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.