As a follow-up to my January 12, 2017 announcement about retirement plan risk management education with the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association ("PRMIA"), I am delighted to announce a co-presenter for the February 23, 2017 learning event. Distinguished attorney Meaghan VerGow will talk about ERISA litigation and fiduciary risk management as part of "Establishing Risk Management Protocols for Defined Benefit Plans and Defined Contribution Plans." Click here to read Meaghan VerGow’s impressive bio as law firm partner and ERISA expert with O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Session One will convene from 10:00 am EST to 11:15 am EST live this Thursday. If you cannot make it in real time, the event can be downloaded for later viewing. It is the debut event of four CPE-qualified events. Speakers will examine 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 a Risk Management Policy Statement.

Visit the PRMIA website to register for Session One and read about course content for Sessions Two through Four. Our exciting roster of co-speakers for these future events will be posted shortly on this blog at www.pensionriskmatters.com

As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, valuation is an integral part of investment risk management for several reasons. First, fees paid to asset managers are frequently linked to performance and performance calculations depend on reported values. If values are artificially inflated, returns are likely to be inflated as well. Second, imprecise values can skew asset allocation decisions, lead to hedges being too big (or too small) and possibly cause an investor to breach trading limits that are part of an Investment Policy Statement. It’s no surprise then that valuation process questions about who does what, when and how continue to surface.

According to a May 9 Wall Street Journal article, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") is investigating "the way hedge funds value their thinly traded holdings and how they respond when investors ask for their money back." The SEC has been vocal about its concerns regarding asset valuations for awhile. In December 2012, Bruce Karpati, then Chief of the Asset Management Unit of the SEC Enforcement Division (and now in private industry), talked about a focus "on detecting fraudulent or weak valuation practices – including lax valuation committees and the use of side pockets to conceal losing illiquid positions – and the failure to follow a fund’s stated valuation procedures." Click to read "Enforcement Priorities in the Alternative Space." (As an aside, some hedge funds buy and sell actively traded securities for which there is a ready market and full price transparency.)

The U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") regularly broadcasts its concerns about "hard to value" assets, including financially engineered products that show up in certain defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans. In September of 2008, I spoke before the ERISA Advisory Council, by invitation, to address valuation issues from the perspective of a trained appraiser and fiduciary best practices expert. Click to read "Testimonial Remarks Presented by Dr. Susan Mangiero." I talked at length about valuation questions to ask of service providers and procedural prudence considerations for institutional investors.

A few weeks ago, senior attorney Fred Reish addressed monitoring and uncertainty in his April 19, 2016 newsletter. He directed readers to Fiduciary Rule preamble text that urges an advisor and his financial institution to install an adequate monitoring process before recommending "investments that possess unusual complexity and risk, and that are likely to require further guidance to protect the investor’s interests." Click to read "Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #1." It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that a "complex" and "risky" investment could be hard to value and not particularly liquid. (I have purposely not defined the terms in quotes herein as they are often related to facts and circumstances for a particular investor.)

Expect to read more about this important topic of valuation, especially as applied to those investors in search of higher returns. In a "no free lunch" world, risk and return go hand in hand. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to take on greater risk as long as there is an understanding at the outset as to what gives rise to uncertainty and how risks are being mitigated.

No sooner had I penned "Unicorns, Valuation and the Search for Investment Returns" for my compliance blog, I opened the New York Times this morning and discovered an article about so-called unicorns or companies with venture capital ("VC") backing and an estimated valuation of at least one billion dollars. According to the author of "The Hidden Risk of a Billion-Dollar Valuation in Silicon Valley," law school educator and pundit Steven Davidoff Solomon, venture capital firms want to get paid first in the event of a portfolio company sale which is why they negotiate hard to include a liquidation preference before committing capital. He cites a study by law firm Fenwick & West that confirms the prevalence of this downside protection and suggests that it is one reason why VC firms don’t balk about what others may decry as valuations that are "too high." Interested readers can click here to download "The Terms Behind the Unicorn Valuations" by Barry Kramer, Michael Patrick and Nicole Harper (March 31, 2015). Professor Solomon points out that this kind of return insurance is a boon for venture capitalists but could be a disaster for founders who may end up with little or nothing if a liquidity event yields too few dollars. In an attempt to avoid this unhappy outcome, founders with sufficient voting power could nix a potential sale. Should that occur, investors then face greater risks due to less liquidity.

What is missing from the various analyses about unicorns and jumbo valuations of private companies overall is a discussion about the potentially adverse impact on institutional investors. In the event that valuation numbers are truly disconnected from economic reality, a limited partner may well end up paying too much in fees to its venture capital fund manager(s). Moreover, any institutional investor that allocates money to venture capital as part of its grand strategic asset allocation design may well fall short of its goals if valuations are "too high." Failure to realize a target return, satisfy a minimum funding ratio rule and/or diversify its portfolio are a few of the "nasties" that could ensue, thereby putting investment committee members at risk for allegedly breaching fiduciary duties.

One response, proffered by researcher Ashby Monk, is for institutions to invest directly and cut out the middlemen. This tact is likely to appeal to the bigger endowments, retirement plans and sovereign wealth funds that can afford to hire staff and put the requisite due diligence and technology infrastructure in place to vet and then monitor its investments. Even then, there is the peril of improperly relying on imprecise valuations that in turn drive so many other decisions.

As Dame Agatha Christie declared, "Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody." Investment fiduciaries need to understand how asset managers come up with the valuations they report to their limited partners and how their valuation numbers are revised over time to reflect changing conditions.

Seeking to accomplish a goal without having the right tools can result in frustration and possible failure. One solution is to get outside help when needed as long as the party being hired is knowledgeable and independent. Otherwise, what looks like a solution could quickly become a problem. Applied to ERISA plans, trouble might take the form of costly and time-consuming enforcement and/or litigation. Over the last few years, that reality has set in for more than a few employers.

Recognizing the importance of abiding by good governance principles, several of us agreed to speak as part of an educational webinar on April 8, 2015 about fiduciary tools, pitfalls and lessons learned. Sponsored by fi360 and entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," this webinar joined Attorney Tom Clark (Counsel with the Wagner Law Group), Dr. Susan Mangiero (Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC) and Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner with the Harrison Fiduciary Group) to address the (a) use of an independent fiduciary (b) clarifying what an outside vendor should be doing and (c) avoiding legal and economic landmines that have revealed themselves in prominent court cases and regulatory examinations.

If you missed the event, email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com for a copy of the slides. Click here to download the written transcript. Edited for clarity (and because the audio file is spotty in some places), this fourteen page document lays out cornerstone concepts and includes suggestions for plan sponsors and the advisers who serve them. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The outsourced fiduciary market is growing in the United States and elsewhere.
  • When an outside party is hired by a plan sponsor, it is critical to specify responsibilities and contract accordingly. When an "expectations gap" exists, some critical tasks may be left wanting or not addressed at all.
  • When multiple fiduciaries are in place, a plan sponsor must ensure that a central person or team is adequately coordinating the efforts of all fiduciaries.
  • The newly proposed Conflict of Interest rule is predicted to materially change the landscape of fiduciary relationships between plan participants and retirement advisers.
  • A fiduciary status may exist due to either a contractual agreement or by virtue of the functions assumed by an individual or organization.
  • ERISA litigation is getting more attention these days, with a particular focus on fees, use of proprietary funds, revenue-sharing and disclosure of compensation paid to investment consultants, advisers and asset managers.
  • Demonstrating procedural prudence in part depends on what others in the industry are doing (or not doing as the case may be) and whether actions make sense for a given plan.
  • A renewed focus on disclosure and transparency is in the works according to comments made by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged for a singular transaction or for a task that continues over a long period of time.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged by either a defined contribution plan or defined benefit plan or both.
  • When there is a perception or reality of a conflict of interest, it may be prudent for an independent fiduciary to be engaged. The participants pay for said party because the independent fiduciary works on behalf of the participants.
  • The concept of co-fiduciary status is important and should be paid heed by any adviser who has an ERISA plan as a client.
  • Before delegating duties (to the extent allowed) to a third party, a plan sponsor should decide what financial issues should be vetted. Liquidity, the use of leverage by asset managers and asset allocation are a few of the many topics that a delegated fiduciary could be asked to measure, monitor and manage.
  • A fiduciary audit can be extremely helpful as a tool for identifying areas of improvement for an ERISA plan sponsor.

It may be no surprise that over 500 people registered for this educational webinar about fiduciary foibles. After forty years since its inception, ERISA remains a force that cannot be ignored.

Nine years today marked the debut of www.pensionriskmatters.com. Since then, I am proud to say that traffic has steadily grown, with continued feedback and suggestions about all sorts of topics. I am deeply grateful to visitors to this independent website for their time and encouragement. While the specific feedback tends to vary by issue or job function, a central theme is clear. Ongoing education about topics such as due diligence, fees, risk management, asset allocation, hedge funds, liquidity and valuation is both needed and desired. In 2015, this award-winning blog will continue its focus on providing objective and helpful information about important subjects that challenge investment stewards and their advisors, attorneys and regulators who oversee the management of more than $30 trillion.

As I point out in "Financial Expert Susan Mangiero Celebrates Ninth Year as Lead Contributor to Pension Risk Governance Blog" (Business Wire, March 25, 2015), "There is never a shortage of subjects to discuss, thanks to ongoing suggestions and contributions from readers and the significant realities of changing demographics, market volatility and new accounting rules."

To date, there are over 900 published analyses, research updates and guest interviews that can be readily accessed by category and keyword. Simply click on the Archives section of www.pensionriskmatters.com. For a complimentary subscription to this blog, as posts are published, click here to sign up. Click here to read our Privacy Policy. If you are interested in contributing an educational essay or letting us know about a relevant news item or rule change, please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com.

Until the next blog post, thank you for your interest!

The prospect of being part of millions of retail retirement plans has some financial advisors and hedge fund managers giddy with excitement. The 401(k) market alone is huge. According to the Investment Company Institute, as of Q3-2012, these defined contribution plans held an estimated $3.5 trillion in assets. In 2011, over fifty million U.S. workers were "active 401(k) participants." This compares favorably to an approximate $2.66 trillion hedge fund market size in 2013, up from $2.3 trillion one year earlier. Private equity, real estate and infrastructure comprise the rest of the alternatives investment sector according to a press release issued by Preqin, a financial research company. See "Alternative Assets Industry Hits $6tn in AUM for First Time" (January 21, 2014).

CNBC contributor Shelly K. Schwartz explains that alternative investment strategies are appearing in the form of 400 plus mutual funds and exchange-traded funds ("ETFs") that employ "complex trading strategies" such as managed futures, long/short trading in stocks and multiple currency exposures. Allocating to leveraged loans, start-up ventures and global real estate are other ways that these relatively new funds seem to be mimicking the approach taken by hedge funds and private equity funds that traditionally have catered to institutional investors and high net worth individuals. Notwithstanding regulatory differences relating to diversification, percentage of "illiquid" investments, redemption, daily pricing and how much debt can be used to lever a portfolio, statistics suggest a growing interest on the part of smaller investors to get in on the action. See "Seeking safe havens? Analysts, advisors point to liquid alternative funds" (November 24, 2013). Also check out "Goldman pushes hedge funds for your 401(k)" (Fortune, May 22, 2013) in which reporter Stephen Gandel describes new funds being offered by various financial institutions, some of which invest in mutual funds that mimic hedge fund investing strategies and others that invest in hedge funds directly.

Not everyone is an ardent fan. In "FINRA warns investors on alternative mutual funds," Reuters reporter Trevor Hunnicutt (June 11, 2013) describes regulators’ concerns that "not all advisers and investors understand the risks involved," especially with respect to whether a retail-oriented fund is truly liquid. In its "Alternative Funds Are Not Your Typical Mutual Fund" publication, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA") cautions investors to assess investment structure, strategy risk, investment objectives, operating expenses, the background of a particular fund manager and performance history.

Given the ongoing search for the next big thing, we are likely to see a lot more activity in the alternative investments marketplace – for both institutional and high net worth clients as well as for individuals with modest wealth levels. PensionRiskMatters.com will return to this topic in future posts. There is much to write about with respect to fiduciary implications, risk management and valuation.

In the meantime, I want to thank ERISA attorney David C. Olstein with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates for apprising me of a 2012 U.S. Department of Labor grant of individual exemption for Renaissance Technologies, LLC ("Renaissance").  Described as a "private hedge fund investment company based in New York with over $15 billion under management" by HedgeCo.net (September 26, 2013), Renaissance holds a large number of equity positions in stocks issued by household name companies. Click to see a recent list of their transactions. The "Grant of Individual Exemption Involving Renaissance Technologies, LLC," published in the Federal Register on April 20, 2012 makes for interesting reading for several reasons. First, it describes policies relating to important topics such as valuation, redemption and disclosures for "privately offered collective investment vehicles managed by Renaissance, comprised almost exclusively of proprietary funds" and the impact on retirement accounts in the name of Renaissance employees, some of its owners and spouses of both employees and owners. Second, as far as I know, there are not a lot of publicly available documents about proprietary investment products that find their way into the retirement portfolios of asset management firm employees and shareholders. Third, as earlier described, there is evidence of a growing interest on the part of the financial community in bringing hedge funds or hedge fund "look alike" products to the retirement "masses."

As I’ve written many times herein, understanding transferability restrictions is a "must do" for institutional investors who allocate monies to asset managers. While a pension, endowment, foundation or family office may decide to invest part of its portfolio in illiquid securities for strategic reasons, it is still necessary to understand how to exit if necessary. In "Hedge Fund Lock Ups and Pension Inflows" (July 4, 2011), the point is made that investors who want to redeem but are barred from doing so may seek redress in a court of law. Regulators are paying close attention too.

According to recent news accounts, several Louisiana pension funds that sought to withdraw some of their money from a New York hedge fund were given promissory notes with assurances that it could get cash in several years. Moreover, it may be that the hedge fund in question has counted assets under management more than once due to a feeder fund organizational structure that boasts over a dozen smaller vehicles which cross trade with one another.

In a joint statement dated July 11, 2011, the Firefighters’ Retirement System ("FRS"), New Orleans Firefighters’ Retirement System and the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System ("MERS") describe how attempts by FRS and MERS "to capture some of the profits that had been earned in an investment known as the FIA Leveraged Fund" initially met with resistance on the part of the fund manager to provide cash right away. Instead, the two requesting institutions were told to expect paper IOUs while certain assets were to be liquidated in an orderly manner over a period of up to two years. The statement goes on to say that the pension plans had each been promised a return of at least 12 percent per annum and that if the "collateral supporting the preferred return declines to a level that is 20% above the systems’ collective account values, there is a trigger mechanism requiring a mandatory redemption of the systems’ investment" with the 20% cushion" designed to protect the systems’ accounts against any loss in value."

Getting a promissory note has not made for happy campers who now worry about the liquidity of the FIA fund and "the accuracy of the financial statements issued by the two renowned independent auditors." The statement goes on to say that the hedge fund manager has been apprised that the pension plans intend to "closely examine" performance records by putting together a team that consists of their board members, internal auditors and investment consultant. A forensic economist may be added to the team.

Click to read the July 11, 2011 joint statement from these Louisiana pension plans about hedge fund liquidity concerns for this particular manager.

Having just checked the SEC website, this blogger does not yet see the formal inquiry statement. Speaking from experience, complexity is never a good thing. Someone somewhere has to understand what risks might give rise to material problems. Moreover, proper due diligence of funds that invest in "hard to value" instruments has to take into account how they are modeled and who is vetting the integrity of the model numbers. Regarding organizational structures that encompass multiple money pools, it is imperative to understand who exactly has a claim to assets in a worst case situation of forced liquidation.

A few years ago, I refused to continue with a valuation engagement of a hedge fund because neither the general partner nor the master fund’s attorney could adequately answer my questions about priority of claims for a complex offshore-onshore ownership structure. In several recent matters where I have served as expert witness, concerns about restrictions of transferability and collateral monitoring have taken center stage. Be reminded that in distress, book values often fall seriously short of fire sale or even orderly liquidation (auction) values.

Let’s hope that questions can be cleared up in a timely fashion.

Readers may want to check out these articles:

  • "S.E.C. and Pension Systems to Examine Fletcher Fund" by Peter Lattman, New York Times, July 12, 2011; and
  • "Pensions Want Look Into Fund’s Records" by Josh Barbanel, Steve Eder and Jean Eaglesham, Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2011.

Various sources tout increasing inflows to hedge funds from public and corporate pension plans.

In "Strong start to hedge fund activity in 2011" (April 1, 2011), Pensions & Investments reporter Christine Williamson writes that "First-quarter institutional hedge fund activity, including net inflows and pending searches, totaled $18 billion – the highest since the intense investment pace of the first quarter 2007, which saw $25 billion in activity." James Armstrong of Traders Magazine describes the billions of dollars going to hedge funds in recent months as a catalyst to "increased trading volumes for the equities trading business." See "Hedge Funds Could Juice Volume" (June 2011). Imogen Rose-Smith of Institutional Investor gives readers a detailed look at the love affair with hedge funds in "Timeline 2000-2011: Public Pensions Invest in Hedge Funds" (June 20, 2011).

Fortune writer Katie Benner says "wait a minute" to what seems to be an upward trajectory in retirement plan allocations to hedge funds with a 51% increase since 2007 and a doubling of the mean allocation to 6.6% (according to a study by Preqin). In "Hedge fund returns won’t save public pensions" (March 30, 2011), she cites willful underfunding and a "mish-mash of accounting tricks" as fundamental problems that will not be corrected with more money in alternatives.

In her May 16, 2011 article for Pensions & Investments and entitled "Promises, promises: $100 billion still locked up," Christine Williamson writes that assurances made to institutional investors in 2008 and 2009 about redemptions are not being met by some hedge fund managers. At that time, jittery pension funds, endowments and foundations that wanted out were asked to be patient rather than force hedge funds to unwind hard to value positions at sub-par prices. Quoting Geoff Varga, a senior executive with Kinetic Partners US LLP, a consultancy for asset management firms, there is an estimated $100 billion in "exotic" or non-standard investments that were stuffed into "emergency side pockets." He adds that it is hard to come up with an exact number, especially since managers’ valuations of these illiquid positions are not always realistic.

Certainly the issue of side pockets is unlikely to go away any time soon. On October 19, 2010, Emily Chasan reported that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") had filed a civil complaint against several hedge fund managers for overvaluing illiquid assets. See "SEC charges hedge fund of inflating ‘side pockets’" (Reuters). Click here to read the SEC complaint and October 19, 2010 press release from the SEC. On March 1, 2011, Azam Ahmed with the New York Times Deal Dook described another case in "Manager Accused of Putting $12 Million in Side Pockets."

This blogger, Dr. Susan Mangiero, has written extensively on the topic of hard to value investments and liquidity and served as expert witness on cases involving due diligence allegations. Acknowledging that not all hedge funds invest in hard to value instruments, the following items may be of interest to readers:

In a recent interview with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review journalist Debra Erdley, I pointed out the folly of relying solely on point in time actuarial numbers. As I state (below), no single metric is a substitute for a robust risk management process.

Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance, Inc., a group that advises pensions on best practices and risk management, said pension reports can be misleading – even when numbers are quoted accurately. "A one-point-in-time number is not very helpful. It says nothing about the riskiness of the investment portfolio. It says nothing about whether there is good due diligence in place – the vetting of the consultants, asset managers and investment managers. and it says little about the plan’s ability to write checks every month," she said, adding that a pension plan with a high funding ratio could be heavily loaded with assets that are hard to convert to cash."

Others in the article (entitled "Onorato’s boast about pension fund solvency raises eyebrows" – April 6, 2010) impugn politicians for their knowledge (or lack thereof) of arcane actuarial methodologies. Ouch!

I’m reminded of my finance teaching days when students were asked to rank capital projects by Net Present Value, Internal Rate of Return, Payback Period and so on. Consider Investment A with a calculated IRR of 50% and a NPV of $1,000 versus Investment B with expectations of 25% per annum and a dollar reward of $500,000. I’d rather have the cash than the cold comfort of a number that doesn’t mean much.

Cash is king which is why an ongoing holistic risk management process is EVERYTHING!

On March 1, 2010, Dr. Susan Mangiero, CEO of Investment Governance, Inc. sat down to talk to financial and strategy expert, Mr. Pascal Levensohn. In this ninth question of ten, read what this Investment Governance, Inc. Advisory Board member has to say about IPOs and whether institutional investors should allocate monies to venture capital ("VC") funds right now. Click here to read Mr. Levensohn’s impressive bio.

SUSAN: Does an anemic initial public offering ("IPO") market will remain a deterrent to VC investing?

PASCAL: Yes I do. I believe that an entire generation of American innovation is at risk as a result of the lack of IPO’s. The statistics are overwhelming in support of my position, starting with the fact that over 90% of jobs created by VC-backed companies occur AFTER their IPO – and this has been the case for 40 years. What concerns me the most about the IPO vacuum is that it is systemic and is the result of a “one size fits all mentality” when it comes to regulation of the securities industry.  A relatively unknown emerging growth public company with a $500 million market cap has different needs for research and trading support to provide liquidity for investors than IBM. I remain surprised that this seems to be difficult for our policy makers to understand, but I am encouraged that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") has recently invited public comments for a 90 day period to address structural problems with the U.S. equity markets.

Specifically, the SEC wants to know if anyone from the public has thoughts on "whether the current market structure is fundamentally fair to investors and supports capital raising functions for companies of various sizes, and whether intermarket linkages are adequate to provide a cohesive national market system." The Commissioners expressed particular interest in receiving comments from a wide range of market participants. Comments on the Concept Release are due within 90 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Click to read "SEC Issues Concept Release Seeking Comment on Structure of Equity Markets" (January 13, 2010).

I believe that the U.S. equity capital markets must be structured with the goal of promoting the growth of publicly held small businesses in America. America had this structure in place prior to 1997. We should take a hard look at what has changed to render the small company IPO extinct. (Contrary to popular belief, it first became an endangered species before the technology bubble).

Compounding this problem is the fact that, with no IPO options, the consideration paid for companies in trade sales – acquisition by larger companies – has been declining.  Why should venture capitalists take the risks associated with starting up a new company, working through all of the difficulties with multiple financing rounds and executive changes over a six-to-eight or even ten-year period, only to get backed into a corner by a large multinational that dominates the sales channel and can wait them out?

The biggest problem the VC industry has today is that, absent access to public market capital, there are too few VC-backed companies that are self sustaining cashflow generators.  The biggest problem that the U.S. economy has today is unemployment. You would think that maybe the stewards of the U.S. economy, our legislators, could make some structural changes to our small company capital markets regulations to fuel the greatest job creation engine in America – the entrepreneur driving an emerging growth company. This problem goes way beyond venture capital. Consider that 47% of all IPO’s since 1991 were backed by neither VC’s or private equity firms. This is an American problem.