Saturday, October 24, 2009

Conference “Calls”


As I was listening to, and participating in, panels at our Future of Asset Allocated Funds conference in California this past week, I was struck again by how much things have changed in the past year.

For example, at this conference a year ago, when we broached the notion of marrying a risk-based approach with a target-date offering, the general feeling seemed to be that that would be tantamount to taking a perfectly good, clean, and simple concept—and ruining it. This year, the room was not only ready for the idea, there was widespread enthusiasm for it.

Similarly, a year ago, when we asked folks about the wisdom of putting a family of risk-based and date-based funds on the same retirement plan menu, well, the consensus would have been that you would be playing with fire in terms of confusing participants. This year, the notion not only seemed to be that it could be managed—but that it would be a real enhancement to the program.

A year ago, the importance of understanding and being able to benchmark the glide path of a target-fund family was front and center, and the “debate” was all about how much of that 2010 fund should be in stocks. This year, that allocation discussion had “evolved” - into a vigorous debate around whether those glide paths were—or should be—designed to take participants “to” or “through” the stated target date (see “IMHO: When You Assume…” ).

What Plan Sponsors Want

Considering what has transpired over the past 12 months, it’s hardly surprising, IMHO, that we’ve all got a somewhat different perspective. And, when PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey is published next month, you’ll see further evidence—strong majorities (among thousands of plan sponsors) expressing an interest in getting more detailed descriptions of glide path AND end date, a greater explanation of underlying funds and asset classes, and a clearer explanation of fund expenses.

You’ll also see a surprisingly robust minority continuing to express doubt that the target-date option available through their recordkeeper is the “most appropriate.” Despite that, I also found it interesting that very few (at least by show of hands) in last week’s audience were enthusiastic about the prospect of a government/regulator-imposed target-date “standard” for these vehicles.

One thing that wasn’t in evidence at our conference: a sense that plan sponsors were giving up on the asset-allocation solutions, or a sense that participants are any better equipped to deal with those investment decisions now than they have ever been. If anything, the events of the past several months seem to have engendered a sense that professionally managed investment solutions are more important than ever. Indeed, the clear sense of those in attendance was that, while some participants may have been surprised—perhaps shocked—at what the market’s slide did to the “target” investments of those nearing retirement, most were still better off in those “one-size-fits-most” vehicles than if they had been left to their own investment devices.

That said, there was a clear sense among those in attendance that participants needed more than just to be “dumped” in a solution, even if it was one “good enough’ to provide qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) protection.

There was, IMHO, a strong sense that there was benefit in an asset-allocated solution that took the individual into account, one that was willing to provide the participant-investor with the opportunity to understand what they were getting into, and to be able to make a conscientious choice about how, and when—and yes, perhaps even “if”—to get out.


- Nevin E. Adams, JD




See also “End” Points?

12 Things You need to Know about Target Date Funds

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