Saturday, October 14, 2017

6 Dangerous Fiduciary Assumptions

There’s an old saying that when you assume… well, here are five assumptions that can create real headaches for retirement plan fiduciaries.

Assuming that not being required to have an investment policy statement means you don’t need to have an investment policy.

While plan advisers and consultants routinely counsel on the need for, and importance of, an investment policy statement (IPS), the reality is that the law does not require one, and thus, many plan sponsors — sometimes at the direction of legal counsel — choose not to put one in place.

Of course, if the law does not specifically require a written IPS — think of it as investment guidelines for the plan — ERISA nonetheless basically anticipates that plan fiduciaries will conduct themselves as though they had one in place. And, generally speaking, plan sponsors (and the advisors they work with) will find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing, and not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

It is worth noting that, though it is not legally required, Labor Department auditors routinely ask for a copy of the plan’s IPS as one of their first requests. And therein lies the rationale behind the counsel of some in the legal profession to forego having a formal IPS: because if there is one thing worse than not having an IPS, it is having an IPS — in writing — that is not being followed.

Assuming that all target-date funds are the same.

Just about every industry survey you pick up verifies that target-date funds, as well as their older counterparts, the lifecycle (risk-based) and balanced funds, have become fixtures on the defined contribution investment menu. For a large and growing number of individuals, these “all-in-one” target-date funds, monitored by plan fiduciaries and those that guide them, are destined to be an important aspect of building their retirement future.

There are obviously differences in fees, and that can be affected by how the funds themselves are structured, drawn from a series of proprietary offerings, or built out of a best-in-class structure of non-affiliated providers.

However, and while the bulk of TDF assets are still spread among a handful of providers, there are different views on what is an “appropriate” asset allocation at a particular point in time, discrete perspectives as to what asset classes belong in the mix, notions that individuals aren’t well-served by a mix that disregards individual risk tolerances, arguments over the definition of a TDF “glide path” as the investments automatically rebalance over time, and even disagreement as to whether the fund’s target-date is an end point or simply a milepost along the investment cycle. Oh, and a new generation of custom TDFs are now in the mix as well.

(See also, “Five Things the DOL Wants You to Know About TDFs.”)

Assuming that hiring a fiduciary keeps you from being a fiduciary.

ERISA has a couple of very specific exceptions through which you can limit — but not eliminate —fiduciary obligations. The first has to do with the specific decisions made by a qualified investment manager — and, even then, a plan sponsor/fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of that investment manager’s activities on behalf of the plan.

The second exception has to do with specific investment decisions made by properly informed and empowered individual participants in accordance with ERISA Section 404(c). Here also, even if the plan meets the 404(c) criteria (and it is by no means certain it will), the plan fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of the options on the investment menu (and, as the Tibble case reminds us, that obligation is ongoing).

Outside of these two exceptions, the plan sponsor/fiduciary is essentially responsible for the quality of the investments of the plan — including those that participants make. Oh, and hiring a 3(16) fiduciary? Still on the hook as a fiduciary for selecting that provider.

(See also, “7 Things an ERISA Fiduciary Should Know.”)

Assuming that all expenses associated with a plan can be charged to the plan.

Assuming that the plan allows it, the Department of Labor has divided plan expenses into two types: so-called “settlor expenses,” which must be borne by the employer; and administrative expenses, which — if they are reasonable — may (but aren’t required to) be paid from plan assets. In general, settlor expenses include the cost of any services provided to establish, terminate or design the plan. These are the types of services that generally are seen as benefiting the employer, rather than the plan beneficiaries.

Administrative expenses include fees and costs associated with things like amending the plan to keep it in compliance with tax laws, conducting nondiscrimination testing, performing participant recordkeeping services, and providing plan information to participants.

Assuming that the worst-case deadline for depositing participant contributions is the deadline.

The legal requirements for depositing contributions to the plan are perhaps the most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. A delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common signs that an employer is in financial trouble — and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst-case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

(See also, “5 Little Things That Can Become Big 401(k) Problems.”)

Assuming you have to figure it all out on your own.

ERISA imposes a duty of prudence on plan fiduciaries that is often referred to as one of the highest duties known to law — and for good reason. Those fiduciaries must act “with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”

The “familiar with such matters” is the sticking point for those who might otherwise be inclined to simply adopt a “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” approach. Similarly, those who might be naturally predisposed toward a kind of Hippocratic, “first, do no harm” stance are afforded no such discretion under ERISA’s strictures.

However, the Department of Labor has stated that “[l]acking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.” Simply stated, if you lack the skill, prudence and diligence of an expert in such matters, you are not only entitled to get help — you are expected to do so.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Generations ‘Grasp’

If you’re still struggling to figure out how to reach Millennials (even if you are a Millennial), take heart – there’s (already) another generational cohort entering the workforce.

This new cohort is called Generation Z (at one point, Millennials were referred to as Gen Y, so…) – they are, generally speaking, children of Gen X – born in the mid-1990s, and separated from Millennials by their lack of a memory of 9/11.

Gen Z is, in fact, already entering the workforce – and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they currently comprise a quarter of the population. They are seen as being more “realistic” when it comes to life and working than Millennials, who have been characterized as more “optimistic.” Gen Z is said to be more independent and competitive in their work than the collaborative Millennials, more concerned with privacy (Snapchat versus Facebook), and are said to have a preference for communicating face-to-face. It’s said they’ll eschew racking up big college debt, and are said to be interested in multiple roles within a single employer, rather than multiple employers (role-hoppers versus job-hoppers). They have been called a generation of self-starters, self-learners and self-motivators – and they’ve never known a world without the Internet and a smartphone to bring it to their fingertips wherever they are.

Unlike previous generations, whose parents didn’t mention money or focus on financial topics with their kids, more than half (56%) of Gen Z have reportedly discussed saving money with their parents in the past six months. The result, according to researchers, is a young generation that “behaves more like Baby Boomers than Millennials,” is making plans to work during college, to avoid personal debt at all costs, and… to save for retirement. Indeed, 12% of Gen Z is already saving for retirement, according to a recent research report.

Behavior ‘Patterns’

Now, as different as individuals in various generational cohorts can be, I’ve never been inclined to assign those behavioral differences to their membership in any particular cohort. Rather, I think there are things that younger workers are inclined to do (or not do) that workers in every cohort were inclined to do (or avoid) when they were younger. Do Millennials change jobs more frequently than their elders? Sure. But they didn’t invent the phenomenon; for a variety of reasons, younger workers have long been more inclined (or able) to pull up stakes and seek new opportunities (American private sector job tenure has actually been remarkably and consistently “short” running all the way back to WWII). Similarly, younger workers tend to put off saving (certainly for something as far away and obscure in concept as retirement), and when they do start saving, tend to save less than their elders. This was true of the Boomers, of Gen X and Millennials, and – despite their more rapid savings start – will almost certainly be true of Gen Z, left to their own devices.

That last part is a potentially critical difference, of course, in that today plan design differences like automatic enrollment were a relative rarity when the Boomers were coming into the workplace. Some of it is that – at least supposedly – their parents didn’t need to save because they had defined benefit pension plans to secure their retirement. But, even for those who were covered by those plans (and most weren’t) – the DB promise was of little value at a time when 10-year cliff vesting and 8-year workplace tenures were the order of the day. Moreover, Boomers would typically have had to wait a year to start contributing to their DC plan when they entered the workforce.

Headlines tout today’s improved behaviors – more diversified investments, an earlier savings start, a greater awareness of the need to prepare for retirement – as evidence of refined education efforts, or a heightened awareness of the need to save by generations who are more attuned to financial realities. Those are indeed welcome and encouraging signs.

Still, it seems to me that many in these newer generational cohorts are – as are their elders – really the beneficiaries of innovative plan designs – things like target-date funds, as well as automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration, and a heightened focus on outcomes – developed to overcome the behavioral shortcomings of human beings – regardless of their generational cohort.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 30, 2017

‘Talking’ Points

In the course of my day, I talk to (and email with) people, read a lot, and every so often jot down a random thought or insight that gives me pause and makes me think. See what you think.
  1. Disclosure isn’t the same thing as clarity. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
  2. It’s not what you’re doing wrong; it’s what you’re not doing that’s wrong.
  3. Sometimes just saying you’re thinking about doing an RFP can get results.
  4. The best way to stay out of court is to avoid situations where participants lose money.
  5. The key to successful retirement savings is not how you invest, but how much you save.
  6. It’s the match, not the tax preferences, that drives plan participation.
  7. Does anybody still expect taxes to be lower in retirement?
  8. If you don’t know how much you’re paying, you can’t know if it’s reasonable.
  9. You want your provider to be profitable, not go out of business.
  10. Retirement income is a challenge to solve, not a product to build.
  11. When selecting plan investments, keep in mind the 80-10-10 rule: 80% of participants are not investment savvy, 10% are, and the other 10% think they are. But aren’t.
  12. Participants who are automatically enrolled are almost certainly even more inert than those who took the time to fill out an enrollment form.
  13. 92% of participants defaulted in at a 6% deferral do nothing. 4% actually increase that deferral. rate.
  14. Plan sponsors may not be responsible for the outcomes of their retirement plan designs, but someone should be.
  15. Even if a plan has a plan adviser that is a fiduciary, the plan sponsor is still a fiduciary.
  16. Most plans don’t comply with ERISA 404(c) – and never have. And, based on litigation trends, apparently don’t need to.
  17. Hiring a co-fiduciary doesn’t make you an ex-fiduciary.
  18. “Because it’s the one my recordkeeper offers” is not a good reason to select a target-date fund.
  19. Given a chance to save via a workplace retirement plan, most people do. Without access to a workplace retirement plan, most people don’t.
  20. Nobody knows how much “reasonable” is.
  21. Innovative doesn’t mean nobody’s ever thought about it, or that nobody’s ever done it.
  22. You want to have an investment policy in place before you need to have an investment policy in place.
  23. The same provider can charge different fees to plans that aren’t all that different.
  24. You can be in favor of fee disclosure and transparency and still think that legislation telling you how to do it is misguided.
  25. The biggest mistake a plan fiduciary can make is not seeking the help of experts.
Thanks to all you “inspirations” out there – past, present and future.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 23, 2017

"Checks" and Balances

In about a month, the IRS will announce the new contribution and benefit limits for 2018 – and that could be good news even for those who don’t bump against those thresholds.

These are limits that are adjusted for inflation, after all – designed to help retirement savings (and benefits) keep pace with increases in the cost of living. In other words, if today you could only defer on a pre-tax basis that same $7,000 that highly compensated workers were permitted in 1986 – well, let’s just say that you’d lose a lot of purchasing power in retirement.

But since industry surveys suggest that “only” about 9%-12% currently contribute to the maximum levels, one might well wonder if raising the current limits matters. Indeed, one of the comments you hear frequently from those who want to do away with the current retirement system is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down,” that they go primarily to those at higher income levels, who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. Certainly from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes.

Drawing on the actual account balance data from the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute has found that those ratios were relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000. (See chart.) In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes – and not “upside down.”

And yet, according to Vanguard’s How America Saves 2017, only about a third of workers making more than $100,000 a year maxed out their contributions. If these limits and incentives work only to the advantage of the rich, why aren’t more maxing out?

Arguably, what keeps these potential disparities in check is the series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Internal Revenue Code Sections 402(g) and 415(c), combined with ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time to do just that – to maintain a certain parity between highly compensated and non-highly compensated workers in the benefits available from these programs. The data suggest they are having exactly that impact.

Those who look only at the external contribution dollar limits of the current tax incentives generally gloss over the reality of the benefit/contribution limits and nondiscrimination test requirements at play inside the plan – and yet surely those limits are working to “bound in” the contributions of individuals who would surely like to put more aside, if the combination of laws and limits allowed.

One need only look back to the impact that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 had on retirement plan formation following the imposition of strict and significantly lower contribution limits – as well as a dramatic reduction in the rate of cost-of-living adjustments to those limits – to appreciate the relief that came in 2001 with EGTRRA.

Anyone who has ever had a conversation with a business owner – particularly a small business owner – about establishing or maintaining a workplace retirement plan knows how important it is that those decision-makers have “skin in the game.”

While we don’t yet know what the limits for 2018 will be, gradually increasing the limits of these programs to keep pace with inflation helps assure that these programs will be retained and supported by those who, as a result, continue to have a shared interest in their success.

And that’s good news for all of us.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Are You (Just) a Retirement Plan Monitor?

A recent ad campaign focuses on the distinction between identifying a problem and actually doing something about it.

In one version a so-called “dental monitor” tells a concerned patient that he has “one of the worst cavities that I’ve ever seen” before heading out to lunch, leaving that cavity unattended. Another features a “security monitor” who looks like a bank guard, but only notifies people when there is a robbery.

As an industry, we have long worried about the plight of the average retirement plan participant, who doesn’t know much (if anything) about investing, who doesn’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would really just prefer that someone else take care of it.

What gets less attention — but is just as real a phenomenon — is how many plan sponsors don’t know anything about investments, don’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement plan investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would — yes, also really just prefer that someone else take care of it.

Of course, if many plan sponsors lack the expertise (or time) to prudently construct such a plan menu, one might well wonder at their acumen at choosing an advisor to do so, particularly when you consider that surveys routinely show that plan sponsors choose an advisor primarily based on the quality of the advice they provide. One can’t help but wonder how that advice is quantified (certainly not in the same way that investment funds can be), and doubtless, that helps explain why so many advisors are (apparently) hired not on what they know, but on who they know.

But for many plan fiduciaries, the obstacle to hiring a retirement plan advisor is financial, not intellectual. Particularly for a plan sponsor who has not previously employed those services — or, more ominously, in the case of one who has hired an advisor that didn’t hold up their end of the bargain — the additional costs of hiring an advisor can be problematic. The question asked of a prospective advisor may be, “Why should I hire you?” But one can well imagine that the question that is often unarticulated, and perhaps the real heart of the matter is, “Why should I pay you (that much)?”

There are ways, of course, to quantify the value of those services, ways that quantify not only what that advisor is worth, but why those fees are what they are. Some advisors promote their services as a shield against litigation, or at least some kind of buffer against the financial impact of such an event, but in my experience, while most employers are glad to get/take the “warranty” (implied or explicit), they often aren’t willing to pay very much extra for it.

In the most obvious case, you can walk in and demonstrate the ability to save a plan money by upgrades to the menu, a change in providers, or perhaps even a better negotiation of the current arrangement. That’s clearly added value, and value that is readily measured (though it has a finite shelf life). Assuming, of course, that the plan sponsor is ready, willing (and in some cases, able) to act on those recommendations.

Indeed, most of the attempts to affix a value to having an advisor tend to focus on investment returns or cost savings for the plan. Both are valid, objective measures that can have a real, substantive impact on retirement security for participants, and fiduciary peace of mind for the plan sponsor.

Similarly, the ability to increase plan levels of participation, deferral, and investment diversification also adds value — quantifiable value, particularly measured against goals and an action plan for achieving them that is clearly articulated, and updated, up front. Ultimately, it’s about more than identifying issues and problems, it’s about having a plan for the plan, and being willing to be an agent for change in pursuit of it.

The “monitor” ad closes with the admonition, “Why monitor a problem if you don’t fix it?”
Indeed.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also: “The Value of Good Advice.”

Saturday, September 09, 2017

A "Real Life" Example

In addition to the books, reference guides, and a few personal “knick knacks,” I have for years had in my office a couple of model cars – but not for the reason people generally think.

These models happen to be Studebakers (a 1950 Champion, a 1953 Starliner and a 1963 Avanti). I’d wager that a majority of Americans have never even heard of a Studebaker, and the notion that a major U.S. automobile maker once operated out of South Bend, Indiana would likely come as a surprise to most. I keep them in my office not because I have an appreciation for classic cars (though I do), but because of the role the automaker played in ERISA’s formation.

Born into a wagon-making family, the Studebaker brothers (there were five of them) went from being blacksmiths in the 1850s to making parts for wagons, to making wheelbarrows (that were in great demand during the 1849 Gold Rush) to building wagons used by the Union Army during the Civil War, before turning to making cars (first electric, then gasoline) after the turn of the century. Indeed, they had a good, long run making automobiles that were generally well regarded for their quality and reliability (their finances, not so much) until a combination of factors (including, ironically, pension funding) resulted in the cessation of production at the South Bend plant on Dec. 20, 1963. Shortly thereafter Studebaker terminated its retirement plan for hourly workers, and the plan defaulted on its obligations.

At the time, the plan covered roughly 10,500 workers, 3,600 of whom had already retired and who – despite the stories you sometimes hear about Studebaker – received their full benefits when the plan was terminated. However, some 4,000 workers between the ages of 40 and 59 – didn’t. They only got about 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they had been promised, though the average age of this group of workers was 52 years with an average of 23 years of service (another 2,900 employees, who all had less than 10 years of service, received nothing).

ERISA did not create pensions, of course; they existed in significant numbers prior to 1974, as the workers at Studebaker surely knew (they certainly had reason to – Studebaker-Packard had terminated the retirement plan for employees of the former Packard Motor Car company in 1958, and they got even less than the Studebaker workers wound up with in 1964). But armed with the real life example of those Studebaker pensions, highlighting what had been a growing concern about the default risk of private sector plans (public sector programs weren’t seen as being vulnerable to the same risk at that time) – well, it may have been a decade before ERISA was to become a reality, but the example of Studebaker’s pensions provided a powerful and on-going “real life” reminder of the need for reform.

Has ERISA “worked”? Well, in signing that legislation – 43 years ago this past weekend – President Ford noted that from 1960 to 1970, private pension coverage increased from 21.2 million employees to approximately 30 million workers, while during that same period, assets of these private plans increased from $52 billion to $138 billion, acknowledging that “[i]t will not be long before such assets become the largest source of capital in our economy.” His words were prophetic; today that system has grown to exceed $17 trillion, covering more than 85 million workers in more than 700,000 plans.

The composition of the plans, like the composition of the workforce those plans cover, has changed considerably over time, as has ERISA’s original framework. Today much is made about the shortcomings in coverage and protections of the current system, the projections of multitrillion-dollar shortfalls of retirement income, the pining for the “good old days” when everyone had a pension (that never really existed for most), the reality is that ERISA – and its progeny – have unquestionably allowed more Americans to be better financially prepared for retirement than ever before.

It’s a real life example I think about every time I look at those model cars – and every time I have the opportunity to explain the story behind them.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Storm "Warnings"

Watching the incredible, heart-rending coverage this past weekend of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, I was reminded of a personal experience with nature’s fury.

It was 2011, and we had just deposited our youngest off for his first semester of college, stopped off long enough in Washington, DC to visit our daughters (both in college there at the time), and then sped home up the East Coast with reports of Hurricane Irene’s potential destruction and probable landfall(s) close behind. We arrived home, unloaded in record time, and rushed straight to the local hardware store to stock up for the coming storm.

We weren’t the only ones to do so, of course. And what we had most hoped to acquire (a generator) was not to be found – there, or at that moment, apparently anywhere in the state.
What made that situation all the more infuriating was that, while the prospect of a hurricane landfall near our Connecticut home was relatively rare, we’d already had one narrow miss with an earlier hurricane and had, on several prior occasions, been without power, and for extended periods. After each I had told myself that we really needed to invest in a generator – but, as human beings are inclined to do, and reasoning that I had plenty of time to do so when it was more convenient, I simply (and repeatedly) postponed taking action. Thankfully my dear wife wasn’t inclined to remind me of those opportunities, but they loomed large in my mind.

Retirement Ratings?

People often talk about the retirement crisis in this country, but like a tropical storm still well out to sea, there are widely varying assessments as to just how big it is, and – to borrow some hurricane terminology – when it will make “landfall,” and with what force.

Most of the predictions are dire, of course – and while they often rely on arguably unreliable measures like uninformed levels of confidence (or lack thereof), self-reported financials and savings averages – it’s hard to escape a pervasive sense that as a nation we’re in for some rough weather, particularly in view of objective data like coverage statistics and retirement readiness projections based on actual participant data.

Indeed, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Biggs, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute offers what is certainly a contrarian perspective these days: assuring President Trump (and us) that there is no retirement crisis (subscription required), at least not a “looming” one. And yet his point is basically little more than things are better than many would have us believe, based largely on data that indicates things are better now than they were before we worried about such things. Biggs, who previously testified before Congress that the use of the term “crisis” to describe the current situation was an “overblown non-solution to a non-crisis,” maintained that 75% of today’s retirees are “doing well,” and that Boomers are having a better retirement than their parents, who ostensibly lived during the “golden age” of pensions.

Another reassuring perspective was published earlier this year by the Investment Company Institute’s Peter J. Brady & Steven Bass, and Jessica Holland & Kevin Pierce of the Internal Revenue Service – who found, based on IRS tax filings, that most individuals were able to maintain their inflation‐adjusted net work‐related income after claiming Social Security. Not exactly an affirmation that the income was enough to sustain retirement expenses, but at least it showed that individuals were maintaining (and most improving upon) their pre-retirement income levels, at least for a three-year period into retirement.

Life is full of uncertainty, and events and circumstances, as often as not, happen with little if any warning. Even though hurricanes are something you can see coming a long way off, there’s always the chance that they will peter out sooner than expected, that landfall will result in a dramatic shift in course and/or intensity, or that, as with Hurricane Katrina – and apparently Harvey – the most devastating impact is what happens afterward. In theory, at least, that provides time to prepare – but, as I was reminded when Irene struck, sometimes you don’t have as much time as you think you have.1

Doubtless, a lot of retirement plan participants are going to look back at their working lives as they near the threshold of retirement, the same way I thought about that generator. They’ll likely remember the admonitions about (and their good intentions to) saving sooner, saving more, and the importance of regular, prudent reallocations of investment portfolios. Thankfully – and surely because of the hard work of advisors and plan sponsors – many will have heeded those warnings in time. But others, surely – and particularly those without access to a retirement plan at work – will find those post-retirement years (if indeed they can retire) to be a time of regret.

Those who work with individuals trying to make those preparations know that the end of our working lives inevitably hits different people at different times, and in different states of readiness.
But we all know that it’s a “landfall” for which we need to prepare while time remains to do so.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Footnote
  1. As it turned out, we got lucky. An apparently random and unexpected delivery of generators happened at our local hardware store where my wife had only hoped to be able to stock up on batteries. We got it home, and in record time learned enough to run it, managed to get in a supply of gasoline (before the pumps and cash registers ran out of juice), got our windows covered with plywood, and hunkered down for what still feels like the longest night of my life.