Last year, I celebrated a decade of posting investment governance insights to Pension Risk Matters. This year, I have two reasons to say "hooray." March 23 marks the eleventh year of posting analyses, research updates and essays about managing money, retirement planning and mitigating uncertainty. In addition, it is the debut of National Fiduciary Day. Sponsored by Fi360, the goal is to encourage individuals to be good stewards of other people’s money. 

Given our shared commitment to investment fiduciary best practices and the fact that I am certified by Fi360 as an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, I asked the organization’s top officers for their thoughts on this special day. They were kind enough to oblige.

Executive Chairman Blaine Aikin says "Happy Anniversary, Susan! Congratulations on having achieved 11 highly productive years of blogging. It’s only fitting that this comes on Fi360’s National Fiduciary Day. Keep up the great work and thank you for your valuable contributions to the profession!" Fi360 Director J. Richard Lynch adds "We have appreciated our long standing relationship with Susan as an AIFA designee and in particular, her contributions to the fiduciary discussion through her blog and as a past speaker at our annual conference."

There are lots of us who long ago recognized the importance of perturbing the conversation about investment governance. This includes the roughly 1.2 million visitors to Pension Risk Matters, many of whom have not been shy about offering their views. I am grateful to them all and look forward to a continued exchange of ideas.

For those who are unaware, I created an investment compliance and risk management blog a few years ago called Good Risk Governance Pays®. Although I mostly provide insights that are unique to each website, from time to time I do repeat an entry if it makes sense. In the spirit of providing educational write-ups about topics that are important to all types of institutional investors, I invite readers of Pension Risk Matters® to check out "Trading Ahead of Investment Policies and Procedures" and to sign up for email notices when new items have been added to the Good Risk Governance Pays® blog. This February 1, 2017 entry addresses the advantages of having guidelines such as an Investment Policy Statement. Otherwise, it could be challenging to detect rogue trading.

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!

Please join Dr. Susan Mangiero on November 2, 2016 for a one hour online program about pension risk management. The webinar is sponsored by the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association (“PRMIA“) in recognition of the importance of the subject. This learning event qualifies for one Continuing Professional Education (“CPE”) credit.

A program description is shown below. You can register by clicking here. If you have specific questions ahead of November 2, please call 1-612-605-5370 and ask to speak to someone in Learning and Development.

Program Overview: According to estimates, global retirement assets are huge at $500 trillion. Improper decision-making about plan design, investment and risk mitigation could have an adverse impact on millions of individuals to include employees, retirees, taxpayers and shareholders. Service providers such as asset managers, banks and insurance companies are likewise impacted by bad governance and unchecked risk-taking. Everyone has a stake in the financial health of the worldwide retirement system and whether uncertainty is being adequately identified, measured, managed and monitored, especially now. New regulations, a flurry of fiduciary breach lawsuits, low interest rates, the complexity of modeling longevity, increased risk-taking, need for liquidity, cost of capital and worker mobility are just a few of the challenges that keep retirement plan executives, participants and their advisors up at night.

This one hour webinar will present an overview of retirement plan risk management to include the following:

  • Description of economic and regulatory trends that influence retirement plan management liability and asset decisions;
  • Discussion about retirement plan risk-taking, fiduciary liability and increased need for effective risk management protocols;
  • Explanation of different categories of retirement plan risks;
  • Discussion about the interrelationships of different categories of retirement plan risks; and
  • What can be done, process-wise, to establish and maintain an effective retirement plan risk management program.

A few months ago I was asked to complete a Request for Information ("RFI") by the sponsor of a large pension plan. Their goal was to hire an independent outside party to vet the investment management policies and procedures of its outsourced manager. I’ve long maintained that it is an excellent idea to have someone review operations and render a second opinion about how asset managers perform relative to a retirement plan’s objectives, how much risk is being taken to generate returns, the extent to which the asset manager is mitigating risks and much more.

While this type of "kick the tires" engagement is not as common as many think it should be, that could change quickly. The Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") business model (sometimes referred to as the Delegated Investment Management or Fiduciary Management approach) is rapidly growing at the same time that recent mandates such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule, along with a flurry of lawsuits that allege breach, call more attention to how in-house plan fiduciaries hire and monitor their vendors.

Given the relative newness of this type of engagement and the fact that a review can mean different things to different people, I strongly recommend that the hiring party consider how much work they want done and what budget applies. In the case of the aforementioned invitation to submit a work plan and detailed budget, my colleagues and I were told by the plan sponsor they weren’t really sure what should be done. Our suggestion was to carry out a preliminary review of existing policies, procedures and operations, report the findings to the trustees and then discuss what could be done as a subsequent and more granular assessment, if needed. This would get the ball rolling in terms of identifying urgent concerns and avoid having to write a big check. Even with an opportunity to ask questions of the hiring plan, there were still many unknowns. For example, would the plan sponsor be willing to pay for a complete investigation of items such as vendor’s data security measures, adherence to its compliance manual, growth plans, risk management stance, employee personal trading safeguards, measures to avoid conflicts of interest, business strength, type of liability insurance in place and verification (if true) that back office cash management was separate from trading or instead have an examiner concentrate on a subset? When the plan sponsor said it wanted to have an outside reviewer look at historical investment performance numbers, was its goal to assess data frequently or over a longer period of time, relative to a selected benchmark, relative to an asset-liability management hurdle, based on risk per return units and so on?

Anyone who has reviewed bid documents from public and corporate plan sponsors will likely conclude that there is not much consistency, especially for due diligence and governance assignments. That’s not ideal. Yes, it’s true that facts and circumstances will differ but clarity in terms of what a hiring plan wants can be a plus for everyone. I think it would likewise be helpful for the bid document to state a budget number or "not to exceed" range and let the respondents suggest what work could be reasonably done for that fee. Both the buyer and seller would know at the outset whether it makes sense to proceed with discussions. Another way to go would have the plan sponsor hire someone to interview its in-house fiduciaries, identify and rank their major concerns and then use that information to create a structured Request for Information or Request for Proposal ("RFP") that would be distributed to potential review firms. This exercise would entail a short-run expense but could save money in the long-run by ensuring that the plan sponsor and the review team are in sync about expectations and deliverables.

The bidding process is often a tough one for both buyer and seller. In 2015, I interviewed the co-CEO of a company called InHub, Mr. Kent Costello. I have no economic connection with this company. I had asked for a demo after reading about the use of technology to help fiduciaries with their search and hiring of third parties. In answer to my question about the limitations of the existing RFP process for the buyer, Kent said "It can be difficult for investment committees to put together a list of questions that will help them to effectively compare firms and service offerings … Poorly crafted, irrelevant, or repetitive questions will lead to a weak due diligence process and leave the committee confused and frustrated. Worse yet, it could mean the selection of an inadequate vendor." Just as important, he pointed out that sellers could be reluctant to take the time and money to prepare a detailed proposal, "given the low likelihood of winning the business…" Click to read "Electronic RFP Process and Fiduciary Duty."

Process improvement is always a plus, whether applied to crafting a bid document, responding with a proposal or implementing the work, once hired.

According to a new report from Willis Towers Watson, corporations worry that employees cannot afford to leave the labor force on schedule. Fearing higher costs, many employers describe anemic retirement readiness as a "top risk" yet few monitor this on a regular basis. Researchers write "These findings suggest that sponsors have an opportunity to improve the governance of DC plans by increasing the frequency with which they monitor retirement readiness, as specific metrics on readiness would offer sponsors insight on the overall effectiveness of their plan." For a full read of this report, click to download "Unlocking Value From Effective Retirement Plan Governance."

Unfortunately, if results of a new FINRA Investor Education Foundation study reflect widespread reality, Corporate America may have an uphill and expensive battle on their hands. Nearly eighty percent of respondents self-identified as financially literate despite low scores on a quiz they took to test their knowledge. Making matters worse, financial education is a rarity. Six out of ten persons answered "No" when asked "Was financial education offered by a school or college you attended, or a workplace where you were employed?" 

Notably, the 2015 National Financial Capability Study reveals a financial literacy income gap with persons earning less money seemingly in need of greater help. If, as some predict, the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule makes it harder for smaller investors to access financial advice, employers may need to pick up the slack. If that occurs, expect companies in search of long-term labor cost savings to incur bigger short-term cash outflows to provide employees with adequate financial education (to the extent allowed).

The takeaway is that retirement plans have a bottom line impact on shareholders. Companies offer programs to attract and retain talent but are mindful of the cost-benefit tradeoff.

Thanks to the many people who shared their insights about various state retirement arrangements for eligible private company employees and the need for a proverbial umbrella to address the fiduciary gap.

Let me start with the Nutmeg State program since I discussed it in two earlier posts. Interested parties can click to download the final legislation that sets up the Connecticut Retirement Security Exchange. (Note the new name.) Several changes caught my eye.

  • On page 156 of 298, there is a provision that "If a participant does not affirmatively select a specific vendor or investment option within the program, such participant’s contribution shall be invested in an age-appropriate target date fund that most closely matches the participant’s normal retirement age, rotationally assigned by the program." If "rotationally" means "random," it will be helpful to know how board members identify age cohorts and select (and monitor thereafter) a particular product for each group.
  • Regarding a provision that allows the sitting governor to individually select the board chair without the advice and consent of the General Assembly, a best practice is that the engagement process be transparent. Interested parties want to know that the appointment reflects the right person for the job
  • It would be helpful to know the basis for why the voluntary opt-in for small businesses with more than five employees was removed. After all, forced regulation could end up costing firms so much in terms of paperwork and payroll set-up that hiring plans are put on hold.
  • It would be helpful to know how the three percent default contribution level will be tracked so that legislators will know whether to seek an increase later on. It’s a low number, especially given the math for what can be done privately. Suppose a person makes $50,000 per year in wages. The three percent deduction translates into $1,500. In 2016, the IRA contribution limit for someone younger than fifty years is $5,500. Should an individual decide to allocate the maximum, participation in the state program will logically require that the individual go elsewhere to invest the additional $4,000. Why doesn’t that individual simply invest the full $5,500 with one reputable organization? I assume the counter argument is that an individual who would not max the annual IRA limit needs a nudge in the form of the state program.

As I wrote in "State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees," there are multiple state endeavors and one would need to examine the details of each one to assess economic impact and pension governance implications. Questions about federal programs exist as well. Putting aside dire long-term projections about the U.S. Social Security Trust Fund, absent reforms, several critics are unhappy with what they see as a fiduciary gap for anyone enrolled in the myRA program. By way of background, there are no fees to the individual enrollee. This is good but the guaranteed return is low because it is tied to federal debt security yields. For June 2016, the number is 1.875 percent APR. There is a lifetime maximum of $15,000 for eligible persons. A person’s employer must agree to facilitate automatic deductions which means you must be employed.

One attorney I called today said he did not think there is a fiduciary in place for this federal product. Chris Carosa, editor of Fiduciary News, has another take. In "Does "myRA breach fiduciary duty?" he lays out reasons why he thinks the myRA product is "blatantly ill-suited for retirement savers." He decries the "oozing irony" of political leaders who want the Fiduciary Rule applied to others but not to themselves, adding there is no diversification potential and the selling firm (i.e. the U.S. Treasury) is conflicted by distributing its own product. Another retirement industry professional wants to know "What fiduciary would MANDATE that a twenty-five year old invest his or her retirement assets in a short to intermediate term government bond fund and expect to avoid liability?

You get the picture. We need to understand where the fiduciary gaps exist and then strive to close them as quickly and efficaciously as possible.

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.

If you haven’t viewed Tim Urban’s TED Talk about procrastination, I urge you to do so when you have a short break. He spins a tale of prioritization woe by referencing different parts of our brain. There is the Instant Gratification Monkey who tries to lure the Rational Decision-Maker from productive endeavors. This playful little fella holds sway until deadlines force the appearance of the Panic Monster. Someone then responds by pulling an all-nighter or two until the next crisis. As this illustrator and Wait But Why blog site co-founder explains, it’s not an enjoyable way to manage tasks and seldom generates good results. It is far better to prepare in advance and schedule "must do items" accordingly.

Occasionally, planning ahead is difficult. Other times, it is easy. As Mr. Urban illustrates during his fifteen minute "eat your peas" presentation, there are signposts that indicate when acceleration is required. In his case, it was the appearance of his photo and bio in a TED Talks program that gave a date certain he could not ignore. For investment professionals who anticipate the eventual passage of the U.S. Department of Labor Conflict of Interest Proposed Rule into law, it is clear that significant change is afoot. Even if the exact final language or timing is unknown today, fiduciaries (now and later) may not want to sit back and wait.

Already there is talk of increased delegation to organizations that are willing to serve as either an ERISA 3(21) or 3(38) fiduciary, acknowledging that nothing eliminates risk completely. As Pension Resource Institute CEO Jason Roberts opines in an Investment News interview, "…while these offerings can limit fiduciary responsibility for advisers at the plan level, advisers could still be exposed at the participant level."

Others advance the idea that the so-called fiduciary rule will catalyze creative problem-solving, especially in the technology area, and that smart money is on first movers. See "Fiduciary Rule May Spur Product Innovation" by Andrew Welsch (Financial Planning, March 16, 2016). If you missed my earlier posts on this topic, see "Retirement FinTech Gets Another Suitor – Goldman Sachs" and "Financial Technology and the Fiduciary Rule."

Whatever path is decided on will require a minimum amount of time for contracting and setting up operations. Starting late could be costly for everyone involved. Lest you figure out a way to be able to succumb to the Instant Gratification Monkey (unlikely in the case of regulations and rules that require sufficient compliance), now is a good time for procrastinators to address priorities. Expending time right away may not be fun but is nonetheless necessary.

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.