Thursday, January 13, 2011

On The Dynamics of Investment Committee Decisions

In a September 2010 survey conducted by Vanguard, more than 80% of investment committee members surveyed said that the knowledge level of their committee was above average and more than 60% said their committee seldom makes a mistake.


I could spend hours now harping on the US educational system as the reason for this (grade inflation where a 'C' meaning average is only given to the worst performing students, but that's for another day and another blog). This is amazing, though ... or is it?

Let's consider why, and then we'll look at a potential solution. Who chooses committee members? The CFO? The Treasurer? Someone similarly situated? The Committee Chair? No matter which one of those it is, it's probably one of them. Who do they choose for the committee? In most cases, they probably choose people that they view as being a lot like them -- their proteges, for example. If that's the case, then a lot of the people on the committee will have gotten a lot of their knowledge from the same place.

Hmm! That's not good. That means that they may have similar biases. They may be serving on this committee chaired by their boss.

Hmm! That's not good. Through peer pressure, group dynamics, inertia, and many other dynamics, people tend to think that their group's ideas are the best, especially if their group builds consensus. Building consensus  generally is good, but what happens if the consensus is wrong? What happens if the consensus is under-(or un)-informed? What happens if the Committee Chair steers the committee toward his or her bias?

I know. This never happens on your committee, but you do know that it happens on most other committees. In fact, I've attended committee meetings where this happens. Sometimes, it produces good results, but all too frequently, it produces bad results based on what the committee thinks were outstanding decisions.

Let's put this in a defined benefit plan context. In order to properly invest defined benefit assets, the committee needs to understand both the assets and the liabilities. (Not doing so increases risk for the enterprise.) Yet, in my experience, very few committee members understand both sides of the equation (plan assets and plan liabilities). These people have other jobs. This is not their area of expertise. That being said, there are plenty of committees and committee members out there who just don't care. They have their committee comprised of some of the smartest people they know (including them, of course). Because they are smart, they will make the right decisions.

Consider an analogue. Suppose WeFlyHigh Airlines was considering which type of airplane to buy to add to their fleet. Should they buy the newest Boeing jumbo jet or the competing Airbus. Do you think they would have the Investment Committee members making that decision? Why not? They are smart people. Surely, they would make the right decision, wouldn't they? No, those decisions are usually made, or at least informed, by true experts. Shouldn't these committees also be informed by experts?

I promised you a solution, didn't I? And perhaps I've already shown my cards.

Hire an expert. Don't bring them on full time. But, this is why consultants exist, isn't it?

How should you choose your consultant? Look for these criteria:

  • As part of their engagement, the consultant will educate the committee.
  • The consultant understands the asset side and the liability side.
  • As part of the liability side, the consultant understands the subtle changes to the liability profile that plan design changes and employee population shifts can cause.
  • The consultant has a track record of making changes to the thinking of the committee.
  • The consultant will challenge the decisions of the committee.
  • The consultant can demonstrate a track record of giving different advice for different plans because those plans had different characteristics and were sponsored by different companies with different goals.
  • The consultant freely admits that they are serving in the role of fiduciary.
I expect I'll write more on this topic. In the meantime, I'd love your comments.

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