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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Protection from the Storm

PLANSPONSOR.com
Thinking about investment-management outsourcing? Here are seven of the biggest myths and realities
“If it is raining, you are looking for the best umbrella,” says Joshua Dietch, Managing Director at Waltham, Massachusetts-based Chatham Partners, a market research and consulting company. Some employers—who sponsor underfunded defined benefit (DB) plans that need better risk management or defined contribution (DC) plans that need less-costly, more-customized investment options, for example—have looked to the expertise of investment-management outsourcers as that protection from the current storm.
However, this complex field is ripe for confusion among employers considering it. Sources talked about several of the most common investment-outsourcing myths:
1. It is just for mid-size sponsors. “The real sweet spot for outsourcing is mid-size companies,” says Seth Masters, CIO of AllianceBernstein Blend Strategies and Defined Contribution, and most of the first wave of deals did, in fact, happen with these plans. These employers often do not have the in-house resources to do all the work effectively, but have enough in assets to make deals scalable for an outsourcer.
Russell Investments headquarters in Tacoma, WA...Image via WikipediaWhile the mid-size market remains active, “we also see much more of a trend at the larger end,” says Joseph Gelly, Russell Investments Investment Outsourcing Practice Leader. “It is less around ‘I do not have buying power’ or ‘I do not have the resources or the technical competence’ and more around ‘I need to focus on running my company,’” he says, adding that many of those larger employers have frozen DB plans and want to devote their time and resources to core parts of their business rather than legacy benefits.
2. It is just about managing managers. Many sponsors traditionally see outsourcing in terms of investment oversight, says Clint Cary, Senior Vice President at Aon Investment Consulting. “It is not just managing assets; it is managing the funded status,” he says. Sponsors of active DB plans “are migrating to a risk-management approach, where they are trying to improve the funded status of the plan and de-risking the plan as they get better funded,” he says, “and they do not have the risk managers internally.”…
Northern Trust headquarters in Chicago, Illinois.Image via Wikipedia3. Only defined benefit plans get outsourced. These plans have used outsourcing the most, but defined contribution (DC) sponsors increasingly consider it, says Jennifer Tretheway, a Senior Vice President and Managing Director at Northern Trust Global Advisors. “The most common thing we see from DC plans is an interest in having some type of oversight done, anything from overseeing the mutual fund options on a recordkeeper’s platform to something more proactive, in terms of having discretion on which investment-management firms to utilize,” she says.
DC plans may need outsourcers’ expertise even more than DB plans, Masters says. “Historically, DC plans did a kind of outsourcing by hiring recordkeepers that provided a bunch of options, mostly in mutual fund form and often, frankly, at a fairly high cost,” he says. However, DC plans have become most Americans’ primary retirement-savings vehicle, leading employers to want to limit the cost to participants as much as reasonably possible.
“The single biggest thing that people will get help with is customizing target-date funds,” Masters predicts. “In the next 10 years, virtually all growth in DC assets will be in target-date assets. So, as that unfolds, it becomes increasingly important for plan sponsors to get the target-date decision right.” Designing and implementing a customized target-date structure so that it comes as close to the cost of a DB plan as possible “is a fairly specialized task,” he says, and many employers lack that in-house expertise.
4. It costs a lot, or saves a lot. “Another primary misconception is that outsourcing is more expensive than doing it in-house,” Tretheway says. “The majority of our clients do recognize some savings, in the form of hard-dollar expenses for investment management, custody, and performance measurement. On average, clients might recognize a savings of around 10%.”…
“[Sponsors] do not go in thinking the overall fees are lower; they go in thinking they will get a more comprehensive service set,” Cary says. “They see it as a cost-neutral solution. Cost is not a main driver, and is also not a hindrance.”
Remember that the cost of administration for a DB plan pales compared with the cost of funding the plan, Dietch says. The argument for outsourcing a pension plan is “you reduce your cost of funding if you generate higher returns and less volatility, and reduce tracking error,” he explains.
5. Sponsors can offload their fiduciary responsibility. Dietch wonders if most employers realize that they retain significant fiduciary obligations if they outsource. Even if they think they can transfer that responsibility legally, Masters says, “I think you cannot morally: The reputational risks are too great.”
Yet, the desire to forgo as much fiduciary responsibility as possible “is a big motivator” to outsource, Dietch says. “It is certainly being aggressively marketed.” However, an ERISA plan sponsor remains a fiduciary, he adds, and has to operate with that standard in selecting and monitoring an outsourcer.
“That fiduciary role does not go away,” Gelly says. “The responsibility shifts from day-to-day to more strategic. Their involvement is extremely critical, but it is more at the strategic level,” such as approving the investment policy. The employer also still needs to evaluate the investment outsourcer’s performance regularly, Tretheway says, and most clients look at quarterly committee meetings as a good time to cover that.
6. It means giving up all control. “One thing I hear a lot is that people feel like, ‘Oh, I am giving up control,’” Gelly says of employers thinking about outsourcing. In reality, Tretheway says, clients’ ongoing involvement level really ranges. For instance, some clients delegate to Northern Trust the authority to hire and fire investment managers but, in other cases, it does not have complete discretion. For those with less day-to-day involvement, she believes, they ultimately have more control because they can track progress more closely to meet their goals.
There is no one right answer on how involved in day-to-day workings a sponsor should stay after outsourcing, Masters says. …
7. Outsourcers only sell pre-packaged solutions. “There is a little bit of a myth out there around, ‘This is a black box,’” Gelly says. “Unfortunately, some people think that everybody is treated the same.” Sometimes yes and sometimes no. For instance, Gelly says that Russell highly customizes the weighting among plan clients’ asset classes based on factors such as a plan’s liabilities.
Outsourcing has a lot of different permutations in the marketplace, Dietch says, but to do this business profitably, outsourcers have to create something scalable. As for customizing to specific clients, he says, “a lot of it comes down to what the contractual terms say.” Some outsourcing providers take a more-standard approach: “They have one fund, and everybody goes into that fund,” Tretheway says, “but all of our clients have a unique asset allocation, and a unique investment policy statement. We really have a hard time believing that any two organizations have identical needs.”
Judy Ward
editors@plansponsor.com
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