Deciding When to Tweak or Overhaul a Pension Plan

People in my family buy things to last. It doesn't always work out the way we want. For example, we can't watch internet movies through our television set because we have yet to upgrade to a newer box that has the technology to allow this to happen. However, sometimes it is better to upgrade, even if there is a short-term incremental cost to do so. I learned this lesson the hard way in recent weeks. Sick of an old laptop that constantly froze on pages with too many graphics and a printer that only worked when I cleaned the print head (and that became a frequent occurrence), I made a beeline to Staples. During my discussion with the technology salesperson, he agreed with me that the immediate outlay of buying new productivity tools would be a lot cheaper than upgrading with the purchase of a few parts. The speed, storage and ability to use newer versions of software were a few of the advantages we discussed.

Change can be a good thing or not. The concept of evaluating when to tweak plan design or asset allocation mix (or a host of other decisions), as compared to carrying out a complete overhaul, applies to retirement plans. Of course this assumes that it is even possible to modify. For a defined benefit plan that is grossly underfunded or a defined contribution plan that is set up to keep workers happy by offering a particular group of investments, reversing course could be problematic. On the flip side, a sponsor that can effect change that would be deemed advantageous by participants but does not take action could be accused of bad practices or worse. Keep in mind that lots of ERISA lawsuits allege actions that a fiduciary committee could have taken. The important thing is to be vigilant about what has to be done on an ongoing basis and respond accordingly,

At least some plan sponsors are taking heed of the need to review where things stand. According to a recent Aon Hewitt survey, 62 percent of polled 220 U.S. companies with traditional pension benefit offerings vowed to "adjust their plan's investments to better match the liabilities in the year ahead." Some respondents affirmed their intent to consider increased allocations to fixed income securities and hedging strategies, once their funding status improves. One out of eight companies queried are evaluating plan funding status as often as once per day. Click to download "2014 Hot Topics in Retirement: Building a Strategic Focus."

I have a t-shirt that reads "Change is good. You go first." It always makes me chuckle. Even when change is not warranted, it is important to demonstrate that at least someone has thought about risk factors and alternative ways to mitigate those identified uncertainties.Maybe the t-shirt should instead read "Assessing whether change makes sense is an important part of a fiduciary's responsibilities."

Leverage - I Love You, I Need You - Don't Hurt Me

 

If institutional investors thought of leverage as a bouquet of daisies, they'd be playing "(S)he loves me, (S)he loves me not" and hoping to still be respected in the morning. Now that the worst economic recession of modern times might be abating somewhat, more than a few buy side executives are looking for a sweetheart to help them replenish diminished portfolio values. Let's just hope that the love affair is not fickle, causing more hurt than help.

In "Wall Street's New Flight to Risk" (February 15, 2010), Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporters Shanon D. Harrington, Pierre Paulden and Jody Shenn write that investors are on the prowl for yield. With over $150 billion allocated to U.S. bond funds, returns are low and the only way to add some excitement is with exotics such as "payment-in-kind" bonds that encourage the issuance of more debt than a borrower's operating cash flow would ordinarily support. Derivatives are another Valentine, with banks "again pushing" collateralized debt obligations ("CDO's) that can increase in value (depending on the trade) as defaults increase. 

On January 27, 2010, Wall Street Journal reporter Craig Karmin writes that public pension funds are borrowing money to enhance returns rather than allocating to alternatives such as hedge funds and private equity pools. According to "Public Pensions Look at Leverage Strategy," funds can turn in a good performance with the use of leverage without having to resort to "volatile stocks" or illiquid assets. Others quoted in this recent piece suggest that risks exist and must be acknowledged.

Heartbreak hotel - here we come.

Call me crazy but a move towards leverage (possibly excessive) seems scary UNLESS and UNTIL asset managers and institutional investors alike can demonstrate that they know how to properly measure and manage. For every person who is asked to define investment leverage, the answer is seldom the same. AIMA Canada makes a good effort to add clarity to this important topic. See "An Overview of Leverage" (Strategy Paper Series Companion Document, October 2006, Number 4).

L'amour with leverage - how sweet it is, until it isn't. Then what?

It's 10 PM At Night - Do You Know Where Your Leverage Is?

Given repeated headlines of late about the role of leverage, it may be surprising to learn that there is no universal metric that captures the likely economic impact of its use. Ask ten asset managers how they measure the use of other people's money and you are likely to get ten different answers. This is a big deal since investment leverage is a key driver of performance which in turn relates to fees paid by institutional investors. While leverage can be a boon to return-hungry pensions, endowments and foundations, misused or miscalculated, leverage can result in massive and unanticipated losses. Prudent investors need to ask managers if their funds are levered, to what extent they are levered, what strategies were used to lever the portfolio and whether stop loss mechanisms have been put in place to contain things, as market conditions sour.

According to "Overview of Leverage," published by AIMA Canada, one calculation (referred to as Net Market Exposure or Net Leverage) takes the dollar difference between long and short positions and divides by a hedge fund's capital base and then multiplies the ratio by 100%. However, as Virginia Reynolds Parker, CFA rightly points out, balance sheet inputs can limit the usefulness of leverage ratios, especially if there is a big disconnect between where an instrument is likely to trade versus its stated value for financial statement reporting purposes.  (It is too soon to know whether FAS 157 compliance will close any economic-accounting gap and therefore render point in time ratios more effective as a risk gauge.)

While not all funds employ leverage, it is not uncommon for a portfolio manager to employ derivatives, margin and/or outright borrowing in order to effect a disproportionate exposure to a particular asset or liability class. Leverage can vary by strategy as documented in "The L Word" (Investment Review, Spring 2008). As author Peter Klein shows, hedge fund strategies such as convertible arbitrage employ higher leverage levels than a "less risky" market neutral strategy. However, he warns readers to take care in relying on leverage ratios alone, adding that correlations and overal riskiness of portfolios must also be considered. This blogger agrees with the notion of looking at multiple metrics but encourages investors to go way beyond numbers and look at the asset manager's process with respect to all things leverage.

Hedge funds are not the only entities to employ leverage. Wikipedia reports that leverage, measured as total debt divided by stockholders' equity, for five major investment banks (Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley) steadily rose between 2003 and 2007 to more than 25. Click here to access the source data to verify for yourself. Institutions are well familiar with 130/30 funds and variations thereof. Mutual funds use leverage as do exchange-traded funds ("ETFs'). In "Read the Fine Print on Leveraged Funds," Wall Street Journal reporter Tom Lauricella warns about the new math that can roil investment value quickly, adding that these vehicles are not for everyone.

Investors need to decide for themselves after (hopefully) doing the requisite homework about how leverage is being managed, if at all.

Should Pensions Care About Valuation Fraud?

According to "Bonds' Pricing Is Questioned In Email Trail, Former Trader at RBC Alleges Mismarking Of Plain-Vanilla Issues " (October 26, 2007) Wall Street Journal reporter Susan Pulliam describes alleged fraud at one of the large Canadian banks. Whether government and corporate bonds were incorrectly valued to hide losses remains to be seen. However, if true, this is serious stuff.

Pension fiduciaries should be regularly asking external managers about their trading checks and balances. However, in light of recent negative headlines, one wonders (a) whether sufficiently tough questions are being asked (b) who is doing the investigation and (c) whether risk management and valuation best practices are more myth than reality at some organizations.

ERISA and state pension laws make it clear that fiduciaries have a solemn obligation to properly select and review external money mangers. Are breach of duty complaints likely to ensue for those plan sponsors who have selected "troubled" money managers and cannot provide evidence of a disciplined and comprehensive review of their risk management and valuation policies? 

Our forthcoming November 6, 2007 webinar will look at trading controls and the selection and review of external money monagers. Click here for more information.

Liquidity Crunch, Bonds and Pension Plans

Have the last few months of negative headlines scared you yet? If not, don't be too complacent. According to a recent survey conducted by Greenwich Associates, institutional investors have grown weary of structured financial products and fixed income securities. According to a summary provided by CFO.com writer Stephen Taub, a worldwide credit crisis "has caused a nearly complete disruption in the trading and use of many fixed-income products." Even trading in ordinarily liquid corporate bond markets has reportedly been difficult, leaving many scratching their heads as to whether the credit crisis is a short-term blip or a long-lived problem. Taub adds that the survey predates the Fed's recent rate cut. (Click here to read "Liquidity Crunch: How Long Will it Last?")

In his September 20, 2007 testimony before the House Committe on Financial Services, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson describes the "interconnectedness" of global capital markets and the fallout from concerns over sub-prime mortgages - reduced investor confidence, reassessment of risk, and temporary diminution of liquidity. Describing self-correction tendencies of financial markets, Paulson's more sanguine take can be accessed by clicking here.

After a recent bridge game, I had a chance to ask my friend, Dr. Lucjan Orlowski, for his view of the world around us. As Senior Fellow at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at the University of Bonn; a Senior Fellow at the Center for Economic and Social Research (CASE) in Warsaw; a Research Fellow at the William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan School of Business, and a Research Professor at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, Orlowski's opinion counts in more ways than one. His prognosis? Not very good - In fact, he was downright gloomy with respect to jobs growth and continued ill-effects of this summer's incorrect pricing of default risk. Click here to read Lucjan's impressive bio.

So what does all of this mean for pension funds? Let us count the ways.

1. Diminished liquidity could imperil a plan's ability to meet its short-term obligations. This is especially serious for mature plans or in situations where labor contracts offer few opportunties to revise cash outflows. How should strategic asset allocations change to reflect a sustained credit crunch (if you accept that premise)?

2. Fewer companies are making their way to capital markets. Will a reduction in fixed income security issuance and/or a widening bid-ask spread make it more difficult for pensions to execute any type of liability-driven investing tactic that involves bonds or bond derivatives?

3. Will a weakening U.S. dollar, likely to experience even more downward pressure as oil producers switch to Euro invoicing, compel plans to seek out international assets? Will plan sponsors need to ask external asset managers more questions about risk controls, notably currency hedging techniques, as a result?

4. Could lower U.S. interest rates push some plans over the edge in terms of funding status and inevitable financial consequences?

5. Will changing correlation patterns, and the related reduction of diversification potential, leave defined benefit plan sponsors in a position of having to take on more risk? In the event that FASB requires additional pension investment risk disclosure, will corporate plan sponsors begin to feel pressure from shareholders as market volatility is more explicitly embedded in financial statements?

These are but a few possibilities for those who see the glass half empty and draining fast.

Bond Demand Influenced by Pensions



There is a lot of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that various capital markets are affected by policy. The impact on price and trading volume depends on a host of factors, not the least of which is the nature of the new rules and regulations. So it is with government bonds, domestic and foreign.

In the aftermath of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, many plan sponsors, under pressure to address funding gaps, are adopting an active stance towards interest rate risk management. While strategies can and do vary, trading in bond markets in the U.S. and elsewhere have been affected by a surge in demand for longer-term bonds. According to Reuters journalist Richard Leong, "Appetite for 30-year bonds and other long-dated assets has been fierce as pension fund managers have been stocking up on them to ensure they have enough income-generating assets to meet future obligations, traders and investors said." Additionally, stripped bonds "offer longer duration and more predictable income than a cash bond." (See "Pension demand leads to long bond stripping," December 7, 2006.)

By definition, a stripped bond represents a decoupling of the interest portion from the repayment of principal. The latter is sold as a zero coupon bond. According to Investor Words, "Strip is an acronym for Separate Trading of Registered Interest and Principal of Securities."

Much more will be written about interest rate risk management in later posts. For now, you can find definitions, checklists and step-by-step examples in a book I wrote in 2005 for John Wiley & Sons. Entitled Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments, and Foundations, there is an entire chapter about fundamental concepts. Other chapters address futures, options and swaps, respectively.

Competing methods and products to manage interest rate risk abound. However, the tradeoffs are far from identical. This means that plan sponsors are quickly having to learn about financial risk control, whether they like it or not.

Managing Pension Yield Curve Risk



"A Different Strategy on Pensions" by New York Times reporter Mary Williams Walsh (September 9, 2006) showcases International Paper Company for its use of swaps as a way to hedge interest rate risk. She writes that "International Paper's $7 billion pension fund, which covers 175,000 people, is three years into a broad revamping, one that the company believes will protect it from the forces that wreaked havoc in the last few years."

Several points are worth mentioning.

First, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 makes a practice known as smoothing more difficult. The implication? It will be harder for companies to disguise funding problems going forward. Changes due out any day from the Financial Accounting Standards Board are likewise expected to put the kibosh on this type of illusory reporting mechanism. CFO.com reporter Helen Shaw writes that FASB Chairman Bob Herz opposes smoothing and favors a more accurate representation of funding status. (Click here to read her 2005 article.)

Second, defined benefit plans are affected by changes in interest rates (and related yield curve shifts). As rates drop, pension liabilities increase. (The extent to which they rise depends on a host of factors.) Moreover, a drop in rates (depending on the cause) could depress the return (assumed and realized) on some (not all) investments, thereby widening the pension gap and making things worse.

Third, the effectiveness of any interest rate hedging technique is influenced by current levels of interest rates, capital market conditions, the shape of the yield curve, the steepness of the yield curve, choice of instrument and so on. That's why Fed watching is such a popular activity.

Fourth, the pension situation is not hopeless. While some companies and municipalities are in dire straights (perhaps well on their way to financial distress or outright failure), other organizations can and should consider what works, what doesn't work and why.

Pension governance best practices are worth the time. Millions of people count on decision-makers to evaluate plausible solutions as a way to keep their word.