Retirement Planning and Risk Management

Retirement planning is hard work and requires discipline and care. Few of us can rely on luck or the proverbial leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Assessing uncertainty on an ongoing basis is as important as identifying goals. Sadly, I'm not convinced that the topic of risk management is being discussed as often as it should be with workers and retirees alike.

In the last month, I spent copious time reviewing educational materials produced by a handful of financial advisory firms. What I found confirmed my suspicion that coverage of the topic of risk does not often extend beyond an initial assessment of risk tolerance. A prospective client is asked to complete a questionnaire. The financial advisor then reviews the answers and makes a recommendation about what asset allocation mix seems right. When scenario modeling is used, an individual may be given several possible portfolios from which to choose. Ideally, as an individual's circumstances or goals change, the questionnaire should be completed anew and modifications made accordingly.

Outside of product boilerplate language and short paragraphs about diversification and dollar cost averaging, I did not uncover much information about specific risk management techniques that an individual investor can put to work. This is lamentable. Investment risk management is not just for corporations, financial service companies and governments.

There are lots of techniques that an individual can utilize, starting with the creation of an inventory of what protection is already in place, if any, and a risk map that specifies outcomes that an investor wants to avoid at all costs. In behavioral finance, the desire to avert losses is a well-known psychological bias and should not be ignored. It is important that an individual investor and his financial advisor acknowledge the "worst case" situation as part of setting objectives.

While gauging tolerance for risk is necessary, it is seldom sufficient for several reasons. First, a financial plan may focus only on investments and therefore exclude different kinds of insurance policies that are integral to capturing which risks are already hedged and which ones are not. Second, an investor may realize a target level of return but have a portfolio that is too small to generate sufficient cash flows. Bills are paid with cash, not returns. Third, if securities or funds are selected on the basis of expected return and standard deviation only, material quantitative and qualitative risk factors are likely excluded. As a result, an investor could be assuming "excessive" risk or not enough risk.

As famed author Mark Twain quipped "There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it and when he can." One might say he was a risk manager ahead of his time.

PBGC and Risk-Based Premiums

In his just proposed federal budget, President Barack Obama opens the door for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") to determine insurance premiums as a function of the riskiness of the plan sponsor. Having been an advocate for this approach for numerous years, my response is "yippee yahoo." There is empirical evidence aplenty about the costly consequences of forcing good risks to subsidize bad risks. The common sense notion of charging plan sponsors higher insurance premiums if they are deemed "higher risk" is logical and is a long overdue move in the right direction.

The excerpted text from "Low Risk Premium Makes PBGC Bargain Insurer" (In the Money, Dow Jones Newswires, July 18, 2005) by Steven D. Jones addresses the concept of risk-based premiums as follows:

 A separate bill that emerged from a House committee in June changes a number of rules governing funding levels and grace periods to meet them. It also ties premiums for PBGC coverage to hikes in the national wage index. But the formula wouldn't impose higher premiums on higher risk plans. "That's a mistake, says consultant Susan Mangiero, author of Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments and Foundations." To be effective, a premium structure needs to reflect the risk of the insured. Without a risk mechanism, "you invite adverse selection" in the insurance plan, she says. For example, a driver with several tickets and an accident record pays more for auto insurance. If there's no cost to the behavior, the carefree driver has no incentive to change, losses mount and premiums go up for every participant. Discouraged by the cost, clients with good risk profiles leave the plan. Companies can't seek pension insurance elsewhere, but they can end defined-benefit plans and shift to defined-contribution plans, such as a 401(k), in which employees share the risk. Such plans are not covered by the PBGC. "The net effect of flat-based insurance, not taking into account different risk levels, is that you have a riskier system, which is counter to the purpose of having an insurance plan," she says.

Think about the issue this way. Would you buy stocks or bonds issued by a public insurance company that charged the same premium for all insured parties, irregardless of their risk behavior? Hopefully your answer is "of course not."

If plan sponsors do the right thing in terms of careful risk-taking and good procedural prudence, they should not be penalized by having to pay for the sins of others who are less careful or, worse yet, sloppy, indifferent and/or take excessive risks unnecessarily and to the detriment of their plan participants.

Note to Readers: Check out "Obama's 2012 Budget: What It Means for Pension Plans and the PBGC" by John Sullivan, Advisor One, February 16, 2011,  "Let PBGC set employer premiums based on risk: Obama" by Jerry Geisel, Business Insurance, February 14, 2011 and "Budget Would Raise Pension-Insurance Costs" by David Wessell (Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2011).

Advisor Service Agreements: The Weak Link

Today's blog post is provided, courtesy of Mr. Phil Chiricotti, President of the Center for Due Diligence. Since the topic of contract review as an important element of proper due diligence is one which I have addressed elsewhere on and in my articles and speeches, I asked Phil for permission to reprint his article and he kindly agreed.         

                                          Advisor Service Agreements: The Weak Link

Enormous attention has been centered on retirement plan fees in recent years, including the new 408(b)(2)disclosure requirements. The liability has also increased for those who fail to comply. Lost in this shuffle is the fact that fees are only one piece of the puzzle.

While a well drafted, reviewed and understood service agreement can help preclude errors and claims, the service agreement is also the primary defense against liability caused by service provider mistakes and negligence. In spite of this important role, many plan sponsors - particularly small plan sponsors - sign standard service agreements without adequate review or counsel.

In addition to agreeing to vague service agreements, some sponsors engage advisors without a service agreement or verification of insurance coverage and bonding. As noted many times, most small plan sponsors also lack first party fiduciary liability insurance. A combination of the aforementioned is nothing less than a nuclear accident waiting to happen.

The DOL's new regulations provide an increase in both fee disclosure and clarity for comparative shopping, but 408(b)(2) does not preclude the need for an equitable service agreement. In our minds, the service agreement remains a weak link in the advisor vetting process, particularly in the small plan market. Indeed, the service agreement may not even reflect what was discussed and/or negotiated during the vetting process.

As noted by many attorneys, ERISA's primary focus has been on regulating the relationship between plan sponsors and participants. Beyond prohibited transactions and prior to the DOL's new disclosure regulations, little guidance was provided on how to manage the relationship between sponsors and service providers, including those assuming a fiduciary role.

The courts have not spoken uniformly about recourse between the plan and outside fiduciaries, but the plan sponsor's supervisory role, or the lack of it, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Because errors and disputes are a fact of life, it is long past time for the service agreement to become an integral part of the advisor vetting process from the beginning.


Fiduciary Liability and Insurance Issues

Dr. Susan Mangiero joins a panel of senior-level insurance executives and attorneys for a discussion about ERISA best practices. Sponsored by the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS), the April 28 discussion takes place in Boston and addresses financial, legal and operations challenges, along with suggested "must do" items. The program description is provided below or you can read more about "Coping Mechanisms: ERISA Best Practices."

Learn how to best to protect directors and officers in the event of plan-related litigation in this critical era of new litigation theories, legislation and aggressive enforcement. Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) litigation has spiked in the last year, spurred by plan investment losses, mass layoffs, benefit cutbacks and an invigorated plaintiff’s bar. New types of litigation, such as suits related to qualified default investments in 401(k) plans, are on the upswing. At the same time, leadership at the Department of Labor is spurring new enforcement strategies. Join this panel discussion of methods to avoid litigation and establish a record of procedural prudence, a critically important component in the defense of any ERISA litigation.

Presenters include:

Investment Governance, Inc. recently interviewed leading fiduciary liability insurance underwriters about their concerns for covered organizations to improve policies and procedures. Email for a copy of the two-part interview series.

Doris Day, Scarlett O'Hara and Financial Market Tumult

Remember the 1939 epic classic "Gone with the Wind" wherein Scarlett O'Hara protests serious conversation? Interrupted by news of an imminent Civil War, this party gal (with the famous 17-inch waist) complains. "Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war: this war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream." 

As I read "Why No Outrage" by James Grant (Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2008), I wonder if this southern belle might now be heard to say "Loss, loss, loss: this loss talk is spoiling all the fun..." About structural reforms (a 2007-2008 equivalent of losing Tara, the family homestead), Scarlett might encourage delayed action. "After all...tomorrow is another day." Why fuss now?

Well, as we all know, Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably linked. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the financial markets,  does not "stay here." (Read "Slogan's run" by Newt Briggs, Las Vegas Mercury, April 8, 2004.) When huge losses roil capital markets (not just in the U.S. but around the world), real people can get hurt:

  • Employees lose jobs
  • Shareholders see their portfolios plummet in value
  • Pension plans that allocate big money to equities and bonds scramble to improve funding
  • Retirees who depend on the financial health of plan sponsors pinch their pennies further
  • Vendors who do business with financial institutions tighten their belts and/or layoff staff
  • Businesses, seeking to grow, borrow at higher rates, if they can borrow at all...

It is therefore a mystery to the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer that relatively few bad players are taken to task "in the wake of the 'greatest failure of ratings and risk management ever,' to quote the considered judgment of the mortgage-research department of UBS." Grant conjectures that high gas prices and an election-focused Congress may be to blame or that "old populists" have hoisted themselves by their own petard, having pushed for paper money, federal insurance subsidization of higher risks and government intervention with respect to credit decision-making. From the tone of this long, yet fascinating, commentary, Grant rants about big government at the same time that, ironically, big government seeks to become even bigger in the form of new financial market regulations.

For my two cents as an advocate of free markets (not faux capitalism as exists around the world), a return to the gold standard merits serious consideration. Improperly priced federal insurance of bank deposits and pension liabilities (and much more) induces adverse selection and moral hazard. Riskier organizations get subsidized by more prudent market participants and have little incentive (arguably no incentive) to get their risk management house in order. Regarding government intervention as to how credit is allocated, plenty of empirical studies quantify the economic "bad" that results from information asymmetry. When buyers and sellers are not fully informed, supply and demand cannot intersect at the"correct" price of money or the optimal level of borrowing/lending.

Then there is the shame factor. In an era of reality shows, can we expect honor and accountability? Grant has few kind words for market behemoths (current and now extinct) who watch(ed) the Titanic sink "under the studiously averted gaze of the Street's risk managers." Will today's villains of excess rise, Phoenix-like, as have infamous names of yore, now reincarnated as media superstars? (Nick Leeson of Baring's fame has his own website and earns a living as a consultant and speaker. Henry Blodget pens "Internet Outsider" and e-newsletter, Silicon Alley Insider - a fun read for this bloggerette.)

Related to Grant's provocative piece, a recent article about voluntary standards caught my eye with its suggestion that industry attempts may be more show than reality. In its "agenda-setting column on business and financial topics," the Financial Times' Lex states that such guidelines receive little scrutiny and are put in place as a way to attract risk-averse institutional investors and/or to avoid the harsh spotlight of global regulators. (See ""Funds of hedge funds," Financial Times, July 17, 2008.) An easy way to check is simply ask each hedge fund manager about his/her reliance on published guidelines. Inquire how traders are compensated. Are they encouraged to take pure risks or are they instead benchmarked on the basis of risk-adjusted returns (with "risk" referring to the holistic assessment of uncertainties)? Don't stop with hedge funds. Ask any service provider or trader about their controls and how they monitor the quality of their processes.

The creation of an effective reward system and "best practices" are favorite topics of this blog. Our team (Pension Governance, LLC) and fiduciary community colleagues decry the status quo that makes it difficult to reward good players, at the same time that questionable practices are frequently left untouched. Poor quality disclosure is just one factor that inhibits the design of a better mousetrap.

Two hours into this post, I'm going to conclude with the notion that "freedom is not free" (anonymous). To enjoy flexibility and regulatory latitude, people of great courage must buck the existing system and both demand and assume accountability. At a minimum, interested parties (retirees, shareholders, taxpayers) want to better understand what went wrong and how internal controls will be strengthened post-haste as a result of introspection. Leaders at troubled institutions do a great service by informing the public about corrective actions underway.

For pension fiduciaries, a critical lesson learned is this. If you are not already doing so, waste no time in getting an operational review. This extends to tough and detailed interviews with your external money managers and service providers about all things risk management. Communicating your process to plan participants (for all types of plans) and shareholders/taxpayers gets you brownie points and helps to raise the "best practices" bar. 

Doris Day's sentiment may be great for meditation class but has no place in a discussion about financial system reform and governance of individual organizations, plan sponsors included. "What will be, will be" is the wrong answer (though "Que Sera, Sera" is a favorite tune).

The power of one keeps us in awe. Who will step up to the podium and say - "The buck stops here?"

Please email us with examples of pension and financial service leaders whom you believe inspire and lead the way in terms of governance. Let us know if we may attribute your comments or should post them anonymously.

 Editor's Notes:

Pension Plan Plaintiffs Cost Corporate Defendants With Opt-Outs

A recent trend in class action litigation circles is the pension plan opt-out. Choosing not to settle with the rest of the "class," several large institutional investors are getting recompense that reflects multiples of what they could otherwise receive.

Pension Governance contributing editor, attorney Kevin Lacroix talks about this significant shift in class action outcomes, citing a sea change in the cost of litigation. Click here for more information about Kevin's interesting article and here to read more about our first class team of contributing editors.

PG Editor's Note: We have just posted an interesting and complementary item to In "Predicting Corporate Governance Risk: Evidence from the Directors' & Officers' Liability Insurance Market," authors Tom Baker and Sean J. Griffith examine how liability insurance underwriters assess corporate governance behavior - and related expectations of risk - when pricing coverage. The authors also examine whether corporations are deterred by the cost of liability insurance, especially since "virtually all corporations purchase D&O insurance to cover the risk of shareholder litigation, and because virtually all shareholder litigation settles within the D&O insurance limits, the D&O insurance premium represents the insurer’s best guess of the insured’s expected liability costs." The authors conclude that governance factors such as culture and character are taken into account by insurance underwriters. Click here for more information.

Tontines - Way Out of a Pension Jam?

In a pension jam? Think tontines, not saltines, according to a newly published article about what to do as the benefits landscape quickly changes. Defined as a type of investment pool, tontines pay dividends only to survivors. Similar to an annuity "in that it provides a life income to a participant," a tontine could help millions of individuals who want retirement security without too much involvement (selecting and managing investments, forecasting post-employment spending and so on).

According to Ralph Goldsticker, author of "A Mutual Fund to Yield Annuity-Like Benefits" (Financial Analysts Journal, January/February 2007), making modern versions of the tontine a reality comes in the knick of time. Hundreds of companies are jettisoning traditional defined benefit plans as fast as you can say "senior citizen."

One version - a mutual fund/tontine hybrid - has the advantage of arguably lower default risk in contrast to a purchased annuity. Upon creation of an age- and gender-specific mutual fund/tontine structure, contributed monies are invested in a "diversified portfolio of high-grade fixed-income securities." A downside is the fact that heirs do not participate, forcing breadwinners to think about financial planning on a family-wide basis (not a bad thing to do anyhow).

Allegedly the brainchild of banker Lorenzo de Tonti, this 350-year old invention may deserve a fresh look.

Editor's Note:
Thanks to Hank Stern, Life Underwriter Training Council Fellow (LUTCF) and contributor to InsureBlog, for alerting me to the news about tontines. Winner of the 2005 Weblog Award, InsureBlog focuses on life and health insurance issues, with an emphasis on Consumer Driven Health Care.

Employee Benefits and Captive Insurer

As things change in pension land with respect to rules, regulations and funding issues, industry participants are getting creative about risk management. In September 2006, the Insurance Information Institute (III) wrote, "An increasing number of corporations are using captives to fund their employee benefits programs." One type of Alternative Risk Transfer (ART) mechanism, captives are a response to keeping a lid on commercial insurance costs. (For a primer on captives, visit, a self-described "Business-to-Business Risk and Insurance Exchange.")

One wonders if this trend portends an increased emphasis on enterprise risk management (ERM) and, by extension, a strategic focus on benefits as an integral part of a corporation's assets and liabilities. According to a recent overview of ERM by Towers Perrin, "More than half of respondents - 57% in the U.S. and 72% in the U.K. - believe their company's pension related risk is significant relative to other financial and operational risks."

Reprinted with permission from the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP), the article below highlights one company's experience.

"The Latest to Place Employee Benefits Risk with Captive" by Kraig Conrad, CTP, September 27, 2006

<< The H.J. Heinz Co. earlier this month became the latest company to receive US Department of Labor (DOL) approval to cover employee benefits risks through their captive insurance company.

In the slowly growing trend to take advantage of program costs-savings with captives, the Pittsburgh-based company became the tenth company to receive DOL approval. DOL established EXPRO, or the standardized and expedited procedure, six years ago in order to grant advance approval of certain types of standard transactions-such as the use of captives to fund certain employee benefits- effectively removing roadblocks that prevented such transactions.

Heinz will use Heinz-Noble Inc., its Vermont captive, to reinsure employee and retiree group term life insurance policies, according to Business Insurance. Their Vermont-based captive is also used to cover a variety of property and casualty risks for the company.

In addition to group life insurance, the other nine companies with DOL approval have covered long-term disability and accidental death and dismemberment policies through their company's captive.

As a licensed insurance carrier a captive is under the control of its parent corporation with the primary purpose of insuring or reinsuring portions of the entire risk exposures of the parent and related companies. Though risks covered by captives typically have been related to property and casualty and workers' compensation, companies are looking to place other risks with their captives to help reduce risk management costs. >>

Copyright @ 2006 Association for Financial Professionals. All Rights Reserved.

Fiduciary Liability Insurance in Pension Land

Travelers Canada announced a hard hat of sorts for money managers. According to the September 21, 2006 press release, the goal is to provide additional protection to "investment advisers, mutual funds and hedge funds for risks associated with providing asset management products and services to investors." Specific policy terms include coverage for incidents such as the ones listed below:

1. "Failure to adhere to investment guidelines and restrictions

2. Misrepresentations and failure to adequately disclose risks

3. Mismanagement of investments by an adviser on behalf of a pension fund

4. Breach of fiduciary duties to clients or pension plan participants

5. Unintentional errors committed in the course of performing regular investment adviser duties."

New pension laws, heightened scrutiny of fiduciary advisors and a surge in litigation would seem to make this type of enhanced coverage appealing to investment professionals in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Some interesting questions come to mind.

1. Should pension fiduciaries ask money managers for proof of insurance if they don't do so already?

2. Should pension fiduciaries eliminate a fund from consideration if they do not have this type of insurance?

3. Should the fund selection decision be tied to type and amount of insurance coverage? For example, would a fund with lots of liability protection be perceived as less of a risk-taker and perhaps more likely to deliver lower returns? Alternatively, would a money manager with ample coverage be seen as more of a risk-taker since insurance provides a safety net in the event that something goes awry?

4. Does the carrier matter? Specifically, do pension fiduciaries ask about the insurance underwriter and its financial capabilities to pay a claim?

5. Should a money manager ask pension fiduciaries if they are covered by liability insurance if they don't already inquire?

6. How would proof of plan fiduciary insurance be evaluated by the money manager? Is it an indication that a pension fund is inclined to have an established governance process that includes regular detailed assessments of money managers' risk controls? Would that discourage a more freewheeling money manager from doing business with that retirement plan?

It is our view that scant research has been done about the behavioral aspect of fiduciary insurance in pension land. Analysis of the insurance purchasing decision would be enlightening in several ways. First, it could shed light on process-related risks associated with pension plan investing. Second, it could (and probably already does) encourage a self-selection process that is directly tied to probability of loss on both sides of the fence. Few would argue that rational pension fiduciaries and investment professionals alike seek to avoid monetary losses and reputation-related harm.

Editor's Note: If you know of a study that examines these issues, please email Let us know if you would like to be credited for providing information.

Fiduciary Insurance for Hedge Funds

According to a recent story in HedgeWeek, hedge fund liability insurance may merit some serious consideration. Regulatory enforcement actions and investor lawsuits are on the rise, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Hedge fund directors are arguably more vulnerable than ever before, especially in areas such as valuation and trading controls.

Bigger and more frequent claims make for unhappy insurance underwriters. The logical result? Higher premiums, reduced coverage and larger deductibles.

For pension fiduciaries with hedge funds on the shopping list, now might be the time to ask managers even more questions about their policies and procedures - content, frequency of review and revision, oversight and metrics for determining "errors".

After all, pension fiduciaries themselves are under more scrutiny and are unlikely to want to invest in a hedge fund or fund of fund with few or no documented policies and procedures.