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.