Tuesday, February 19, 2019

More Evidence Supporting the Value of Second Opinions

I was reading this morning's Wall Street Journal "CFO Journal" newsletter. One headline jumped out at me -- "Finance Professionals Lack Confidence They Can Spot Errors."

Here were some of my key takeaways:

  • Nearly 70% of finance professionals believe their company has made significant business decisions based on bad financial data.
  • The survey found that ... 55% of professionals lack confidence  in their ability to spot financial errors before reporting results.
  • Roughly one-fourth said they were concerned about errors they know to exist, but hadn't identified.
What does that tell me? It tells me that in-house financial professionals don't trust their own numbers. It also implies that they may not trust externally-produced numbers, but they are not doing anything about it.

Doesn't that scream that you need a second opinion? Thinking about this as an actuary, it tells me that companies that sponsor pension plans whether they are traditional or cash balance, ongoing or frozen, well-funded or not, could really benefit from an actuarial second opinion.

With required contributions annually in the millions or even hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for many longer-term plans, the cost-value trade-off of a second opinion seems clear. If a plan sponsor got meaningful value one year in ten from such a second opinion, they will have paid for all ten of them many times over.

Are you in a long-term relationship with your actuary? If so, has the relationship gotten complacent to the point that they are going through the motions. Think of your desire for a second opinion like a seven-year itch.

Has the actuarial firm that you use recently changed or significantly modified its team that serves you? Did they come back to you with findings from when they reviewed the work that has been done recently? If not, might they have found something they don't want to tell you about? Perhaps not ... maybe so?

Does the actuarial firm that is serving your plan do periodic reviews where national leaders come in and audit the work of the team? Have they done such an audit recently? Did the team tell you about the results of the audit.

And, returning to the theme of the WSJ tidbit, do you want to be one of those seven in ten companies that makes significant business decisions on bad financial data? Isn't it time to think about an actuarial second opinion?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Eliminating the Phone-A-Friend Retirement Plan

I read an article earlier this morning informing me that employees don't really understand 401(k) plans. News Flash: that's not news. In fact, looking at behavior of employees and overhearing casual conversations between otherwise intelligent 401(k) participants about the value of their 401 plans, their 201k (when they are underperforming expectations), their 501k (when they are overperforming expectations), and the ways that they choose investment options, this sounds like a statement from Captain Obvious.

How did 401(k) plans get this way? In their earlier incarnations, typical 401(k) plans gave employees an option to defer. In most plans, employees that did choose to defer got a match from their employers. Employees could then invest those assets within the plan in usually about five to eight options.

I recall a conversation back in the early 1990s with an individual who is now on every list of the great minds of the 401(k) world and the great innovators in the 401(k) world. This individual told me that no defined contribution plan needs more than six investment options ... ever .. and that any plan sponsor with more than six should be lined up with their adviser before a firing squad (the words are not precise, so no quotation marks, but they are pretty darned close). The same individual later became one of the leading proponents of a 'full menu' of options with at least one and often more than one from each asset class and each investment style within that asset class.

How exactly do employees benefit from such choices? They don't.

Suppose I choose three highly rated large cap funds from US News's report:

  • T Rowe Price Institutional Large Cap Core Growth Fund
  • Fidelity Blue Chip Growth Fund
  • JP Morgan Intrepid Growth Fund
Let's imagine that they are all in my fund's lineup. How do I choose?

Intrepid sounds like a cool name. Maybe I should pick that. Blue Chip? My grandfather told me to invest in blue chips. I wonder if that's still true today. And, that long name? If it does all those things, it must be really good, too.

I could read the prospectuses. I could do research on performance history. I could look at investment styles and drift whatever all that means. I could phone a friend.

The simple fact is that for most of us, it's a crap shoot ... plain and simple. 

Because of that, despite all the forecasts in the world from 401(k) lovers, this should not ever be a primary plan for employees. As it was intended back in the late 70s and early 80s, this should be a supplemental savings plan -- an addition to what you get in your primary plan.

Your primary plan should be just that. It should be employer-provided. It should not be confusing. There should be no need for a phone a friend option. 

I don't care what kind it is although I have my biases. My bias is that the plan should provide for the ability for participants to take distributions in lump sums or wholesale-priced annuities (my term for annuities on a fair actuarial basis without middle men making profits at your expense). My bias is that the determination of your benefits in the plan should be simple. My bias is that assets should be professionally managed. 

I don't care what label you give to such a plan. I don't even care what label ERISA or the Internal Revenue Code gives to such a plan. What I do care about is that you not lose sleep over whether Intrepid is better than Blue Chip or conversely. What I do care about is that if you choose to annuitize your account balance that you get an annuity that is 100% of what you deserve not some number closer to 80%. 

And, for your supplemental savings, you can have your Phone-A-Friend ... oops, I meant 401(k) plan.