Market Volatility Giving You The Woollies?

I’ve witnessed many market declines during my more than 33 years in the investment industry, and I would be lying if I told you that I called the beginning, end, and ultimate magnitude of any of the sell-offs.  Market declines are part of the investing game.  But just knowing that isn’t enough, as unfortunately, they can have a profound impact on retirement plans and retirement planning, both institutional and individual, as they impact the psyche of the investors.

It is well documented how individuals tend to buy high and sell low. The market crash of 2007 – 2009 drove many individuals out of equities at or near the bottom, and many of those “investors” have kept their allocations to equities below 2007 levels. It hasn’t been that much better for the average institutional investor either.  We are aware of a number of situations (NJ for one) that plowed into expensive, absolute-return product at the bottom of the equity market only to see that portfolio dramatically underperform very inexpensive beta, as the equity markets have rallied since March 2009.

In some cases, the selling “pressure” was the result of liquidity needs, which lead to the tremendous explosion in the secondary markets for private equity, real estate, etc. in 2009.  The E&F asset allocation model, made so famous by Yale, was the undoing for many retirement plans, as the failure to secure adequate liquidity exacerbated market losses. Who knows whether the turmoil in Greece will lead to their exit (expulsion) from the Euro, but there is certainly heightened fear and volatility in the global markets? Are you currently prepared to meet your liquidity needs?

As we’ve discussed within both the Fireside Chats and on the KCS blog, the development of a hybrid asset allocation model geared specifically to your plan’s liabilities, can begin to de-risk your plan, while dramatically improving liquidity.  The introduction of the beta / alpha concept will provide plan sponsors with an inexpensive cash matching strategy that meets near-term benefit needs, while extending the investing horizon for the less liquid investments in your portfolio. By not being forced to sell into the market correction, your investments have a greater chance of rebounding when the market settles.

Traditional asset allocation models subject the entire portfolio to market movements, while the beta / alpha approach only subjects the alpha assets to volatility.  But, since one doesn’t have to sell alpha assets to meet liquidity needs given that the beta portfolio is used for that purpose, the volatility doesn’t matter. Don’t fret about Greece and its potential implications for the global markets and your plan. Let us help you design an asset allocation that improves liquidity, extends the investment horizon for your alpha assets, and begins to de-risk your plan, as the funded ratio and status improve.

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“The Truth Will Set You Free”

I continue to be perplexed, befuddled, mystified, and perhaps stumped by the reticence shown by plan sponsors and their consultants in wanting to know the value of the liabilities in their defined benefit plan on an on-going basis!

As a reminder, the defined benefit plan solely exists to provide a predefined benefit to past, present and future employees of the system in a cost effective manner such that contribution costs remain low and stable. Again, the plan exists to meet a liability.  It doesn’t exist to meet a return on asset assumption. Yet, plan sponsors spend 95% of their time worried about the assets in their plan and very little time on how liabilities are being impacted by market forces.

If two pension plans have widely differing fund ratios, say 100% and 60%, should they have the same asset allocation? No, they shouldn’t. They certainly shouldn’t have the same ROA objectives. Why would a plan sponsor of a well funded plan want to live with the volatility associated with an asset allocation designed to support a 60% funded plan?  Plan sponsors should adjust their asset allocation based on the plan’s funded ratio.

A more fully funded plan should have a much more conservative asset allocation than a poorly funded program. However, in order to know what the funded ratio is, one needs a more accurate and current understanding of the value of the plan’s liabilities.  Currently, the only visibility on a plan’s liabilities is through the annual actuarial report, which tends to be provided 4-6 months delinquent. For many plans, they may still only have a view on year-end 2013 liabilities. We can assure you that liability growth has swung wildly in the last 17-18 months, as interest rates fell significantly in 2014, before backing up so far this year.

In a previous blog posting we discussed 2014’s performance for the average pension plan. We highlighted the fact that the average plan slightly underperformed the average ROA, and that based on that performance most sponsors likely felt that it was an okay year.  Unfortunately, that perception would be incorrect as liability growth easily outpaced asset growth in 2014.

In addition, had sponsors taken risk off the table in 1999 when most DB plans were over-funded, they would have adjusted their asset allocations toward fixed income and away from equities. Regrettably, more risk was put into the plans when fixed income allocations were dramatically reduced for fear that the lower yielding environment would reduce a plan’s ability to meet the ROA objective.  As you know, DB plans have missed the last 15 years of a bond bull market, while subjecting those plans to greater equity risk and two major market declines.

Clearly, liabilities and assets have different growth rates. Yet, the industry continues to believe that by achieving the Holy Grail ROA annually that everything will be fine. Unfortunately, that perception is false.

Would you be comfortable playing a football game in which you only knew your score (assets), but had no clue as to what your opponent was doing (liabilities)? How would you adjust your play calling or defense? I suspect that you wouldn’t play any game in which this scenario existed. Then why as an industry are we playing the pension game by only focusing on the assets with no understanding as to how your liabilities are doing?

We can win the pension game, WE NEED TO WIN THE PENSION GAME, but in order to do so we must utilize tools that provide us with all the information that we need to manage these plans more effectively.  Having greater clarity on the liabilities doesn’t have to be a bad thing!  What are you afraid of?

Pension America – Taking Control Of One’s Destiny

For pension plan participants defined benefit plans (DB) must remain the backbone of the US Retirement Industry

The true objective of a pension plan is to fund liabilities (monthly benefits) in a cost effective manner with reduced risk over time. Unfortunately, it has been nearly impossible to get a true understanding of a plan’s liabilities outside of the actuary’s report, which is received by sponsors and trustees only on an annual basis, at best, and usually many months delinquent.

Fortunately, a plan’s liabilities can now be monitored and reviewed on a monthly basis through a groundbreaking index developed by Ron Ryan and his firm, Ryan ALM – The Custom Liability Index (CLI). The CLI is similar to any index serving the asset side of the equation (S&P 500, Russell 1000, Barclays U.S. Aggregate, etc.), except that the CLI measures your plan’s specific liabilities and not some generic liability stream. This critically important tool calculates the present value, growth rate, term-structure, interest rate sensitivity of your plan’s liabilities, and other important statistics such as, average yield, duration, etc. With a more transparent view of liabilities, a plan can get a truer understanding of the funded ratio / funded status.

The use of the CLI enables plan sponsors, trustees, finance officials, and asset consultants to do a more effective job allocating assets and determining funding requirements (contributions). The return on asset assumption (ROA), which has been the primary objective for most DB plans, should become secondary to a plan’s specific liabilities. Importantly, as the plan’s funded status changes, the plan’s asset allocation should respond accordingly.

Importantly, the CLI is created using readily available information from the plan’s actuary (projected annual benefits and contributions), and it is updated as necessary to reflect plan design changes, COLAs, work force and salary changes, longevity forecasts, etc. In addition, the CLI is an incredibly flexible tool in which multiple views, based on various discount rates, can be created. These views may include the ROA, ASC 715, PPA, GASB 67/68, and market-based rates (risk-free), with and without the impact of contributions.

Why should a DB plan adopt the CLI? As mentioned above, DB plans only exist to fund a benefit that has been promised in the future. As a plan’s financial health changes the asset allocation should be adjusted accordingly (dynamic). Without having the greater transparency provided by the CLI, it is impossible to know when to begin de-risking the plan. You’ve witnessed through the last 15 years the onerous impact of market volatility on the funded status of DB plans and contribution costs. Ryan ALM and KCS can help you reduce the likelihood of a repeat, and very painful, performance.

NJ’s Pension Battle – We Are All Losers

Last week the state Supreme Court of NJ ruled that the Christie administration had the right to reduce / eliminate the annual required contribution (ARC) for the public pension system, based on a constitutionally established practice that the responsibility to allocate public funds is embedded in the budget process. What appears to be a victory for Christie and NJ tax payers couldn’t be further from the truth!

In a pattern that has been repeated for nearly 20 years, one NJ “leader” after another has failed to make the necessary payments to adequately fund public pensions. By not making the full contribution again this year, we are once again kicking the proverbial can down the road.

Remember folks, the benefit that has been promised to our public fund employees is a LIABILITY that must be met. Not funding that liability only makes it more challenging for the pension plan in the long-term, as the plan loses the benefit of compounding returns / interest on each contribution.  Just think about the economic impact of not funding the $3.1 billion in 2015, especially if the plan would have earned the state’s presumed return on assets over the next 10-20 years.  By deferring that payment, we create a pay as you go system that is much more costly for everyone.

Furthermore, NJ’s pension issue isn’t just a matter of not making the annual required contribution. Why on earth would NJ’s pension officers decide to invest heavily in hedge funds / alternatives at the bottom of the market in 2009?  This decision has increased management costs, while returns on the funds have substantially underperformed cheap equity beta. DB plans have a relative objective (liabilities) and not an absolute objective (ROA). Using absolute product in a relative return environment makes little sense.

Our elected officials are kidding themselves If they think that the pension liability is somehow going away.  By not appropriately funding the liability now, they are only making it more difficult for the state the future.  Think that pensions are taking a big slug of NJ’s budget now, just wait for another 15-20 years.

The latest Iteration of the “High School Dance”

It has been a very long time since I was in high school, and as a result, things may be different today.  But, what I remember about my high school days and the dances at Palisades Park, NJ, were that the boys stood on one side of the gym and the girls stood on the other.  Occasionally a couple of girls would dance, but there was little fraternizing among the boys and girls.

Well, I get the same sense about the management of DB pension plans today, as I did at those dances a very long time ago.  It seems to me that we have on one side of the “gym” assets and on the other side is liabilities, and never the twain shall meet.  As a result, DB plans haven’t found their rhythm and there is no dancing!

We get periodic updates from a number of industry sources highlighting how the funded status is improving or deteriorating.  But we don’t seem to get a lot of direction on how we should mitigate the volatility in the funding of these extremely important retirement vehicles.  I can say with certainty that it isn’t striving to achieve the ROA.  That’s been tried, and DB plans continue to see deterioration in their funded ratios.

For too long, the asset side of the pension equation has dominated everyone’s focus, and as a result, a plan’s specific liabilities are usually only discussed when the latest actuarial report is presented, which is on a one or two year cycle.  This isn’t nearly often enough. We suggest that the primary objective for the assets should be the plan’s liabilities, and that every performance review start off with this comparison.  However, in order to get an accurate accounting of the liabilities one needs a custom liability index (CLI).

In order to preserve DB plans we need assets and liabilities dancing as one. Without this, DB plans face a very uncertain future. Are you ready to bring both parties to the dance floor?

Next 10 years Could Really Challenge Your ROA Assumption – Are You Ready?

According to Standard & Poor’s Institutional Market Services, which polled 679 defined benefit plan sponsors, the median return on asset (ROA) assumption is 7.56%, down slightly from 2013.  How realistic is this objective?  According to Rob Arnott, sponsors will have a very difficult time in the near future meeting this objective. Arnott gave investors a gloomy forecast for medium-term returns at the Inside ETFs Europe conference recently, and urged the audience to think of a new way to attack the ROA challenge.

According to Arnott, “10-year forward-looking expected returns are unanimously low.” He is predicting that Core fixed-income stands at 0.5 percent real returns as well as long-dated inflation linked bonds. Long Treasuries will go barely above zero. U.S. equities are 1 percent above inflation, and small-caps also give 1 percent, despite their yield of 1.8 percent.

Furthermore, the “Growth of earnings and dividends over and above inflation is 1.3 percent, not the 5 percent or more that Wall Street wants us to believe,” said Arnott.

Importantly, these real return expectations are before fees, which for many active strategies would “eat” most of the potential gain. Arnott’s research found that the U.S. top-quartile active manager pockets 0.9371% of the “alpha” and only passes on 0.0629% on to the client.

The plan sponsor quest to meet the ROA challenge has also produced exceptional volatility.  In the next 10 years, volatility is likely to remain at these levels or increase, but it seems that the return won’t be there to compensate for that extra volatility.  Importantly, we believe that liability growth is likely to be flat to negative during the next 10 years as interest rates rise, so a more conservative asset allocation may accomplish a sponsor’s funding goal.

We would suggest that a plan sponsor focus more attention on the plan’s liabilities to drive asset allocation decisions.  However, in order to accomplish this objective, the plan needs to have greater transparency on their liabilities.  Receiving an actuarial report every one or two years will not suffice.  In order to gain greater clarity, we would suggest that plans have a custom liability index (CLI) produced. The CLI will use various discount rates, and will provide a view with and without contributions factored in.  The CLI is provided on a monthly basis.

As a reminder, the only reason that a DB plan exists is to fund a benefit that has been promised in the future. Knowing how that benefit is changing on a regular basis should be a goal of every plan. We stand ready to provide you with the tools necessary to gain greater transparency on your plan’s liabilities, since it doesn’t seem that plan’s will win the funding game by generating outsized returns in the next decade.

Let Kamp Consulting Solutions Be Your DB Plan Advocate

Since KCS’s founding in August 2011, we have worked tirelessly to preserve defined benefit plans as the retirement vehicle of choice for both employees and employers.  Now, more than ever, our effort is needed.  With each passing day, week, month and year, it is becoming increasingly obvious that defined contribution plans are nothing more than glorified savings accounts, at best!

The Federal Reserve’s Household survey, released earlier this week, highlights the challenges facing or employees in trying to save and manage their retirements, as a significant portion of our labor force have accumulated nothing for retirement.  As we’ve stated on numerous occasions, there will be profound social and economic consequences for the US if we can’t manage its workforce through a dignified retirement.

The US economy is still only muddling through 6+ years following the great financial crisis. Much of the “credit” for the muted recovery and lower demand for goods and services can be attributable to weak wage growth.  Importantly, the modest growth in wages doesn’t just impact demand today, but it makes saving for tomorrow that much more challenging.

We need to secure our employee’s retirements through a monthly annuity structure that is best achieved through a DB plan or DB-like structure, such as Double DB. Unfortunately, the elimination of DB plans has been on an accelerated path, and according to the DOL, there are fewer than 25,000 active DB plans today (down from roughly 150,000 in ’86). We’ve seen estimates that the median DC account balance is <$15,000.  An account balance of that size will hardly get one through a year, let alone a retirement.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t be vilifying those employees who are fortunate to be in DB plans, but we should explore opportunities to extend their reach for those that aren’t.  Despite the fact that there are many plans that appear to be dramatically (and maybe unsustainably) underfunded, there are new approaches to the management of DB plans that can be implemented, which will set a plan on a glide path to financial wellness.  We sincerely appreciate that funding volatility can create havoc for both corporate and public entities, but that funding volatility can be mitigated, too.

The last thing that we want to witness is the further erosion in the use of DB plans in favor of DC offerings.  No one is going to win if that occurs. The impact on the employee is obvious, but has corporate America truly assessed the impact from a failed retirement system on the ability of US citizens to remain active members of the economy? KCS has the tools to stabilize and improve the funded status of your DB plans to truly make them viable offerings for the long-term. Let us be your advocate, especially if there is an attempt to freeze or terminate your plan at this time.