Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making a List

Believe it or not, PLANADVISER Magazine is five years old this year.

As such, we wanted to commemorate our fifth anniversary by recognizing as “legends” five individuals who had made a “significant personal impact to the retirement plan industry and the advisers who support it”.

Now, perhaps you think that would be easy—but I can promise you it’s harder than it looks. And over the past several weeks we have gone through our list—moving some off, bringing others on, and “sleeping on it” more nights than you might think.

First off, we limited the list to five individuals (for five years), and we also tried to focus in on the past five years. Limiting the list to five was hard enough (certainly once we got started), but trying to focus in on the period since we launched the magazine created an even more daunting task. Sure, it was “only” five years ago, but it’s amazing how much has happened during that time. That was the year the Pension Protection Act was signed into law, after all, not to mention the year that the first wave of revenue-sharing lawsuits was filed, and the year that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), responding in the aftermath of the mutual fund trading scandal, introduced rule 22c-2. In fact, the cover story of the first issue of PLANADVISER was titled simply, “Now What?”.

When it came to compiling that list, however, while some names were, IMHO, obvious,
some were perhaps “too” obvious. There are those who have had an impact, albeit a controversial one, while others have arguably had an impact, but one that is softer, quieter, or perhaps simply not as pervasive as others.

The discipline of a finite list forces you to make tough choices, but it also inevitably leaves you wanting to create a list that is longer, and perhaps more inclusive, if only to give full recognition to the many professionals who have had—and continue to have—that “significant personal impact.” That said, we have chosen five individuals.

They come up in conversation with advisers all the time, and for good reason.
They are people we have watched and are watching—and people who bear watching in the years to come.

They are, quite simply, legends—and on Tuesday we’ll “introduce” them to you.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

The PLANADVISER “legends” will be featured in the fifth anniversary issue of PLANADVISER and will be honored at our annual Awards for Excellence celebration in New York City on March 24. At that event, along with sister publication PLANSPONSOR, we will also be honoring our Retirement Plan Advisers and Adviser Teams of the Year, as well as our Plan Sponsors of the Year, as well as other retirement industry luminaries.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Warning “Labels”

Litigation—or more accurately, the fear of litigation—frequently serves to put us on notice. It’s why we find labels on hair dryers cautioning against bathtub use, why hemorrhoid cream comes with an admonition that it is not to be taken internally, why that fast food coffee cup is emblazoned with a note that the contents are, in fact, “hot.” And yet, we know that as silly as these warnings seem, somewhere along the line either someone actually engaged in the activity in question, or some corporate attorney was afraid that they might.

There’s something of that concern still lingering around the target-date fund concept. Many participant-investors (and not a few plan sponsor fiduciaries) were caught unawares in 2008 when the hugely popular 401(k) investment option turned out to be as varied and unique in approach and assumptions as its marketing materials doubtless claimed it would be. Regardless, many plan sponsors—and probably most retirement plan participants—glossed over those differences, doubtless focusing instead on the message that this was an investment option managed by professionals who not only knew what they were doing, but could be trusted to keep an eye on things while we went about our daily lives.

Having learned the hard way that those structural differences exist, our industry—and those who regulate it—has spent the past two years trying to figure out how best to avoid a recurrence of the surprise, if not the result, from those designs. After a lot of discussion and several regulatory and legislative hearings, last November the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued a proposal to enhance the disclosure of these offerings (see “EBSA Unveils Target-Date Disclosure Proposal”), shortly after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued its own ideas. IMHO, the latter was a pretty modest effort; the former—well, let’s just say it struck me as a lot of information to share with a participant who, in all likelihood, probably didn’t actively make the investment choice in the first place.1

I’ve always found the issue of participant disclosure to be a tough one. Participants clearly need all the help they can get in terms of better understanding and preparing for their retirement. On the other hand, it seems that the more paper we present to them, the less inclined they are to pay any attention to it.

However extraordinary the events that culminated in the target-date “surprise,” and however complicit participants (and plan sponsors) may have been in ignoring the information they may have had access to, it would be unconscionable not to try and prevent a recurrence. That said, IMHO, the situation won’t be resolved by a lot of legalese, even if offset by colorful charts—and I’d advise caution in trying to squeeze too many complicated concepts into the disclosure, however well-intentioned or valid. I’ve no objection to providing that information (and more) to participants who request it, nor do I mind them being told such things are available as part of a general communication. But it seems to me that imposing such materials en masse will only serve to deter a better understanding—and doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

Asset allocation funds generally, and target-date funds in particular, have, IMHO, been a godsend for participants who know they ought to save but lack the knowledge, interest, or time to make sound investment decisions. That said, most of the investors who seem to have been blind-sided appear to have been caught off guard by one simple factor: How much of the fund was invested in stocks at the projected retirement date, a date that, in most cases was part of the name of the fund? What people tell you (at least with 20/20 hindsight) is that if they had only known that their 2010 fund had so much money invested in stocks, they would have made a different, and ostensibly better, choice.

Consequently, I wonder if we couldn’t just give the vast majority all the “heads up” they need by a simple notation as to the allocation to stocks, bonds, and cash at the projected retirement date. It’s a solution that surely lacks “nuance,” but I suspect that participants inclined to pay attention to such things would glean what they need to know to avoid being caught off guard again; and those who don’t will almost certainly not read the types of disclosures currently under contemplation. It’s a recommendation already encompassed in the proposals, but one that IMHO is quickly being obscured by the “kitchen sink” approach so often attendant with legal disclosures.

I’ve often thought (and said) that many of the disclosures in our lives are written “by the lawyers, for the lawyers.” This time, wouldn’t it be nice if we had one that was designed to be read and understood by the rest of us?

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 In fact, in a recent letter to the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) commenting on the proposal, the SPARK Institute expressed concern that some of the proposed target-date fund disclosures would be over participants’ heads (see “SPARK Calls for Simplification of Target-Date Disclosure Rules”), and ERIC President Mark Ugoretz cautioned that “[i]nundating participants with excessive information has serious consequences; too often it results in participants simply ignoring critical information that is overcome by excessive data” (see “ERIC Calls for Balance in TDF Disclosures”).

In contrast, in its comments on proposed target-date fund disclosure regulations, the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) and the National Association of Independent Retirement Plan Advisors (NAIRPA) suggested additional disclosures—including a focus on the impact of taking a lump-sum distribution, and a statement as to the potential impact of disparate ages between spouses (see “ASPPA Suggests Additional Target-Date Fund Disclosures”).

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Group “Think”

Somewhere over the course of your academic or professional career, I’m sure you’ve been exposed to a group exercise dealing with being stranded in an inhospitable place (the moon, or maybe a deserted island) with a limited amount of supplies, and a limited amount of time to choose from those supplies to ensure your survival.

In these exercises, you’re asked to make those picks as an individual exercise, and then put together with a group to make group choices. Not only are the group choices generally different, they are nearly always “better” (more likely to ensure survival) than those made by individuals. The point of the exercise is, of course, that we make better decisions working together as a team than we do trying to make them on our own—and it generally works out that way.

Sure, that may work in hypothetical situations where none of the group members has any particular expertise. But if I’ve crash-landed on the moon, and there’s a trained astronaut in the group—well, let’s just say you’re probably better off following their lead than putting things up for a vote.

That said, to me, the point of that exercise isn’t necessarily that group decisions are better than individuals’—they frequently aren’t, IMHO—but that groups we are part of make different decisions than we might as individuals.

Now, sometimes that inures to our benefit. There is certainly value in a collective experience/perspective, and there is an important collaborative element in just being able to bounce ideas off other people. Moreover, there are times when individual members of the group have knowledge and/or expertise that everyone doesn’t have. And let’s face it—plan sponsors make a lot of individual decisions, but even relatively small employers are inclined to rely on the collective experience of a group when it comes to making plan design and investment decisions. That’s supposed to make for better decisions but, as any retirement plan adviser can attest, not always.

Behavioral finance purports to explain why people make the financial choices they do, choices that are frequently at odds with what “rational” decisionmaking would support. In recent years, a lot of attention and focus have been directed toward behavioral finance, particularly as it applies to participant decisionmaking or the lack thereof (in fact, thus far most of those behavioral finance-oriented solutions – automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration, QDIAs - have been directed not toward helping participants make better choices, but rather toward making better choices for the participants).

In fact, in the cover story of the January issue of PLANSPONSOR, Gary Mottola, Associate Director of Investor Education at the Washington-based Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), observes: “Plan sponsors are very aware of the biases that affect individuals, but I do not think a lot of sponsors are aware of these biases” that can affect them. Plan sponsors make most of their decisions in groups and committees, so they are vulnerable to both group and individual biases.”

What kinds of biases? Well, there are things like “shared-information bias,” where groups tend to focus on things of common knowledge/interest, even if it isn’t the most pertinent/critical. My favorite is “group polarization,” which speaks to a group’s tendency to make more-extreme decisions—both in cautious and risky directions—than individuals. In essence, the group tends to reinforce its own prejudices—and then some.

Even the best committees can make bad decisions, not because they aren’t well-intentioned, or even well-equipped to make complex financial decisions, but because they may make decisions based on dynamics of which they aren’t even aware.

What’s ironic, IMHO, is how intertwined the acknowledgement of such behaviors has become in thoughtful plan designs—and yet how infrequently we acknowledge their impact on those who make the complex financial decisions that affect the participant decisions.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Check out “Misbehavioral Finance

Sunday, January 09, 2011

What Lies Ahead - Part 2

If 2010 was not quite the return to “normal” we might have hoped, there was more than enough—both new and old—to draw the attention of plan sponsors. Here is the second part of our look at the trends that were on our mind this past year—and those just over the horizon.

Stop Gaps: Closing the Pension Funding Gap

What we said last year: It remains more expensive—and complicated—to walk away from pension commitments than most realize, though many employers remain committed to their pension plans for reasons that transcend those financial considerations. Still, it seems likely that freezes, both hard and soft, will continue to be applied, certainly in the private sector. The public sector’s commitment to pensions remains largely unabated—and yet, a sense remains that it may only be a matter of time before fiscal realities bring about a different result.

Where we are: For the very most part, little has changed. Pension funding remains a challenge, with the funding gap seemingly constantly buffeted between the ups and downs of the markets and interest rates, despite the conscientious efforts of most plan sponsors to keep up with ever-tightening funding requirements.

What’s ahead: It remains more expensive—and complicated—to walk away from pension commitments than most realize, though many employers remain committed to their pension plans for reasons that transcend those financial considerations. Still, it seems likely that freezes, both hard and soft, will continue to be applied, certainly in the private sector, while in the public sector, financial pressures seem likely to result in a different future solution for newer hires. Sound familiar?

Conflicts of Interests—Advice Regulations

What we said: Will we ever get final advice regulations? Almost certainly, though almost certainly regulations very different from the ones put forth a year ago. Or perhaps they will not come until after the concepts embodied in the PPA have been recrafted by legislators, such as Congressman Rob Andrews (D-New Jersey), who has already introduced legislation (the aptly named “The Conflicted Investment Advice Prohibition Act of 2009”) that would do just that. Between now and then, participants will continue to get advice the way they always have—or have not.

Where we are: Well, we now have those regulations—a proposed final version, anyway. For the most part, they seem to have restored and shored the status quo. Not that that’s a bad thing.

What’s ahead: The final proposed regulations will, likely, become the final regulations, at least in the important areas. The big change in advice seems more likely to emerge from a different direction—the recently proposed regulations on the definition of a fiduciary, not so much because it will change the rules on advice, but because the controversy on advice has largely revolved around trying to avoid becoming a fiduciary while offering advice (and getting paid for doing so). And it seems likely that if the proposed fiduciary regulations become law, the advice net some have tried so hard to become ensnared in will, quite simply, be inescapable.

Tax Treatment—Paying Now or Paying Later

Where we are: For years, much of the impetus for the growth in tax-deferred savings plans has been the premise that one’s taxes and/or income would be lower in one’s retirement future. Those prospects no longer seem quite so certain, and new Roth provisions for workplace retirement plans offer today’s retirement savers a different kind of choice. That, coupled with a unique window of opportunity to convert tax-deferred balances (albeit at a price), has some seeing the benefits of tax-deferred saving in a whole new light.

What’s ahead: As with self-directed brokerage accounts, the Roth conversion window (and its affiliated tax acceleration) seems most likely to appeal to the highly compensated minority. Of course, the impetus for the conversion itself is not only the timing window, but also the (still) looming sunset of the Bush Administration’s tax cuts (well, it was looming when I wrote this). Of course, the real issue may be a shift in assumptions about taxes; what if they won’t be dependably lower in retirement?

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Editor’s Note: If you missed it, you can check out the rest of the list HERE

Saturday, January 01, 2011

What Lies Ahead

If 2010 was not quite the return to “normal” we might have hoped, there was more than enough—both new and old—to draw the attention of plan sponsors. Here is a look at the trends that were on our mind this past year—and those just over the horizon.

Doctor Bill? "Curing" Health Care?

What we said: It is still hard to believe that the Senate and House positions on any number of key issues can be reconciled—but then, there was a point in the summer of 2006 when many felt the same way about the Pension Protection Act. But if it does pass—or if it does not—it seems safe to say that the issue is not going away any time soon. What remains to be seen is if the “cure” is worse than what it aims to remedy.

Where we are: Given the legislative hurdles that the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act (PPACA) faced a year ago, it still seems amazing that the legislation passed. Of course, the dominant majorities in Congress that were necessary to carry that off are no more (some would argue in no small part because of their role in passing the legislation), legal challenges have been filed by roughly half the states, and the newly resurgent Republicans in Congress are threatening to “repeal and replace.”

What’s ahead: Common wisdom is that the legal challenges will fall short, and that President Obama’s certain veto of any attempt to repeal (much less replace) the legislation will keep those efforts at bay as well. Those in support of the legislation continue to believe that the American public will eventually warm to the idea (in fairness, many already do), while those opposed find vindication in the results of the recent mid-term elections. My guess is that we will still be talking about this a year from now—and that the issue will loom large in the 2012 election cycle.

Fee Fie? Revenue-Sharing Litigation

What we said: Barring a smoking gun discovery among the cases already filed, it seems likely that the laws—and disclosures—will change before the litigation has any real impact. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the mere existence of that litigation—and the ever-present litigation threat—will serve to reform the system in a way, and on a schedule, that would not otherwise have been possible.

Where we are: No smoking gun yet, but four years in, a number of the cases have settled, another group has been dismissed and, by my count, only one has been fully adjudicated (and that in favor of the plaintiffs). The courts are split on the issues, and many have been willing to extend plan fiduciaries the benefit of the doubt, so long as participants had the ability to make their own investment choices. As litigation worries go, this brand drew the highest level of concern in PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey—but it wasn’t much. As for that much-anticipated “second generation” of lawsuits? Well, somewhat surprisingly, it has yet to materialize.

What’s ahead: This year the Form 5500 took a big first step in prompting a new level of fee disclosures, and the near-final proposed regulations on 408(b)2 should carry that one step further. The Labor Department continues to challenge the courts’ generous application of ERISA 404(c)’s shield—and has gone so far as to make its point clearer on the application of 404(c) with the addition of language in the recently proposed participant fee-disclosure regulations. Many seem to think that more disclosure—and the more public disclosure in the form of Form 5500—will simply serve to provide the plaintiffs’ bar with fuel for the fire, while others believe that more, and more consistent, disclosure will make it easier for fiduciaries to know what they are paying and if it is reasonable. My guess is that both will turn out to be correct.

Auto-Premonition—Doing It for Participants

What we said: Automatic enrollment may have taken something of a “holiday,” but it seems unlikely to be “over” as a trend. Look for it to pick up the pace again in 2010—and for the Obama Administration to turn its attention to the issue in the next year (or two).

Where we are: Well, in many respects, it was déjà vu all over again—with a sluggish economy doubtless contributing (no pun intended) to another flat year for automatic enrollment adoption rates. Still, while the overall adoption rate in PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey was slightly lower this year, there was a discernable uptick in adoption at the largest programs—even if small and micro plans showed no change at all. That said, the primary motivation this year, as it has been the past two, has been to be more proactive in helping workers save, and there’s every indication that it will remain so in the future.

What’s ahead: I’m sure plans will continue to adopt the design—for all the right reasons—but it is hard to see anything leading to any kind of major acceleration in the trend in the short term.

Default Lines—Targeting Target-Dates

What we said: We don’t know yet what regulators may try to do to help ensure that investors—particularly near-retirees—are not misled by the simplicity of a fund title and marketing pitch. Plan sponsors are on notice that there are differences here and, with luck, will continue to ask pointed questions. Because, after all, when you’re selling “you don’t have to worry about it,” somebody has to.

Where we are: Much of the “damage” from 2008 has been restored, providers have taken pains to ensure that buyers understand their underlying glide path assumptions (certainly those having to do with equity allocations at age 65), and regulatory bodies have taken some baby steps in helping individual investors better understand these offerings. All in all, the storm seems, for the very most part, to have passed.

What’s ahead: More and better disclosures, a growing interest in offerings that take more into account than mere retirement date (including managed accounts), and more discussion around the importance of open architecture solutions and concerns about the (lack of) ERISA fiduciary status for the providers who bundle their own offerings together. But as for real change—failing another sharp stumble in the markets—most seem to be content with the way things are.

Next up: Pension Funding, Advice, and the Roth 401(k)