I am the author of a book entitled Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments and Foundations (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). A primer about risk management (no math by design), the feedback has been gratifying. I'm particularly proud of the comments citing ease of use. (The book is replete with examples, checklists and references).
However, it's no Da Vinci Code in terms of sales. While I'd like to write a sequel at some point, few are competing for the honor and no one is knocking down my door to buy the movie rights. (You can visit our online bookstore at www.pensiongovernance.com - Products, Books for what we think constitutes a good readling list.) True, it's non-fiction and written for a limited audience. Yet one wonders why, in today's benefits climate, more people aren't fast and furiously laying pen to paper to describe how to tackle what is arguably one of the most important topics in pension land - risk management. If there is a single message I can impart to those who will listen, it is this.
ANYONE involved in pension investing is a de facto risk manager. Believe it. You are.
Whether focused on the asset or liability side (or both), risk is an integral part of financial management. Those who deny this truism expose themselves to possible trouble down the road. Personal and professional liability aside, plan sponsors who passively manage risk (whether defined benefit or defined contribution) through ignorance or benign neglect invite unwelcome scrutiny. Unless they are lucky, litigation, economic loss and/or damaging headlines are high probability events.
Besides, plan sponsors who give risk management short shrift lose a precious opportunity to improve things. An effective process forces a plan sponsor to identify, measure and control risk on an ongoing basis. Taking inventory (in terms of uncovering sources of risk) enables plan sponsors to make meaningful changes. Lower costs or enhanced diversification are two of many possible benefits associated with the activity of collecting and analyzing data as part of the identification of risk drivers.
So a natural question arises.
Why don't more plan sponsors pay attention to risk management, whether for themselves or as part of hiring, reviewing and perhaps firing money managers and consultants? Asked another way, what is the tipping point beyond which risk management becomes front and center at meetings of board members, trustees, investment committees and so on?
Here are a few thoughts.
1. Based on the preliminary results of the pension risk management survey now underway, and co-sponsored by Pension Governance, LLC and the Society of Actuaries, there seems to be a HUGE gap between belief and reality. Many respondents say they actively pay attention to risk management. At the same time, they cite limited or no use of risk metrics other than standard deviation and/or correlation. (We'll talk about limitations of basic risk metrics elsewhere.) How can you improve on something you think you are already doing well?
2. Many plan sponsors are tasked with benefits-related work as an add-on to their regular job. Often, there is little organizational incentive for them to excel. In a way, it's a lose-lose proposition. They assume significant fiduciary liability with little or no recognition in the form of additional money, better title or other types of perquisites. At the same time, if they do a bad job, there is no escape. It's all downside. Sadly, there is so much perceived ambiguity about what constitutes a "good" job that it's often difficult to hold someone accountable. (Note the term "perceived" versus "real.")
3. Not all attorneys (litigators and transactional) feel comfortable with finance concepts, let alone financial risk management. That knowledge void arguably makes it easier to let risk control gaps slide unless, or until, an egregious act occurs.
4. Establishing a financial risk management process is seldom fun (or at least sort of enjoyable) for most people. It is often a complex activity that requires copious amounts of money, time, concentration and energy, especially if a plan's investment mix (DB or DC) extends to multiple asset classes. Moreover, benchmarking the process, and making appropriate changes thereafter, likewise consumes large chunks of time and money. Is it any wonder then that its ranking on one's "to do" list plummets in the absence of a strong risk culture?
5. When market conditions are "good" and benefit costs decline as a result, people tend to get lulled into false security. Instead of focusing on structural issues, it's easier to breath a sigh of relief and say "problem solved." Alas, markets change all the time and putting off the inevitable is hardly a smart move.
So what's the tipping point that has everyone wearing "I'm a risk manager" button? Certainly lower interest rates and/or an anemic equity sector are factors, as is regulation. A few recent surveys cite mandates as a central force in encouraging, sometimes forcing, plan sponsors to radically revise their asset allocation strategies and focus on plan risk.
Most folks think we're moving closer to the pension risk management tipping point. I agree but counter that movement is relative. Until (and hopefully not "unless") plan sponsors recognize the URGENT need for financial risk management, investment stewards remain vulnerable on many counts and that is not a good thing for anyone!