Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Choosing Your DC Fund Lineup

How do you choose your defined contribution (DC) fund lineup? Do you follow best practices? Do you know what best practices are? More importantly, does your plan have an investment policy, and if it does, do you follow it?

I took an informal poll of some people on DC plan committees. Here are the questions that I asked them:

  1. Does your plan have an investment policy statement?
  2. If it does, do you follow it?
  3. Would an impartial, outside arbiter say that you were following it?
The answers that I got surprised me, but perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. To question #1, 14 people said yes, 5 thought they had one, and 1 didn't think they had one. To question #2, of the 14 who said yes on question #1, 9 answered yes, 4 were non-committal, and 1 said no. To question #3, of the 4 non-committal to question #2, all said no, and of the 9 who answered yest to question #2, 8 said no.

Perhaps the Department of Labor (DOL) would be an impartial arbiter. Perhaps a judge or jury would be an impartial arbiter. Only 1 in 20 thought they would get a seal of approval from such a person or group. That's pretty frightening, and the fact that I told each person that I questioned that my tallying of votes would be with tick marks only got some honest answers. Even in retrospect, I know the results of my poll, but I couldn't tell you who answered how. And, even if I could, I wouldn't. I won't tell you company names, industry classifications, or even the blood types of my respondents.

I took some time to reflect on this poll -- actually, I didn't take very much time. But, I did think about it. From my experience, here are some areas where I think that plan committees fall might short in following their written investment policy.
  • They are too slow to 'fire' a fund. If a fund has a good name or historically has performed well, but then has a significant period of time where it inexplicably underperforms, committees are slow to replace it.
  • They bow to pressure from recordkeepers to use proprietary funds because of the 'credits' that they get for it (lower recordkeeping fees because of a larger offset).
  • They don't look closely at style changes/style drifts in funds. Oversimplified, if the investment policy says to offer one mid-cap value fund and one mid-cap growth fund and the value fund has gradually drifted to growth, committees are slow to replace the no longer value fund.
  • They don't follow the investment policy when choosing target date funds (this one deserves a longer write-up than just a bullet point).
So, what's the problem with target date funds (TDFs)? They are not inherently bad, but especially after PPA (2006) established the concept of a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) for which TDFs fit the bill perfectly, they became the next big money maker for everyone who could find an angle. For proprietary TDFs, most are just funds of proprietary funds, but the level of fees is a bit higher than it would be for someone who just invested in the proprietary funds and rebalanced periodically themselves. I guess what the participant is paying extra for is the discipline of rebalancing.

If you decide to have TDFs in your plan lineup, but don't want to use proprietary funds, there are plenty of people out there who will design TDFs for you. They will tell you that they will choose from among only the best performers in each asset class to create these custom TDFs. And, for that, they will often charge you a pretty penny. This, of course, will be in addition to the fees that participants get charged. From what I have observed, most of the providers who are offering this service don't have the discipline that the proprietary TDFs do. They may not rebalance quite on schedule. They may make bets on the market that are probably inappropriate.

At the end of the day, though, when you, as a committee member, are evaluating candidates to be the TDFs for your plan lineup, do you consider the plan's investment policy statement? Will you change TDFs if they are underperforming? For that matter, what does it mean for a TDF to underperform? Does your plan's investment policy statement tell you? Do you have a way of monitoring whether the TDF is staying true to its stated style, its stated goals? If you do have that way, do you use it?

In theory, TDFs are a wonderful idea. In practice, however, in my opinion, generally, they remain flawed. Some are better than others. And, they do tend to avoid haphazard practices such as market timing, but I have not seen one yet that some smart, unbiased person couldn't poke holes in. Does this mean that you, as a fiduciary, are in trouble once you put a family of TDFs in your fund lineup? It could, but it doesn't have to. Make sure your investment policy statement is clear with regard to TDF selection and TDF monitoring. Then, follow that policy statement, and document it. Did you read that part? Document that you have followed the investment policy statement.

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