Ignoring risk is folly, especially when the downside could be complete ruin for a business or investment portfolio. That’s why it’s essential for risk managers to persuade others to pay close attention to things that go bump in the night and then figure out a way to prevent loss, to the extent possible. Unfortunately, risk management is often seen as dull, overly complex or unlikely to be a path to career advancement. I know this firsthand. Having worked in various corporate settings, risk managers have few fans. They are the people who say “no” or ask others to gather data and documents instead of doing the kind of glamorous work that adds to one’s bottom line. Risk management is a thankless task until it isn’t. When the stars align, no one cares about managing uncertainty. It’s the “oops” moments that remind the world why taming risk before disaster occurs is a big deal.

For frustrated risk managers, there is hope, especially if you are willing to tweak your communication skills in pursuit of a worthy cause. Don’t take my word. Check out what Scott Adams Says.

According to the creator of the successful Dilbert cartoon strip and author of bestselling books such as How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, simplicity is a core element of convincing others. In his recent video about doing laundry, I laughed out loud when he explained how he avoids the risk of discoloration. Buy clothes that don’t have to be washed separately. It’s such a basic and obvious solution that one wonders why it’s not more commonplace. (As I write this post, I’m wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt with spots from something else I mistakenly cleaned in the same load.)

In one of Adam’s many insightful essays, the reader learns that another persuasion technique involves the use of visuals, especially those that appeal to people’s emotions. In investment land, think about the photos of senior citizens who lost retirement money in 2008 juxtaposed next to images of wealthy bankers with cigars and fancy cars. Regardless of case-specific facts, such powerful images scream “good” versus “bad.” It’s no surprise that financial service ads tend to focus on comforting images whereas political commercials show pictures likely to rile voters.

Yet another tool in the persuasion toolbox is what Adams describes as the “high ground maneuver” or the art of advancing an argument to a level that garners widespread agreement, thereby trivializing any other position. For fiduciaries being sued over their management of other people’s money, they might silence critics by demonstrating (if they can) how their risk management actions broadly advantage beneficiaries such as retirees or endowment recipients. The goal would be convincing others to overlook short-term strategy misdirection in pursuit of a lofty and prudent long-term focus.

When it comes to risk management, it’s not just about numbers. Rallying others to do their part is critical. One has to be an effective cheerleader to grapple with the unknown. I’m convinced that this persuasion “thing” has legs. That’s why I’ve just pre-ordered Win Bigly by Scott Adams for a dose of wisdom and a few chuckles.

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!

In case you missed the announcement, today is part of a seven day celebration of National Retirement Security Week. The event is sponsored by the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators, Inc. ("NAGDCA") and stems from Congressional action to:

  • Apprise employees about the need to be retirement ready in terms of personal finances;
  • Educate individuals about various ways to save for retirement; and
  • Help employers encourage their employees to save more.

While true that it’s essential to address issues such as expected lifespan, job mobility, the power of compounding and taking advantage of a company match, money is not the only end goal. One could have a substantial piggy bank but end up lonely or in search of something satisfying to do. According to "How to Retire Happy" by Stan Hinden (AARP Bulletin, September 2014), it is important to ask what comes next. Some persons end up spending more time in retirement than the number of years they worked. Kerry Close reports for Time Money that a "record high number of retirees" are unhappy. She cites an Employee Benefit Research Institute study that shows a big drop in "very" satisfied retirees from 60.5 percent in 2012 to 48.6 percent in 2016.

One suggestion is to create (or update) a life plan, even if you are far from the gold watch party. According to a Lifehack.com blog post by consultant and writer Royale Scuderi, this document should summarize "where you are now in all the areas that matter to you, where you want to improve and what you’d like your life to look like in the future." Easier said than done, pondering the big picture can be challenging but enlightening as well. As someone who is updating her life plan right now, I find the effort worthwhile. Acknowledging that you cannot recapture time reinforces the concept that one should be reflective about the past, grateful for the present and excited about the future. As Anthony Hopkin’s character said in Meet Joe Black, the years go by "in a blink."

For those who want to give it a go, check out the the narrative provided by life coach Michael Hyatt. Earlier this year, he co-wrote Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want with Daniel Harkavy. An online search yields additional educational resources. (Note: This blogger has no relationship with Michael Hyatt.)

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.

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.

Last year, the Today show celebrated Tao Porchon-Lynch for inspiring others with her verve for life. At ninety-six years of age, she is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest yoga teacher and still going strong. Yoga Journal quotes her as saying "I don’t want to know what I can’t do. I’m only interested in what I can do."

Mental Floss Magazine likewise inspired with its article entitled "10 People Who Switched Careers After 50 (and Thrived!)." Writer Ethan Trex waxed poetic about the accomplishments of seniors such as Colonel Sanders, Tim and Nina Zagat, Ronald Reagan and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Business Insider‘s Richard Feloni urged readers that it’s never too late to follow one’s dream, citing exemplars such as Vera Wang, Julia Child, Henry Ford, Grandma Moses and Taikichiro Mori in "20 People Who Became Highly Successful After Age 40."

Hollywood appears poised to convey a similar message about the advantages of wisdom and experience for those who are no longer twenty-one. In "The Intern," Robert De Niro plays a seventy year old widower who is not ready to retire. An ex-sales and marketing executive, his character joins a start-up company as an intern to the CEO and quickly grabs the hearts and minds of his younger co-workers. In "A Walk in the Woods," Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are septuagenarians whose characters are based on the bestselling book by Bill Bryson. They hike the Appalachian Trail, rekindle their friendship, evade grizzly bears and remember how nice it is to keep trying to challenge one’s self. In "I’ll See You In My Dreams," Blythe Danner discovers romance and purpose past sixty.

The implication seems to be that many individuals around the world prefer to keep working. According to the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, "One in 20 people still have a job when they’re over 70 – a figure that has doubled in the past decade…" USA Today‘s Rodney Brooks interviewed various individuals who extolled the virtues of never retiring, even though they could afford to stop working. In some cases, the goal was to try something altogether different.

George Burns "began a solo career when he was nearly 80." Although he missed his engagement to perform in London on his centennial birthday by a matter of months, he urged people to keep in mind that "You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old."

With that truism in mind, one cannot forget that it takes money to:

  • Retire early;
  • Forego the salary and benefits of a steady job to tackle something new like start a company; and/or
  • Live large on a fixed income only.

For some individuals, the gap between one’s retirement piggybank and monetary requirements is a reason to return to the workplace or never exit in the first place. For others, there is a true passion to stay in the game, whether that entails work, volunteering or something else. Most people strive for the ability to choose. That in turn requires a commitment early on, and thereafter, to identify, measure and effectively mitigate retirement portfolio risks.

I have long professed my concern that retirement issues get short shrift when it comes to political speeches and public discourse. I am not talking about industry discussions which occur all the time. I am referring instead to Main Street outreach. Even today, there seems to be scant mention by U.S. presidential candidates about how to strengthen programs like Social Security and reform tax laws to encourage savings. Of course what the pundits call the "silly season" has just begun, with many months of campaigning to go. Imagine my surprise then when, in between news segments this week, several ads appeared on television about impending changes. In one ad, a man and a woman are chatting in a car about their concern that talking to their advisor will become more expensive and they will end up talking to a robot. Another ad showcases a small business owner who worries that new regulations will make it harder for him to keep offering a 401(k) plan to his employees. Viewers are urged to call their lawmakers.

Research suggests that the ads are sponsored by the Secure Family Coalition. Its website lists organizations that include the following:

  • American Council of Life Insurers;
  • Association for Advanced Life Underwriting;
  • Insured Retirement Institute;
  • National Association for Fixed Annuities;
  • National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies; and
  • National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are groups such the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard. Its website cites advocacy, research and education of the public as ways for "all those willing to help" to get involved.

Regardless of one’s stance about the U.S. Department of Labor proposal (and discussions by other regulators and lawmakers), the hope is that further conversations about retirement planning will encourage a long overdue focus on the abysmal state of readiness in this country and around the world.

If ads are hitting the airwaves now, is a Hollywood movie next?

As I milled around the counters last Sunday during a private shopping event, I was reminded how much fun it is to try out new products. Certainly the roughly $400+ billion beauty industry has realized to great effect that the concept of a makeover and the lure of a new look can generate profits. If the consumer likes a product, there is a strong likelihood that he or she will buy it again when the first bottle is finished. Indeed, some cosmetic and skincare retailers offer sign-ups to ensure regular deliveries of favorite creams and gels. Make no mistake however. The purchasing experience itself is an important part of the process. Those organizations that recognize the allure of feel, smell and touch are raking in the dough. According to "The Sephora effect: How the cosmetics retailer transformed the beauty industry" by Sarah Halzack (The Washington Post, March 9, 2015), brand loyalty has given way to plunking down dollars "in a place where you can easily test virtually any product." Buyers have constant access to information, in large part due to social media marketing. "They don’t have to go to a counter to get that education."

Although lipstick and Individual Retirement Accounts ("IRAs") may seem like polar ends of the consumption spectrum, there are enough similarities that financial services marketing executives may want to spend some time perusing the powder and perfume aisles. To curry favor with investors who find it hard to differentiate among savings vehicles, savvy sellers are starting to recognize the importance of making the buying process "fun" and "lively." Offering a financial "beauty makeover" with encouragement about a better future is one way to establish a meaningful dialogue between an advisor and an investor. Being transparent and showcasing multiple products is another strategy.

Things are changing from Wall Street to Main Street but there is room for improvement. In "Creative Content Marketing for Financial Services: 3 Examples" (Chief Content Officer Magazine, March 7, 2013), Kevin Cain points out that "…the industry seemingly operates under the misconception that its heavy regulatory burdens both preclude and exempt it from taking a creative approach to content" and should embrace "the style and delivery of the message." He then illustrates the tact taken by three financial service firms to attract and retain business.

Sentient marketing and a dash of pizzazz may soon become a necessity if the financial services industry wants to sell to the younger generation. As the Society of Actuaries website informs, those in their twenties and thirties are expected to "make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020" and therefore represent "a sizable market for financial products." To reach these millennials, TIAA-CREF executives, Richard Pretty and Jonathan Gentry, urge firms to: (a) explain both short-term and long-term planning issues such as paying off student debt while seeking to put money aside (b) recognize the imperative of digital communications and engage Generation Y accordingly (c) leverage the influence of parents and peers and (d) describe the vagaries of the capital markets and "restore confidence in investing." They may need to act fast if they want to compete with robo advisors. As Marlene Y. Satter writes in "Wealthy millennials want automated retirement" (Benefits Pro, April 28, 2015), a new study from Global Wealth Monitor will eschew the "personal touch in retirement planning" in exchange for online tools and analysis.

Those planning for retirement may not get a free lipstick but snappy interactions with prospects and existing clients are likely just the beginning of the brave new world of financial services marketing. Competition with robots and clarion calls for lower fees challenge service providers even further.

In case you didn’t know, today is National Doughnut Day. According to ABC News, Cumberland Farms and Krispy Kreme are a few of the sellers that are giving out freebies in celebration of this longstanding holiday. In its May 28, 2015 press release, Dunkin’ Donuts (another participating retailer) informs that the holiday has been around since 1938, having been created "to honor women who served donuts to soldiers during World War I." The history of this sweet treat goes back even further. Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the popularity of the doughnut, citing its introduction to Americans by the Dutch when Manhattan was called New Amsterdam. Since then, sales have soared with 2012 doughnut store revenue reported at $11.6 billion.

Presumably free doughnuts generate sales of other products like coffee or tea and that is one motivation for holiday largesse. Another motivation for giving things away has to do with product branding. The Chief Marketing Officer Council website touts a 2015 global estimate of $540 billion as the amount that companies expect to spend on advertising. I experienced this firsthand when I recently spoke at the Government Finance Officers Association annual conference. Before my session, I perused some of the booths in the exhibition hall. I now have stress balls, pens and tote bags that sponsors gave away in droves to ensure continued name recognition. Two days ago, the subject of branding came up again when I met with the general counsel of a large financial institution. He specifically used the term "building the brand" when describing transparency and good governance as a way to differentiate his firm’s offerings to pension funds, endowments and family offices.

This got me thinking about benefits that employers offer to attract new employees and retain existing talent. Jen Schramm writes about a 2014 survey in "Which Benefits Attract Highly Skilled Workers?" (Society for Human Resource Management, April 1, 2015), stating that health care, retirement and leave arrangements "were the top benefits used to retain employees at all levels of an organization." This finding leads to logical questions about (a) how employers are branding the benefits offered in seeking to fill jobs and (b) whether only well-funded and viable plan benefits get promoted to newcomers and existing workers.

Understanding some basics about branding helps. Mark Di Somma recently addressed the seven R’s of a powerful branding strategy to include the following:

  • Resonance – Does a brand "talk to people’s needs in ways that feel personal, relevant and wonderful?"
  • Resilience – Does the brand create a competitive advantage?
  • Results – Will the brand add to the bottom line?
  • Resolution – Is the brand inspiring and "Does it align with the vision and the purpose?"
  • Radiation – Will the brand generate positive conversations?
  • Redefinition – Does the brand dazzle or simply move the deck chairs around?
  • Recognition – Does a brand build on what customers (in my example, employees and prospects) already know?

His points can be applied to the offering of various benefits and related communications with participants. Based on my experience as a forensic economist, numerous cases on which I have worked in the last few years allege poor communications and rescinded benefits (even when perception differs from reality). In brand parlance, this means there is low resonance, low resilience and low resolution. Participants do not feel that the benefits meet their needs. Increased costs relating to factors such as longevity are reducing the bottom line and forcing lots of companies to rethink whether certain benefit programs should be maintained. Underfunded and badly managed benefits can lead to negative "radiation" as reflected in the growth of putative ERISA class actions with multiple disgruntled employees willing to serve as plaintiffs.

The topic of benefits "branding" (i.e. using benefits to attract and retain talent as a way to create enterprise value) is far from trivial. Companies throughout the world are seeking to balance the costs of offering benefits against the hope that a generous HR mix helps shareholders too. It is certainly food for thought, in between bites, for those who plan to munch on a free doughnut today.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the sold-out National Center of Employee Ownership ("NCEO") conference on April 21 about board education, compensation metrics and procedural prudence. Consonant with NCEO’s commitment to providing trustee and director education about Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") administration and governance, my co-speakers and I fielded lots of questions from the audience relating to insurance coverage, selection of directors, board composition, training, governance red flags to avoid and long-term versus short-term strategy.

In conversing with some of the ESOP company CEOs and independent trustees who traveled to Denver for this annual convening (last held in Atlanta), the message was clear. Employee ownership is working for their respective companies. The sentiment struck me as quite different from what I heard last week when I attended the American Conference Institute meeting about ERISA litigation. Post Dudenhoeffer (courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court), there seems to be a lot of caution on the part of large company counsel about how much equity should be in the hands of employees.

Clearly, facts and circumstances will determine the appropriateness of any particular structure. That said, results of a recent survey reflect a growth in employee power, at least as of several years ago. According to NCEO’s research project director, Nancy Wiefek, the tabulated results show that 214 Employee Stock Ownership Plans commenced between 2001 and 2012, a rise of 44 percent from earlier periods. Out of 502 ESOP company responses, 317 were reported as fully owned at 100 percent. Click here to read more about the complete survey.

Whether the 2014 Dudenhoeffer decision will have an impact on the mostly private businesses that consider ESOP implementation remains to be seen. For now, it is important that venues exist to allow for an exchange of ideas about what works and what to avoid, should a company’s management decide to embark on putting company stock in the hands of employees.