According to the authors of “A Nurturing Campaign” (Financial Advisor Magazine, August 1, 2017), other investment industry professionals are key to securing leads for your business. Savvy advisors, consultants and money managers know the importance of cultivating relationships with peers, positioning one’s self as a competent technician and being ready to reciprocate as appropriate.

I agree that effective networking is the way to go. Besides the prospect of adding clients, investment professionals benefit when others are willing to candidly exchange information about ways to improve best practices and avoid mistakes.

Not everyone is a believer. It takes time and money to market your skill set to potential clients. Some posit that leaves little time for outreach to others, especially for those whose “to do” lists seem to aggressively expand each day. This kind of thinking is unfortunate. The world is a small place and today’s competitor could be a close ally later on.

To those who do seek referrals (and hopefully give them when you can), I applaud your initiative but would like to respectfully remind you that your request is only a beginning. Be clear with what you want, when you need an introduction and what you expect. Help others help you build your book of business by recognizing their busy schedules and any limitations they might have about being able to provide effusive praise. (Company policy or regulations could prohibit lengthy or detailed referrals.) By asking someone to do the heavy lifting you should be doing, you risk criticism for taking that individual for granted, coming off as impolite or turning a positive connection into one tainted with a hint of annoyance. I know this from firsthand experience.

Just last week, I received two separate requests for recommendations, both of which ended costing time and frustrating everyone involved. The first person asked me to write a recommendation letter and have it sent one day later. Ordinarily I would have said no because of the short turnaround but I like the high-integrity work this person does and his client focus. So I stayed late at work to write something, only to discover that the directions provided to me were incomplete. The net result was that I used up several hours of time and he could not meet the cutoff. Another individual gave me ample time to write a recommendation letter but told me, after I had already spent about ninety minutes drafting text and reviewing her service materials, that I should revise my letter to include passages of her numerous research papers. Of course I would have to take time to read them in depth as it had been awhile since I looked at them. We mutually agreed that she would ask another colleague – someone with the schedule flexibility to review her impressive portfolio of thought leadership items.

A few of my takeaways from these recent experiences are as follows:

  • It’s gratifying to be able to recommend high integrity, knowledgeable colleagues but important to set boundaries in terms of time and realistic expectations.
  • Arrange for a call to ask for a recommendation or referral. Email seems impersonal to me for this purpose and increases the likelihood that the referral source will waste time because instructions were unclear or incomplete or both.
  • During the call, catch someone up on what you’ve been doing and your professional value-add so everyone is clear on your achievements, business philosophy and goals. Let the recommending party ask you questions. Be specific about how the referral will be used and by whom.
  • Afterwards, send a handwritten note to acknowledge that person’s gift to you of their time, energy and belief in the positive way you handle clients.

Small courtesies can grow into large payoffs. It’s hard enough to stand out from the competition. Why not shine by demonstrating courtesy and respect for other people’s time?

Economist Dr. Susan Mangiero is pleased to announce that she will be speaking during an upcoming Strafford Live webinar on September 12, 2017 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST. The Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) webinar is entitled “ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims.”

She will be joined by a prominent ERISA attorney and a senior-level ERISA fiduciary liability insurance executive to discuss risk mitigation approaches that have the potential to help lower the likelihood of breach of fiduciary duty allegations. This program will also address effective litigation strategies, the importance of fiduciary liability insurance and the role of the economic expert in the event of litigation, arbitration, mediation and/or regulatory enforcement actions. Court cases including the recently adjudicated Tibble v. Edison matter will be discussed as part of the program.

Please join the distinguished faculty for what should be a relevant, timely and important conversation about suggested protocols and bad practices to avoid. For more information or to register, visit the Strafford website or call 1-800-926-7926, extension 10. Mention code ZDFCT to qualify for a fifty (50) percent discount. If you have questions you would like answered, please let Strafford know in advance or on the day of the live event.

I’m delighted to work with the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association ("PRMIA") in delivering four (4) educational webinars about retirement plan risk management. According to its website, PRMIA is a "non-profit professional association" with forty-five chapters in various countries around the world. Click to download the PRMIA brochure for more information about membership. I hope you will join us in February and March for what should be an exciting and timely quartet of live events. If you cannot attend in real time, the webinars will be archived for later use. See below for details.

           Lead Instructor: Dr. Susan Mangiero, AIFA®, CFA®, CFE, FRM®, PPC™

                               Thursdays from 10:00 – 11:15 am EST / 3:00-4:15 GMT
                                       February 23 | March 2 | March 9 | March 16

                                                     A Virtual Training Series

This series consists of four webinar lectures, each one delivered with the goal of providing actionable information that can be used by the audience right away.

With approximately $100 trillion in global assets under management, retirement plan fiduciaries and their attorneys and advisors face numerous challenges in the aftermath of the worldwide credit crisis that began in 2008. Market volatility, investment complexity and compliance with new accounting standards and government mandates, alongside a strident call for better accountability and transparency, are a few of the pain points that keep pension executives up at night. Litigation and regulatory investigations are on the rise. As a result, enlightened pension decision-makers are turning their attention to risk management technology and techniques as a way to mitigate economic, legal and operating trouble uncertainties. Those who ignore the adverse impact of longer life spans, statutory capital requirements, binding financial statement reporting rules and broader fiduciary duties are destined for trouble. In some countries, trustees may be personally responsible for poor plan governance and may have to pay participants from their own pockets.

Who Should Attend

This series should be of interest to a broad range of financial and legal professionals since poor governance and/or too few resources being devoted to pension risk management within a fiduciary framework can (a) force benefit cutbacks for participants (b) lead to a ratings downgrade which increases a sponsor’s cost of capital (c) force a plan sponsor to come up with millions of dollars (pounds, euros, etc.) in cash for contributions (d) result in a costly lawsuit and/or regulatory enforcement (e) thwart a merger, acquisition or spin-off and/or (f) cause a sponsor to be out of compliance with financial and statutory reporting requirements.

Both senior-level decision makers and staff members can benefit from viewing this series of webinar lectures. Representative titles of likely audience members include: • Directors of the board • CFOs, treasurers, controllers and VPs of finance • Members of a sponsor’s pension investment committee • Pension consultants • Pension advisors • Pension and securities attorneys • Pension and securities regulators • Rating analysts • Financial journalists • Derivatives traders • Executives with derivatives and securities exchanges • ERISA, municipal and sovereign bond and D&O liability insurance underwriters • International, U.S. federal and state lawmakers • Think tank researchers • Industry associations • Chambers of Commerce in various countries • Economists who cover demographic patterns and • Risk management students.

Session One (February 23, 2017): Establishing Risk Management Protocols for Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans

Session One examines risk management for retirement plans from both a governance and economics perspective. Topics to be discussed include the following:

  • Procedural prudence and the costs of ignoring fiduciary risk;
  • Risk management differences by type of retirement plan;
  • Industry norms and pitfalls to avoid;
  • Role of Chief Risk Officer, investment committee members and in-house staff; and
  • Suggested elements of an Investment Policy Statement.

Session  Two (March 2, 2017): Use of Derivatives in Pension Plans

​Session Two looks at how derivatives are used by retirement plans, whether directly or indirectly. Topics to be discussed include the following:

  • Current usage of derivatives by retirement plans for hedging purposes;
  • Financially engineered investment products and governance implications:
  • Fiduciary duties relating to monitoring risks and values of derivatives; and
  • Suggested elements of a Risk Management Policy Statement.

Session Three (March 9, 2017): Liability-Driven Investing and Other Types of Pension Risk Transfer Strategies

Session Three examines the reasons why the number of pension restructuring deals is on the rise, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the type of transactions being done. Topics to be discussed include the following:

  • Nature of the pension risk transfer market and various approaches being utilized;
  • Regulatory considerations for fiduciaries in selecting an annuity provider;
  • Action steps associated with implementing a pension risk transfer; and
  • Case study lessons learned.

Session Four (March 16, 2017): Service Provider Due Diligence

Session Four looks at the growth in the Outsourced Chief Investment Officer (“OCIO”) and Fiduciary Management markets and explains service provider risk. Topics to be discussed include the following:

  • Fiduciary considerations of delegating investment responsibilities to third parties;
  • Risk mitigation practices for selecting and monitoring vendors such as asset managers and advisors;
  • Types of lawsuits that allege fiduciary breach on the part of third parties and related regulatory imperatives; and
  • Identifying warning signs of possible vendor fraud.

Fee: Fee includes access to all four live sessions (75 minutes each), access to the recorded session for 60 days, and digital program materials.

  • Sustaining Members: $355.00
  • Contributing Members: $395.00
  • Free/Non-Members: $465.00

Registration: You may register for this course by clicking on Register at the bottom of the page. For questions regarding registration please contact PRMIA at training@prmia.org.

Cancellation: A refund (less a 15% administration fee) will be made if formal notice of cancelation is received at least 48-hours prior to the date of the first session. We regret that no refunds will be made after that date. Substitutions may be made at no extra charge.

Important Notice: All courses are subject to demand. PRMIA reserves the right to cancel or postpone courses at short notice at no loss or liability where, in its absolute discretion, it deems this necessary. PRMIA reserves the right to changes or cancel the program. PRMIA will issue 100% of registration refund should cancelation be necessary.

CPE Credits: This webinar series qualifies for 6 CPE credits subject to certain rules about required attendance. Email webinars@prmia.org for more information about obtaining continuing education credits.

About the Presenter:

Dr. Susan Mangiero is a forensic economist, researcher and author. With a background in finance, modeling and investment risk governance, Susan has served as an expert on numerous civil, criminal and regulatory enforcement actions involving corporate retirement plans, government retirement plans, hedge funds, private equity funds, foundations and high net worth individuals. She has been engaged by various financial service organizations to provide business intelligence insights about what institutional investors want from their vendors. As founder of an educational start-up company, Susan raised capital from outside investors, created a fiduciary-focused content library and developed a governance curriculum for institutional investors and their advisors. Prior to her doctoral studies, Susan worked at multiple bank trading desks in the areas of fixed income, foreign exchange, interest and currency swaps, financial futures, listed options and over-the-counter options.

Susan Mangiero is a managing director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC. She is a CFA® charterholder, Professional Risk Manager™, certified Financial Risk Manager®, Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst®, Certified Fraud Examiner and Professional Plan Consultant™. Her award-winning blog, Pension Risk Matters®, includes nearly 1,000 essays about investment risk governance and has well over a million views. She is the creator and primary contributor to a second blog about investment compliance at www.goodriskgovernancepays.com. Susan is the author of Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments and Foundations. Her articles have appeared in multiple publications such as RISK Magazine, Bloomberg BNA Pension & Benefits Daily, Corporate Counsel, American Bankruptcy Institute Journal, Mergers & Acquisitions, Business Valuation Update, CFO Magazine and the Journal of Corporate Treasury Management.

Susan has testified before the ERISA Advisory Council and a joint meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“OECD”) and the International Organisation of Pension Supervisors (“IOPS”). She lectured at the Harvard Law School and addressed groups such as the American Institute of CPAs (“AICPA”) – Employee Benefits Section, Financial Executives International, and the National Association of Corporate Directors. She can be reached at contact@fiduciaryleadership.com or followed on Twitter @SusanMangiero.
 

My blog post entitled "Simplifying Retirement Planning Communications" resonated with readers. It’s no surprise that there are still discussions about how best to improve the information provided to participants. Given the amount of litigation alleging lack of transparency, sponsors are wise to offer understandable documents that can be used by employees and retirees to make financial decisions. According to "Improved Retirement Plan Communication Can Boost Confidence" (Plan Sponsor, December 15, 2016), it’s not just content but the delivery format as well. Companies are adding more retirement readiness tools to their websites, even if participants are sometimes slow to take advantage.

Financial literacy is another issue that challenges employers and participants alike. Even when adequate information is available, the recipient may be unable to digest product descriptions or performance reports. In his write-up entitled "401(k) Communication Challenges," Dr. Richard Glass bemoans the low rate of financial literacy and its negative impact on saving. His take is that defined contribution plan sponsors "have not recognized that the participants’ sense of distrust and their lack of knowledge can easily create a mindset that is conducive to inaction." He uses target date fund disclosures to exemplify his view that more should be done to put participants at ease and thereby motivate them to better prepare for life after work. His suggestions include the following:

  • Don’t sugar coat the issue of risk but instead make it known that no product is free of uncertainty;
  • Emphasize that calculations are based on assumptions;
  • Hold "educational sessions that explain to participants why arriving at the assumptions involves a lot of crystal ball gazing and why, in spite of that fact, assumptions still have to be made" for purposes of forecasting; and
  • Supply "gap analyses that show participants how many years they can expect to receive their targeted inflation-adjusted incomes at their current contribution rates."

I agree that strengthening financial literacy is essential although I am not particularly sanguine about getting everyone quickly up to speed on concepts such as diversification and risk measurement. That’s not to say that employers should look the other way. To the contrary, they should act even though some organizations will have to do more work then others. As I explain in another blog post, grade 12 proficiency in reading and math is abysmally low in the United States. Anyone who gets hired with a poor grasp of such basics may struggle with learning even elementary investing ideas. See "Employers Worry About Skills Gap That Impacts Bottom Line" (January 7, 2017).

Despite the fact that companies spent nearly $71 billion in 2015 on training, chances are those expenses will increase. Realistically, shareholders and taxpayers may have little choice but to foot the bill for further education of anyone not yet able to understand what it means to save now for later on. The Aegon Retirement Readiness Survey 2016 finds that "[A]round the world, many workers are heavily reliant on government benefits and are not saving enough to adequately fund their retirement income needs." Obviously there is no time like the present to prioritize thrift and prudent investing.

For many people, retirement planning tends to be an exercise in frustration. Some complaints focus on numbers that seek to dazzle without enlightening. Others call out language that is overly long, complex and ambiguous. The author of "HR communications falls short" (Benefits Pro, November 10, 2015) references a Davis & Company survey that validates employee angst as follows:

  • About compensation, only one out of four persons were satisfied with documents they received;
  • Regarding benefits, only fifteen percent said they were adequately apprised; and
  • Nearly ninety percent of survey-takers said they had not been provided sufficient intelligence about performance management.

These results are not good news for anyone. Shareholders are paying a company’s staff to convey important information to retain and attract talented workers. If that’s not happening, money is being wasted and that erodes enterprise value. It’s likewise problematic for active employees and retirees. Without meaningful instructions and data, they are ill-equipped to make decisions about how to save and select benefits. As a forensic economist, I’ve worked on multiple matters that addressed the frequency, magnitude and clarity of participant communications. It’s a real issue and costly when the task of communicating is done poorly.

Unfortunately, even when arguably clear and copious guidance is made available by an employer, some may resist reading and/or asking questions. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Clements points out in "Don’t Bother Reading This" (November 18, 2016), certain persons are focused on today and not tomorrow. He adds that others "want to believe in magic" even when evidence about investment returns suggest otherwise. Finally, he bemoans the association of "sophistication with complexity." (As an aside, I don’t agree with Mr. Clements that complexity is "usually a ruse to bamboozle." However, I do acknowledge that complex economic arrangements require a thorough vetting of the risk-return tradeoff).

If my experience teaching on an investment cruise a decade ago is any indication, there are signs that financial empowerment through education is alive and well, even for those who learn on their own. Based on questions and comments I received, it was clear that the audience had a strong sense of what risks they were willing to accept and what they hoped to avoid. Admittedly, these were mostly small business owners who had grown and prospered over the years by understanding that doing one’s homework is necessary to survive.

While investment uncertainty is, by its nature, something we all face, it is always prudent to gauge risks ahead of time, to the extent possible. Employers and policy-makers who want to help others improve their financial literacy can contribute in multiple ways. Joanne Sammer advocates in HR Magazine for a "whole portfolio" focus that encompasses all savings and retirement vehicles owned by an employee and his or her spouse. See "Helping Employees Plan for Retirement" (March 1, 2014). Based on my work in the benefits world, I suggest other prescriptions to consider as follows:

  • Listen to what your constituents tell you they need to know.
  • Understand the composition of your labor force since not every demographic cohort absorbs information in the same way.
  • Become adept at storytelling to make retirement planning relatable.
  • Make it easy for employees and retirees to ask questions and receive answers in a timely fashion.
  • Get creative with snappy visuals and relevant technology tools that encourage knowledge-gathering.
  • Monitor engagement patterns and revise your communications protocol as often as needed. 

Whenever I think about getting my message out, I reflect on something a former doctoral professor shared with his students. Taking some liberties since I don’t recall his exact words, he required us to distill pages of terse text and equations into a single sound bite that a lay person could understand and care about. This drive to motivate the recipient to pay heed is undeniable. As Ryan T. Howell said in his Psychology Today article entitled "Less Is More: The Power of Simple Language" (September 20, 2012), concentrate on the problem consumers are trying to solve.

Applied to retirement planning, what’s the end goal? For millions of people, the answer is not so much about having X amount of money in the bank but more about satisfying life goals and having "enough" to make things happen.

In case you missed the party invitation, July 17 is World Emoji Day. There’s even a snappy anthem if you feel like dancing and singing to celebrate this annual event. A Twitter search using the hashtag #WorldEmojiDay reveals favorites by country such as the yellow sad face (US, Canada, UK), red heart (Italy, France, Japan) and blue musical notes (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia). Interestingly, these emoticons are showing up in workplace communications on a regular basis.

According to "Nine perfectly reasonable reasons to use Emoji in a business context," the use of tiny images is said to add intimacy to otherwise impersonal messages, allow readers to "infer your mood and level of humor" and enliven "boring" presentations or corporate reports. Atlantic Magazine editor Bourree Lam explains in "Why Emoji Are Suddenly Acceptable at Work" that adding the popular happy face emoji can lessen the negative impact of "toneless" text that is typically interpreted in a negative way. Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore suggests senders should err on the side of caution by avoiding anything that depicts anger or romance. Client communiques should be formal.

My take as an investment risk governance expert is to play at home and not at work. Although I have inserted a smiley face or two during my career, my view (and that of many others) is that retirement plan communications are serious transmissions. Whether documenting fiduciary, investment and operational policies and procedures or giving instructions to employees about what to consider before signing up for benefits, there is a need for precision. Major lawsuits have centered on whether disclosures are sufficiently adequate. Binding regulations require transparency. Those in charge of implementing, monitoring and revising retirement plan decisions are ill-equipped when goals, restrictions and material facts and circumstances are vague.

I can’t imagine a scenario where a happy face, pencil, bag of money or other type of cartoon clarifies versus confuses. Can you?

A decade after its debut on March 23, 2006, Pension Risk Matters is still going strong with well over 1 million visitors and over 1, 000 commentaries. At the time of its inception, there weren’t too many economic blogs devoted to topics such as pension governance and risk management. I’m not sure why. Then and now, these areas command attention. Nevertheless, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to readers, commenters and individuals who allowed me to interview them and also to Pensions & Investments for its recognition of Pension Risk Matters as a "best blog."

As I reflect on the last ten years of blogging, I decided to pen ten takeaways about my experiences. Here they are:

  1. Blogging can be enjoyable if you like to write (and I do). However, it does take time and not everyone has the inclination to research a topic, write about it and then edit their work. On average, I review each blog post for grammar, spelling and consistency two or three times before I hit the "publish" button. In addition, I test any embedded web or file links to make sure that they work.
  2. When it comes to blogging about a time-sensitive topic, not everyone can respond quickly. Many companies have social media policies that strictly prohibit an employee from posting to a blog or other platform without having content pre-approved by a compliance officer.
  3. A blogger should have a mission that makes it easy to return to the keyboard over and over. In my case, I have long been a believer in the importance of sharing information about industry trends and best practices. I strive for neutrality by writing in a way that hopefully educates and informs rather than taking an advocacy position about a particular investment or service provider.
  4. Identify a good technology vendor with whom you can collaborate. Originally, I created blog posts as part of a company website but soon found that approach wanting. As a result, I searched for a company that could provide added functionality. I ended up selecting Lex Blog to design Pension Risk Matters as a standalone blog destination. Later on, I asked Lex Blog to design a second blog – an investment compliance blog called Good Risk Governance Pays. Luckily I have not had too many reasons to contact customer support. When I have, they have responded quickly. Another advantage of working with a dedicated blog company is the ability to bounce ideas around about content delivery and enhancing traffic.
  5. Know the parameters of what is likely to work in terms of ease of use and access. Last year, I had Lex Blog migrate content on Good Risk Governance Pays to a responsive platform that allows readers to quickly view blog posts on a smart phone or tablet. I plan to do that soon with Pension Risk Matters.
  6. Add humor whenever possible. It’s not easy to spin jokes about serious subjects such as due diligence or reasonableness of fees. What I do instead, when appropriate, is to choose colorful photos that stand out or begin a commentary with an attention-grabbing quote or anecdote. I’m always happy when readers tell me that they enjoyed reading a post because it was funny or at least memorable.
  7. If you use photos (and I recommend that you do), make sure that you have permission. I am a paid subscriber to several stock photo services, each of which has its own terms and conditions and rate schedule. Whenever someone contacts me with a request to use a photo, I suggest that they contact one of these photo services directly.
  8. Link back to earlier posts if it makes sense to do so. I mark each of my essays as belonging to one or more categories such as Fiduciary Education, Hedge Funds or Valuation. By doing so, life is simpler later on. I can click on any category link to refresh my memory about a preceding analysis that may have relevance to the topic du jour. For example, I just wrote about possible private equity obligations to a portfolio company with an underfunded pension plan(s). I did not remember the exact dates of an earlier set of posts I authored but clicked on Private Equity to quickly find four related posts. In a few minutes, I was able to retrieve and embed various links in my April 2, 2016 write-up.
  9. Be curious and stay abreast of industry happenings. This should be occurring anyhow, especially as the financial services industry continues to shake out from changing regulations, competitive pressures and market events. It’s straightforward to set up Google alerts for various keywords and sign up for magazine newsletters. Make notes when attending conferences or webinars. Ask readers for suggestions about what they want to know. I never have a shortage of ideas. 
  10. Have fun. While true that numerous business bloggers commit time and money as part of an overall marketing and sales campaign, it is equally rewarding to be able to interact with professionals about how to stay current and seek to do the best job possible. If one of my blog posts is the springboard to such a discussion, so much the better.

Note to Readers: Many thanks again for your continued interest. If you want to guest blog about the financial services industry and are amenable to writing an educational essay, please email your topic idea and contact information.

Being able to make an informed decision about what to buy is important and retirement products are no exception. If language is obtuse, confusing or otherwise difficult to understand, an investor may end up making an inappropriate selection or assuming too much risk.

Although each industry has its share of technical jargon, UK personal finance editor Simon Read thinks there is a "massive problem when it comes to financial services, with the pensions industry arguably the worst of the lot." In "Pension firms urged to use plain English" (Independent, March 2, 2016), he suggests that terms such as "flexi-access drawdown" or "safeguarded benefits" mean little to the everyday reader and are therefore not helpful.

In its 2014 Wall Street Journal compilation of "loathed investment jargon," American Association of Individual Investors ("AAII") executive Charles Rotblut explains "There is too often an assumption that everybody understands what is being discussed, when the reality is much different."

Naming a product for an investment strategy does not necessarily help the investor either, especially if the strategy means different things to different people or has multiple monikers. Products that are part of the smart beta family come to mind.

According to the Financial Times, their use is "swelling," with assets of around $400 billion or one fifth of the $1.7 trillion Exchange Traded Fund market. At the same time, this strategy has no singular definition or name. Ben Johnson with Morningstar describes terms such as "smart beta" and "enhanced indexes" as a "broad and rapidly growing category of benchmarks and the investment products that track them." See "A Sensible Approach to ‘Smart Beta’" (Morningstar, May 14, 2014). Eric Balchunas with Bloomberg writes that "Few can define it…"

A 2015 investor alert, issued by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA"), describes a smart beta index as one that is "based on measures other than weighting by market capitalization" and gives examples of labels being used to market these products. Their recommendation is that interested persons pose six questions before purchasing as follows:

  • What is the product’s strategy?
  • What are the costs?
  • What are the potential advantages?
  • What are the potential risks?
  • How liquid is the product and its holdings?
  • Are the performance figures back-tested?

This is not a universal list of questions to ask nor is this type of risk-return inquiry unique to smart beta products. Investors and their advisors should be kicking the proverbial tires on any product being considered. Retirement plan fiduciaries need to do likewise on behalf of plan participants. The message remains the same. In order to make an informed decision, it is important that product language is clear and easy to understand.

Speaking of words, logophiles have cause to celebrate. March 4, 2016 is National Grammar Day.

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.

Rumor has it that regulatory exams of retirement plans continue to include explicit questions about whether a formal education program exists and, if it does, what it contains. Certainly the topic is not new. In 2002, the Working Group on Fiduciary Education and Training made recommendations to the U.S. Department of Labor to include the following:

  • Ensure that everyone understands that a fiduciary must "perform competently" which means, by extension, that he or she must be educated about duties and responsibilities;
  • Appoint someone to lead fiduciary education and outreach on a national basis;
  • Expand guidance as to what constitutes "best practices," adding to guidelines such as "A Look at 401(k) Fees for Employers";
  • Recognize that fiduciaries of smaller plans will likely have different training needs than those of larger plan fiduciaries; and
  • Provide helpful tools such as a dedicated hotline, a primer about fiduciary duties and conferences. 

A visit to the U.S. Department of Labor website entitled "Getting it Right – Know Your Fiduciary Responsibilities" yields a treasure trove of educational publications and hyper links to various online tools such as The ERISA Fiduciary Advisor. In addition, there are countless organizations that provide extensive fiduciary programs, some of which lead to certifications should one pass exams and meet experiential mandates. I myself have both taken and led various workshops about investment fiduciary subjects and continue to satisfy the requirements to be an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst.

Yet with the plethora of available information about what it takes to carry out one’s fiduciary duties, allegations of breach continue and on a grand scale. During a recent program entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," my co-presenters and I talked about the importance of education and the consequences of not being up to speed on what has to be done on behalf of participants.

Some have suggested that formalizing a training requirement makes sense, adding that guidelines can demonstrate good faith and thereby serve as a defense in the event that a lawsuit is filed against investment fiduciaries down the road. Others counter that too much specificity may not allow for changes in circumstances or be inadequate to the multiple tasks of selecting advisors for more than one specialized asset class or strategy. 

Based on my experience, documentation about how internal fiduciaries are selected, let alone developed, is something of a rare bird. Likewise uncommon is a written policy that explains how investment committee members should be evaluated in terms of performance and by whom. In contrast, nearly all jobs have a specified description, an established pay scale and clear criteria about what makes for a "good" job versus performance that is deemed "unacceptable." Though one might be tempted to conclude that the absence of a formal procurement protocol for a retirement plan fiduciary means that the role is unimportant, nothing could be further from the truth. Serving as a fiduciary is a real job in every sense of the word and should be acknowledged accordingly.