Happiness and the Bottom Line

In case you missed it, March 20, 2014 was International Happiness Day. Sponsored by the United Nations International, the Day of Happiness is a reminder that there are lots of good things in this world and a moment of reflection is a nice way to celebrate our gifts. Interestingly and not surprising, eighty-seven percent of people who took the online poll at www.dayofhappiness.net say that happiness trumps wealth. Is this bad news for the financial community? No it is not and here's why.

Research studies repeatedly link emotional well-being with economic productivity. In his informative book entitled "What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better," Dr. Dan Baker (with Cathy Greenberg and Collins Hemingway) extols the virtues of businesses that recognize the importance of motivating workers with carrots and not sticks. By extension, happy workers will remain employed and their incomes typically rise as they carry out their duties with a smile. This is great news for the advisers who want to help those with money to invest.

Happiness is certainly a big business. A quick search of Amazon.com for books on this topic yields nearly 40,000 results. There's even a magazine called Live Happy. One of my favorite tee shirt companies is called Life is Good. You can watch "The Economics of Happiness" documentary and follow along with a study guide.

Some people keep a gratitude journal. Setting aside a few minutes of quiet time is likewise popular. ABC reporter Dan Harris must have struck a nerve as his book about meditation is a best-seller. Click to learn more about his 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story.

As readers of this blog know. I am a devotee of yoga and try to take a class whenever I can. My reasons include a desire to be fit and numerous advantages of taking deep breaths and focusing on the moment. The boost to concentration levels, especially for challenging projects, is a significant plus. The medical community continues to pay attention to the benefits of mindfulness. In late 2013, Bloomberg wrote about Harvard Medical School researcher, Dr. John Denninger, and his research about yoga, brain activity and immune levels. Since six to nine out of ten visits to see a doctor are cited as stress-related, costing companies roughly $300 billion per year, his federally-funded science can be helpful indeed to both individuals and employers. See "Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Mediation Benefit" by Makiko Kitamura (Bloomberg, November 21, 2013). Also check out "Take a Deep Breath," posted on the American Institute of Stress website.

Have a good day!

Peanuts and Pensions

In case you missed it, Kraft Foods Group Inc. ("Kraft") reported a fourth quarter 2013 increase in profit and a $1.11 per share accounting gain, due in part to its pension plan. Higher discount rates and bigger returns on its portfolio were cited factors, with a nod to the company's use of "some of the cost savings to boost marketing behind brands like Jello-O dessert and Planters peanuts." See "Kraft Net Soars on Pension-Related Gain" by John Kell (Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2014). Other news, straight from its earnings call, describes the use of roughly $600 million of the company's free cash flow to add contributions to the pension plans in 2013. The result is a rise in the funded ratio to 96 percent at calendar year-end, up from 77 percent one year earlier. Expected contributions for 2014 will run around $200 million, with $60 million of that number representing required cash to fund Kraft's Canadian pension plans. See "Q4 2013 Earnings Call Transcript," February 13, 2014 and "Kraft Foods Group Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Results," February 13, 2014. Noteworthy is that Kraft commenced a liability-driven investment ("LDI") strategy, to be phased in over multiple years, (and I am paraphrasing here) as a way to more appropriately line up "pension assets with the projected benefit obligation to reduce volatility" by moving towards an 80% fixed income, 20% equity securities mix. See page 62 of the latest Kraft 10-K filing.

This alert from Kraft is yet another example of the link between pension management and corporate finance. There are lots of other companies that have made similar declarations about the relationship between employee benefit plan economics and company operations. As I wrote in "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management, 2012), private sector plan sponsors are acutely aware of the economic and legal aspects of offering ERISA plans to their respective work force. A dollar paid by shareholders for benefits could be seen as a cost that takes away from growing the enterprise or an investment in happy workers who add to the bottom line. Either way, the Treasury and Investor Relations teams are increasingly involved in discussions and related action steps to address the management of retirement plans. This is no coincidence. Liquidity, enterprise risk management, valuation, shareholder relations, talent retention and capital adequacy are a few of the numerous touch points that bring together the worlds of Human Resources ("HR"), the board and C-level officers such as the CEO and the Chief Financial Officer. This trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. To the contrary, expect more interactions across company functions and around the world.

To read a related blog post, see "Pension Risk, Governance and CFO Liability," PensionRiskMatters.com, March 4, 2012.

Pensions, Politics and the ERISA Fiduciary Standard

Thanks to the folks at the Mutual Fund Directors Forum for disseminating a January 13, 2014 letter from members of the New Democrat Coalition to the Honorable Thomas Perez, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). The gist of the four-page communication is that these members of the current U.S. Congress would like to see regulatory coordination in order to "protect investors while reducing confusion." They add that they are still concerned that a new version of the fiduciary standard, when proposed anew, might discourage plan participant literacy and disclosures. The worry seems to be that individuals with low or middle incomes as well as small businesses could be adversely impacted, depending on the ultimate version.

According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") website, Republicans have likewise communicated their concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor as well as the Office of Management and Budget. These ranged from "the impact on an individuals' choice of provider to potential unintended consequences limiting access to education for millions of individuals saving for retirement." Click to access SIFMA's DOL Fiduciary Standard Resource Center.

On October 29, 2013, the Retail Investor Protection Act (H.R. 2374), sponsored by U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner (Republican, 2nd District of Missouri), was approved by the United States House of Representatives in a vote of 254 to 166. According to the Gov Track website, U.S. Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat, 18th District of Florida) joined as a co-sponsor on September 19, 2013. The stated legislative intent is to preclude the "Secretary of Labor from prescribing any regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) defining the circumstances under which an individual is considered a fiduciary until 60 days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issues a final rule governing standards of conduct for brokers and dealers under specified law." It further prevents the SEC from implementing a rule "establishing an investment advisor standard of conduct as the standard of conduct of brokers and dealers" prior to assessing the likely impact on retail investors. Click to read more about the Retail Investor Protection Act. Click to read the mission of the United States Department of Labor which states "To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights."

As I have repeatedly predicted in this pension blog and elsewhere, the retirement crisis, not just in the United States but around the world, is increasingly showing up as a political hot button issue. No one wants to lose votes from retirees who are struggling and employees who cannot afford to stop working any time soon. In his State of the Union address, U.S. President Obama described a new type of retirement account, i.e. "myRA," that is meant to help millions of individuals whose companies do not offer retirement plans. See "What you need to know about Obama's 'myRA' retirement accounts" by Melanie Hicken (CNN Money, January 29, 2014). More details will no doubt follow.

There is a lot we don't know about how politics will impede or enhance the state of the global retirement situation. As a free marketeer, I am not particularly optimistic about new rules and regulations that prevent an efficient supply-demand interaction from taking place. However, this is a lengthy topic and the hour is late so I will leave a discussion about the positive and normative aspects of capitalism for another day.

De-Risking, HR Strategy and the Bottom Line

In case you missed our December 10, 2013 presentation about pension de-risking, sponsored by Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") provider, Strafford Publications, click to download slides for "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors." It was a lively and informative discussion about the reasons to consider some type of pension risk management, considerations for doing a deal and the role of the independent fiduciary. The transaction and governance commentary was then followed with a detailed look at ERISA litigation that involves questions about Liability Driven Investing ("LDI"), lump sum distributions and annuity purchases.

Some of the issues I mentioned that are encouraging sponsors to quit their defined benefit plans in some way include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Equity performance "catch up" from the credit crisis years and the related impact on funding levels, leading some plans to report a deficit;
  • Need for cash to make required contributions;
  • Low interest rates which, for some firms, has ballooned their IOUs;
  • Increased regulation;
  • Higher PBGC premiums;
  • Rise in ERISA fiduciary breach lawsuits;
  • Desire to avoid a failed merger, acquisition, spin-off, carve-out, security issuance or other type of corporate finance deal that, if not achieved, could lessen available cash that is needed to finance growth; and
  • Difficulty in fully managing longevity risk that is pushing benefit costs upward as people live longer.

While true that numerous executives have fiduciary fatigue and want to spend their time and energies on something other than benefits management, it is not always a given that restructuring or extinguishing a defined benefit plan is the right way to go. Indeed, some sponsors have reinstated their pension offerings in order to retain and attract talented individuals who select employers on the basis of what benefits are offered.

Given what some predict as a worrisome shortage of talented and skilled workers, the links among HR strategy, employee satisfaction and the bottom line cannot be ignored. For those companies that depend on highly trained employees to design, produce, market and distribute products, the potential costs of losing clients to better staffed competitors is a real problem. According to the "2013 Talent Shortage Survey," conducted by the Manpower Group, "Business performance is most likely to be impacted by talent shortages in terms of reduced client service capability and reduced competitiveness..." A report about the findings states that "Of the 38,618 employers who participated in the 2013 survey, more than one in three reported difficulty filling positions as a result of a lack of suitable candidates; the 35% who report shortages represents the highest proportion since 2007, just prior to the global recession."

As relates to the well-documented shift by companies and governments to a defined contribution plan(s), I recently spoke to a senior ERISA attorney who suggested a possible re-thinking of the DB-DC array, based on discussions with his clients. The conclusion is that a 401(k) plan is sometimes much more expensive to offer than anticipated. For employees who lost money in 2008 and beyond and cannot afford to retire, they will keep working. The longer they stay with their respective employer, the more money that employer has to pay in the form of administration, matching contributions, etc.

A plan sponsor has a lot to consider when deciding what benefits to offer, keep, substitute or augment. Dollars spent on benefits could reap rewards in the form of a productive and complete labor force. With full attribution to the seven fellas in Disney Studio's Snow White, will your employees be singing "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go" or will they instead bemoan their stingy boss and search for a new work home, with better economic lollipops, thereby leaving a business deprived of precious human capital?

Unemployment at the Movies

If you haven't yet seen "The Company Men" with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner and don't need a lot of laughs, it's a worthwhile flick about the U.S. economic problems of late. The plot centers on a successful sales executive who gets the boot from a Massachusetts conglomerate that started out as a manufacturer of ships. A wholesale layoff of otherwise talented professionals still leaves the company exposed to a hostile takeover so another round or two ensues, with Affleck's boss ultimately getting the pink slip from his lover, played by a glamourous Maria Bello. (Hey, it's the Hollywood version of Corporate America.)

Similar to "Up In The Air" with George Clooney, this film's message seems to be that management is bad, labor is good and that family is what really counts. While I wholeheartedly endorse the message about counting one's blessings in the form of loved ones, friends and colleagues, I'm agnostic about the general "we versus them" theme and prefer to consider one company at a time.

If we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that production is increasingly mobile across borders. Beyond that, C-level leaders in the United States have a legal duty to their shareholders to create wealth (which is not necessarily the same thing as boosting the bottom line but that's a topic for another day). While I am not alone in opining that well-run companies recognize the importance of human capital (employees, clients, vendors) and that is why they can generate healthy returns for their investors, it is also important that individuals retool as often as is necessary to remain competitive.

In 2002, Daniel H. Pink extolled the virtues of independence in his best selling book entitled Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself. The numbers speak for themselves with a continued increase in freelancers, temps, affiliated parties and smaller consulting networks that work from home or close by, create their own revenue path and are happy campers. However, for those who desire more stability and structure by working for larger employers, the concept of free agent is still worth pondering. Specifically, if your industry is changing around you, maybe it's time to take stock of how you stack up against others. My dad, now a retired engineer, went through this process about fifteen years ago when he took it upon himself to study computer assisted design at night since younger hires were facile with the newer technology tools and he was not.

As a young banker, I had a boss who urged me to think of myself as a box of raisin bran. Every year, he told me to figure out how to be "new and improved." I would complete a skills inventory checklist and then commit to improve as needed.

"The Company Men" was an enjoyable cinematic outing and a great reminder that dues paying never stops. Learning and career development is a lifetime endeavor, especially now. With longer lifespans and, for millions of people, the need and/or desire to work beyond 65 years of age, it is critical to stay current with requisite skills and experience.

Happiness and the Zen of Work

 

Work is a four-letter word so can it ever be fun? According to the Conference Board, maybe not. In a recent survey, nearly half of respondents expressed dissatisfaction about doing work that was neither meaningful nor engaging. In contrast, six out of ten survey-takers declared themselves happy in 1987. Somewhat disturbing for would be recruiters is that angst and disappointment was not unique to any particular age group or income level though persons under 25 expressed "the highest level of dissatisfaction ever recorded by the survey for that age group."

As many on the hiring side know already, finding talent can be time-consuming and sap energy from even the most ardent employers. Now add the challenges of retaining productive workers while adding bright-eyed team members in a sad sack era of layoffs, mistrust and diminished budgets. Besides turnover costs, the bottom line could be impaired if few cheer lead for their company, collecting a pay check and already planning for the next gig.

Click to read more about "I Can't Get No...Job Satisfaction, That Is: America's Unhappy Workers," The Conference Board, January 5, 2010 press release entitled "U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in two Decades. Click to read "Where America Stands: The State of America and Its Future," CBS News Poll, January 4, 2010 which echoes the observation that not everyone is optimistic about what the future holds.

In an attempt to end this blog post on an upbeat note, I invite interested readers to take a look at the work conducted by best selling author Marcus Buckingham. Rather than dwell on employees' weak points, he urges organizations to focus on strengths. According to his website, this author of "Go Put Your Strengths to Work" and "Now, Discover Your Strengths" urges that "individuals and teams playing to their strengths significantly outperform those who don't in almost every business metric."

The discussion that needs to take place now is one of responsibility.

  • Who should properly motivate and on what basis?
  • Do  happy, satisfied workers self-select by joining companies that provide "thank you" goodies such as great benefits, bonuses and opportunities to retool?
  • How much should and can employers do to make work fun or at least a place where people want to be for a reasonable period of time each day?
  • What can organizations do to overcome the survivor worries that accompany any recession?
  • How should benefit plans be modified, if ever, to marry together financial pressures with the part of the bottom line that is attributable to human capital?

We may never emulate Snow White's seven friends ("Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Work We Go") but obviously something has to give if one out of every two workers is unlikely to stay put for more than a few months.

 

"Up in the Air" - Stark Reality About the Employee - Employer Relationship?

Seeking a fun film over the holidays, I persuaded my husband to join me at a viewing of "Up In the Air" with George Clooney.This modern Cary Grant did not disappoint, doing a great job of conveying his own search for the meaning of life as he travels the United States, laying off workers at various companies. In an interesting twist, many of the actors are "real people" who had at one time apparently sat across the desk from a non-Hollywood version of a jobs terminator. 

I recommend the movie but don't expect a romantic comedy. In fact, don't expect to laugh more than once or twice. It is a serious montage of human angst at a time of when unemployment is high and only the adventurous are popping champagne corks to celebrate the end of the recession.

I would however like to offer a counter to this Tinseltown intimation that management is always bad and labor is nothing but pure at heart. In today's mobile, global and less than long-term workplace, it is imperative for everyone to continuously evaluate their skill set, make sure they are adding value and can quickly adapt to change. Be part of the solution, not the problem. This is not to say that layoffs of hard-working individuals, due to incompetent leadership, are less than tragic. It's only to suggest that there are countless opportunities to retool and taking responsibility for one's ability to earn a living is paramount.

A former manager urged me to think of myself as a box of cereal and periodically ask whether I'm "new and improved" enough to compete with the other brands. 

  • Are you doing enough to encourage your team to grow and learn?
  • Are you focused on being the best you can be in terms of wealth creation on behalf of shareholders and, by extension, yourself?

Employee Benefit Plans Built to Last

 

As I strolled around the ancient ruins of Rome last week (one of the reasons I did not blog for a few days), I was struck by the reality that so little seems built to last. Notwithstanding the architectural glory of the Forum and Colosseum and other magnificent nods to history, our society seems focused on "new and improved." Discard the old. Bring in the new. While unlikely that benefit plan professionals strategically planned obsolescence years ago, one wonders whether retirement plans were ever built to last.

Someone recently asked me for my opinion about what he deemed the inevitable demise of defined benefit ("DB") plans. I countered "not so fast," asserting that changing workplace demographics are giving benefit design teams pause when considering whether to jettison traditional pensions. One investment committee member told me that their company engineers griped loud enough for management to reverse course and bring back the "old fashioned" but popular DB arrangement.

Unhappy 401(k) participants may likewise eventually vote by migrating to employers who offer or reinstate DB plans. Regulators are considering mandates to force employers to strengthen one part of a wobbly three-legged retirement stool. If individuals save little on their own and Social Security is on its knees, who else to pick up the slack but the private sector?

Don't laugh. If the Hula Hoop can make a resurgence with fitness buffs and even have its own magazine, why not defined benefit plans?

If and when these schemes return and/or new savings products come about (driven in large part by rules, regulations and laws), wouldn't it be great to create with permanence in mind? From a cost-benefit perspective, how much money and angst might be saved by doing it right the first time, whatever "right" turns out to be?

U.S. Celebrates Labor Day

According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, Labor Day occurs on the first day of every September and is "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." Over 100 years old, the holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City, due to efforts of several labor unions.

Editor's Notes: Here are a few information sources about labor in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Generation Gap: What's HR to Do?

According to 60 Minutes, some 80 million "millenials" are descending on Corporate America with aplomb. Tech savvy and self-obsessed, these 20 somethings are creating all sorts of challenges for button down HR departments. Key questions arise.

  • What kinds of retirement plans make sense, especially if your workforce is an age barbell (with more younger and older workers and fewer in between)? 
  • How does a manager motivate the "me" moguls in waiting? ("No, you won't be promoted by the end of the week.)
  • What kind of financial education must a plan sponsor provide when the younger set overspends and believes in now power? According to acclaimed author of "My Reality Check Bounced: The Gen-Y Guide to Cashing In On Your Real-World Dreams," Jason Ryan Dorsey repeats what many surveys show. Few individuals under 30 think Social Security is a reality for them.
  • For parents and their employers, how do you properly plan for looming retirement when grown-up children have returned home to nest for awhile?

Despite a job slump in some industries, the future is going to be grim for those employers who fail to recognize the coming demographic time bomb. Watch "The Age of the Millenials" (May 25, 2008, CBSNews.com) and learn about youth power in the workforce.

Are HR Professionals the Key to Unlocking Shareholder Wealth?


Several days ago, I wrote about the link between employee happiness and the bottom line. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to read about a new study conducted by Auburn University professor, Dave Ketchen. Acknowledging the importance of incentives, his research results also suggest that "performance improvements are stronger when companies take a systematic approach to human resources rather than implementing one or two practices". He adds that "Executives need to adopt a strategic view of the human resource function and create sets of practices that reinforce each other."

In a related article, published in the August 2006 issue of Workforce Management, Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne echoes a similar sentiment about the strategic importance of the HR function. Author of "Human Resource Management: At the Table, or Under It?", Welbourne describes several of her studies which suggest that HR professionals are not given their proper due. This is a pity since "HR can, through various initiatives that reach out to employees, obtain employee insights and ideas about the business. HR can be the table because HR will have information about the business that no one else in the organization has at present. Employees are the stealth ingredient to creating a realignment culture. If you ask employees for information, and you use their input to realign, they are now part of the change, which means they are much more willing to move forward with the leadership team."

So what does this all mean in pension land? Plan design analysis should take into account immediate cash flow and earnings impact as well as trickle down effects that relate to employee productivity and retention. The expected demise of defined benefit plans may not come to pass if companies decide that attracting and keeping employees requires traditional benefits. Given today's article by New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters, labor shortages (and related cost pressurs) could nip defined benefit plan terminations in the bud. (See "Labor Costs Shake a Pillar of Fed Policy", September 7, 2006, New York Times.)

Employee Happiness and the Bottom Line



Authors Dan Baker, Cathy Greenberg and Collins Hemingway write about successful organizations in What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better. Using real-world case studies, their book "shows readers how to build a company where individuals at every level can apply their diverse strengths towards shared goals that are meaningful, positive, and profitable."

They offer that "motivated employees are the keystone to business success", suggesting that "companies built around people, positive mindsets and long-term goals consistently out-perform unhappy companies." (Click here for a short book review.)

Having just been interviewed by two journalists about significant changes to corporate pension plans and having met Dr. Dan Baker, author of What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, I started thinking about benefits and job satisfaction.

1. Has the flurry of headlines in recent months, chronicling frozen pension plans, layoffs, wage concessions, rescinded health care benefits and varying levels of job satisfaction, made it hard to implement a smiley face approach to work?

2. Accepting the book's premise that happy companies are profitable companies (something that makes sense to me), are they also generous companies in terms of new and/or continued benefits?

3. Do employees favor benefits that promote self-empowerment or prefer a more traditional, and arguably parental, approach?

4. How often do HR professionals break bread with C-level executives in order to design the optimal benefits mix that maximizes the happiness quotient while controlling costs?

5. Are certain types of workers happy even when the company's culture is sad sack central? (For example, there is interesting research that people who get more sleep are happier in their jobs.)

6. Can a company cherry pick happy individuals during the hiring process and thereby save (make) money in the long run?

7. Will rapidly changing demographics alter the way companies hire, train and retain and what role will benefits play?

8. Do employees react to news of rescinded benefits more negatively than never having had them in the first place?

9. Is happiness a function of how executives get paid versus everyone else, absolute dollars paid to executives, both or neither?

10. Are companies in certain industries happier, and if so, why?

I just ordered my copy of what looks like a very interesting book. If you know of research that addresses any or all of these questions, please let us know.

Hi Ho Hi Ho - It's Off to Work We Go






Do you have happy workers? Productive workers? Loyal workers? So many news stories address the financial dimensions of THE pension issue. While important, ultimately the story is about the employees, isn't it? Ignoring tax considerations, companies provide benefits to protect human capital. Though this asset shows up nowhere on a company's balance sheet, it is nonetheless vital to profitability and growth. This is especially true for countries and industries where intellectual prowess determines success or failure.

According to a recent article in FORTUNE, the new paradigm urges managers to "hire passionate people". Citing research done by Christopher Bartlett of Harvard Business School, employees "want a sense of purpose". (See "Tearing Up the Jack Welch playbook" by Betsy Morris.)

In their best-selling book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman regale the reader with countless suggestions as to how to manage people more effectively, including the need to keep people motivated.

Ironically, at a time when identifying and cultivating human potential is paramount, some leaders are still missing the mark. In today's Wall Street Journal, Erin White describes the disconnect between what companies say their performance reviews are supposed to measure versus what employees describe as their perceived opportunity set to advance and contribute. (See "For Relevance, Firms Revamp Worker Reviews".)

With so many companies shifting away from defined benefit plans, will there be a concomitant change in worker happiness? Do employees really choose a work situation based on benefits? Could plan sponsors be taking a short-term view without acknowledging long-term consequences? Do employees favor a parental approach or is individual empowerment the touchstone (in which case 401K and other choice-focused plans make perfect sense)?

There are no easy answers. People genuinely disagree about the role that benefits (quality, quantity, form) play in attracting and keeping good people.

One thing is certain, however. Corporations everywhere (U.S. and abroad) will be affected by changing demographics (recently described elsewhere in this blog). An oft-discussed dearth of skilled workers compels companies to think long and hard about the link between benefits and the bottom line.