Weakening Jobs Growth To Further Pressure DB Plans

Given the news from this morning regarding US job growth (only 142,000 jobs added and revisions down in the previous two months), it would not surprise us to see US interest rates continue to fall.  If in fact this happens, DB plans’ funded ratios and funded status will continue to weaken. As we’ve reported on numerous occasions, plan liabilities, although discounted at the ROA, do not grow at the same rate as assets.

Liability growth has far outpaced asset growth in the last 15 years, and the asset allocation mismatch that exists between a plan’s assets and liabilities continues to be dramatic.  With most everyone expecting interest rates to rise, fixed income exposures have been reduced and bond durations shortened. A combination that continues to weigh on plan performance.

We continue to believe that weak global growth will keep interest rates low for the foreseeable future, and as such, fixed income exposures should be increased and reconfigured to meet near-term liabilities.  I will be discussing this concept / strategy at the upcoming FPPTA conference on Tuesday in Naples, FL.

Plans continue to focus almost exclusively on their fund’s ROA, but the liability side of the equation needs some attention, too, especially given the prospects for continuing global economic weakness.  In this environment, a plan will not close it’s funding gap through outperformance relative to its ROA.

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.

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.

KCS May 2015 Fireside Chat – Do You Know The Answer?

We are pleased to share with you the latest edition of the KCS Fireside Chat series.

Click to access KCSFCMay2015.pdf

This article is the 34th in our series.  In this piece we explore whether or not the US Federal Reserve is likely to raise interest rates in the near-term – the $64,000 question.

The uncertainty surrounding this action continues to challenge DB plan asset allocation decisions.  Level to falling US rates will continue to harm DB plan funded ratios.

We hope that you find our insights thought provoking.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any comments and / or questions, or if we can be of any assistance to you.

My plan was up 10% in 2014 – Was that Good?

We frequently receive updates in our email in-boxes about various pension funds and their returns in 2014, and not surprisingly the numbers vary quite a bit.  According to Wilshire’s TUCS comparisons, the average public pension plan was up 6.76% in 2014. However, we’ve seen some funds reporting returns closer to 10%.  It seems to us that a plan did better the more traditional the plan’s asset allocation, meaning more equities and fixed income, and less in alternatives, particularly hedge funds.

In most cases the announcement of a total return was hailed as good or bad depending on how it did relative to the plan’s return on asset assumption (ROA).  However, is that really the true objective? If a plan generated a 10% return and its ROA was 8% (49% of public plans have 8% as their ROA) it was reported as a great year.  However, what did the plan’s liabilities do in 2014? Since most sponsors and consultants assume that liabilities grow at the ROA, they would likely assess that 2014 was good on both the return and liability front.  Unfortunately, they would be wrong.

With the precipitous decline in US interest rates continuing through much of 2014, the average defined benefit plan had its liabilities grow more than 15% in 2014.  Given this fact, I’d say that any return that didn’t exceed liability growth was a poor year, with the average public pension (6.8%) doing quite poorly versus liability growth.

Can you imagine if you were playing a football game without a scoreboard? Let’s assume you are in the fourth quarter and you’ve scored 27 points.  How do you play your offense or defense? Do you get more conservative or aggressive? You don’t know, do you? Exactly! Well, this is how Pension America is playing the game.

A significant majority of DB plans only get a look at their liabilities every 1-2 years, and the results are usually presented with a 3-6 month lag.  It is quite difficult to have a responsive asset allocation when you don’t know whether or not you are winning the pension game versus your liabilities, just as it is impossible to play football if you don’t know how your opponent is performing.

At KCS we place liabilities and the management of plan assets versus those liabilities at the forefront of our approach to managing DB plans. Pension America has seen a significant demise in the use of DB plans, and we would suggest it has to do with how they’ve been managed. Focusing exclusively on the asset side of the equation with little or no regard to the plan’s  liabilities has created an asset allocation that is completely mismatched versus liabilities.  It is time to adopt a new approach before the remaining 23,000+ DB plans are all gone!

U.S. Treasury STRIPS – The Naked Truth

At KCS, we have been sharing ideas with plan sponsors to reconfigure their existing fixed income exposure into an enhanced asset allocation framework that might just stabilize a plan’s funded status and contribution costs.  The motivation has been driven by the fear of rising interest rates.  Unfortunately, this fear has provided the impetus for many of our friends in the industry to shed exposure to domestic fixed income programs.  Stop!

Despite the near unanimous expectation that rates have to rise from these “historically low levels”, the fact is that interest rates have actually fallen rather significantly year to date.  In fact, the U.S. 10-year Treasury Bond has seen its yield fall by 37 bps (as of 4/15).  The KCS crystal ball is no clearer than that of any other market participant, so why “guess” where rates are going.

We think it would be advantageous for plan sponsors to reconfigure their existing fixed income exposure to include a separate, lower risk portfolio that matches near term benefit payments for the next 5-7 years depending on the current funded ratio of the plan and projected future contributions. This strategy will improve the plan’s liquidity, while extending the investing horizon for less liquid assets that we would use to support their active portfolio.

We have recommended that the lower risk portfolio be invested in U.S. Treasury STRIPS to match benefit payments.  However, that instrument’s name raises more questions than answers, and has often turned potential users off before the conversation really heats up.  We are here today to say that STRIPS, although misunderstood, are actually low risk, useful fixed income securities.

STRIPS is an acronym for “separate trading of registered interest and principal securities”. Treasury STRIPS are fixed-income securities, sold at a significant discount to face value and offer no interest payments because they mature at par, which is why they are so good at matching projected cash flows. Backed by the U.S. government, STRIPS, which were first introduced in 1985, offer minimal risk and some tax benefits in certain states, replacing TIGRs and CATS (…retired to the zoo?!) as the dominant zero-coupon U.S. security.

If you are concerned about your plan’s funded status, the direction of interest rates and / or the current composition of your fixed income assets, call us to discuss a new path forward. We are here and ready to help you!

TIme for a New Gameplan?

TIme for a New Gameplan?

As we touched upon in our January, 2013 Fireside Chat, the Private, Public and Union pension deficit in America exceeds $4 trillion, when assets and liabilities are marked to market. Since 1999, pension asset growth has significantly underperformed liability growth and the return on assets (ROA), causing increased contribution costs and a national pension crisis. The true objective of any pension plan is to fund their liabilities (benefit payments) at low and stable contribution costs –with reduced risk through time.

Do you need a new game plan? We’ll explore the asset allocation issues sponsors face and offer solutions for underfunded plans.


Asset Consulting Firms and Their Consultants Aren’t Commodities

The environment for asset consulting firms is quite challenging.  Historically, there have been few barriers to entry, and measuring the value-add provided by the asset consulting firm has been difficult to gauge.  As such, hiring decisions have often come down to price, with the low bidder more often than not winning the assignment.  For those firms fortunate to be given an assignment, the life cycle of the relationship is generally fairly long (about 7 years), as it usually takes a departure of the consultant or a major screw up before the relationship is terminated.  This practice has to change.

Given the current state of defined benefit plans in the US and abroad, this is not the time to fiddle while Rome burns. It is imperative that asset consultants be judged for the value that they bring to a relationship, and they should be compensated based on that value-add.  There are many services that consultants provide, but the importance to the success or failure of a plan varies widely.  Establishing the right plan benchmark is critical, and it isn’t the ROA. We believe that it should be the plan’s specific liabilities. The investment structure and asset allocation that flows from a greater knowledge of the liabilities are key decisions that drive most of the plan’s subsequent return. However, it seems to us that most of the time (80/20 rule) is spent on trying to identify value-added managers. Get the wrong asset allocation and the best performing managers in the weakest asset class won’t help you much.

Let’s see if the industry can refocus on the importance of DB plans, so that we can stabilize the retirements for both our private and public workers.  As such, let’s begin to evaluate consulting firms that can improve the funded ratio and funded status, while minimizing contribution costs. These are the important metrics when evaluating a consulting firm and their consultants.  Experience matters in this industry.  We pay great homage to it on the asset management side of the business.  Why isn’t this as critical when evaluating asset consultants?  Remember: asset consultants have a greater impact on your plan than any individual manager does!