Investment Return Expectations and Wishful Thinking

When it comes to strategy games, count me in. Bridge and Scrabble are two of my favorites except when it looks like I have little chance for victory. It's one thing to lose a hand or two but feel confident in a possible win. It's altogether depressing to know that recovery is unlikely. This happened a few days ago when my husband added an E, U, A and L to create a cluster of words that scored him sixty-seven points. Ouch. Even with lots of high point letters, I knew that besting his bonanza move was improbable. Each time we play, I begin on an optimistic note and hope for a favorable outcome until that moment when I know it's time to recast my calculations.

It's good to wish upon a star yet just as important to distinguish fantasy from fiction. That's why I was surprised to learn the results of a recent study of 400 institutional investors about their performance predictions. Carried out by State Street Global Advisors ("SSGA"), in conjunction with the research arm of the Financial Times, main takeaways from the "Building Bridges" study include the following:

  • Traditional asset allocation models may be unable to generate a long-term average rate of return of eleven percent, certainly without forcing buyers to take on more risk.
  • Forty-one percent of survey-takers expressed a preference for "traditional" classifications of asset exposures versus factor or objective-driven identifiers.
  • Eleven percent of those in search of closing "performance gaps" rank smart beta strategies as most important and 38 percent of institutional investors will employ this approach alongside other activities. "Significantly, three-quarters of those respondents who have introduced smart beta approaches found moderate to significant improvement in portfolio performance."
  • Enlightened decision-makers are finding it hard to get board approval of "better ways to meet long-term performance goals" and peer groups are slow to follow suit.
  • Eighty-four percent of pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other asset owners believe that underperformance is likely to continue for one year.

As Market Watch journalist Chuck Jaffe somewhat indelicately points out in "An overlooked investment risk: wishful thinking" (May 18, 2016), long-term investors are daydreaming if they believe they can regularly generate eleven percent per annum. He quotes Lori Heinel, chief portfolio strategist at SSGA, as acknowledging the difficulty of achieving this number, given "a really challenging growth outlook, inflation environment, and a really challenging investment return environment." Notably, it was only a few weeks ago when the special mediator for the U.S. Treasury Department sent a letter to Central States Pension Fund trustees, denying a rescue plan in part because its 7.5 percent annual investment return assumptions were not viewed as "reasonable."

As I described in an earlier blog post entitled "A Pension Rock and a Hard Place," public pension funds, union leaders, taxpayer groups and policy-makers are navigating choppy asset-liability management waters. They are not alone. Corporate plans, endowments, foundations and other types of institutional investors are likewise challenged with getting to their destination and not crashing on the rocks. My unrealistic expectations might lose me a game. For long-term investors, there is serious money at stake and model inputs are being scrutinized accordingly.

Pension De-Risking Gets Political

I have long maintained that retirement plan issues receive considerable attention whenever politicians enter the fray. Certainly that is the case with the U.S. debate about fiduciary standard rules among lawmakers, industry and regulators. Now it seems that de-risking is the next topic du jour for Congress.

According to "2 senators call for derisking rules" by Hazel Bradford (Pensions & Investments, October 23, 2014), U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (a Democrat from Oregon) and the Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Tom Harkin (a Democrat from Iowa) have asked government officials at various agencies to "consider developing guidance on procedures and the fiduciary duties of plan sponsors." The article describes their letter to the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Treasury, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as emphasizing the involvement of insurance companies for lump-sum and risk transfer transactions.

Nick Thornton wrote in "Lawmakers urge clearer rules for de-risking" (Benefits Pro, October 23, 2014) that said letter cited concerns such as the following:

  • Loss of PBGC protection in the event of a plan takeover;
  • Risk of persons "self-directing their retirement savings over the course of their retirement";
  • Possible reduced rights for spouses when a lump sum settlement is involved; and/or
  • Loss of ERISA's protection.

There is nothing wrong with clarifying legal and economic rights but one worries that past may be prologue when it comes to imposing mandates. Too many times, overly simplistic regulation induces a perverse outcome. (Read "Unintended Consequences" by Rob Norton (Library of Economics and Liberty) for a discussion of this concept.) Given the often complex array of facts and circumstances for every ERISA plan and its sponsor, a "one size fits all" is ill-advised.

A silver lining is that national conversations can (hopefully) generate changes that encourage further saving for retirement. In "Combating a Flood of Early 401(k) Withdrawals" (New York Times, October 24, 2014), Ron Lieber paints a bleak picture. He points out that a recent announcement by the Internal Revenue Service that allows more money to be set aside as an official contribution will be of little consequence to non-savers. He describes a large number of workers who "pulled out $60 billion" of the $294 billion in employee contributions and employer matches that went into the accounts." Statistics show that about forty percent of persons in flux "took out part or all of the money in their workplace retirement plans when leaving a job in 2013."

Speaking of planning ahead, visit the Art of Saving website to learn more about an effort to make November 5 a U.S. National Savings Day. The Consumer Federation of America is promoting thrift as part of its America Saves National Savings Forum on May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Get out the balloons for satisfied piggybanks.