Saturday, December 26, 2009

IMHO: Health “Care”

Like most Americans who have health insurance (and most do), I’m reasonably happy with what I already have. And like many Americans, I’m willing to take the President at his word from the campaign trail—that if you like the insurance you have, you’ll get to keep it. But as I study the text in the two bills that will have to be merged to create legislation to fulfill that promise—well, I have to tell you, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen(1).

That matters, IMHO, not only in the here-and-now world of paying for health care versus saving for retirement (and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that many participants are making those trade-offs), but even more so in the post-retirement world where those burgeoning health-care costs stand to siphon so much from nest eggs that are perhaps already insufficient.

But make no mistake—I’m all for health-care reform, just not for what is currently proposed under that banner in Washington.

“For” Score

I’m all for some kind of safety net for those with preexisting conditions, more equitable treatment (and costs) for those who don’t have access to employer-sponsored plans, the ability to buy insurance across state lines (as we do with car insurance), and, yes, some kind of tort reform.

I think we all need some kinds of protections against bearing the cost of “insuring” those who can afford, but choose not, to buy insurance (by some estimates, half of the 30 million that the Senate bill purports to extend coverage to fall into that category)—and, heartless as it may seem to some, I do not see why we must bear the cost burdens for those who are not legally entitled to be here (the “you’re already paying for it” argument doesn’t wash with me). I also think that a lot of our current cost problems with health care aren’t necessarily a product of a bloated healthcare system or profit-mongering insurance companies – but are a function of what state law(s) require that insurance cover; things like hair plugs, Viagra, etc. And, yes, I think there should be a difference between procedures performed by a doctor that are truly medically necessary and those that are, at least effectively, “cosmetic.”

However, one cannot credibly say that the current system is “working.” Everyone who wants health insurance can’t get it, those with preexisting conditions have trouble obtaining—and keeping—the coverage they have, and the current cost trends are unsustainable for us all. IMHO, Americans with health insurance are too well-insulated from the cost consequences of their choices(2)—and doctors are more worried about the litigious aspects of their proscriptions than they are the costs of their prescriptions. Until those dynamics change, I see little hope for bending, much less breaking, the cost line trends in health care.

That said, I don’t see anything to address any of that in the bill that has passed the House, or in what I have thus far been able to discern in the bill that, just last week, passed the Senate. This is serious business—and it deserves better than the process that stands ready to undermine the protections that the vast majority of Americans enjoy with their health care for a distinct minority that do not.

That’s why I’m hoping that this current effort stalls out—to give us a chance to step back, and truly examine the things that need redress as we try to fix what’s broken (and not everything is), and keep what works (though not everything does). That, as we do so, we acknowledge and respect the breadth of impact that these decisions will have on our nation and our lives—and that lawmakers consider the interests of the many, as well as the few.

In short, I’m hoping that this current effort comes up short—not because we don’t need health-care reform, but because we do.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) For those who see a role for the federal government in bringing about change as a competing force (the so-called “public option”), I’m not yet able to see the benefits that that not-so-invisible hand has exerted as a force for change in the 48% of the nation’s health-care costs it already influences (via Medicare/Medicaid). For those who see an opportunity in expanding those already-strained programs as a means of dealing with the current “crisis,” I wonder about their ability to take on an even larger responsibility. For those who champion the opportunities to be afforded by wringing “waste and inefficiency” from the system, I say—why wait?

(2) As I changed employers a decade ago, I learned a couple of key lessons about health care and health-care insurance. First, I gained a whole new level of appreciation for the costs of health-care insurance—even costs buffered by the provisions of COBRA (ever since, I have maintained that every employee ought to “go on COBRA” for 30 days). However, my second insight came from an encounter at our local physician. My wife took our kids for the regular wellness checkups she had been doing routinely for years—and when the time came to pay, she informed the clerk that we no longer had the insurance card/coverage, but that we’d be writing a check for the services. With no additional explanation, that dear clerk basically ripped up the invoice that would have been paid by our insurer—and presented us with a bill that was a fraction of the “standard” cost. This, despite my wife’s assurances that I was still employed, and that we could afford to pay the standard rate; there was, apparently, a different charge for those that had insurance, and those who didn’t.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Naughty or Nice?

Editor’s Note: There’s so much going on in the world of retirement saving and investing that I never feel the need (or feel like I have the opportunity) to recycle old columns – but this one has a certain “evergreen” consistency of message that always seems appropriate – particularly at this time of year.

A few years back—when my kids still believed in the reality of Santa Claus—we discovered an ingenious Web site that purported to offer a real-time assessment of their "naughty or nice" status.

Now, as Christmas approached, it was not uncommon for us to caution our occasionally misbehaving brood that they had best be attentive to how those actions might be viewed by the big guy at the North Pole. But nothing ever had the impact of that Web site - if not on their behaviors (they're kids, after all), then certainly on the level of their concern about the consequences. In fact, in one of his final years as a "believer," my son (who, it must be acknowledged, had been PARTICULARLY naughty) was on the verge of tears, worried that he'd find nothing under the Christmas tree but the coal and bundle of switches he surely deserved.

Naughty Behaviors?

One might plausibly argue that many participants act as though some kind of benevolent elf will drop down their chimney with a bag full of cold cash from the North Pole. They behave as though, somehow, their bad savings behaviors throughout the year(s) notwithstanding, they'll be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a myopic, portly gentleman in a red snow suit. Not that they actually believe in a retirement version of St. Nick, but that's essentially how they behave, even though, like my son, a growing number evidence concern about the consequences of their "naughty" behaviors. Also, like my son, they tend to worry about it too late to influence the outcome—and don't change their behaviors in any meaningful way.

Ultimately, the volume of presents under our Christmas tree never really had anything to do with our kids' behavior, of course. As parents, we nurtured their belief in Santa Claus as long as we thought we could (without subjecting them to the ridicule of their classmates), not because we expected it to modify their behavior (though we hoped, from time to time), but because, IMHO, kids should have a chance to believe, if only for a little while, in those kinds of possibilities.

We all live in a world of possibilities, of course. But as adults we realize—or should realize—that those possibilities are frequently bounded in by the reality of our behaviors. This is a season of giving, of coming together, of sharing with others. However, it is also a time of year when we should all be making a list and checking it twice—taking note, and making changes to what is naughty and nice about our savings behaviors.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—but he looks a lot like you, assisted by "helpers" like the employer match, your financial adviser, investment markets, and tax incentives.

Happy Holidays!

Nevin E. Adams, JD


The Naughty or Nice site is still online (at An improved site and much better internet connection speeds produce a lightning fast response – more’s the pity. I used to like the sense that a computer was actually having to crank through the data!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

'Holding' Patterns

In one of the more challenging economic years in memory, it is not surprising that the pace of change set in motion in defined contribution plans by the Pension Protection Act slackened. If anything, IMHO, it is remarkable that the adoption of devices such as automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration did not decline.

That said, among a record number of respondents to PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey, the pace of automatic enrollment basically flatlined—just 30.8% of plan sponsor respondents said they now employ that approach (though more than half of the largest plans now do), compared with 29.8% a year ago. And, even after the encouragement afforded by the PPA, among those that have adopted automatic enrollment, only about four in 10 extended that to all workers (the rest applied it to newly hired workers only). Perhaps as a result, the average participation rate declined—slightly—to 72.3% this year from 73.8% a year ago, but was nearly unchanged from the 72.7% in the 2007 results.

Despite all the headlines about a variety of firms’ 401(k) match suspension, only about 5% of this year’s respondents had reduced the company match/contribution, with a like number saying that they had eliminated it. Another 5% each were contemplating either cutting or suspending the match. The most encouraging news was that nearly eight of 10 had no plans to reduce, suspend, or eliminate the match, and that, even among those that had, nearly one in four planned to restore it for 2010, while roughly 60% said they planned to remain at the cut or suspended level next year.

Is change in the air? Some, apparently—and for the very most part, it is about “more,” not less: 15.5% have already added investment funds, and 17% have increased the frequency of their participant education. Roughly 9% had changed their qualified default investment alternative or QDIA (likely to a target-date fund), and nearly as many had increased their investment manager due diligence, slightly more than the 7% that had hired, fired, or changed their investment consultant. As for plans for change in the remaining months of this year (the survey was taken over the summer), the trends were much the same—though IMHO not surprisingly, in view of the recent attention focused on target-date funds, an intention to increase due diligence on their target-date option’s glide path registered much higher on the “to do” list.

Speaking of target-date funds, historical performance may not be a guarantee of future results, but for plan sponsors, that was nonetheless the highest-ranked criterion (6.07 on a 7.0 scale). However, advisers can take heart from the finding that the second-most valued criterion was the recommendation of a financial adviser (trumping fund-family reputation, risk profile, glide path, and fees).

Interestingly enough, the lowest-ranked criterion was the recommendation of their DC provider. That doubt showed up in another telling statistic: Nearly 28% of this year’s respondents said they were “not sure” if the target-date funds offered by their provider were the most appropriate (that was, however, down from the 35% that expressed that opinion a year earlier—BEFORE the market plunge).

Without question, the past 12 months have brought much in the way of change to our industry—and much of that not change for the better. And yet, all in all, it is, IMHO, amazing how resilient employers and their plan designs have proven to be. We have perhaps not made much forward progress in the past year—but there’s something to be said for being able to hold the line.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Question Errs?

Several years back, we decided that our family was ready to upgrade to a high-definition TV (in fairness, that “decision” was in no small part predicated on the untimely “death” of the big-screen projection TV that we had purchased not too long after we married).

So, I did what any reasonable consumer would do— – I went to my local appliance warehouse to see what was available. In short order, I was able to enlist the support of a trained professional (a “professional,”, it should be noted, who turned out to be younger than the TV that we were replacing). Not that he wasn’t helpful, after a fashion. But there in that “showroom,”, it was hard for me to see (or appreciate) all the subtle differences that purported to explain the occasionally significant variances in price. Moreover, he spoke in alien terms that were clearly something I was supposed to understand— – but didn’t. And, while I don’t mind probing for explanations, after a while, even the most diligent shopper gets tired of sounding – stupid. Ultimately, he was telling me the things that he (or the TV manufacturer) thought were important, – but I had no context for what those meant to me. Furthermore, while he seemed perfectly willing to answer any questions I had, - I didn’t even know the right questions to ask.

Like my broken projection-screen TV, when it comes to workplace retirement plans, – problems— – or, more accurately, a desire to remedy them— – all too often are the driving force behind making a provider change. But, while that “necessity” may force that shopping excursion (rousing many a too-busy plan sponsor from their daily challenges), it is precisely the wrong environment in which to make a thoughtful, reasoned, and, dare I say, prudent choice.

But, in the search/evaluation process, it’s worth noting that, IMHO, there is no "best" provider. There is, however, a best provider for each plan. That said, no matter how good a match you make today, odds are there will come a time when you will want—or need—to validate that decision. The reasons are myriad: circumstances change, people leave, programs grow, budgets fluctuate, and expectations expand. Oh, and if common sense alone were an insufficient reason, the Department of Labor itself reminds us that fiduciaries “should establish and follow a formal review process at reasonable intervals to decide if it wants to continue using the current service providers or look for replacements.”

But before you rush into the search process, it is imperative that you first understand what you are looking for.

IMHO, that process starts by understanding and evaluating the services you currently receive— – and knowing what you like and wish to preserve, – as well as what areas you’d like to improve and/or expand on. It starts by understanding and evaluating what you are currently paying for those services you currently receive, and deciding how much more you’d be willing (and perhaps able) to pay to expand those offerings.

And, yes, it starts by knowing what choices might now be available to you, – perhaps at little or no cost; – choices that you might not even think to ask about, choices that you might think are— – and perhaps once were— - beyond your price range.

It starts, as did my “search” for a new TV, with a sense of the right questions to ask.

Because knowing the right questions to ask is, IMHO, essential to getting the right answers.

- —Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Benefits of the Doubt

Those who were wondering when—or perhaps if—the issues raised in those revenue-sharing lawsuits would ever actually be tried got a strong, affirmative response last week.

This time, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found triable issues of fact in a case involving Wal-Mart’s 401(k) plan (“8th Circuit Says Wal-Mart 401(k) Suit Requires Further Discussion”), sending the case back for another hearing by the trial court that had dismissed issues raised in the lawsuit, while also taking the time (at least in a footnote) to distinguish some of its findings from a similar case (Hecker v. Deere) that had failed to clear the bar in another circuit (see "The 'Burden' of Proof").

But, IMHO, what distinguishes the ruling in Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. from all the revenue-sharing cases that have been adjudicated thus far is that the 8th Circuit judges were willing to concede that the plaintiff had alleged facts that, at least on the surface, were sufficient to support a potential claim.

Now, in fairness, the court applied a fairly traditional standard of review in evaluating the motion to dismiss; to give the benefit of the doubt, if you will, to the perspective of the party who has not made a motion to dismiss the case without moving to trial—and it admonished the lower court for not doing so in plain language. In its ruling, the 8th Circuit not only said that the lower court “ignored reasonable inferences supported by the facts alleged,” it went on to criticize that court for not only drawing inferences in favor of the party (Wal-Mart) that had made the motion to dismiss, but for criticizing the plaintiff for “failing to plead facts tending to contradict those inferences.”

What's Different?

So, what did the court find compelling enough to give this case a fuller hearing? The “relatively limited” (10) menu of fund options “selected by Wal-Mart executives despite the ready availability of better options”—“better” in this case including the fact that they were retail rather than institutional class mutual fund shares (there are other, and IMHO weaker, allegations about performance relative to benchmarks and the use of actively managed funds, rather than index alternatives). And then, perhaps by way of “explaining” the use of these allegedly inferior options, plaintiff Braden notes that the Wal-Mart plan funds “made revenue sharing payments to the trustee, Merrill Lynch, and that these payments were not made in exchange for services rendered, but rather were a quid pro quo for inclusion in the Plan.”

Now, IMHO, the plaintiff’s case isn’t ironclad. Even in its ruling sending the case back for another shot, the 8th Circuit noted that “there may well be lawful reasons appellees chose the challenged investment options.” However, that court also pointed out it was not the plaintiff’s job to rule out those alternatives—nor was it, in the appellate court’s view, appropriate for the trial court to basically assume that because there might be alternative explanations, no further inquiry was warranted.

The Duty to Disclose

There is another interesting aspect to the case, IMHO—and it has to do with the duty to disclose revenue-sharing arrangements. While I believe all of the cases presented to date have claimed that such a duty exists—and that every court that has heard that argument to date has just as readily refuted it—the 8th Circuit had a different take. “In the context of this case, materiality turns on the effect information would have on a reasonable participant's decisions about how to allocate his or her investments among the options in the Plan,” the court noted.

The impact of that materiality was heightened by allegations that “those payments corrupted the fund selection process—that each fund was selected for inclusion in the Plan because it made payments to the trustee, and not because it was a prudent investment,” according to the court. And “[i]f true, this information could influence a reasonable participant in evaluating his or her options under the Plan,” the court said – even as it acknowledged that there is no per se duty to disclose these arrangements.

Finally, the 8th Circuit took the lower court to task for basically insisting that the plaintiff prove that the revenue-sharing payments were unreasonable before trial (a threshold that it notes would have been impossible, even if legitimate, since the arrangement between Wal-Mart and Merrill Lynch was confidential).

The 8th Circuit’s actions here don’t necessarily portend a shift in result for these cases, nor should it suggest that there is anything about this particular case that is markedly distinctive from similar cases brought in other jurisdictions. That said, to this point, the courts have, IMHO, been extraordinarily willing to give the employer/fiduciaries the benefit of the doubt in these revenue-sharing cases.

It will be interesting to see how the allegations hold up to a full adjudication of the facts.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Thanks" Giving

Thanksgiving has been called a “uniquely American” holiday, and while that is perhaps something of an overstatement, it is unquestionably a special holiday, and one on which it seems a reflection on all we have to be thankful for is fitting.

Here's my list for 2009:

First off, I’m thankful that the financial markets have stepped back from the precipice we were surely standing at a year ago. I’m thankful that the investment markets have recovered from the worst of the losses of 2008, even if we still have a long way to go. I’m thankful that so many Americans seem to be concerned about the nation’s fiscal health—and hopeful that those concerns will resonate with those who make decisions that affect it.

I’m thankful that relatively few employers felt the need (or took the opportunity) to cut matching contributions this year—and even more thankful to see so many of those who did cut the match restore it.

I’m thankful that so many employers have remained committed to their defined benefit plans and—often despite media reporting to the contrary—continue to make serious, consistent efforts to meet funding requirements that are quite different than when most initially decided to offer these programs. I’m thankful that a core group of lawmakers in Washington continues to be attentive to the very real challenges imposed by those rules, and continue to be proactive in responding to rational relief measures during this difficult economic period.

I’m thankful that so many participants now seem to have a greater appreciation for the importance of prudent, diversified investing—and thankful, though it was a painful lesson for some, that the deep differences in philosophy that underlie target-date investments are being better communicated and understood. I’m thankful that so many participants took it upon themselves to increase their contribution levels during the downturn, and that so few dipped into those retirement plan accounts to tide them through the rough patches.

I’m thankful that plan sponsors will soon have access to more information about the expenses paid by their plans—and optimistic that it won’t be as bad as they fear. I’m thankful that we’re no longer talking about whether fees should be disclosed to participants, but are now trying to figure out how to do it.

I’m thankful for the intelligence, experience, and professionalism of the folks that regulate our industry—and who do so consistently, despite the occasional changes in “the guard.”

I’m thankful to be part of a growing company in an important industry at a critical time. I’m thankful to be able to, in some small way, make a difference on a daily basis.

And, of course, I’m thankful that so many good and capable advisers were available to participants during the worst of the downturn.

I'm thankful for the home I have found at PLANSPONSOR and then with PLANADVISER, and the warmth with which its loyal readers have embraced me, as well as the many who have "discovered" us during the past 10 years. I'm thankful for all of you who have supported—and I hope benefited from—our various conferences, designation program, and communications throughout the year. I’m thankful for the constant—and enthusiastic—support of our advertisers, even in a year that has been tough for so many.

But most of all, I’m once again thankful for the unconditional love and patience of my family, the camaraderie of dear friends and colleagues, the opportunity to write and share these thoughts—and for the ongoing support and appreciation of readers like you.

Thank YOU!

Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tractor “Trailer”

About a week ago, Caterpillar agreed to a $16.5 million settlement of one of those allegedly excessive fee/revenue-sharing lawsuits.

It was the first of these suits—launched in September 2006—to come to some sort of “resolution” though, IMHO, it hardly qualifies as such (see “Caterpillar Ready to Ink $16.5M Fee Suit Settlement”).

That said, the settlement’s terms were not just financial; it also included a series of changes in how Caterpillar agreed to administer the plan and monitor its investments. First off, during a two-year settlement period, Caterpillar agreed to "increase and enhance communication with employees about 401(k) investment options and associated fees,” as well as hiring an independent fiduciary (at least during that same two-year period)—and it has also apparently said that it would detail specific fees charged to participants. Caterpillar says it will avoid retail mutual funds as core investment options for the plans, and that the plan’s recordkeeping fees would be “limited,” specifically calculated on a flat or per-participant basis, rather than drawn from asset-based fees (which can go up—or down—with, IMHO, little correlation to the recordkeeping services associated with those asset values).

Caterpillar also committed to not allowing investment consultants to also serve as investment managers and to not receiving compensation from plan investments. Note that from 1992 to 2006 (actually up till about four months before the revenue-sharing suit was brought), the company offered plan investors a group of mutual funds that were advised by a wholly owned subsidiary (that subsidiary now sold off).

So, who are the winners—and losers—here?

Well, while it surely will be categorized as a “win” by those pursuing these suits, and it’s certainly not a loss for them, IMHO, it’s more accurately described as the other party saying “uncle.” In fairness, these suits haven’t fared too well in court—actually, they have had a hard time getting past the hearing stage (see "IMHO:The "Burden" of Proof"). That doesn’t mean they don’t cost the firms being sued time and money; as a mentor of mine once cautioned, “You can spend a lot of money in court being right.” Doubtless, Caterpillar, whatever it saw as the merits of pursuing its defense (admittedly, because for a long period of time, the firm’s money management unit oversaw some of the funds in question, it might have been more vulnerable to charges of excessive fees) eventually figured there were better ways to spend its time and money.

Presumably the Caterpillar participants will benefit as well—from whatever part of the monetary settlement doesn’t go to the lawyers, as well as from the changes in operation agreed to by Caterpillar. Some will no doubt argue that the terms agreed to by this employer will hereafter become something of a talisman for other firms to contemplate, if not adopt, in their own programs. And, talisman status notwithstanding, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

However, for those of us on the outside, a settlement is something of a disappointment. Whatever the basis in fact of these lawsuits, they have now, IMHO, put in play legitimate issues of concern for plan sponsors, advisers, and providers—issues that extend well beyond the “starter set” of firms currently involved in this litigation. Issues that, admittedly, the courts have largely dismissed to date, but issues that one senses (if only because the Department of Labor seems not to fully concur with the judicial renderings to date) remain an unsettled area—and one therefore still ripe for litigation. Litigation that, ironically, might later point to plan changes adopted in the wake of these developments as some kind of “smoking gun” admission of impropriety.

So, while the decision to settle may well mark the end of uncertainty for one employer in such matters, it seems to me that it leaves the situation even more UNsettled for the rest of us.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

The settlement announcement is online HERE

See also Case Sensitive, “Limit” Ed

Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Worth" Whiles

I’m sure you’ve seen that commercial where a series of more-or-less everyday events and their price tags are presented, building to larger and more exotic events (and price tags) until they culminate with some extraordinary event—one that the announcer declares is “priceless.”

As an industry, we have long worried about the plight of the average retirement plan participant who doesn’t know much (if anything) about investing, who doesn’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would really just prefer that someone else take care of it, though it’s not always clear how much they value that effort.

What gets less attention—but is just as real a phenomenon—is how many plan sponsors don’t know anything about investments, don’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement plan investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would also really just prefer that someone else take care of it. But how much are you willing to pay for that?

Now, there’s a difference between choosing investments and selecting a trusted adviser to do so. However, as complicated as the former can be, there are certain touchstones that even an amateur can rely on, IMHO: developing a menu that encompasses a broad array of choices, that fill out a style box grid, that factor in performance results, and/or fund rankings. I’m not saying it’s “easy,” or should be entrusted to amateurs (particularly when issues of fiduciary liability are involved), but it’s certainly manageable.

Quantify Able?

Contrast that with the myriad challenges attendant to selecting an adviser—particularly when you consider that PLANSPONSOR’s surveys routinely show that plan sponsors choose an adviser primarily based on the quality of the advice they provide (primarily to committees, but a close second is the advice rendered to plan participants). One can’t help but wonder how that advice is quantified (certainly not in the same way that investment funds can be). Doubtless, that helps explain why so many advisers are hired not on what they know, but on WHO they know.

But for many plan fiduciaries, the obstacle to hiring a retirement plan adviser is financial, not intellectual. Particularly for a plan sponsor who has not previously employed those services—or, more ominously, in the case of one who has hired an adviser that didn’t hold up their end of the bargain—the additional costs of hiring an adviser can be problematic. The question you ask that prospective adviser may be “Why should I hire you?” But, IMHO, the question that is often the heart of the matter is “Why should I pay you that much?”

There are ways, of course, to quantify the value of those services, ways that quantify not only what that adviser is worth, but why those fees are what they are. In the most obvious case, an adviser can walk in and demonstrate the ability to save a plan money. That’s clearly added value, and value that is readily measured (that, of course, only lasts a year, maybe two; after that, the baseline has been reset in terms of savings expectations).

Similarly, the ability to increase plan levels of participation, deferral, and investment diversification also adds value—but value that, IMHO, like the value of retaining qualified talent, is harder to quantify. Many advisers promote their services as a shield against litigation, or at least some kind of buffer against the financial impact of such an event, but in my experience, while most employers are glad to get/take the “warranty” (implied or explicit), they generally aren’t willing to pay very much extra for it.

Where else can advisers make a difference? You’ve no doubt seen surveys that show that, in the course of a year, most participants spend more time thinking about—and planning for—their vacation than about their retirement plan investments. Ask any plan sponsor how much time they spend working on, or worrying about, their retirement plan, and you’ll probably find a similar imbalance. Of course, plan sponsors, like plan participants, know that they should be spending more time on such matters—and most will admit that, no matter how much time they are spending, they should be spending more.

So, how much time are you spending? How much more do you wish you could spend? How will that adviser you’re considering engaging make it possible for you to live up to your fiduciary obligations? So, find an adviser that can save you money, engage one that can spare you aggravation if you have to, but in this crazy, hectic period, if you can find one who can save you time - well, IMHO, that’s truly “priceless.”

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also “IMHO: ’Right’ Minded

Saturday, October 31, 2009

IMHO: Change of “Hearth”

We made a provider change last week.

We really hadn’t been focused on making a change, though the subject had come up from time to time. In fact, considering how long we had been thinking about making a change without actually doing anything about it, the change itself felt almost accidental in its suddenness. So sudden, in fact, that, in hindsight, I found myself wondering if we were “hasty”—perhaps too hasty.

Make no mistake—we had been happy enough with our current provider, certainly at first. In fact, we had been with them for a number of years and had, over time, expanded that relationship to include a fully bundled package of services. That made certain aspects simpler, of course—though we discovered pretty quickly that the “bundle” presented more seamlessly than it actually was delivered. Still, net/net, we were ahead of the game financially, and certainly no worse on the delivery side; we were just a bit disappointed in the disconnect between the sale and the service levels.

And all was fine for a while—or so it seemed. Looking back, there were signs of trouble that we could have seen—if we had been looking. There were unexpected charges on the invoices, and services that we were sure had been described as being part of the bundle that turned out not to be. There was the monitoring service that was supposed to be in place that we found out wasn’t—quite by accident, and months later. Over time we cut back on the services included, but the prices just kept going up. We were, quite simply, getting less and paying more, and getting less than we thought we were paying for. And it grated on us.

In hindsight, I wish we had been more vocal about our discontent. That we had called up and questioned those invoice charges. But, in the overall scheme of things, the charges weren’t large, just not what we expected. We figured that perhaps we had been the ones to misunderstand—and didn’t want to look “stupid” by calling to complain about a charge that some fine print in some document somewhere said was perfectly legitimate. Meaning always to go check that out sometime, the time to do so never materialized. Instead, we talked about how aggravating it was—and how we should do something about it…sometime.

Unfortunately, change is painful and time-consuming. The emotional and fiscal toll these changes took, while annoying, simply wasn’t enough to put change at the top of the to-do list. So, we talked about a change—and every so often asked friends and acquaintances about their experience(s). Of course, it was hard to find someone else who was in exactly the same situation—and a surprising number simply empathized with our plight, being stuck in much the same situation themselves. All of which conveyed—to us, anyway—a sense that, uncomfortable as we might be with the service package, we were probably about as well-positioned as we could be.

Then, one day, out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself. We weren’t looking for it, as I said earlier, but the months of frustration left us open to a casual message from an enterprising salesman—who not only knew his product, he clearly knew the problems that others like us had with the provider we were with. He did more than empathize with our situation. He did not pump me for information about what I was looking for, or what I didn’t like about my current situation. Rather, he was able to speak about the features/benefits that his firm offered…and, to my ears anyway, essentially ran through the list of concerns I had—but had not articulated—with our current situation. In fact, before our conversation was done, he had pointed out to me things that his firm offered as a matter of course that my current provider hadn’t even mentioned to me in all the years we had been associated—things I had assumed we couldn’t get, or couldn’t get without paying a lot more.

We made the change this past weekend—and while it’s early yet, I’m thrilled with the results.

Now, I realize I never gave my current provider the option of retaining my business. Moreover, I know that, had I simply made a call to tell them about the package/price we were getting from the new provider, they would have matched, if not bettered, the deal. Ironically, both points were made—and made somewhat obnoxiously, IMHO—when we called to tell our former provider about their change in status (ironically, by being a jerk about the whole thing, it only served to affirm our decision).

Ultimately, our former provider set themselves up by taking our business for granted, for (apparently) caring more about attracting new customers than in attending to our concerns, and for (apparently) assuming that “quiet” meant satisfied.

Are YOU happy, content, and “quiet?” Or have you just quit complaining?

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Editor’s Note: For the record, the provider change recounted above involves my cable company.

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009

“Myth” Information

Recently, Time magazine ran a story called “Why It's Time to Retire the 401(k).” For the most part, the article was little more than a tired rehash of criticisms that continue to be trucked out with disappointing regularity by those who, IMHO, should, by now, know better.

Here’s my take on five “myths” that keep being told about the 401(k).

You can’t save enough to retire on in a 401k.

I’ll concede that when one looks at the “average” 401(k) balance today, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live out the year, much less retirement, on that sum (1). Even if you look at the average balance of a near-retiree (rather than an average that includes the accounts of 25-year old savers), it’s hard to see how most could live for another 20 years on that balance.

That said, there’s a difference between saying you can’t save enough and you haven’t saved enough (2). Every situation is unique, but ultimately, a voluntary savings system “suffers” from the reality that it is voluntary. That isn’t the fault of the 401(k), however—a design that basically allows workers to defer taking (probably spending) and being taxed on pay today as they prudently set it aside for retirement. Of course, we all know the 401(k) was never designed to be the sole source of retirement income (even its critics acknowledge that). IMHO, those, like the authors of that recent Time article, who want to “retire” the 401(k) because it isn’t ready to carry a load it wasn’t designed to do are ignoring the critical role it is playing—and will play—in making a more financially secure retirement possible for millions. They might just as well fault the design of a car that fails to reach its destination because the driver refused to fill the tank.

It’s a tax dodge for executives.

One of the most pervasive arguments of 401(k) critics is that the plans are little more than a tax-sheltering scheme for the very highly paid, one into which only they can afford to contribute to the maximum amounts the IRS permits for the plan.

Now, it is true that higher-compensated individuals generally do have more disposable income, and thus they are significantly more likely to hit those caps. It is also true that those who are paying income taxes do benefit more from a system that provides for a deferral of those taxes, and those with higher incomes (who pay higher tax rates) benefit even more.

On the other hand, as tax dodges go, the 401(k) is a pretty inefficient way to go, IMHO. Those higher-paid deferrals are hemmed in by discrimination tests, limits on considered compensation, and a hard cap on the annual amount that can actually be deferred into these programs on a pre-tax basis, in addition to maximum annual additions. So, take a second; add up how much (little) can actually be deferred into these programs by those executives. Then, compare that to the base pay of folks who qualify as “highly compensated” (which, in many areas of the country, is all-too middle-income)—and think about what they’ll be trying to replace (at least in part) with the $16,500 (plus match and maybe another $5,500 if they’re old enough to qualify for catch-up).

And then, hope that they don’t do that same math, and figure that there are better ways to spend company resources than in keeping up with a 401(k).

Employers have pushed 401(k)s on workers in place of pensions.

First off, pensions were never as ubiquitous as described in some media accounts, and even where pensions did exist, the service/vesting requirements (coupled with the tenure typical in most private industries) meant that many workers in the private sector never got as much from those programs as one might think/hope (see . Retirees With Pension Income and Characteristics of Their Former Job)—or, more accurately, as they might have if they had actually worked 30 years for the same company.

That’s not to say, or course, that some workers didn’t—nor does that mean that some of today’s retirees haven’t enjoyed a much more financially secure retirement because they had a pension (certainly in the public sector). But the data suggest that those situations are rarer than we’ve been led to believe by some of today’s wistful news coverage (the data also suggest that the median private-sector pensioner is getting less than $10,000/year from that pension).

Certainly, there have been financial reasons for employers to prefer the relative financial obligation certainty and control associated with a defined contribution approach compared with a defined benefit plan. Moreover, recent changes in accounting rules and regulatory requirements have largely served to discourage the perpetuation of DB plans in the private sector, and have done nothing to spawn the introduction of new programs.

That said, this is not just a corporate decision. I have spent more than a quarter century in this business watching private-sector workers (including myself) “walk away” from pensions. Why? Well, because people make employment decisions for many other compelling reasons. And frankly, even if you have a pension and get a statement that tells you how much that pension is worth, until you have accumulated a couple of decades worth of service (and most don’t), the present value of that benefit is—well, let’s just say it’s not an attention-grabber.

Could we do things to change that? Sure. In fact, I wish we would (unfortunately, we’ll need some help from Congress). But make no mistake: Employers have found it increasingly difficult to offer traditional pension benefits—and IMHO, many, perhaps most, of their workers seem to prefer the 401(k).

401(k)s have been used to shift retirement costs to workers.

In a world where we all once had employer-paid-for pensions that have now been replaced by 401(k)s, this might at least be one way to think about it (see above, however).

On the other hand, if you look at the longstanding pre-401(k) estimates on plan expenses, you’ll find that the general rule was 70% of the expenses were investment related, 20% were attributed to recordkeeping, and the remaining 10% went to things like trustee/custodian, legal, and other administrative matters. And at that point in time, employers frequently wrote a check for everything but the investment fees—which were then, as they are now, largely netted against earnings. These days, it’s not uncommon for the “investment” fees to be the only explicit expense of the 401(k), leading commentators and critics alike to bemoan the “shift” of 100% of the plan fees to participants.

But most defined contribution/401(k) plan participants have always paid 100% of the fund expenses, which, even 30 years ago, typically included administrative expenses, 12(b)-1 fees, and sub-TA expenses (and yes, trading expenses of the fund)—even when the employer was also paying separately for recordkeeping and those other expenses. What has changed is not how much participants are paying (or how they are paying it), but rather how much employers pay. Now, you can certainly argue that the system has worked to reduce employer expenses, but to my eye, participants are still paying what they always paid. It’s just that, these days, the fund company doesn’t keep it all.

401(k)s are dangerous.

The Time article did break some new “can you believe they said that” ground when the author said, “Saving more, another common prescription for fixing the 401(k), has its downside too. That's because of another unpleasant quirk of the 401(k), which was mentioned earlier: the older you are, the riskier a 401(k) gets.”

Huh? What possible correlation could age have with risk? The author “explains” it this way: “In what must seem like a cruel joke to many, the accounts proved the most dangerous for those closest to retirement. During the market downturn, the 401(k)s of 55-to-65-year-olds lost a quarter more than those of their 35-to-45-year-old colleagues. That's because in your early years, your 401(k)'s growth is driven mostly by contributions.”

No, that’s because, in your early years, your 401(k) mostly IS your contributions. Now, if you look at a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) (see “The Impact of the Recent Financial Crisis on 401(k) Account Balances”), you will find some “support” for the author’s position. What you won’t find in the Time article, but will find in the same EBRI analysis, is the following comment: “At a 5 percent equity rate-of-return assumption, those with longest tenure with their current employer would need nearly two years at the median to recover, but approximately five years at the 90th percentile.” Now, that’s not tremendously good news if your retirement savings got caught in the downdraft of the worst market downturn in recent memory just as you were heading into retirement. But it also suggests that recovery is not only possible, it’s likely—specifically if you fill some of that gap by continued, and perhaps increased, savings. Consider also that much of the account “heights” from which we’re now recovering were a result of that same market exposure. What remains critical is that we approach retirement with an eye toward preservation of those gains. Not doing so is like setting your car’s cruise control—and then taking your hands off the steering wheel on a winding road.

Speed without direction is—always—dangerous.

Sort of like believing that myths are reality.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) those “average” 401(k) balances also don’t include the accumulated balances from other 401(k) plans that workers roll into IRAs.

(2) there remains a heated debate about just how much people need to save in order to retire – see “Scare Tactics

Saturday, October 10, 2009

12 Things You Should Know About Asset-Allocation Funds

Asset-allocation fund solutions have, to put it mildly, exploded on the retirement plan scene—aided in no small measure by the sanction of the Department of Labor’s final regulations regarding qualified default investment alternatives (QDIA). However, the recent market turmoil has drawn a fresh, heightened scrutiny to the philosophy and structure of these popular defined contribution choices and, certainly for plan sponsors, reminded us all that there are differences—significant differences, in fact—in how these vehicles are constructed, how they are managed, and even the philosophies underpinning those designs.

Now, the “right” answer for your program will, in many respects, be unique to your program. On the other hand, there are certain basic questions that plan sponsors should know the answers to in choosing an asset-allocation solution.

Getting Started

1. Are we talking about lifestyle or lifecycle funds?

The terms are used interchangeably all too often. However, funds that structure their allocation based on an individual’s risk tolerance (risk-based) are generally called lifestyle funds. Those that base that allocation on a specific future date (date-based) are referred to as lifecycle funds or, more broadly, target-date funds. While the latter was more prominently cited in the DoL QDIA regulations, a properly structured risk-based fund could work as well—and has seemed to enjoy a much greater receptivity in the marketplace even before those regulations (see #2 below for at least part of the reason). Some plans have both on their plan menu, but that can complicate plan communications. On the other hand, IMHO, risk is going to loom larger on people’s minds going forward.

2. Is a risk tolerance questionnaire part of the process?

In my experience, no matter how short and “approachable” the process of ascertaining a participant’s tolerance for risk, it is never going to be something that is comfortable for most. Still, if you are employing a risk-based solution, you have to have something to base that tolerance on—and you should make sure how comfortable you are with that process/document. Additionally, today there are several risk-based target-date offerings that combine both approaches. I’ve tended to be skeptical about these—IMHO, many still focus more on the risks of losing money than the risks of not having enough money to live on--but, short of imposing some kind of generic sense of tolerance, you have to have some means of assessing comfort with risk if you are going to employ a risk-based alternative.

3. What kinds of history/benchmarks are available?

Just a couple of years ago, there were no benchmarks to speak of in this space (other than those constructed by the firms managing those funds, and those were often composites). Of course, just a couple of years ago, there were not enough funds in this space with enough history to make for a meaningful evaluation. However, time has provided the history many funds were lacking (granted, many would just as soon not have that fourth quarter 2008 result included)—and a new generation of benchmarks and indexes has emerged along with the explosion in these funds. But take note: The benchmarks today are as varied in their underlying philosophy and construction as are the funds themselves. IMHO, you need to first know what you believe about the approach, glide paths, and/or asset allocation before you pick the benchmark.

Fund Construction

4. Are the funds composed of proprietary offerings, or are they “open architecture”?

The “debate” over the relative advantages of open architecture versus proprietary offerings has long been part of retirement plan administration choices, and it is part of the target-date decision as well. Those advocating the benefits of open architecture generally tout the ability to pick “best of breed” investment solutions (while readily being able to dump those that fall short), backed by the notion that no one firm can possibly be that best choice across every asset class. Those pushing proprietary choices take issue with that latter point, while pointing to the benefits of their intimate knowledge of their own product set—not to mention the relative cost efficiencies of a proprietary product. There is no right answer, but the determination should be part of your evaluation.

5. What IS an appropriate asset allocation?

This is the million-dollar question for target-date funds these days. At a high level, this is no more complicated than deciding what is the right mix of stocks and bonds, international and domestic, alternative investments and/or cash for investors at every stage of their investing life—or than picking the firm(s) that you trust to know what that right mix is.

6. How much of what is on your glide path?

The “glide path” sounds like a complicated concept, but it is actually nothing more than how the shifts in asset allocation take place over time. It is the path that these investments take your money on throughout your investing life. Still, for some funds—particularly newer, smaller funds—the asset-allocation strategies outlined in the fund prospectus or fact sheet may still be “aspirational,” may not yet incorporate all the specific strategies that the fund manager has in mind for that time in the future when the funds achieve a certain critical mass. You need to know what the targets are—and know if those targets are part of the current strategy.


7. Do the funds have a fee “wrapper” in addition to the underlying fund charges?

Particularly when a provider incorporates other funds in their offerings, they frequently charge some kind of fee for their expertise in putting together those other funds. This is a fee generally applied as some kind of basis-point charge in addition to the other, regular fees charged by the underlying funds. You will want to know what this charge is, if any, and consider it as part of the total cost of your selection. This fee is generally smaller (sometimes there is no extra charge) for proprietary-only offerings.

8. What are the fees charged by the funds?

Beyond the aforementioned “wrapper” fee, these funds will have all the same kinds of fees typically associated with retirement plan investments. Bear in mind that some of the fund allocations may include some relatively exotic asset classes—and those may carry higher expenses than you are accustomed to seeing. Additionally, you may find some retail share class funds included, even in institutional share class offerings. The bottom line: Keep an eye on the bottom line.

Plan Design

9. Does it fit your investment policy statement?

Most (though not all) retirement plans have an investment policy statement—that essential blueprint for monitoring and managing the investments you make available on your plan menu, set alongside the objectives you have established for your program. However, the blueprint you set out for your plan investments before you introduced an asset-allocation solution may not take their unique contributions—or considerations—into account.

10. How many “life” options are available on the recordkeeper’s platform?
For many plan sponsors and advisers today, there is a harsh reality at the end of the due diligence rainbow—a limited number of asset-allocation options available on your recordkeeper’s platform. In fact, it was not that many years ago that most plan sponsors could only pick from a single option. Limited choices may seem to make the decision easier, but these offerings are not identical, and you and your plan will be better served if you are able to evaluate and choose from a variety of options.

11. They can be misused.

No matter how hard we try to make these types of solutions “idiot proof”—well, let’s just say that you should take nothing for granted. Odds are that automatically enrolled participants defaulted into a QDIA will not fall prey to such mistakes. But, after years of being counseled that they should not “put all their eggs in one basket,” well-meaning participants have been known to try and split their investments across more than one asset-allocation solution. Fortunately, many recordkeepers today can apply system edits to prevent (or at least warn about) such missteps—and advisers also can certainly play a role in this education.

12. Should everyone who retires in 2020 (or 2010, or 2030, etc.) have the same asset allocation?

The simple answer to that question is, probably not. On the other hand, as an alternative that can broadly and efficiently address perhaps the most daunting participant savings obstacle, it is hard to think of a better solution. That is not to say, however, that this solution cannot, with the engagement and involvement of plan fiduciaries, be made even better.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A SunAmerica Opinion

I am admittedly something of a pension (and regulatory) geek, but when the SunAmerica Opinion was published (December 2001), it was clear that something big had just happened.

Not only did the Labor Department sanction an arrangement that, for the first time, allowed an investment management firm to offer advice on its own funds and be paid for that advice—even if that advice impacted the compensation received—it made the effort to make that decision public; IMHO, signaling to the industry that the model sanctioned in the Advisory Opinion ) could serve as a blueprint for other investment firms (and advisers) to follow in those footsteps. Indeed, it was issued not as a prohibited transaction exemption in a specific situation (though that was what had been requested), but as an advisory opinion on the program’s structure.

Sure enough, in the months that followed, it seemed as though just about every large DC provider put together some kind of program that, like the SunAmerica model, applied some kind of independent asset-allocation computer modeling to their DC platform investment offerings. In no time at all, millions of participants1 who had been looking for a bit of substantive guidance on how to invest their 401(k) balances had an answer—and, it should be noted, generally at a price that they found attractive (it was often included at no additional cost). In fact, after the SunAmerica opinion took hold, it always seemed to me that the urgency around finding a way to provide “advice” to participants was greatly diminished.

That wasn’t the end of the issue, of course—even when then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Ann Combs published the SunAmerica opinion for the world to see, she noted the Labor Department’s continued support for advice legislation long-championed by Congressman John Boehner (R-Ohio), legislation that, in large part, found its way into the (still) controversial fiduciary adviser provisions of the Pension Protection Act (PPA) (see “DoL Lowers Another Advice Barrier”).

Still, I was surprised when Assistant Secretary of Labor Phyllis Borzi invoked the name of the SunAmerica Opinion at a recent conference; particularly when she said she had heard reports that firms had been inappropriately taking advantage of its provisions (see “EBSA Sets Out Carrot, Stick Agenda”). Now, Secretary Borzi didn’t elaborate on any specific firms, but considering that the original opinion contained a number of specific conditions, it is entirely possible that, eight years later, one or more firms have managed to “gloss over” some key elements either in designing or in explaining their program(s). It is even possible, of course, that some have flagrantly disregarded those provisions. Those situations should be dealt with promptly and, IMHO, visibly.

I was also struck by the repeated invocation of the SunAmerica opinion last week in a hearing by the House Ways and Means Committee (see “House Lawmakers Hear DB Funding, Advice Bill Pleas”). Most of the witnesses expressed concerns that legislation recently proposed—the 401(k) Fair Disclosure and Pension Security Act of 2009 (HR 2989)—would, in its attempt to eliminate the fiduciary adviser provisions of the Pension Protection Act (PPA), also, at least effectively, and perhaps unintentionally, lead to the elimination of many advice programs in place prior to the PPA’s passage, including those predicated on the SunAmerica structure. I say “effectively” because the proposed law would basically impose the stricter PPA computer model auditing requirements on any computer-modeled advice—and the concern is that the cost and complexity of doing so will lead firms to disband those programs and/or employers to cease offering them.

It is not clear to me at this point that that was the intent of the proposed legislation, though it may well be the result. No one is in favor of conflicted advice (though we may disagree on what falls within that definition)—but, however complicated we may try to make it, most participants (and plan sponsors) don’t care whether you call it “advice” or “education.”

They just want some help.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) The Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America reports that 20 million participants are offered advice through Sun America arrangements.

You can check out the full testimony from the House Ways and Means hearing HERE

Saturday, September 26, 2009

When You Assume…

Somewhere in the course of your professional life, you have no doubt heard (or used) the expression about what happens when you assume(1).

Well, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard a lot of discussion around target-date funds, most recently at the PLANADVISER National Conference (PANC). Without question, plan sponsors and participants—and perhaps not a few retirement plan advisers—were caught off-guard by the varied designs and resulting experiences of these popular investment offerings in recent months (2).

That many participants assumed these offerings were a no-maintenance solution to their retirement security is understandable, IMHO, certainly in view of how they were promoted by their manufacturers, sanctioned (from a design standpoint, anyway) by regulators, and positioned on retirement plan menus. But let’s face it, what happened in the markets last fall happened pretty much everywhere and to everyone (at least everyone who was invested in the markets).

And, while there’s no way to truly quantify this, my sense is that some of those 2010 participants who were, unfortunately, caught in that market maelstrom were nonetheless well-served in the months ahead of that downturn, and perhaps since, by having their savings invested in a truly diversified portfolio.

There remains, however, the “smoking gun” issue—what DID participant-investors “know,” and when did they know it? Or, perhaps more precisely, when SHOULD they have known it? That and, were they really given the information they needed to know it?

“To” Versus “Through”

The “to” versus “through” retirement debate—the notion of whether the target date is an end point for target-date investment or merely a point along the investing continuum—remains unresolved in target-date circles. Frankly, I have heard arguments (some better than others) on both sides, and, personally, I see no reason that informed and educated investors shouldn’t be able to make their own determination as to the approach that best suits their situation.

What troubles me—aside from the reality that offerings so different in composition, design, and intent have names that are disquietingly similar—is that the assumptions underlying the glide path are so often unarticulated.

I’m not talking about the relative mix of exotic asset classes, or the soundness of the balance of equities and fixed-income investments at the date of retirement (or decumulation), though both are impacted. No, I’m talking about the implicit assumptions these various strategies employ to develop those glide paths that purport to deliver on the promise (or premise) of adequate retirement income. Assumptions regarding the age at which investors will truly begin drawing down those savings and at what rate, and—most significantly—assumptions about the accumulation from which they will be working.

See, to me, if you’re promoting an approach that assumes that you will have a certain amount saved, you need to tell people what that amount is. Alternatively, if you are backing an approach that assumes a retirement saver won’t have what is “needed,” but hopes to shore up some of that shortfall, it seems to me that you should be upfront about that as well. IMHO, for all the focus on asset allocation as the be-all-and-end-all of the target-date debate, it’s the assumptions that underpin—or undermine—those decisions that are at the heart of the matter.

Ultimately, whether you are a plan fiduciary or a participant-investor, it seems to me that you can’t—and shouldn’t—make a target-date fund decision until you fully understand what is being assumed—and until you have matched those assumptions with the reality of your particular situation.

Because, as we all know, when you assume….

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) Hard as it is for me to imagine that you haven’t heard this, the expression is “When you assume, you make an out of u AND me”.

(2) It is certainly worth noting that PLANSPONSOR/PLANADVISER is hosting a conference devoted to the subject of asset-allocated fund solutions next month. See HERE

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Under New Management

Sitting in the audience at the ASPPA/DoL Speaks conference last week, I was reminded just how disruptive it can be to have a new boss.

The conference, which, IMHO, remains unique in both the quantity and quality of access to Labor Department exports, featured many panelists it has been my pleasure to meet and get to know over the past several years. However we practitioners may struggle from time to time with the regulations and interpretations these folks put together, you don’t have to spend much time with any of them to appreciate just how smart, hard-working, and dedicated they are.

Still, I can only imagine what it must have been like to have pressed (as they were surely pressed) to wrap up as much of the pending backlog of regulations in 2008. How it must have felt to see that last package—including the final regulations on investment advice—get all the way to the regulatory finish line, only to have it halted dead in its tracks (see White House Executive Order Snares Fee Disclosure, Advice Regs). And then, over a period of weeks/months, have that work rejiggered, perhaps significantly, “simply” because an election, based on factors that had nothing to do with these issues, brought in new leadership (see EBSA Sets Out Carrot, Stick Agenda).

Starting Over?

Let’s face it, even in the private sector, managers and CEOs fall out of favor all the time and new ones are brought in, along with their new ideas (and sometimes their old friends). Plan sponsors, providers, and advisers alike have seen plenty of that over these past 12 tumultuous months.

But for our industry, a few things seem obvious among those “new” priorities: a continued, and probably more insistent, emphasis on transparency in fees and revenue sharing; the rebuilding of walls between advice and compensation flows that could vary based on that counsel; and greater clarity in the targeting and positioning of target-date funds. But, frankly, while we may now achieve those aims in different ways, IMHO, it is at least arguable that we were already on those paths, or would have been shortly.

Looking Ahead

That said, there is a palpable sense that the new leadership will be less employer-friendly than its predecessors, though that need not mean unfriendly. They may be less willing to accept the rationalizations of those who protest that it is too hard, or too expensive, to provide meaningful information to plan fiduciaries; and, though it’s early yet, they seem more inclined to shield, rather than simply inform, participants. Time will tell.

Change, of course, is not only inevitable, it is frequently for the good. It is nearly always, however, “disruptive” as we shift and resift priorities and focus, certainly in the short-term. However, IMHO, if there’s a more disruptive force than change in our lives, it’s uncertainty.

And, for better or worse, I’m betting that this new Administration won’t leave us guessing for long.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Domino Theories

If you want to get a quick sense of just how fast time flies, consider that it was only a year ago this week that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy—the same day that Bank of America announced its plans to acquire Merrill Lynch, and a day on which, not surprisingly, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down just over 500 points. That, in turn, was just a day before the Fed authorized an $85 billion loan to AIG—and that on the same day that the net asset value of shares in the Reserve Primary Money Fund “broke the buck.” This was made all the more surreal because it was going on while we—and several hundred advisers—were in the middle of our PLANADVISER National Conference.

Let’s face it—no matter how busy or hectic your week has been, I’m betting it’s been a walk in the park compared to those times.

The funny thing is, looking back (and armed with the prism of 20/20 hindsight), there were lots of signs of the trouble that eventually cascaded like a set of dominos, resetting not only the structures of the financial services industry, but disrupting the businesses and lives of thousands (if not tens of thousands) of advisers, not to mention the retirement plans of millions of workers worldwide.

The question that many of us have been asking ourselves (or perhaps been asked by our clients) these past 12 months is—why didn’t we do something about it?

Now, doubtless, some of you did. And those of you who didn’t can hardly—IMHO—be faulted for not fully appreciating the breadth, and severity, of the financial crisis we “suddenly” found ourselves confronted with. Still, having lived through a number of other “bubbles” during the course of my career, “afterwards” I’m always wondering why so many wait so long—generally too long—to get out of the way.

“Way” Laid?

Greed explains some of it: As human beings, we may later disparage the motives of those that, with leverage and avarice, press markets to unsustainable heights (from which they inevitably fall)—though we are frequently willing to go along for the ride. Some may be explained by human proclivity to stay with the pack, even when it seems destined for trouble, and some surely by nothing more than an inability to recognize the portents that precede the coming fall. When it comes to retirement plan participants, mere inertia surely accounts for most, though some are doubtless waylaid by bad, or inattentive, counsel.

There is, of course, a behavioral finance theory called “prospect theory,” that claims that human beings value gains and losses differently; that we are more afraid of loss than optimistic about gain. An extension of that theory, the “disposition effect,” claims to explain our tendency to hold on to losing investments too long: to avoid acknowledging our investing mistakes by actually selling them. It is, IMHO, an attribute rationalized every time someone says that the losses in our portfolios are “unrealized.” Unfortunately for investors planning for their retirement, unrealized and unreal are NOT the same thing.(1)

We all know that markets move up AND down, of course, and we must do the things we do without the benefit of a crystal clear view of what lies just over the horizon. That said, as we approach the anniversary of the 2008 tumult, it seems a good time to ask: Are you looking out for trouble—as well as opportunity?

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) That said, the markets have, in recent months, recovered a lot of ground. The S&P 500 index is up more than 50%—if one looks back only to its March 2009 lows. On the other hand, that index is still down a third from its 2007 peak, still 20% lower than it was a year ago. Recovery takes a long time.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

'Looking' Class

Next week PLANSPONSOR and PLANADVISER will open nominations for our Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year awards.

Each year we receive a number of inquiries from advisers about the awards, and many of these fall into a category I tend to think of as “exploratory”—feelers as to what we are looking for.

Well, at its core, what we hope to acknowledge—and, thus, what we are looking for—hasn’t changed at all: advisers who make a difference by enhancing the nation’s retirement security, through their support of plan sponsor and plan participant information, support, and education. And, since its inception, we’ve focused on advisers who do so through quantifiable measures: increased participation, higher deferral rates, better plan and participant asset allocation, and delivering expanded service and/or better expense management.

A Different World

Of course, the world has undergone much change since we first launched those awards, and advisers now have an expanded array of tools at their disposal to make those results a reality—legislatively sanctioned automatic enrollment, contribution-acceleration designs, qualified default investment alternatives, and a broadly greater emphasis on transparency and disclosure of fees. These steps have been good for our industry, great for participant retirement security and, IMHO, have served to raise the bar for our award at the same time.

So, what will we be looking for this year? Well, last month I wrote a column outlining advice I have given to plan sponsors over the year about choosing an adviser. Of those seven areas (see “IMHO: ‘Right’ Minded”), several fall into what I would consider to be a personality match between plan sponsor and adviser—important to a productive working relationship, but not within the scope of our award.

Standards Setting

On the other hand, there are areas—critical areas—that absolutely apply. Now, I’m only one judge (albeit, IMHO, an influential one) on the panel, but advisers I am looking for:

Have established measures and benchmarks for plan success. Those benchmarks should include the measures noted above: participation, deferral rates, asset allocation. If you can’t tell me what your targets are and how your client base stands in relation to those targets, IMHO, you’re using the “wrong” benchmarks. I’m also interested in advisers who not only use those as a matter of course in running their business, but who develop them in partnership with their plan sponsor clients—and who regularly and routinely communicate results to their plan sponsor clients.

Fully and freely disclose their compensation. I’m frankly a lot less concerned with how you get paid than that your plan sponsor clients know what they are paying for your services.

Work at staying current on trends, regulations, and product offerings. The best advisers read, attend conferences and/or informational webcasts, have attained (and maintained) applicable designations, and commit to a regular course of continuing education during the course of the year. This business is constantly changing; if you’re not constantly learning, you—and your clients—are being left behind.

Encourage and inspire their clients. Client referrals have always been a key element in our award, and as the overall quantitative standards rise, the significance of the qualitative element afforded by client references (and award nominations) will almost certainly increase. How often do you talk with your clients? How often do you visit? How—and how often—do you communicate with them regarding regulatory and legislative changes? You know what you’re trying to do for your clients—do they?

Are willing to accept fiduciary status with the plans they serve. This is an area our judges have debated vigorously over the years. I’ll admit some great advisers have been barred from accepting fiduciary status by forces they don’t control. I’m not (yet) saying you have to be willing to accept fiduciary status in order to get my vote, but it’s a factor—and, IMHO, an increasingly important one.

We launched our Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award in 2005 to acknowledge "the contributions of the nation's best financial advisers in helping make retirement security a reality for workers across the nation." It has always been our goal to bring to light the very best practices of the nation’s very best advisers (and adviser teams), and in so doing, to help set—by their example—new standards for excellence in dealing with workplace retirement plans.

That’s what we’re looking for—and looking forward to acknowledging—this year as well.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

P.S. Information about the nomination form/process will be published in the September 8 issue of PLANADVISERdash.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

“To Do” List—Part 2

Being a plan fiduciary is a tough job—and one that, it’s probably fair to say—is underappreciated, if not undercompensated. In my experience, most who find themselves in that role (see “IMHO: Duty Call”) do an admirable job of living up to the spirit, if not the letter, of their responsibilities.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of areas in which we could do a better job. In this week’s column, we’ll touch on the rest of my “10 things you’re probably doing wrong” list:

6. Thinking your plan qualifies for 404(c) protection—and misunderstanding what that means.

Any number of studies suggest that many, perhaps most, plan sponsors think their plan meets the standards of ERISA 404(c ), a provision that ostensibly shields them from being sued for participant investment decisions, so long as certain conditions are met.

On the other hand, industry experts are nearly uniform in their assessment that very few, perhaps no, plans meet those standards (though the courts have been somewhat more liberal in their application). So, even if you think your plan does comply—check. And even if your plan does comply, understand that, while 404(c)’s shield may offer some protection against an individual participant suit, it offers no insulation against a participant suit predicated on an inappropriate investment option. Remember, too, that the DoL thinks you’re responsible for every participant investment decision except those behind 404(c)’s “shield.”

7. Depositing contributions on a timely basis.

The legal requirement for when contributions must be deposited to the plan is perhaps one of most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. Unfortunately, a delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common flags that an employer is in financial trouble—and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

8. (Not) monitoring providers on a regular basis.

In some sense, we all “monitor” the performance of plan providers all the time. Is the Web site available when people try to access it? Do checks and statements arrive on time? Are the balances displayed accurate? The reality is that, for most of us, no news is seen as “good” news. After all, if the answer to any of those questions was “no,” we’d not only know about it, we’d be complaining about it (after fending off our own set of complaining phone calls). Odds are that you have a very full-time job dealing with the things that are “broken”—why go looking for trouble?

However, relationships with providers are like any other relationship—we all slip into “ruts” of complacency—and the best way to keep that new customer “honeymoon” feeling alive is to do something as simple as ask your current provider for a regular service review. At least once a year—no matter how well things are going—you should determine if your plan has access to the new services that have come online since you converted; that you are getting the advantages of the most current thinking about costs and fees; and how your plan’s participation, deferral, and asset diversification stack up. And every three to five years (sooner if there are problems, of course), you should go through a formal request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) process—on your own, or with the help of an adviser (who doubtless has more experience with such things).

Remember also that the DoL says that, “Among other duties, fiduciaries have a responsibility to ensure that the services provided to their plan are necessary and that the cost of those services is reasonable.”

9. Not following the terms of the plan document.

Plan documents are, after all, legal documents and can skirt the fringes of readability. Retirement plans develop certain patterns or routines—the way things are handled—that may not, over time, remain consistent with the terms of the plan. Particularly if you are using a plan document prepared by a provider (or, worse, an ex-provider) that may well accommodate that provider’s approach, but may not match (or may not have kept up with) how you actually administer the plan. It is a good idea to do a document/process “audit” every couple of years; don’t assume that “the way we’ve always done things” is supported by the legal document governing your plan.

10. Not realizing who is a fiduciary—and what that means.

The first thing to understand is who a plan fiduciary is, and to understand that the “test” isn’t what you call yourself (or, in some cases, what you avoid calling yourself), but your ability to control and influence plan assets. A fiduciary is any person or entity named in the plan document (e.g., the plan sponsor and trustee); any person or entity that has discretionary authority over the management of a retirement plan or its assets (all individuals exercising discretion in the administration of the plan, all members of a plan’s administrative committee—if it has such a committee—and those who select committee officials); and any person or entity that offers investment advice with respect to plan assets, for a fee.

Remember too, that the authority to appoint a fiduciary makes you a fiduciary—and that hiring a “co-fiduciary” does not make you an “ex” fiduciary.

If you are a fiduciary, and you feel that you lack the expertise to make those decisions, you will of course want—and, in fact, are expected—to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.

Finally, remember that, IMHO, you’re more likely to get sued for not doing something you should be doing than for doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

You can find more information on fulfilling your fiduciary responsibilities at the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s (EBSA) Web site HERE