New Study Says Plan Sponsors Must Improve Fiduciary Practices

As I stated during my September 11, 2008 "hard-to-value asset" testimony before the ERISA Advisory Council, there are some stellar examples of pension risk management and there is everyone else. Given the dearth of publicly available information about pension financial best practices, one can only guess at the size of each of the two buckets, “great” and “not so great” except for occasional studies that offer empirical validation. In October 2008, Pension Governance, LLC (now Pension Governance, Inc.) released a unique study about the use of derivatives by plan sponsors. Sponsored by the Society of Actuaries, “Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process” found that the “everyone else” bucket is rather large, hinting at future problems if poor process is left unchecked. (Click to read my hard-to-value asset testimony. Click to download "Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process.")

 

Now, a new report offers additional and troublesome evidence that the “everyone else” bucket remains large. Hot off the press, the MetLife U.S. Pension Risk Behavior IndexSM (“PRBI”) considers investment, liability and business risk management among the largest U.S. defined benefit pension plan sponsors. (Pension Governance, Incorporated is proud to have assisted with what we think is path-breaking research.)

 

Designed to measure both the aptitude and attitude of employee benefit decision-makers, the research creates a base case gauge as to the current state of pension risk management. Not surprisingly, respondents ranked the following risk factors as “Most Important,” in part it is believed because they are the simplest to model and measure:

 

  • Asset Allocation
  • Meeting Return Goals
  • Underfunding of Liabilities
  • Asset and Liability Mismatch

Given radically changing demographic patterns and the related, oft material economic impact on plan sponsors, it is surprising that the following risk factors were identified as relatively unimportant (and in some cases ignored altogether):

 

  • Early Retirement Risk
  • Mortality Risk
  • Longevity Risk
  • Quality of Participant Data.

Also disturbing is what appears to be a disconnect between the importance attached to prudent process by plan sponsors and the regulatory and legal reality that PRUDENT PROCESS IS IMPORTANT. Not only can plan participants suffer untold harm in the absence of a good process or the presence of a bad process, fiduciaries are professionally and personally on the hook. (As this blog has urged many times before, questions about prudent process and fiduciary duty are best answered by plan counsel.)  

 

According to the MetLife press release, dated January 26, 3009, “While respondents ascribe a particularly high rating to the quality of their Plan Governance, they do not seem to carefully consider the effectiveness of their decision making methods or how to improve the way they make decisions. This suggests that many respondents don’t perceive decision making process as an integral element of plan governance, when recent ERISA litigation would suggest just the opposite. In addition, plan sponsors report that they routinely review liability valuations and understand the drivers that contribute to their plan's liabilities. However, at the same time, they indicate that they do not actively implement or regularly review procedures to manage either mortality, longevity or early retirement risk, which are major determinants of both the timing and level of future liabilities. These inconsistencies may indicate that plan sponsors tend not to systematically consider the interrelationships among risk items and plan their implementation of risk management measures to maximize effectiveness across all items. Over time, a lack of holistic risk management may have serious repercussions, including unnecessary volatility in earnings and/or cash flow or potential plan failure. “

 

Unlike other studies, this research sought to quantify attitudes and aptitudes, in essence creating a unique score card against which subsequent results can be compared. The news is not great. On a scale of 0 to 100%, the PRBI level is 76. Roughly translated, defined benefit managers earn an average grade of C with respect to how they manage defined benefit plan risk.

 

These results beg a hugely important question. Is “mediocre” performance acceptable or does the MetLife study sound a warning that someone needs to stay after school for extra help? This blogger thinks it is the latter and welcomes your suggestions about how to fix a wobbly system. (Email PG-Info@pensiongovernance.com with comments.)

 

As I’ve said many times, reward good process and make life difficult for those who do sub-par work. With trillions of dollars at stake, how can we accept anything less?

 

Editor's Note: Click to read the MetLife press release, dated January 26, 2009, about this new study. Click to download "MetLife U.S. Pension Risk Behavior IndexSM: Study of Risk Management Attitudes and Aptitude Among Defined Benefit Pension Plan Sponsors."

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