Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Doing Your Due Diligence on Advisers and Actuaries

I read an interesting article this morning. In it, I read about a company that had used the same retirement plan adviser for quite a long time and developed a good relationship with them. After 13 years of this adviser assisting them with investment monitory, a fiduciary policy, and an investment policy, as well as manager searches, the company in question decided that just as part of due diligence, even though they figured there would only be about a 10% of chance of changing advisers to go through that due diligence process and bid those services out as well.

What the company, Dot Foods, found was that it was being charged perhaps more than a market competitive price and getting less than market competitive level of service. It was time for a change.

We could draw an analogy to lots of different kinds of services, but as consultants like to say, I'm going to drill down a little bit (I can't believe I used that term as hearing it always makes me hear a dentist's drill).

Let's put this in the context of a decent-sized, but not enormous defined benefit pension plan. To give some context, let's say that the plan has between $50 million and $1 billion in plan assets and let's assume that the plan is frozen (this is not an uncommon situation).

Now consider your plan advisers, particularly your actuary. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How long have you been working with your current actuarial firm?
  • Over that time, how many fresh ideas or analyses have they brought you with respect to your plan? When was the last time they brought you one that they didn't charge you for?
  • Reflecting the fact that your plan was frozen and that some of the work behind the actuarial valuation would be much simpler, did they voluntarily reduce your actuarial fees the year after you froze your plan?
  • Do you get as much attention from them as you did before your plan was frozen?
  • Have they given you a strategic plan to get to termination of your plan? Or, have they just told you that interest rates are too low now and you'll have to wait it out?
  • If they have given you a plan, was it provided in the context of your business or was it just their standard template?
You can pretty easily tell what the so-called best practice answers to all of these questions are. And, for your sake, I hope that after reflecting on your answers that you are able to tell yourself and your colleagues that most or all of those answers are what you would like them to be.

Suppose they're not. 

I know. You have a frozen plan and you think you are in set it and forget it mode. You don't really want to spend time both in the due diligence or RFP process to do this check and you certainly don't want to invest the time and effort that you think will be necessary during transition. 

Consider this scenario. You are able through that process to identify enough hard savings and soft savings that hiring a contractor or temporary employee to help with the transition would be a drop in the bucket in terms of cost compared to what you will be saving. During the RFP process, you get a freebie of some ideas that will help you to meet your strategic objectives with a promise of more to come. You learn that your actuary had gotten lazy and was delivering sub-optimal consulting.

Hmm ... there's an interesting term. What in the world is sub-optimal consulting

Sub-optimal consulting is a fancy way of saying that your actuary is just going through the motions. Everything they are providing you is correct, but none of it is the best correct answer.

I'm not implying here that your actuary should be doing anything underhanded or unethical. Quite to the contrary, your actuary should be following the law and Actuarial Standards of Practice to a tee. Oftentimes, however, within those constraints, there are a range of potential answers. Some are far more conducive to your business than others.

Consider this recent real example. A company, now a client, didn't like the news it was consistently getting from its actuary. That company didn't know if that news was the only way or if there was a better way. So, they asked. 

What they learned was that if their actuary did take the time to understand the interrelationship between their plan and their business that there was better news that they could be getting. The company came back to us and asked, "Can you save us money?" The answer was that there were hard dollar savings (fees) that would be small and other savings that would be significant. 

Perhaps you are the company that is getting great service and perhaps you maintain the plan for which everything is being done properly.

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