Illustration depicting a green roadsign with a optimistic concept. White background.

Most of us are disciplined enough to put together a financial plan or seek the help of an advisor. While true that retirement planning is important, the future should not give way to living life in the present. If you agree that every day is a gift, check out a new movie called The Hero.

Starring Sam Elliott, the recipe is straightforward. Take one aging actor who learns he has a serious illness. Add a younger love interest, a friend with a questionable work ethic, a caring ex-wife and a disappointed daughter. The result is a tale of redemption and a story about hope. The audience sees a man who is sympathetic because he wants a second chance to make a difference in the lives of those around him.

The Hero is a quiet film and likely too slow-paced for some. However, for those who crave solid character development and a ride towards grace, grab some popcorn and head to the theater without delay. Your reward is a chance to watch someone grow by recognizing his limitations and then being willing to ask for help. Lucky for him, he gets it aplenty.

There are flashbacks to the hero’s glory days as a celluloid cowboy, motivating viewers to distinguish good deeds from bad ones and understand that reality and make-believe can collide.  The scenes of this lanky “everyman” eating, sleeping and appreciating the nearby ocean are far from mundane. They reflect the “extraordinary ordinary” moments, something I describe in my book The Big Squeeze.

Sam Elliott refers to this gem of a movie by Brett Haley as a career brass ring in his June 2017 interview with Variety. I concur. The film is an enjoyable wake-up call for anyone in the doldrums. We root for the main character to live a rich and fulfilling life among friends, family and business associates for whatever time he has left. May we all be so lucky to renew and refresh, even when it seems like life hands us more lemons than we can squeeze into sweet lemonade.

 

This article entitled “Investment Fraud and the Role of Trust” by Dr. Susan Mangiero was originally published on April 19, 2017 in The Fraud Examiner, a publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners that is distributed to some 65,000 fraud professionals.

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Investment fraud can happen to anyone, and unfortunately, there is no shortage of investment fraud possibilities. Affinity fraud, pyramid schemes, pump-and-dump security trading, high-return or risk-free investments, and pre-IPO scams are only a few of a long-list of schemes that could separate investors from their hard-earned money. 

Investors can find themselves the victims of fraud when they don’t do enough due diligence or put too much faith in the people selling or managing a fund. Investors around the world would be wise to grasp fundamentals of the financial services industry, especially since results from a 2016 survey conducted by the National Association of Retirement Plan Participants show that only one in 10 persons express confidence in financial institutions. Financial advisers are similarly viewed with doubt. This is problematic.

Due in part to these concerns, very few people are adequately saving for retirement and those with money frequently invest in riskier assets in hopes of high returns. Following the 2008 credit crisis, people are changing the kinds of assets allocated in their pension plans and foundation portfolios. Taking more risks isn’t necessarily bad as long as investors sufficiently understand what is being offered to them and have assurances that sufficient safeguards are in place. Moreover, savers urgently need reliable help. Fragile confidence in the intentions of financial service providers creates a friction that can discourage investors from getting the input they need.

But investment fraud isn’t just a problem for individuals. When it occurs, it taints the financial services industry and the professionals who operate with high integrity and put customers first. Low trust of an entire industry can invite additional regulation. The net effect can be unfair penalties that diligent investment stewards must pay for the trespasses of fraudsters.

Increasing Investor Confidence

Although there is no such thing as a risk-free investment, investors can take action to detect red flags and hopefully avoid problems. With the Madoff Ponzi scheme, there were some who seriously questioned whether the touted strategy was legitimate, let alone viable, and did not invest. Regarding Enron, some investors looked askance at the energy company’s reliance on a complex web of special purpose vehicles. One lesson learned from the Bayou hedge fund scandal is to verify whether auditors are independent and well respected.

In its guide for seniors, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission urges the use of publicly available databases to check the disciplinary history of brokers and advisors, warning that investors should “never judge a person’s integrity by how he or she sounds.” The guide also says to avoid those who use fear tactics and to thoroughly review documents. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority cautions investors not to be pressured or to believe that a “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be lost without immediate action.

To help combat investment fraud, the North American Securities Administrators Association teamed up with the Canadian Securities Administrators to create an online quiz that anyone can take to enhance awareness of what to avoid.

Although there are organizations that formally grade companies on their trustworthiness, investors should not rely on a single metric alone. Instead they should study whether a financial service provider has a good reputation in the marketplace and what the company is doing to manage its economic and operational risks.

Financial service companies likewise have responsibilities to be trustworthy and ensure that adequate protections are put in place. Some of these critical action steps include:

  • Setting up controls to prevent rogue trading
  • Appropriately compensating salespersons to minimize conflicts
  • Providing existing and potential customers with clear and understandable investment documents
  • Regularly communicating what the organization does well to lower risks for its customers
  • Calling out questionable activities of its competitors and working with industry organizations to improve risk management and fraud prevention techniques.

Disclaimer: The information provided by this article should not be construed as financial or legal advice. The reader should consult with his or her own advisors.

As I understand, the term "consultative selling" was first used by author and sales expert Mack Hanan. The concept is simple. Know what your customer needs and offer them solutions to their problems. The process is a two-way street. Both buyer and provider are actively involved and should communicate clearly and with respect. While lots of advisors and their firms find themselves on the A list, there is a continuing flurry of lawsuits being filed that allege self-dealing, opacity of disclosures and reasonableness of fees. Visit the 401k Help Center website section regarding court decisions and legal activity to read for yourself.

As with any industry, the investment community is constantly self-examining its practices in order to improve. This is a positive thing. As I point out in "Fake News, Plagiarism and Business Ethics," good players have a vested interest in self-policing since they can be tainted, reputation-wise, as the result of bad actions of others. I’ve spoken to hundreds of buyers of financial services who question the checks and balances of those who manage their money or otherwise influence their retirement planning decisions. Frequent and clear communications with their respective advisor, consultant or portfolio executive can go a long way in assuring the doubting Thomas. There is no shortage of inspiration about how to effectively interact.

Over the holidays, I observed a back and forth between sellers and buyers at a national jewelry store. While waiting my turn, I watched shop clerks attend to customers who seemed thoroughly prepared with questions about quality and price. I’m not a big purveyor of charms but was certainly impressed with the breadth of knowledge on both sides of the cash register. I can relate. As my friends know, I have a penchant for perfume and like to treat myself to a new scent now and then. I do my research in advance, visiting sites like Fragrantica.com. Wine connoisseurs are similarly motivated to gather information and sellers are wise to help educate them.

Whenever the product or service is personal, sellers must respond accordingly. Empower potential or existing customers with straightforward information. Be prepared to answer questions. Treat each client with respect as if they really count. For some organizations, the cost of selling could be too high unless the transaction is "large enough." Size is a perfectly fine business model to adapt but make it known in a courteous way that minimums apply. A small investor today could be your large investor tomorrow.

Most selling involves humans and that means that behaviors can’t be ignored. Before he passed away, famed sales guru Zig Ziglar said "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want."

Kudos to Chris Carosa for his continued efforts as publisher of Fiduciary News. I share his mission to educate and provide independent insights. That is why I was delighted to be one of the contributors to his recent article, "These Five Developments Dramatically Changed the Retirement Fiduciary World in 2016."

My view is that it is hard to pinpoint standalone issues. So many areas overlap. For example, a discussion about fiduciary litigation frequently involves questions about the reasonableness of fees. A conversation about fees often means talking about asset allocation as well. An analysis of asset allocation trends is commonly linked to investment performance realizations. When one talks about returns, it is usually in the context of economic forecasts. Overlay regulatory mandates, including the imminent U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule, and it becomes apparent that retirement plan governance is complex territory. Nevertheless, Chris did a noble job of listing significant and distinct trends with his readers. His list includes the following:

  • Capital Markets – Low interest rates continue to challenge both institutional and individual investors. The pension risk transfer market is experiencing unprecedented growth as sponsors seek to focus less on retirement plan management and more on operating their core businesses. Post-election, the U.S. market seems poised for better returns in 2017 although it is thought that low-cost index funds will remain popular.
  • Excessive Fee Litigation – The attention paid to fee levels and the process of assessing reasonableness continues to grow. Some believe that the proliferation of lawsuits has resulted in improved governance regarding the selection and review of various funds. I am quoted as saying that "…investors in search of turbo-charged performance struggled with the reality that the costs of alternatives, derivatives and structured products are generally higher than passive funds."
  • Fiduciary Rule – Uncertainty is the watchword with multiple plan sponsors unsure about what they might want to delegate to a third party. Consulting firms that offer independent fiduciary services have an opportunity to help their clients solve real compliance problems.
  • State Sponsored Private Employee Retirement Plans – Deemed controversial by some, these arrangements to help small business employees are being rolled out by states throughout the nation. The goal is to encourage savings over the long-term although I have doubts about accountability and redress for disgruntled participants. Click to read "State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees" (June 9, 2016) and "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps" (June 5, 2016).
  • Presidential Race – Carosa writes "Of all the events of 2016, nothing will have had more of an impact than the presidential election." Perhaps he is correct. Already the yearend markets have been chugging upward and optimism is on the rise. Yet there are questions about whether regulations such as the Fiduciary Rule will be weakened or perhaps eliminated altogether. Should that occur, financial service industry executives will need to respond.

The article lists other developments including restructuring deals. I am quoted as saying "Restructuring deals have made 2016 a notable year in terms of the number of pension risk transfers and the outsourcing of the responsibilities of a Chief Investment Officer to a third party. Bankruptcy has catalyzed the restructuring of multiple plans, much to the dismay of the savers who have been asked to accept lower benefits. Service providers who have been ordered by the courts to take less favorable terms as swap counterparties or consultants are correspondingly glum."

President John F. Kennedy declared "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." I concur. Where there is disruption, there is always the opportunity to address a problem and win the hearts and wallets of investors.

Here’s to a terrific 2017. Happy holidays!

According to an August 17 press release from Fidelity Investments, "fiduciary responsibility tops plan sponsors’ reasons for hiring advisors." What’s more, this poll of nearly 1,000 defined contribution plan decision-makers makes clear that knowledgeable third parties have an edge in being hired and retained, especially if they can offer input about plan design and investment selection. Cited areas of concern include the following:

  • Increasing employee participation;
  • Properly measuring investment performance; and
  • Making sure that investment risk goals are heeded.

A 2016 Mass Mutual survey reveals similar findings that plan sponsors want help with plan design, discharging fiduciary duties and investment selection. Moreover, about two-thirds of respondents said they want an advisor who works with companies like theirs. 

It’s no surprise then that educational initiatives continue to develop in response to changing regulations and an enhanced focus on fiduciary duties. As announced last month, the American Retirement Association has partnered with Morningstar "to develop a fiduciary education and best practices program for advisors."

April 2017 will be a busy month for many as they seek to comply with large chunks of the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule.

Retirement planning is hard work and requires discipline and care. Few of us can rely on luck or the proverbial leprechaun‘s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Assessing uncertainty on an ongoing basis is as important as identifying goals. Sadly, I’m not convinced that the topic of risk management is being discussed as often as it should be with workers and retirees alike.

In the last month, I spent copious time reviewing educational materials produced by a handful of financial advisory firms. What I found confirmed my suspicion that coverage of the topic of risk does not often extend beyond an initial assessment of risk tolerance. A prospective client is asked to complete a questionnaire. The financial advisor then reviews the answers and makes a recommendation about what asset allocation mix seems right. When scenario modeling is used, an individual may be given several possible portfolios from which to choose. Ideally, as an individual’s circumstances or goals change, the questionnaire should be completed anew and modifications made accordingly.

Outside of product boilerplate language and short paragraphs about diversification and dollar cost averaging, I did not uncover much information about specific risk management techniques that an individual investor can put to work. This is lamentable. Investment risk management is not just for corporations, financial service companies and governments.

There are lots of techniques that an individual can utilize, starting with the creation of an inventory of what protection is already in place, if any, and a risk map that specifies outcomes that an investor wants to avoid at all costs. In behavioral finance, the desire to avert losses is a well-known psychological bias and should not be ignored. It is important that an individual investor and his financial advisor acknowledge the "worst case" situation as part of setting objectives.

While gauging tolerance for risk is necessary, it is seldom sufficient for several reasons. First, a financial plan may focus only on investments and therefore exclude different kinds of insurance policies that are integral to capturing which risks are already hedged and which ones are not. Second, an investor may realize a target level of return but have a portfolio that is too small to generate sufficient cash flows. Bills are paid with cash, not returns. Third, if securities or funds are selected on the basis of expected return and standard deviation only, material quantitative and qualitative risk factors are likely excluded. As a result, an investor could be assuming "excessive" risk or not enough risk.

As famed author Mark Twain quipped "There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can." One might say he was a risk manager ahead of his time.

No sooner had I written "Financial Technology and the Fiduciary Rule," an invitation to the Future of Finance 2016 appeared in my in-box with the call-out that "Technology is about to revolutionise financial services." (Note the British spelling for this Oxford conference.) Based on session titles, attendees will hear about topics such as how technology can:

  • Be "used to build trusting relationships with clients" and increase transparency;
  • Substitute for "expensive human intermediaries" to lower costs; and
  • Encourage the creation of "simpler and cheaper" insurance and savings products.

Increasingly, angels and venture capitalists are waking up to the fact that the global retirement marketplace is big and ripe for innovation. Earlier today, Goldman Sachs Investment Management Division announced its intent to acquire Honest Dollar. According to CrunchBase, this transaction follows a seed financing last fall to further build a web and mobile platform that allows small businesses to cost-effectively set up retirement plans. Expansive Ventures led that round that includes former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and will.i.am, founder of The Black Eyed Peas musical group.

Yet another indication that investors see "gold in them thar health care and retirement plan hills" is a $30 million capital raise for a company called Namely. Its February 23, 2016 press release lists Sequoia Capital as the lead venture capital firm for this round, bringing its total funding so far to $107.8 million for this "SaaS HR platform for mid-market companies."

Interestingly, in articles about both Honest Dollar and Namely, the tsunami of complex regulations is cited as a reason why employers need help from financial technology organizations. With mandates growing and becoming more muscular, no one should be surprised if cash-rich backers write big checks to financial technology businesses. As Xconomy reporter Angela Shah points out, multiple start-ups are "trying to compete for the 80-plus percent who don’t offer benefits."

There is no doubt that the competitive landscape is changing and will prompt more strategic soul-searching for vendors and policy-makers alike. I’ve listed a few of the many questions in search of answers as things evolve.

  • Will other large financial service organizations like Goldman Sachs swallow up smaller start-ups? If so, does that change the role of angels and venture capitalists?
  • If enough of these companies pop up to serve small businesses and self-employed persons, is there still a need for the product offered by the U.S. government – myRA?
  • Will the U.S. Department of Labor fiduciary rule, if passed into law, accelerate the formation and growth of financial technology companies? If so, how?
  • Will there be a need for more or fewer financial advisors as the financial technology sector grows?
  • Will individuals buy more insurance and savings products? If not, why not?

Life in financial services land will never be dull.

The fact that some people thrive on stress could be a plus if you want to work in the financial services industry. According to "The most (and least) stressful jobs in banking and finance" (efinancialcareers.com, December 31, 2015), careers that were ranked as most stressful to least stressful are as follows:

  • Investment banker;
  • Trader;
  • Risk management and compliance;
  • Wealth management/private banker;
  • Institutional sales;
  • Management consulting;
  • Private equity;
  • Equity research;
  • Fund manager; and
  • Accounting.

Interviews with recruiters and employees mentioned long hours and a lack of control over issues that create problems and demand solutions. Respondents who work in the risk management and compliance areas talked about their frustration when they call out areas in need of improvement but then "nothing is done." 

Other professionals, such as those who work in wealth management, talked about competition as being a source of stress. Making money only occurs after an advisor expends considerable effort to build a big client base but then more time is needed to prevent an aggressive peer from taking assets away.

Besides job-specific concerns, industry changes can be a source of worry if they are expected to radically transform the way business is conducted. Consider the rise of financial technology ("FinTech") or what Inc. Magazine referred to as "One of the Most Promising Industries of 2015." According to a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled "Can Robo Advisers Replace Human Financial Advisors?", assets managed without human intervention grew from $3.7 billion to $8 billion between July 2014 and July 2015. Although critics counter that robots cannot offer individualized advice about specialties such as estate planning, a reliance on automation, if substantial, will result in winners and losers.

Regulatory changes can raise stress levels too, especially if one has little latitude to adapt to a new rule at the individual level. The U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed fiduciary rule is already showing up in the form of strategic corporate decisions that are moving people from one place to another. This week’s announcement about a sale of MetLife’s U.S. advisor unit to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. comes on the heels of the American International Group’s decision to sell its broker-dealer unit rather than potentially incur added compliance costs. See "MetLife exits brokerage business as DOL rule looms" (Investment News, February 29, 2016).

Although not specifically mentioned in articles about stressful jobs, ERISA retirement plan fiduciaries are surely aware of their personal and professional liability exposure. Add the complexities of new legislation and economic challenges such as negative interest rates and it’s not a stretch to understand why some fiduciaries might need to take a few deep breaths to relax. No doubt their public pension colleagues may need a zen moment as well.

For those who missed the January 27 webinar entitled "ERISA Plan Investment Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims," click here to download the slides for this educational program. There were three presenters, each of us sharing a different perspective about this important topic. I spoke about economics and governance. Executive Rhonda Prussack (Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance) provided information about ERISA fiduciary liability insurance. Attorney Richard Siegel (Alston & Bird) offered his takeaways for investment committee members as the result of recent litigation decisions.

As with most discussions about fiduciary considerations, there never seems to be enough time to address core concepts. So it was with this Strafford CLE event. Ninety minutes quickly came and went. Here are some of the highlights from my talk.

  • Expect more surveillance of ERISA investment committee decisions. A $25+ trillion retirement money pot and regulatory developments are two reasons. Just a few days ago, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations ("OCIE") of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") emphasized conflicts of interest and disclosures as two components of its Retirement-Targeted Industry Reviews and Examinations Initiative.
  • It is a good idea to regularly review the Investment Policy Statement for each plan and either revise asset class limits or rebalance to reflect material changes such as rating downgrades of securities owned, changes in company ownership, large reported contingencies that could adversely impact cash flow or corporate recapitalization.
  • Consider crafting a companion Risk Management Policy Statement or beef up the risk sections in the Investment Policy Statement(s).
  • Document the process that dictates how new investment committee members are selected, whether they are trained (and by whom) and how they are reviewed, by whom and how often.
  • Consider installing a central figure or team to negotiate all vendor contracts and clarify exactly who does what. The goal is to avoid an expectation gap that arises when a contract is ambiguous or silent on tasks that an investment committee needs to have done but a service provider does not want to do or thinks it is not obliged to perform. 
  • Double check the compensation of investment committee members to minimize the risk of conflicts of interest. Suppose for example that a Chief Financial Officer ("CFO") sits on an ERISA plan investment committee at the same time that he is eligible for a bonus if he can cut costs.
  • Engage ERISA plan counsel to put together a "kick the tires" team of economists and attorneys who can render an objective assessment of existing internal controls, governance structure and investment policies and procedures and then recommend changes as needed. 

As with any exercise in good stewardship, taking (and documenting) relevant precautionary actions can be a good defense for an ERISA plan investment committee, especially at a time of heightened scrutiny.

As senior ERISA litigation attorney Steve Rosenberg points out in a recent blog post, a service provider with a wayward institutional client could end up in a lose-lose situation. Ignore questionable or illegal conduct and co-fiduciary liability might lead to allegations of breach and a costly fallout for the advisor. Inform authorities and one is likely to lose that client and accompanying revenue.

Referencing a Plan Adviser article entitled "Do Retirement Plan Advisers Have a Duty to ‘Rat?’," Attorney Rosenberg describes this dilemma as a real problem. I concur and offer that the growth in outsourcing arrangements could be a catalyst for further friction unless all parties understand how work is to be allocated and are equally committed to a high standard of care. With over $1.2 trillion categorized as "outsourced assets," there is a lot at stake.

In 2014, the ERISA Advisory Council had an entire forum on the topic of outsourcing of employee benefit plan services. On the topic of duties, law professor Colleen E. Medill testified that "… the courts have not provided much guidance on whether one fiduciary has the right to sue another fiduciary for equitable relief under ERISA.  She noted that this issue will be of increased importance as more employers and other named fiduciaries look to outsource fiduciary functions.  Likely, in a co-fiduciary situation, one fiduciary is more culpable than the other.  Thus, while both fiduciaries are jointly and severally liable under ERISA, the less culpable fiduciary may wish to sue the other fiduciary for damages in a contribution or similar action."

Based on my experience as an expert witness, service provider disputes can arise for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, what I call an expectations gap wherein some task is left undone because it has not been formally assigned. In other situations, a conflict may exist that makes it hard for a third party to act independently on behalf of its institutional client. Of course, an investment committee member(s) may likewise have a conflict that impedes the advisor’s ability to do what he or she is supposed to do. A pay-to-play kickback that involves a trustee with authority to hire an advisor is one example.

As I’ve written about many times, vetting and overseeing service providers by an investment committee is critical. As Attorney Rosenberg reminds his Boston ERISA Law blog readers, knowing one’s customer is likewise important. After all, some lawsuits are brought by plan participants against both internal and outsourced fiduciaries. It is not unreasonable to conclude that working with a governance-focused client and vice versa redounds to the advantage of both buyer and seller.