Excuse Me! Excuse Me! Pension Fiduciaries - Heed the Call

Several recent experiences inspire this post. On the positive side, two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with my step niece, a darling little girl of 3. After just 15 minutes, I realized that her favorite way of getting attention is to scream "excuse me" as many times as it takes until nearby adults acknowledge her. Cute at first, it annoys after a few shouts but Lilly certainly gets her way.

On the other end of the experiential spectrum, my Sunday foray to Starbuck's introduced me to "Miss Manners Not." Though I was first at the counter and obviously not yet finished paying for a handful of gift certificates, a lady customer thrice reached over me and then pushed me aside to order a cup of joe. Not being shy, I murmured "sorry to be in the way." To my shock, she replied "it's okay." Yes, my first response was to tilt my cup in her direction ("oops") but give me credit for being an adult who quickly cooed sotto voce, "let it go." (You've met folks like this gal, right? Gotta love 'em for their arrogance and cluelessness.)

Here's the connection to all things pension.

Everyday brings new headlines about the retirement crisis. Just a few days ago, New York Times reporter Mary Walsh cites a new study that shows that 2007 investment gains for America's giant pension funds are fast being erased by early 2008 market tumult. Likely to add to the funding gap and compelling a need for cash infusions is a strategic move away from equity. More disturbing is that jumbo plans, in distress, could "swamp the federal insurance system," already reeling from certain airline and manufacturing company woes. Piling on is the Fed's lowering of interest rates which pushes up the size of defined benefit plan liabilities, exacerbating things. Given tighter funding rules, courtesy of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, plan sponsors have much less latitude in riding out the storm, if even possible. (See "Market Turmoil Has Taken a Toll on Big Pension Funds" by Mary Walsh, April 17, 2008. Also read "2007 Gains Reversed in First Quarter of 2008" by John W. Ehrhardt and Paul C. Morgan, "Milliman 2008 Pension Funding Study," April 2008.)

In January 2008, the U.S. Government and Accountability Office ("GAO") released an alarm bell in the form of its report entitled "State and Local Government Retiree Benefits." They concluded that "58 percent of 65 large pension plans" had funding ratios of about 80 percent in 2006, a decline since 2000. By extension, this means that 42 percent are in bad shape. (There is continuing controversy over whether 80 percent is deemed "safe" or instead suggests a need to worry.)

For individuals, new research cites the need for a long-term, relatively stable mix of stocks and bonds. In "Hitting or Missing the Retirement Target: Comparing Contribution and Asset Allocation Schemes of Simulated Portfolios," Professors Harold J. Schleef and Robert M. Eisinger argue that the likelihood of having enough money to retire comfortably is depressingly low. As New York Times contributor and money talking head, Mark Hulbert, points out, life-cycle or "target date" maturity funds may not perform "in line with their long-term averages." (Read "The Odds for a Retirement Nest Egg, Recalculated," New York Times, April 20, 2008.)

Of course, if Louis Lowenstein, author of The Investor's Dilemma: How Mutual Funds Are Betraying Your Trust and What to Do About It is right, fees and revenue-sharing arrangements will continue to erode retirement savings (meager for most), making it tougher to reach even a low savings goal. While employers shed their traditional benefit plans, they nevertheless have a vested stake in wanting their employees to be self-sufficient. Happy workers are typically productive workers who spin gold for shareholders and performance-compensated executives.

For the still clueless pension decision-makers, oblivious to the merits of effective asset-liability management (the equivalent of my coffee shop lady), hopefully the onslaught of economic and regulatory indicators will create a stir. If not, perhaps my young niece will take her "excuse me, excuse me, pay attention" show on the road.

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