State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees

After posting "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps," a senior legal expert kindly informed me that Connecticut's legislation draws extensively from U.S. federal pension law. (ERISA does not directly apply to most government plans and the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a safe harbor that would exempt states from being tagged as ERISA fiduciaries.) Interestingly, a word search for "fiduciary" in the Public Act No. 16-29 document comes up empty. Specifically, as laid out in Section 6, entitled "Board Duty To Act With Prudence And In Interest of Participants," the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority board of directors are to act with the "care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of like character and with like aims" and solely "in the interests of the program's participants and beneficiaries."

Regarding legal redress, my understanding is that individuals who allow their employers to deduct three percent of their taxable wages to be placed in an "age-appropriate target date fund" or similarly allowed investment will not have the right to sue individual members of the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority Board nor will they have the right to sue the State of Connecticut. They will have to rely on authorized directors and the Attorney General to properly oversee selected service providers and take corrective action to improve things going forward. However, even if participants can demonstrate economic harm, they would not be able to recover past damages.

Programs offered by other states vary. One would have to research dozens of legal documents to compare and contrast governance, investment opportunities and conflict of interest avoidance mechanisms. Interested parties can visit the Pension Rights Center's State-based retirement plans for the private sector or the AARP's State Retirement Savings Resource Center. I am not sure how often these websites are updated.

I remain skeptical and am not alone. Michael Barry, president of the Plan Advisory Services Group, explains his reservations in "Are State Plans the Answer?" (Plan Sponsor, November 2015). Paul Schott Stevens, president and CEO of the Investment Company Institute, gives a thumbs up to private initiatives such as expanding multiple employer plans or MEPs to include smaller companies. Another way forward would be to simplify 401(k) plan regulations to encourage employers to better help their workforce save for retirement. See "State-Run Retirement? Better to Go Private" (Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2016).

My lack of enthusiasm for these state-run programs has more to do with philosophy and a desire to encourage economic growth. Here is some food for thought.

  • Small businesses around the world are drowning in a sea of regulations. According to an article in Small Business Trends, there is an inverse relationship between company formations and the number of pages in the Federal Register. These "little engines that could" create jobs are not leaving the train station, discouraged by too many rules.
  • As any free market economist can handily demonstrate, unintended consequences often occur, resulting in added expense and unwelcome behavior. Instead of spending X hours per month on growing sales and profit, a small business owner that is obliged to complete paperwork may now forego hiring new employees or cut back on existing perks.
  • Some of the states that are setting up retirement programs for private company workers have a poor track record as evidenced by underfunded pension plans for municipal staff.
  • Unless one is convinced that small company employees are unable or unlikely to set up an IRA on their own, these state-involved arrangements are not needed. CNBC reports that "Employees participating in auto enrollment tend to contribute less than people who sign up for 401(k) plans on their own, often because their employers set a low default contribution level."
  • It's not clear to me that individuals will have a better level of consumer protection by being part of a state-run program versus setting up an IRA account directly with a reputable financial institution. So far, no one has convinced me to the contrary.

I'm all for encouraging individuals to save for the long-term but I seriously wonder why government has to be involved with every decision someone makes. Hopefully I will be proven wrong and these state programs for private company employees will succeed.

Note: I welcome insightful essays and commentaries on this and other relevant pension governance topics. If you would like to be a guest contributor, please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com with your idea or write-up.

Alternatives and Retail Retirement Account Owners

The prospect of being part of millions of retail retirement plans has some financial advisors and hedge fund managers giddy with excitement. The 401(k) market alone is huge. According to the Investment Company Institute, as of Q3-2012, these defined contribution plans held an estimated $3.5 trillion in assets. In 2011, over fifty million U.S. workers were "active 401(k) participants." This compares favorably to an approximate $2.66 trillion hedge fund market size in 2013, up from $2.3 trillion one year earlier. Private equity, real estate and infrastructure comprise the rest of the alternatives investment sector according to a press release issued by Preqin, a financial research company. See "Alternative Assets Industry Hits $6tn in AUM for First Time" (January 21, 2014).

CNBC contributor Shelly K. Schwartz explains that alternative investment strategies are appearing in the form of 400 plus mutual funds and exchange-traded funds ("ETFs") that employ "complex trading strategies" such as managed futures, long/short trading in stocks and multiple currency exposures. Allocating to leveraged loans, start-up ventures and global real estate are other ways that these relatively new funds seem to be mimicking the approach taken by hedge funds and private equity funds that traditionally have catered to institutional investors and high net worth individuals. Notwithstanding regulatory differences relating to diversification, percentage of "illiquid" investments, redemption, daily pricing and how much debt can be used to lever a portfolio, statistics suggest a growing interest on the part of smaller investors to get in on the action. See "Seeking safe havens? Analysts, advisors point to liquid alternative funds" (November 24, 2013). Also check out "Goldman pushes hedge funds for your 401(k)" (Fortune, May 22, 2013) in which reporter Stephen Gandel describes new funds being offered by various financial institutions, some of which invest in mutual funds that mimic hedge fund investing strategies and others that invest in hedge funds directly.

Not everyone is an ardent fan. In "FINRA warns investors on alternative mutual funds," Reuters reporter Trevor Hunnicutt (June 11, 2013) describes regulators' concerns that "not all advisers and investors understand the risks involved," especially with respect to whether a retail-oriented fund is truly liquid. In its "Alternative Funds Are Not Your Typical Mutual Fund" publication, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA") cautions investors to assess investment structure, strategy risk, investment objectives, operating expenses, the background of a particular fund manager and performance history.

Given the ongoing search for the next big thing, we are likely to see a lot more activity in the alternative investments marketplace - for both institutional and high net worth clients as well as for individuals with modest wealth levels. PensionRiskMatters.com will return to this topic in future posts. There is much to write about with respect to fiduciary implications, risk management and valuation.

In the meantime, I want to thank ERISA attorney David C. Olstein with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates for apprising me of a 2012 U.S. Department of Labor grant of individual exemption for Renaissance Technologies, LLC ("Renaissance").  Described as a "private hedge fund investment company based in New York with over $15 billion under management" by HedgeCo.net (September 26, 2013), Renaissance holds a large number of equity positions in stocks issued by household name companies. Click to see a recent list of their transactions. The "Grant of Individual Exemption Involving Renaissance Technologies, LLC," published in the Federal Register on April 20, 2012 makes for interesting reading for several reasons. First, it describes policies relating to important topics such as valuation, redemption and disclosures for "privately offered collective investment vehicles managed by Renaissance, comprised almost exclusively of proprietary funds" and the impact on retirement accounts in the name of Renaissance employees, some of its owners and spouses of both employees and owners. Second, as far as I know, there are not a lot of publicly available documents about proprietary investment products that find their way into the retirement portfolios of asset management firm employees and shareholders. Third, as earlier described, there is evidence of a growing interest on the part of the financial community in bringing hedge funds or hedge fund "look alike" products to the retirement "masses."