and service offerings ... Poorly crafted, irrelevant, or repetitive questions will lead to a weak due diligence process and leave the committee confused and frustrated. Worse yet, it could mean the selection of an inadequate vendor." Just as important, he pointed out that sellers could be reluctant to take the time and money to prepare a detailed proposal, "given the low likelihood of winning the business..." Click to read "Electronic RFP Process and Fiduciary Duty."

Process improvement is always a plus, whether applied to crafting a bid document, responding with a proposal or implementing the work, once hired.

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'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

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.