Saturday, October 27, 2007

It’s About Time

It may have lacked the hoopla of a midnight Harry Potter release, but in retirement industry circles, last week’s publication of the Department of Labor’s final regulations on qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs) was nearly as eagerly anticipated.

And, like the speculation as to which Potter character would survive the latest saga, the early betting had been that stable value would not make the QDIA cut—and, in large part, that turned out to be the case. Instead, stable-value (or more precisely, capital preservation) vehicle proponents had to content themselves with a sanction as a short-term repository for contributions (up to 120 days—long enough to accommodate the 90-day period that defaulted participants have to opt out), and the assurances from the DoL that they were sure that those vehicles would find a home alongside other options in the time-focused asset-allocation products that were accorded QDIA status (ironically, IMHO, in that regard, capital preservation vehicles seemed to fare better than did pure risked-based allocation fund alternatives).

There was, however, at least one significant victory for capital preservation vehicles: the DoL’s final regulation extends the same QDIA status protections to defaulted contributions made to those vehicles prior to December 24, 2007, the effective date of the new regulations. To some, that decision smacked of a “sellout” by the DoL—and it certainly seems a striking inconsistency considering the clear preference accorded diversified, age-based funds in the regulations. As one adviser remarked to me last week, “What was the DoL thinking?”

Frankly, while the decision initially surprised me as well, the longer I consider it, the better I like it.

Considering the inertia associated with the choice of these selections, there is every possibility that plan sponsors permitted the flexibility to leave those existing default options in place will do exactly that—a result that certainly has to be a concern for those who question the prudence of those investments over the long term.

Consider the Alternatives

But consider what the result might have been had the DoL not provided that flexibility. We could well have had to absorb millions, if not billions, of defaulted investment liquidations—movement that could have had severe financial consequences for the market(s), and potentially for the plans that would be presented with huge surrender charges. Spared those charges, it is still possible that that massive shift of money could have occurred – departing their current positions—and entering new ones—at an unpropitious moment.

Even if plan sponsors had decided to simply stay the course on their own (the final regulations cautioned fiduciaries that the exclusive purpose rule precluded the imposition of fees on participant balances just to achieve fiduciary protection), that decision would almost certainly—and sooner rather than later—have drawn the focus of litigators who would cite the DoL’s pronouncements as a proof statement that the investments defaulted in good faith were, in fact, imprudent.

Is this a “victory” for capital preservation proponents? Well, perhaps in the short term, but there’s no mistaking the DoL’s clear intent. The grandfather clause extends only to the balances so invested as of the effective date—not for contributions defaulted after that. Frankly, much as some plan sponsors still prefer the stable-value option (and many do)—and even though the DoL didn’t say that a capital preservation default was inherently imprudent—I think it’s reasonable to expect that these monies will begin to shift toward QDIA-sanctioned alternatives in the months ahead, as they already are. But thanks to the reasoned approach made possible by the final regulations, they will be able to do so in a measured, prudent fashion.

It was a long time coming, but, IMHO, it was worth the wait.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Heightened Sensibilities

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, when the CEO of a large, national consulting firm stood up and commented on the increased fiduciary burden that the Pension Protection Act had placed on plan sponsors – an obligation to ensure that participants’ savings are sufficient to provide an adequate retirement.

Now, in fairness, I wasn’t paying a LOT of attention to him when he stood up. He wasn’t on the panel, and I was trying to finish taking down some notes from the comments of someone who was. Nonetheless, I think I got the essence of his perspective—that PPA has created a new level of fiduciary responsibility for plan sponsors—correct.

Even if I missed some nuance in that particular instance (and I wasn’t the only one to hear it that way), I’m hearing that sentiment more and more these days—at least from the provider community.

Now, there are a lot of troubling things in the PPA for defined benefit plan sponsors, though not as bad as many feared, and certainly not as bad now that we’ve had some time to let the markets and contributions restore some of the damage from that not-so-perfect storm. But on the defined contribution side, I have always felt that the authors of the PPA had taken a Hippocratic Oath—choosing first to do no harm. The PPA took a number of existing design options—automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration, participant advice, asset-allocation funds—took into account all the areas that plan sponsors had expressed concern with over the years (how much to automatically defer, how to invest those contributions, how to return contributions for workers who wanted to opt out but didn’t, how to offer participant advice…), and provided not only a structure, but some safe harbors as well. Moreover—and IMHO, this is the best part of the PPA on the DC side—they didn’t take away a single design option, just gave us some new ones to work with.

What that means, of course, is that if you like the concept of automatic enrollment, but find that mandatory match a bit expensive—or don’t like the idea of going back and rousing those employees who never signed up years ago with an automatic enrollment notice—nothing stops you from adopting automatic enrollment on your own terms. You won’t get the protections of the safe harbor—but then, how many plans with automatic enrollment have a problem with passing their ADP test? If you still prefer (despite all the industry punditry) a stable value fund for the default—or if you just want to use a managed account that’s been put together by the plan adviser—you can still do that, even though you’ll forgo the generous protections afforded the use of a qualified default investment alternative. It’s as though the good folks in Washington finally realized they were dealing with adults, not crooks—adults who could be trusted to do the right thing(s), given the proper incentives and structure (unfortunately, the DB system wasn’t treated with the same latitude, IMHO).

However, over the past several months, I have detected a subtle shift in the dialogue about PPA. People have, in short order, gone from talking about how many people will adopt automatic enrollment to how everybody should—and I figure in another year, some will say everybody “must.” People talk about how the defined contribution system HAS to change because we’ve lost the protections of the defined benefit system—even though the vast majority of private sector American workers have NEVER enjoyed those protections. And some people—generally speaking, people in the business of selling retirement plans (though they have agents)—are beginning, in words anyway, to “convert” a plan fiduciary’s obligation to deliver a certain level of benefit via a pension plan to an obligation to ensure that the defined contribution plan fulfills that same goal.

Now, since I don’t think you can find that obligation in ERISA—or in the PPA—it gets laid at the feet of plaintiffs’ attorneys who will sue the plan fiduciary for an inadequate result, or is rationalized as “best practices” (another term that I don’t recall stumbling across in ERISA)—or, as some surely walked away from that conference saying, “I recently heard so-and-so say….”

I’d like to believe that those who are promulgating the “enhanced” obligation view are doing so for the purest of motives—that their interest lies only in helping ensure a financially satisfying retirement for all. Still, it seems to me that if they are successful in converting the already daunting fiduciary obligations of a defined contribution program to that of requiring—directly, or by inference—the ensuring of a defined benefit with a DC program, we’ll only do to the former what we are well on our way to doing with the latter.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why Knots?

We spend a fair amount of time worrying about the relatively small percentage of workers who choose not to participate—at all, fully, or effectively—in their workplace savings plan. Well that we should, because for a myriad of reasons, they are letting a great opportunity pass them by.

However, the real crisis, IMHO, is not about the minority that we hope to stir to action with devices like automatic enrollment, tailored communications, and personal advice. Rather, the real crisis is the majority of American workers who lack even the opportunity to participate in a workplace retirement plan. Certainly, those people are on politicians’ minds, as evidenced by last week’s proposal by Senator Hillary Clinton that purports to provide "universal access to a generous 401(k) for all Americans.” Now, you can argue whether tax credits for the middle- and lower-income workers targeted will be enough to motivate them to take action, and you can certainly take issue with the price tag (and if we know nothing else about politicians of all stripes, it is that those cost projections are always “optimistic”)—but it’s hard to take issue with the need to expand the opportunity to save for retirement to everyone.

And yet, in the interests of laudable goals like “transparency,” “fairness,” and “accountability,” we have nonetheless managed to regulate private-sector retiree health care nearly out of existence, to relegate the support of private-sector defined benefit plans to the sidelines—and we are well on the way to doing the same in the public sector. In fairly short order, our once-vaunted three-legged stool now totters on the financial viability of Social Security and the ability and willingness of individual American workers to make the proper preparations.

It has its imperfections, but it’s clear that the employer-sponsored system works. We may fret about 75% participation rates, but left to their own devices—without the financial support, structure, and education of the employer-sponsored system—individual savings rates are appallingly low. We may well worry about the lack of revenue-sharing transparency and “excessive” fees paid by 401(k) plan participants, but have you taken a look lately at what you would pay for to open a retail IRA that offers a fraction of the services in your 401(k)?

As effective as that employer-sponsored system has been—as essential an element as it surely is in ensuring the retirement security of millions—we continue to undermine the willingness of employers to carry the burden. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that these programs are voluntary, in every sense of the word. They cost money, they take time, they are subjected to an ongoing barrage of change—and, of course, there’s the ever-present threat of litigation.

Yet, we seem to expect employers to continue to support these programs, an expectation that, IMHO, borders on arrogance in view of the burdens imposed. Sure, they attract and, perhaps, allow us to retain good workers—and certainly there are modest tax incentives. But in a time when companies are driven to focus on their “core competencies,” surely we must find some more-meaningful ways to encourage those who have made the commitment to stay the course—and some compelling financial rationale for employers that have resisted the pull to join in.

We all know well why we need the employer-sponsored system. What is less obvious each day—is why a rational employer would be willing to take on the headaches currently imposed by that system.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Devil in the Details

The testimony presented at last week’s hearing by the House Education and Labor Committee on the issue of 401(k) fees (see 401(k) Fee Disclosure Proposal Draws Industry Criticism at Committee Hearing) was remarkably consistent, IMHO, certainly compared with the last time the Committee took up the issue (see Congressional Committee Hears 401(k) Fee Disclosure Testimony). At a minimum, we seem to have moved past the question of whether more fee disclosure is needed to what kind of disclosures are needed, and how we can make them.

At the risk of over-generalizing the perspectives of the individuals (and individuals on behalf of groups) who shared their experience/expertise with the House Committee, it seems to me that everyone supports the following conclusions:

(1) We need a better understanding of 401(k) fees.
(2) We need more disclosure about what 401(k) fees are.
(3) We should let the Department of Labor finish their regulations on fee disclosure before doing anything legislatively.
(4) Legislation mandating a specific fund option is not a good idea (Congressman Miller’s bill, The 401(k) Fair Disclosure for Retirement Security Act of 2007, would mandate that retirement plans offer at least one lower-cost, balanced index fund in their investment lineup—see “Representative Miller Introduces Fee Disclosure Legislation”).

After the testimony had been presented, Congressman Rob Andrews (D-New Jersey) asked witness Lew Minsky, an attorney testifying on behalf of the ERISA Industry Committee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, and other organizations, what would be the problem with a specific fee disclosure to participants—a breakdown of recordkeeping, money management, and “other.” To which Mr. Minsky replied, “I’m not sure that anything is inherently wrong with it. It’s the devil in the details….”

The Right Questions

Details matter in such things, of course—not only in legislation, but also in the reality of what 401(k) plans are paying for what they are getting. Unfortunately, it frequently comes down not just to asking the questions, but to asking the right questions. Jon Chambers, an investment consultant and Principal at Schultz, Collins, Lawson, Chambers, Inc., told the committee about a situation where his firm had been engaged in a mapping study for a large 401(k) plan. In the process, they also conducted a fee reasonableness review for the plan sponsor. “The plan sponsor thought the plan fees must be reasonable, because as they reviewed each investment option, each investment option had reasonable fees,” Chambers recounted.

But the reasonableness review found that the total fees generated by the bundled arrangement currently in place were approximately $1 million higher than “necessary” under an unbundled arrangement, according to Chambers. In that case, what hadn’t been communicated (or inquired about) was the availability of a share class more appropriate for the asset size of the plan.

I hear stories like that from advisers all the time, of course. And while I don’t believe that most plan sponsors are being taken advantage of, I am nonetheless concerned that many are. How could they not be, what with the labyrinth that many must go through to simply discover what the different fee types are, much less how much they are, and who that money flows to for what services (and, IMHO, in too many cases, for WHAT services is the better question)?

There are devils in the details of all this, of course—not the least of which is how we help participants who don’t know the difference between a stock and a bond appreciate the nuances of revenue-sharing—but we are long past the point of debating whether more disclosure is needed. And if the hearing last week established nothing beyond that, it was well worth the effort.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

You can watch last week’s hearing online HERE