History Repeating Itself or a New Start in 2009?

Philosopher George Santayana once said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If Nikolai Kondratiev were still alive, he might agree. An advocate of  long duration boom-bust periods, this Russian economist is credited for giving life to what is oft-described as a Kondratieff wave. His study of  American, English and French prices and interest rates from the 18th century led him to believe that an economic cycle is likely to repeat every 60 years, occuring as four distinct phases (inflationary growth, recessionary stagflation, mild growth and then depression). Click here and here for an interesting overview of Kondratieff's theories, applied to modern times.

As we launch into a new year, full of hope for a respite from what can only be described as a roller-coaster horrible, one wonders what lessons will be learned and acted upon. The Pension Governance team, not surprisingly, votes for a renewed (or for some organizations, a de novo) emphasis on enterprise risk management wherein plan sponsors hunker down to identify and properly measure the alphabet soup of nasties that can roil either a defined contribution or defined benefit plan. As I wrote several years ago, "Risk comes in many forms and ignoring it, while emphasizing returns, makes little sense." Click to read "Pension Risk Management: Necessary and Desirable" (Journal of Compensation Benefits, March/April 2006),

Importantly, a holistic risk management process must go well beyond benchmarking against point-in-time numbers alone. A June 9, 2008 article proves this point with respect to traditional pension plans. In "Surplus hits $111 billion," Pensions & Investments writer Rob Kozlowski chronicles a two-year rise in excess funding for the top 100 U.S. corporate schemes. Just six months later, Barrons reporter Dimitra Defotis cites a Credit Suisse report that has S&P 500 companies facing a "pension deficit of at least $200 billion," the "largest shortfall since 2002, when pension liabilities exceeded assets by a record-setting $218 billion in the aftermath of the dot-com bust." See "The Math Doesn't Add Up" (December 8, 2008). Owners of defined contribution plans are taking it on the chin as well. As USA Today reporter Christine Dugas lays out, more companies are dropping the 401(k) match at the same that plan participants have been hit with large negative returns. See "401(k) losses: Older investors' retirement funds hit hard" (October 31, 2008).

Questions abound, though not directed to any particular plan or organization. What could have been done differently to minimize the ill-effects of a systemic meltdown? What was the role of intermediaries in terms of advice-giving? Was there proper diversification? Was too much latitude given to asset managers? Was scant attention paid to risks relating to internal controls, valuation and restrictions on being able to liquidate particular holdings? Were investments in some cases not truly suitable for beneficiaries?

If New Year's Day marks an opportunity for a fresh look at life, why not make 2009 the year of the comprehensive pension risk manager?

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