Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If We Only Knew What 401(k) Participants Really Want

I read an article this morning called "What Participants Really Want From Their Bond Fund." It was written by a gentleman named Chip Castille. Mr. Castille is the head of the BlackRock US Retirement Group. As such, Mr. Castille is likely a participant in a 401(k) plan, although to be truthful, I don't even know if BlackRock offers a 401(k) plan to its employees.

More to the point, the article tells us what participants really want in a 401(k) plan and specifically in a bond fund in such a plan. While I could not find where the author cited any survey data, either he has some on which he is basing his conclusions or he is divining the answers because he seems to really know better from my read of the article (more on that later).

The author implies that participants are looking for safety, return or retirement income. That is a pretty broad spectrum. But, he doesn't dig into it enough for us to know how a plan sponsor or an investment professional would decide. What he does do is point out that an investment manager in a bond fund looks at how closely his fund is tracking a benchmark while participants look at whether the fund has gained or lost money or it will produce sufficient income.

I don't mean to demean what any professional says. But, here I beg to differ with the author. Participants get a lot of junk in the mail these days (not that these days are really any different from any other days in that regard). If the participants to whom he is referring are anything like the ones that I know, they don't look at individual fund performance very often. In fact, in the case of most that I know, "not very often" is spelled N-E-V-E-R. That's right; they don't look at individual fund performance. They look to see how their total account is doing. They judge (that's spelled G-U-E-S-S) whether it's a good day to be in equities or a good day to be in fixed income and periodically move their money around because they think they know.

Typically, participants don't like losses in their accounts. In fact, I would say that if you were to rank account balance events in order of importance, my guess would be that far more participants would say that they would like to avoid meaningful losses perhaps at the expense of a few big gains than the number who would say they would like to go for big gains at the potential expense of taking some very large losses.

But, I'm just guessing. I don't really know. And, frankly, the author of the article doesn't know any of this either. Face it, he hangs around with investment professionals. Investment professionals are not representative of your average garden variety 401(k) participants.

I happen to be an equal opportunity dumper, however. While I cannot find data that the author is using to draw his conclusions from, I will also take this opportunity to dump on many authors who do use data, usually from surveys.

Let me show you why with an example. Suppose a survey question is worded like this:

What do you want from your 401(k) bond fund?

  1. Safety
  2. Return
  3. Retirement income
  4. Guacamole
  5. Health care
I've never posed this question this way, so I get to guess at hypothetical results. Some number of people will answer with 4 or 5. Among those who don't, that is, they answer with 1, 2, or 3, or they just skip the question entirely, do they know what I mean by each of 1, 2, and 3? My guess is that they don't. Safety has lots of meanings in life. To an investment professional, it means one thing. To a plan participant, it might mean NEVER losing money. You and I know that is essentially impossible in a bond fund, but the average participant may not.

Some firm out there that wants to prove their own point will have a survey question like this one. They will ask about 1,000 random selected people to answer the questions and some smart people in the proverbial back room will analyze the answers so that the author of the next great white paper will have the definitive solution. 

Suppose the potential answers were flip-flopped (that is, health care was at the top followed by guacamole with safety last), would that change the results? What does a participant do if they wanted to answer none of the above? Or, suppose they don't understand one of the answers. Or, perhaps, in their mind, it's a tie between two answers. Or, maybe last week they would have answered return, but after they got their most recent statement and saw a 10% decline in their account balance, they suddenly place significant value on safety.

Let's face it, none of us know what the average participant wants in a 401(k) bond fund. We don't even know what an average participant is. 

Remember the two words that I capitalized -- NEVER and GUESS. That should tell you something.


  1. I hope you are not saying it is essentially impossible to lose money on a bond fund. A bond fund holding long maturity bonds can and will lose NAV when interest rates rise. The amount of the loss will depend on how much the rates increase.

  2. I believe I said nothing of the sort. I said that a plan participant might view safety in this context as never losing money. If bond funds accomplished that, then they would be truly risk-free which is certainly not the case.

  3. . The amount of the loss will depend on how much the rates increase.
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