Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Forces

It’s been a stressful week—and it’s not over yet.

Over the past 10 days, I’ve managed to survive three college move-ins, an earthquake in our nation’s capital and—with a little luck—a hurricane bearing down on the Northeast even as I write this column.

Now, I know it’s summer—Labor Day is only a week off—and there’s a lot looming over our industry’s head, but the fact is, I am—perhaps like many of you—having trouble focusing on anything other than Hurricane Irene.

See, we live in a neighborhood that seems particularly prone to losing power, and we’re frequently the last in our town to have it restored—and that’s when we don’t have a hurricane sweeping the Eastern seaboard!

It’s bad enough to be without power for several days, but the last time it happened, it was accompanied by some significant rainfall, and we quickly found out (the hard way) that the sump pump that normally keeps that extra water from pouring into our basement requires electricity to function. Fortunately, we were able to borrow a neighbor’s generator before things got too out of hand, and once we were past that crisis, I determined never to go through that again. Figuring that a small portable generator was a prudent investment, I did a little online shopping, decided I knew NOTHING about portable generators, made a mental note to go back to it when I had time to deal with it… and never did.

Now, life throws a lot of curve balls at you—and forces of nature, more often than not, simply happen with little, if any warning. Hurricanes, on the other hand, you tend to see a long way off. Oh, there’s always the chance that they will peter out sooner than expected, that landfall will result in a dramatic shift in course and/or intensity, or that, like with Hurricane Katrina, the real impact is what happens afterward.

But still, hurricanes don’t generally spring up out of nowhere the way that tornadoes (or earthquakes) do. Incredibly, these massive storms with 100+ mile-per-hour winds seem to creep slowly toward land (with the relentless determination of a zombie in a George Romero classic) over a series of days.

In theory, that provides you with time to prepare—but, this week anyway, it mostly seems to have provided time to wonder why I didn’t do more.

I suppose a lot of participants are going to look back at our working lives that way as they near the threshold of retirement. They’ll remember the admonitions about saving sooner, saving more, the importance of regular, prudent reallocations of investment portfolios. Sure, you can find yourself forced suddenly into an unplanned retirement, but most have plenty of time; not only to see it coming, but to do something about it.

But only if they choose to do so before their retirement storm makes landfall.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, August 21, 2011

“Checking” Accounts

I finally got to the dentist last week.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my dentist. The folks there are more than nice, they treat you like an adult (even when you clearly haven’t flossed since your last visit), and they outline options in a way that feels like you actually have a choice (including my personal favorite, “If it’s not bothering you, do nothing”).

That said, it had been a ridiculously long time since I had been there. Honestly, I knew it had been a while, but when my dentist pulled out his (detailed) record of my last visit—well, let’s just say I couldn’t believe it had been that long. In fact, I think if I had known how long it had been before I went, I might well have postponed it again, if only to spare myself the embarrassment.

Fortunately, despite my extended hiatus, things were in pretty good shape. Sure, the cleaning was more painful than it might have been, but overall, things were better than I had a right to expect.

After the market tumult of the past several weeks, I’m sure there are a lot of plan participants who are nervous about the state of their retirement savings accounts, and perhaps rightly so. I’m betting that, for most, it’s been longer than they think since they checked those accounts—and despite the recent headlines, those accounts may be in better shape than they expect.

The mantra in such times is, inevitably, “stay the course”—wise counsel in most situations, particularly since the impulse in such times is often action that one comes to regret in the fullness of time. However, for some, just sitting still and “taking” what the markets choose to inflict on your retirement savings can be excruciating.

To Do List

Here are some things participants can do while waiting for things to turn around—things they may have been putting off:

Get started on rebalancing by changing the investment elections of new contributions, rather than transferring existing balances. It will take longer to realign the entire account, but at least you aren't realizing those as-yet-unrealized losses.

Increase current deferral rates. When you think about just how much cheaper those retirement plan investments are now, it's hard to pass up that kind of bargain. More so if you aren't yet saving at the maximum level of the match.

Consider automated rebalancing. Most providers now have in place mechanisms that will, on some preset frequency (monthly, quarterly, annually), automatically rebalance individual accounts in accordance with investment elections. It's a good way to keep things in balance without having to worry (or remember) about the best time to do so.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Decision “Points”

I have watched with increasing interest the growing furor over the Department of Labor’s proposed new fiduciary definition. My first impressions of the proposal were positive: generally speaking, IMHO, the more people who work with ERISA plans that conduct themselves as ERISA fiduciaries, the better. The notion that broadening that standard would serve to “run off” those not as committed to this business bothered me not at all.

However, and as is often the case with new regulations, areas of concern began to pop up. Those involved with the valuation of privately held stock in Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) were initially most strident, though the work they do has a tremendous impact on thousands of employer and employee accounts. More recently, and of more interest to many advisers, the Department of Labor’s temerity in bringing IRA accounts under the ERISA fiduciary umbrella has drawn fire from “more than three thousand advisers,” according to the Financial Services Institute (FSI), which has led that charge. Indeed, having despaired of getting the ear of the Department of Labor, FSI says those letters have been directed to the White House itself. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal dedicated space on its editorial page to the issue (the author was opposed to the proposal).

Meanwhile, at a hearing at the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions last month, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed Phyllis Borzi, Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), to rethink the proposal, citing concerns that it cuts too broadly and that it could extract a financial toll as yet undetermined by the regulator (see Borzi Makes Case for Fiduciary Definition Change). And yet, by all accounts, at this point DoL remains unwilling to budge.

One ought not be too surprised, I suppose, at those lobbying so fiercely to preserve the status quo. For good or ill, this industry has grown up around the so-called five-part test for an ERISA fiduciary. Entire business practices and means of conducting business have been constructed with an eye toward avoiding becoming ensnared in ERISA’s web. Moreover, the compensation strictures imposed by ERISA would be problematic, at best, for many of those who currently serve the IRA market—even if a growing percentage of those assets have grown under ERISA’s auspices. Still, there’s an irony in the vehemence with which they protest the potential loss of valued counsel by investors—even as they refuse to embrace a standard that would require them to put the interests of those investors ahead of their own.

Proponents (and here I’m not just talking about the DoL) are nearly as unseemly in their rigid adherence to imposing change, ostensibly to protect investors who have had their retirement savings plundered by advisers operating outside ERISA’s strictures. For proof, they trot out, among other things, a dated study that claims to have discovered, based on a very limited sampling, that pension consultants might have a conflict of interest that could affect the advice they provide to plan sponsors. Or, one is tempted to add, they might not (see “IMHO: ‘Might’ Makes Right”). In Congressional testimony, Secretary Borzi cited research that purports to demonstrate a negative impact from potential conflicts of interest by the adviser, only to acknowledge “that none of this research evidence necessarily demonstrates abuse.”

Worse, while they acknowledge that the proposal in its current form might be poorly crafted to deal with certain specific issues, they seem to expect the industry to “trust” them to fix those problems after the regulation is issued via interpretative guidance, the issuance of prohibitive transaction exemptions, or the like.

Without doubt, ERISA’s fiduciary definition was crafted at a very different time, and the industry has undergone much change in the interim. One can understand the reluctance to embrace change that might transform a casual comment about a fund into a fiduciary obligation, and the hesitancy to extend ERISA’s reach to the individual IRA market. On the other hand, particularly when one considers how much of those funds originated under ERISA’s shield, the irony of withdrawing those protections at retirement—and at a point when those balances might be large enough to attract the attention of the unscrupulous—is, to my eyes anyway, striking.

The retirement industry (in large part) says it wants more time, thought, and analysis devoted to this proposal—and the Labor Department claims it continues to do just that.

It is hard to escape, however, a sense that the proposal’s opponents really just want it to go away—while for proponents, the decision has already been made.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, August 07, 2011

“Fifth” Avenues

The year we began publishing PLANADVISER was a big year in many ways for me – it marked my twentieth wedding anniversary, it was the year my father passed away, the year my eldest went off to college for the first time, and also the year that “catch-up contributions” became an item of more-than-passing interest to me.

In recent weeks, I’ve had occasion to think back on those past five years, and all that has transpired – the Pension Protection Act, QDIAs. the back-and-forth on fiduciary advisers, the first wave (and subsequent flurry) of revenue-sharing lawsuits, the growing emphasis on transparency and disclosure, the growth – and questions about – target-date funds, the “normalization” of a fiduciary role for retirement plan advisers, and more recently, the back-and-forth on an expanded fiduciary definition. Like many of you, I can still recall the tumultuous news of September 2008 – all hitting during our PLANADVISER National Conference that year.

While it’s fun and interesting to look back at what’s gone on the past several years – to imagine what might have been, and perhaps to rue what has, it’s clear that we’ve all come a long way over the past five years - and little question that we have an interesting road ahead as well.

Here are five things I think we can count on for the next five years:

Participant fee disclosure won’t matter.

Let’s face it; most participants don’t do anything with their retirement accounts. Most never realign balances, most don’t ever change the amount they defer, and – thankfully, most leave those accounts alone at times when we’re all worried that they will not. I’m betting, for all the angst about participant fee disclosures, most won’t read them – and even fewer will do anything in response. With luck, by the time they get those disclosures, they won’t feel the need.

Plan sponsor fee disclosure will matter.

It’s no easy thing for a plan sponsor to up and change providers. All other things being equal, most would rather crawl over hot coals than deal with all the additional work (and decisions) attendant with those changes. That said, once fee disclosures become more public, and, shall we say, “systematic” – well, I expect plan sponsors will have a lot of “help” reviewing the information. While I don’t expect a massive surge in provider changes, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of “haggling” will take place.

Advisers that work with ERISA plans will need to be ERISA fiduciaries.

Arguably it’s already tough to win a piece of ERISA business against an adviser willing to claim fiduciary status. But I think we’ve already passed the tipping point, and if market forces weren’t sufficiently persuasive, the regulators now seem determined to press the issue.

We’ll come to regret our complacency about target-date fund designs.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, much was made of the variations in target-date glide paths, the disparity in assumptions that resulted in wildly different results for those just a couple of years away from retirement. Since then, the markets have repaired much of that damage, but little appears to have been done in terms of rethinking the assumptions and structures of those funds. More troubling is how little movement has since been apparent among plans that felt burned, but ostensibly were ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of those differences in 2008.

Retirement income will (still) be the big thing we all say needs to be solved that (still) isn’t.

Mark Twain once famously remarked that “everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, you can’t say that people haven’t been doing things about retirement income. In fact, there have been some pretty remarkable developments over the past couple of years. The Obama Administration has certainly tried to jumpstart the discussion, if not adoption of such designs. A truly comprehensive safe harbor could be a game-changer here – but I’m guessing that there won’t be a target-date “simple” solution here. Not that there should be …

- Nevin E. Adams, JD