X Marks The Spot Approach to Pension Risk Management

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of major surgery may tremble after reading "How to Make Surgery Safer" (Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2015). Journalist Laura Landro describes a panoply of horribles such as operating on the wrong body part or leaving a foreign object inside a patient's body. Honing in on "never events" (i.e. those that are serious and should never occur), she describes attempts by hospitals to reduce human error in a quest to contain the rate of injury, minimize the number of deaths and avoid the billion dollar whack for serious faux pas. Besides the collection and analysis of big data to glean lessons learned and track performance, the writer describes how operating room teams are being prepped to emphasize safety in numerous ways. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Adding radio frequency tags to instruments and sponges;
  • Empowering nurses to override a doctor's orders to wrap up if questions exist about missing items;
  • Convening as a team to agree on strategy before any cuts occur;
  • Identifying ahead of time what procedure should take place and on what part of the body;
  • Training all staff about how to use electrical equipment;
  • Creating, and then following, an appropriate checklist; and
  • Asking patients to actively participate by getting into good shape ahead of time and scrubbing with anti-bacterial soap prior to surgery.

In the pension world, setting a risk management objective by proverbially marking the target spot with a big X merits consideration. After all, if the goal (or set of goals) is vague or flat out wrong, chances are that the "operation" will fail. Should that happen, the "patient" (i.e. participants) could suffer.

The concept of proper goal-setting is far from trivial. Fiduciary breach allegations are undeniably here to stay, courtesy of an increasingly active plaintiffs' bar. Settlements can cost sponsors millions of dollars, even when a company feels strongly that it has done everything correctly. Changing regulations could up the ante. According to "President Obama to Address DOL Fiduciary Redraft at Monday AARP Meeting" (Think Advisor, February 22, 2015), proposed standards put forth by the U.S. Department of Labor appear to be moving closer towards some type of final conflict of interest rule. In a January 13, 2015 memo, the White House seems to be taking the view that retirement plan fees are often too high and have cost savers more than $6 billion. No doubt the financial industry will continue to rebut these estimates.

Based on my experience as a forensic economist and someone who has served as a testifying expert, goal-setting is hugely important when it comes to resolving disputes. An inevitable question is whether something went awry and, if so, what monetary damages should be paid (and to whom). Answering inquiries about whether wrongdoing occurred (and its magnitude) has to start with identifying the objective(s) and then examining the achievement of said goals (or lack thereof).

Similar to the health care profession, continuing to up its game in terms of process improvement, retirement plan sponsors (and their service providers) have a vested interest in creating goals that are (a) clear (b) measurable (c) realistic and (d) appropriate for the situation at hand.

Santa Claus and the Fiduciary Standard

At this time of the year, when Santa Claus is making his list of who has been naughty and nice, optimists rub their hands in glee, anticipating a stocking full of goodies. Pessimistic believers resign themselves to something worse. In pension land, if you embrace fiduciary change, the incoming head of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee may be about to hand you the proverbial lump of coal.

According to Washington Bureau Chief Melanie Waddell, Senator Orrin Hatch intends to push anew for the passage of his Secure Annuities for Employee Retirement or "SAFE" Act. He spoke about pension reform and the "pension debt crisis" on July 9, 2013 in his "Introduction of the SAFE Retirement Act of 2013."  His objective is to "stop the Department of Labor from writing fiduciary rules for individual retirement accounts" and "over-regulating IRA investment advice." See "Sen. Hatch's 2015 Priority: Torpedo DOL Fiduciary Efforts" (Investment Advisor Magazine, December 15, 2014).

Put forward as a Conflict of Interest Rule-Investment Advice, the U.S. Department of Labor seeks to "reduce harmful conflicts of interest by amending the regulatory definition of the term 'fiduciary' set forth at 29 CFR 2510.3-21(c) to more broadly define as fiduciaries those persons who render investment advice to plans and IRAs for a fee within the meaning of section 3(21) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and section 4975(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The amendment would take into account current practices of investment advisers, and the expectations of plan officials and participants, and IRA owners who receive investment advice, as well as changes that have occurred in the investment marketplace, and in the ways advisers are compensated that frequently subject advisers to harmful conflicts of interest."

As with any mandate, if approved, some will be impacted more than others. In its "DOL 2014 Fall Regulatory Agenda," ERISA attorneys Fred Reish, Bruce Ashton and their Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP colleagues assert that broker-dealers and their registered representatives will likely bear the brunt of new rules. They write that "Adoption of an expanded definition will likely affect both the status for broker-dealers as fiduciaries and their compensation (due to the fiduciary prohibited transaction rules of ERISA). In response, these broker-dealers may need to develop RIA fiduciary programs for advisors who focus on retirement plans and decide how to manage the plan business of those who do not."

Whatever your holiday preference may be, keep a look out for the "gifts" that 2015 has in store for plan sponsors and their service providers.