Sunday, September 25, 2011

“Better” Business

There was another judicial decision in another revenue-sharing case earlier this month—and another victory for a plan sponsor.

The case was Loomis v. Exelon (see Another Plan Sponsor Win on Revenue-Sharing), a case argued before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had previously weighed in on the case that appears to be setting the tone in most of these cases, “Hecker v. Deere & Co.” Hecker, as you may recall, involved a situation with a large, multi-billion-dollar plan that offered its participants access to a couple of dozen funds from a single provider alongside a self-directed brokerage window that afforded access to funds beyond that. The 7th Circuit dismissed that challenge, finding that the competitive forces of the market were sufficient to ensure reasonable fee levels for the specific funds on the menu, and that, if the participants felt otherwise, they could always pursue other options via the brokerage window.

In Exelon, there was no brokerage window, though there were 32 fund options, mostly (24) mutual funds—mutual funds that were retail-class funds. Once again, the 7th Circuit noted that “all of these funds were also offered to investors in the general public, and so the expense ratios necessarily were set against the backdrop of market competition,” and restated its holding in Hecker that “nothing in ERISA requires every fiduciary to scour the market to find and offer the cheapest possible fund.” And then the court launched off into what, IMHO, was an odd juxtaposition of the benefits of those retail funds against “institutional” funds, which it claimed don’t offer the same level of liquidity, transparency, and ability to benchmark against comparable investments. Really? Have they never heard of an “I” share?

I once opined that, based on the Hecker decision, I would advise plan sponsors to give “participants LOTS of fund choices —via a brokerage window if possible—and I would make sure that there were at least some low-cost fund choices available via that window,” and that, among other things, I wouldn't concern myself “overly much with the fees paid by the plan/participants—so long as those fees were paid via mutual fund expense ratios that are the same as those paid by investors in the retail market” (see IMHO: “‘Winning’ Ways?” ). It was a tongue-in-cheek remark, of course, but the Hecker decision struck me as heavily dependent on free-market principles: Participants weren’t forced to put money in the plan, those who chose to do so weren’t forced into any particular option, and the fees associated with those options were, almost by definition, reasonable since they were subject to free and fair market forces.

That same court was similarly inclined here—and, if you can’t embrace the rationale, one can at least appreciate the consistency.

More than that, in this case, the 7th Circuit noted that Exelon had no real motivation to put “bad” fund options on the retirement plan menu. “[T]here is no reason to think that Exelon chose these funds to enrich itself at participants’ expense. To the contrary, Exelon had (and has) every reason to use competition in the market for fund management to drive down the expenses charged to participants, because the larger participants’ net gains, the better Exelon’s pension plan is. That enables Exelon to recruit better workers, or reduce wages and pension contributions without making the total package of compensation (wages plus fringe benefits) less attractive. Competition thus assists both employers and employees, as Hecker observed.”

The question here isn’t whether Exelon, or any employer, reaps personal benefit from the plan, or how it is structured. Employers do, of course, reap the recruiting/retention benefits of providing a robust and competitive package of benefits, alongside certain tax benefits—though, in my experience, these pale in comparison to the investment of time, money, and effort required. The decision to offer a plan, like the decision to participate, is voluntary. Bad law and intrusive regulation can weigh on the former, and poor plan design and lax administration can surely restrain the latter.

ERISA fiduciaries are, however, not merely expected to offer a “competitive” program, nor is it enough to simply steer clear of arrangements that enrich their bottom line at the expense of participants. Rather, every plan decision is supposed to be not just in the interests, but in the BEST interests, of participants, and from the perspective—or with the assistance—of experts in the field.

That test may, of course, be satisfied by merely offering access to the same types of investments available to retail investors, but, IMHO, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect—better.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, September 18, 2011

IMHO: Working “Outs”?

Last week the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on “promoting retirement security.”

While options were presented to improve things (see “Industry Groups Urge No Changes to Retirement Savings Tax Advantages”), the discussion quickly veered toward a debate on whether and how well—or poorly—the current system is working.

That said, listening to the witnesses,1 one might well have thought they were discussing completely different systems—from one that is striking a good balance between incentivizing employers and encouraging participants to one that is all about providing tax benefits for saving to those who don’t require such enticements; from one that is putting too much responsibility on individual savers to one that has managed to, on a voluntary basis, draw the support of roughly eight in 10 workers. One that has failed, and seems unlikely to ever deliver a real retirement income solution—or one that has the potential to make that a reality.

Metrics Systems

As always, the devil is in the details—and perhaps in the definitions underlying those details. As the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) Dr. Jack VanDerhei pointed out in testimony submitted for the hearing, “Unfortunately, the ‘success’ of these plans issometimes measured by metrics that are not at all relevant to the potential for defined contribution plans to provide a significant portion of a worker’s pre‐retirement income.” Among those metrics, VanDerhei cited such things as the “average” 401(k) balance and what it would provide in retirement income (with no adjustment for the reality that many, if not most, of the participants in the denominator of that calculation are years, if not decades, away from retirement age), and even the focus on what the average balance is for workers nearing retirement age—but only applying that calculation to the 401(k) balance with the employee’s current employer.2

Judy Miller, Chief of Actuarial Issues/Director of Retirement Policy, American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries, outlined several “myths” in her testimony, including the notion that the current tax incentives are dramatically tilted toward upper-income workers,3 that those incentives cost the government money (there is a cost to the government’s deferral of taxation, of course, but the government does get its money eventually, albeit generally outside the government’s projection windows), and that only about half of working Americans have access to a workplace retirement plan. Miller noted the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 78% of all full-time civilian workers had access to retirement benefits at work, with 84% of those workers participating in these arrangements—a far cry from the “common wisdom” that too many in our industry still parrot.4

In fact, the devil in that particular statistic depends on whom you want to include as the “relevant” workforce—or perhaps the point you want to make.

There are some things we do know. First, given the opportunity, the vast majority of workers save for retirement via their workplace retirement plan, and that, outside those structures, they don’t. We know that the vast majority of workers that are automatically enrolled in such programs stay enrolled, that most who have their rate of savings automatically increased leave those increases in place. We know that workers whose deferral rates are set by default don’t change those defaults. We know that workers tend to save at the level of the employer match, when a matching contribution is available. We also have, thanks to EBRI, an emerging body of evidence that the current structures can produce, alongside Social Security, reasonable levels of retirement income.

We also know that most employers that offer a workplace retirement plan contribute something of value to those plans: an employer contribution, a matching contribution, and/or the time/expense of running the plan—or more than one of the foregoing. Moreover, there is strong anecdotal evidence that, lacking the incentives of the current tax structures, fewer employers will offer—or support—those programs than do at present.

Therefore, based on what we do know, it would seem that we should (1) to continue to encourage the establishment of defaults high enough to better ensure a satisfying outcome without undermining participation, and (2) to provide for systems that will move those default savings thresholds higher over time.

More importantly, IMHO, we should do everything we can to encourage more employers to offer, and to continue to offer, these programs.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 Arguably, the best days of our current voluntary savings structures are ahead of us, but the sheer data on retirement savings accumulations in defined contribution plans and individual retirement accounts are impressive. During the hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) noted that “more money has been set aside for retirement in defined contribution plans and IRAs than in Social Security.” Hatch said, “The Social Security Trust Fund holds $2.6 trillion in Treasury securities. But private, employer-based defined contribution plans hold $4.7 trillion. And IRAs hold even more: $4.9 trillion.”

2 For a broader discussion on this topic, see also “IMHO: Comparison ‘Points’

3 In her testimony, ASPPA’s Miller noted that households with incomes of less than $50,000 pay only about 8% of all income taxes, but receive 30% of the defined contribution plan tax incentives. Households with less than $100,000 in AGI pay about 26% of income taxes, but receive about 62% of the defined contribution plan tax incentives.

4 EBRI’s Jack VanDerhei offers an insightful analysis of these numbers in Appendix B of his testimony. I commend it to your review.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“Back” Pay?

During last week’s GOP presidential candidate debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry grabbed headlines by reaffirming his position that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.”

Pundits were quick to jump on the comment, apparently believing that such rhetoric will “spook” the electorate (specifically older and independent voters) and ultimately make Perry unelectable, while purists were quick to point out the distinctions between the operation and intent of the two approaches, apparently believing that the technical distinction would matter (to anyone besides purists).

True, a Ponzi scheme, such as the one Bernie Madoff ran, as well as Charles Ponzi’s original design, is positioned as an investment. Investors hand over money to someone, believing that their money will be invested and grow. Instead, the scheme “runner” generally pays off longer-term participants with money invested by newer investors. Sooner or later, there are not enough new investors to fulfill those expectations and the whole thing blows up—though, depending on the sales skills of the Ponzi purveyor (and the expectations of the investors), it can run for years.

Technically speaking, Social Security is not an investment program. Despite those individual withholding statements provided occasionally by the Social Security Administration, nobody has a Social Security “account” into which all those years of FICA withholdings (not to mention the employer contributions) are deposited. People who see those Social Security checks in retirement as a return of the money they put in (with interest) are, IMHO, misguided (at best), though politicians have long found it in their interest for workers to see a link between the two.

That said, IMHO, most Americans don’t “pay into” Social Security because we expect that we’ll receive those benefits; we do so because it is required by law. Whatever that system’s historic success, and the dependence of the nation’s retirees on its benefits, I think most in my generation—and certainly those in my children’s—have doubts as to its long-term financial sustainability. Adjustments have been made over time to address those potential shortfalls—the retirement age has been lifted, the taxes withheld from current pay to fund that system have been increased, the benefits eventually paid from that system have been subjected to taxation (effectively reducing benefits)—and these days, most honest politicians will admit that those same kinds of changes will be required again to avert a future crisis.

Moreover, that payroll tax “holiday” that we took for the past year—and that President Obama has now proposed to extend—is, whatever its benefit to the nation’s sluggish economy, money that is effectively being “diverted” from the Social Security trust fund (as in many American households, retirement savings apparently must take a back-seat to the here-and-now).

Whatever you want to call it, to my eyes, Social Security is basically a societal retirement income insurance policy. Those FICA withholdings are premiums and, depending on our life circumstances, we may or may not collect on it. One thing is for sure, however: Whether it’s for life insurance, car insurance, or Social Security, when we make those payments, we expect that we will receive the benefit(s) for which we contracted. Older workers are, naturally, counting on receiving those benefits—because they have been told they can expect them by a reliable source, because they have spent a lifetime dutifully making those payments, and because they have seen their elders do the same. But whatever label you may put on it, the reality of Social Security is that many of yesterday’s (and today’s) recipients have received benefits far in excess of what they put in, and many, perhaps most, of tomorrow’s recipients will never get theirs “back.”

Is Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”? Perhaps not, but its current design and operation still rely on assumptions and structures that share striking similarities.

A Ponzi scheme needs faith and trust of its investors to be sustained. Ultimately, so will Social Security.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Best for Success

Today PLANSPONSOR opens nominations for our Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year awards.

Each year we receive a number of inquiries from advisers and plan sponsors 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.

At its core, what we hope to acknowledge—and, thus, what we are looking for—hasn’t changed from when we first launched the award in 2005: 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. 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

The world has, of course, 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, there are many attributes that can make for a good adviser, or an adviser that is good for a particular plan. But when it comes to choosing an adviser or adviser team that stands apart from the rest, that not only sets an example, but a standard for the industry, I look for advisers that:

Have established measures and benchmarks for plan success. Those benchmarks should include the measures noted above: participation, deferral rates, asset allocation. If an adviser can’t tell me what those targets are and how your plan stands in relation to those targets, IMHO, they are 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 those results.

Fully and freely disclose their compensation. I’m frankly a lot less concerned with how advisers get paid than that their plan sponsor clients know what they are paying for those 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 your adviser is not constantly learning, you 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 does your adviser talk with you? How often do they visit? How—and how often—do they communicate with you regarding regulatory and legislative changes? Do you feel like they know what’s going on – or are you generally the one to break the news to your adviser?

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 blocked 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.

That’s what I’m looking for—and looking forward to acknowledging—this year. If your adviser – or adviser team – is worthy of that recognition, I hope you will take the time to nominate them today!

You can nominate an adviser for PLANSPONSOR’s Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year, or Retirement Plan Adviser Team of the Year at