Five Retirement Fiduciary Events That Made a Big Difference in 2016

Kudos to Chris Carosa for his continued efforts as publisher of Fiduciary News. I share his mission to educate and provide independent insights. That is why I was delighted to be one of the contributors to his recent article, "These Five Developments Dramatically Changed the Retirement Fiduciary World in 2016."

My view is that it is hard to pinpoint standalone issues. So many areas overlap. For example, a discussion about fiduciary litigation frequently involves questions about the reasonableness of fees. A conversation about fees often means talking about asset allocation as well. An analysis of asset allocation trends is commonly linked to investment performance realizations. When one talks about returns, it is usually in the context of economic forecasts. Overlay regulatory mandates, including the imminent U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule, and it becomes apparent that retirement plan governance is complex territory. Nevertheless, Chris did a noble job of listing significant and distinct trends with his readers. His list includes the following:

  • Capital Markets - Low interest rates continue to challenge both institutional and individual investors. The pension risk transfer market is experiencing unprecedented growth as sponsors seek to focus less on retirement plan management and more on operating their core businesses. Post-election, the U.S. market seems poised for better returns in 2017 although it is thought that low-cost index funds will remain popular.
  • Excessive Fee Litigation - The attention paid to fee levels and the process of assessing reasonableness continues to grow. Some believe that the proliferation of lawsuits has resulted in improved governance regarding the selection and review of various funds. I am quoted as saying that "...investors in search of turbo-charged performance struggled with the reality that the costs of alternatives, derivatives and structured products are generally higher than passive funds."
  • Fiduciary Rule - Uncertainty is the watchword with multiple plan sponsors unsure about what they might want to delegate to a third party. Consulting firms that offer independent fiduciary services have an opportunity to help their clients solve real compliance problems.
  • State Sponsored Private Employee Retirement Plans - Deemed controversial by some, these arrangements to help small business employees are being rolled out by states throughout the nation. The goal is to encourage savings over the long-term although I have doubts about accountability and redress for disgruntled participants. Click to read "State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees" (June 9, 2016) and "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps" (June 5, 2016).
  • Presidential Race - Carosa writes "Of all the events of 2016, nothing will have had more of an impact than the presidential election." Perhaps he is correct. Already the yearend markets have been chugging upward and optimism is on the rise. Yet there are questions about whether regulations such as the Fiduciary Rule will be weakened or perhaps eliminated altogether. Should that occur, financial service industry executives will need to respond.

The article lists other developments including restructuring deals. I am quoted as saying "Restructuring deals have made 2016 a notable year in terms of the number of pension risk transfers and the outsourcing of the responsibilities of a Chief Investment Officer to a third party. Bankruptcy has catalyzed the restructuring of multiple plans, much to the dismay of the savers who have been asked to accept lower benefits. Service providers who have been ordered by the courts to take less favorable terms as swap counterparties or consultants are correspondingly glum."

President John F. Kennedy declared "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." I concur. Where there is disruption, there is always the opportunity to address a problem and win the hearts and wallets of investors.

Here's to a terrific 2017. Happy holidays!

Derivatives, De-Risking and Disclosures

According to survey results provided in "Pension Plan De-Risking, North America 2015" (published by Clear Path Analysis and sponsored by Prudential Retirement), "pension risk management remains a principal concern for many plan sponsors." This should come as no surprise. Low interest rates, longer lifespans and anemic funding levels are a few of the concerns cited by the fifty-one senior professionals who answered questions. Half of the respondents agree that implementing a risk management strategy sooner than later makes sense, with one out of four individuals indicating an intent to transfer risk to an outside insurance company in 2015. Three out of four survey-takers "believe that movement in interest rates will impact their decisions to implement a liability driven investment strategy, or to execute a bulk annuity transaction." When asked about the use of alternatives such as hedge funds, fourteen percent replied that they currently use and seek to increase. One third currently allocates to alternatives and two percent look to introduce. Assuming that a respondent can only answer this question once and that there is one survey-taker per pension fund, this means that there is roughly a fifty-fifty split when it comes to including alternatives as part of a defined benefit plan investment portfolio.

If true that lower interest rates may discourage some plan sponsors from fully transferring risk to a third party insurer via a buy-out but they nevertheless seek to more actively manage pension risks, one could logically expect a greater use of a strategy such as Liability-Driven Investing ("LDI"). To the extent that LDI frequently entails the use of derivatives, those plan sponsors in favor of LDI may want to take note of a recent move by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC"). As I just posted to my investment risk governance blog, certain registered funds could soon be asked to publish a considerable bounty of data about how they price securities, characteristics of trading counterparties and the specific use of derivative instruments. See "SEC and Asset Manager Disclosures About Use of Derivatives" (May 21, 2015). Sometimes an LDI strategy can include an allocation to alternatives. Post Dodd-Frank, lots of alternative fund managers are registering with the SEC. Connecting the dots, plan sponsors that use LDI and/or invest in alternatives are likely to benefit from enhanced disclosures made by asset managers.

Even those sponsors that decide on a risk transfer of some type other than LDI will soon be impacted by reporting mandates. In "Employers must disclose pension de-risking efforts to PBGC," Business Insurance contributor Jerry Geisel explains that data regarding lump sump arrangements will have to include answers to questions such as those listed below:

  • How many plan participants "not in pay status" were offered a chance to switch from a monthly annuity to the lump sum payout?
  • How many plan participants "in pay status" were given a choice?
  • What was the number of participants who made the choice to take a lump sum?

In its filing with the Office of Management and Budget ("OMB"), the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") writes that "de-risking" or "risk transfer" events "deserve PBGC's attention because (among other things) they lower the participant count and thus reduce the flat-rate premium and potentially the variable rate premium." Fewer dollars being paid for this last-resort insurance "have the potential to degrade PBGC's ability to carry out its mandate..."

Given the complexities of managing pension risks and the regulatory changes underway, you may want to attend the May 27, 2015 educational webinar entitled "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors: Avoiding Litigation and Enforcement Action." I hope you can join us for a lively and topical event.

Institutional Asset Allocation

My comments about institutional asset allocation, along with those made by Mr. Ron Ryan (CEO, Ryan ALM) and Lynn Connolly (Principal, Harbor Peak, LLC), were well received on January 8, 2014. Part of a joint program that was sponsored by the Quantitative Work Alliance for Applied Finance, Education and Wisdom ("QWAFAFEW") and the Professional Risk Managers' International Association ("PRMIA"), our audience of investment professionals added to the lively debate about topics such as strategic versus tactical asset allocation, fees, role of the pension consultant and the likely capital market impact due to the implementation of strategies such as liability-driven investing ("LDI") and/or pension risk transfers ("PRT"). 

With the size of the U.S. retirement market at $20 trillion and counting, big money is at stake. Bad asset allocation decisions can lead to a cascade of economic woes. It is no surprise that fiduciary breach allegations in the form of ERISA lawsuits are increasingly focused on questions about the appropriateness of a given asset allocation mix and whether an investment consultant or financial advisor has helped or hindered the way that pension monies are allocated. Noteworthy is that scrutiny about the efficacy of the asset allocation process and resulting money mix can, and has been, applied to both defined benefit and defined contribution plans. Keep in mind that asset allocation decisions are likewise central to assessing popular financially engineered products such as target date funds. Accounting issues and how changing rules influence asset allocation decisions are yet another topic that we will tackle in coming months.

Click to access Susan Mangiero's asset allocation slides, distributed to members of the January 8 audience, and meant to peturb a discussion about this always essential topic. Interested readers can check out "Frequently Asked Questions About Target Date or Lifecycle Funds" (Investment Company Institute) and "Annual Survey of Large Pension Funds and Public Pension Reserve Funds: Report on pension funds' long-term investments" (OECD, October 2013).

If you have a specific question about asset allocation and/or the procedural process associated with asset-liability management, send an email to me.