Monday, August 22, 2011

Of Course It's Time for a Better QDIA

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) brought us lots of new terms and concepts. One of the more controversial has been the qualified default investment alternative or QDIA. Essentially, what it did was to require participants who did not make affirmative elections otherwise in defined contribution (DC) plans to be defaulted into a QDIA. On an ongoing basis, and oversimplifying somewhat, the Department of Labor (DOL) regulations give plan sponsors three broad alternatives in selecting their QDIAs:

  1. Age-based funds
  2. Risk-based funds
  3. Managed accounts
Our observations suggest that the most prevalent have been age-based funds, largely in the label of Target Date Funds or TDFs. In a nutshell, a participant picks a year in which they expect to retire, rounds to the nearest multiple of five, and voila, they have a fund. Or, in the situation where a participant is defaulted into a TDF, the plan document uses the same algorithm and without the active consent of the participant, his or her money is in a fund.

The companies that serve as both DC recordkeepers and asset managers love this. To my knowledge, they all have TDFs that they actively market as part of their recordkeeping bundles, and each of these families of TDFs are proprietary funds of funds. In other words, a Fidelity TDF is composed of Fidelity funds and a Vanguard TDF is composed of Vanguard funds. The same could be said about the other asset management firms who are also DC recordkeepers. Perhaps there are one or two out there that do not fit the mold, but I am not aware of them.

This is not to denigrate the current state of TDFs, but I think we can do better. And, so, in fact, do plan sponsors. In a November 2010 study commissioned by PlanSponsor and Janus Capital, only 34% of plan sponsors (down from 57% in November 2009) thought a TDF was the best QDIA available for their DC plan. Or, stated differently, nearly two-thirds of plans (clients) don't like the product that is being pushed upon them. If you were a car manufacturer and two-thirds of potential consumers didn't like your product, you would likely need a bailout. If you made computers and two-thirds of the users thought your machines had the wrong features, you would need to re-think what you were producing.

Well, the large players in the market don't appear to see the motivation to re-invent the TDF, so as I am wont to do, I am going to consider the re-invention for them.

Today, when a participant is defaulted into a TDF, the sponsor (and recordkeeper) uses one data item to make that decision -- age. You would think that was the only data point they had. Well, if Bill Gates and I were both in the same DC plan, we would probably both be defaulted into the 2020 Fund. And, trust me, Bill Gates and I are not in the same financial circumstances. I know you find this shocking, but it just isn't so. The fact is that we do not have the same net worth as each other (I'll leave it up to my readers to work out who is worth more).

But, assuming that we were active participants in the same plan, here is some other data that our plan sponsor would have on us:
  • Compensation
  • Years of service with the company
  • Account balance
  • Rollover balance
  • Savings rate
  • Gender
  • Whether our jobs are white-collar or blue-collar
  • Accrued benefit in a defined benefit (DB) plan, if our employer sponsors one
  • Whether we are eligible for company-provided equity
Each of these is likely to have an effect on our readiness for retirement at any point in time. Let's go through them quickly to see how.

Compensation. That's an easy one, but in general, the more money that an individual makes, the more likely it is that they will be able to retire earlier as compared to later.

Years of service. Continuity with the same company tends to result in larger DC account balances and larger DB accrued benefits making it more likely that a participant will be able to retire at a younger age.

Account balance and rollover balance. The bigger your balance, the closer you are to your retirement goal.

Savings rate. The more you are saving, the less time it will take you to get from where you are to your retirement goal.

Gender. Without regard to other factors such as health and family history, women will, on average, outlive similarly situated men, and therefore need a larger account balance to fund their retirements.

White-collar or blue-collar jobs. Studies done by the Society of Actuaries have shown that white-collar workers outlive blue-collar workers. This suggests that white-collar workers need larger account balances at the same retirement ages.

And, the other two elements may do more to affect the appropriate asset mix for a participant.

Accrued benefit in a DB plan. Accrued benefits in a DB plan can be thought of as a fixed income investment. That is, their value grows (largely) at a discount rate. Having a large DB accrued benefit means that the remainder of a participant's account balance could, and perhaps should, be invested more aggressively.

Access to company provided equity. If a meaningful portion of your compensation is in the form of equity, then you tend to possess a significant undiversified asset. This would suggest that your TDF should have significant diversification.

Again, who has this data? Your employer, the plan sponsor does. Combined with age, this list of parameters could give your employer ten data points with which to appropriately place you in a TDF instead of one. In the coming world of TDFs, this is what should happen.

Perhaps the TDFs of the future will not have years attached to their names, but instead will have letters, numbers, or some combination of the two. And, perhaps, these ten data items (or others like them) can be used as part of an algorithm to place participants into their proper TDFs. 

Finally, while we are redesigning, do we really think that any one asset management firm has a monopoly on all the best funds? I don't think so. Without naming names, I have an opinion on some of the best fixed income funds available in the marketplace. Surprisingly enough (not really), none of the firms that manages those fixed income funds also has, in my opinion, the best large cap equity funds, international equity funds, and real estate funds. So, wouldn't our new age TDFs be better if composed of funds from a variety of providers? I think so. And, if we suddenly had reason to believe that the great-performing real estate fund that we were using in our TDFs might no longer be as great (the main portfolio manager decided to retire), wouldn't we like to have the ability to change real estate funds? I think so.

It's time. Who is going to start the trend?

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