the Supreme Court and 401k plans

On Monday, the Supreme Court made a narrow ruling on a technical point that may have far-reaching implications.

Participants in the 401k plan offered by Edison International, a California utility, sued the company claiming that it stocked the plan with “retail” versions of investment products that charge higher management fees than the lower-cost  “institutional” versions that it could have chosen instead.

The company defended itself by successfully arguing in a lower court that the statute of limitations for bringing such a lawsuit had expired.  The Supreme Court said the lower courts were mistaken.  An employer has a continuing duty to supervise its 401k offerings.  So even though years had passed since the 401k offerings were placed in the plan, the statute of limitations had not expired.

So the case goes back to the lower court, where presumably the question of whether Edison was right to offer a higher cost product than it might otherwise have.

Was this a mistake?

Why wouldn’t any company have the lowest cost share possible in the 401k plan?

The short answer is that the company receives a portion of the management fee in return for allowing the higher charges.

Typically the company argues that the fee-splitting helps cover the costs of administering the 401k plan.  In practical terms,thought, the move doesn’t eliminate the costs.  It shifts them from the company to the plan participants.

If the Wall Street Journal is correct, this is the case with Edison, which is reported as pointing out that the fee-splitting is disclosed in plan documents.

I have two thoughts:

–the sales pitch from the investment company providing the 401k services probably sounded good at the time.  The 401k would be inexpensive (free?) to Edison.  High fees would shift the cost onto employees instead–which makes sense, the seller might argue, since employees are the beneficiaries of the plan.

On the other hand, to anyone without a tin ear, this sounds bad.  The amounts of money are likely relatively small.  Edison is probably spending more on legal bills than it “saved” by choosing the plan structure it did.  And if it turns out that Edison is profiting from the arrangement rather than just covering costs, the reputational damage could be very great.

–fee-splitting arrangements on Wall Street are far more common than I think most people realize.  This case could have wide ramifications for the investment management industry if the courts ultimately decide that Edison acted improperly.

 

 

should brokers be fiduciaries?

…my answer is Yes.

In his recent spate of initiatives, President Obama is proposing that retail brokers be legally declared to be fiduciaries, the way investment advisers already are.   I’ve written about this before, when the SEC carried out a study of the topic, ordered in the Dodd Frank Act, which it published in early 2011.  Nothing happened back then.  Probably the same result this time.

The issue?

As I see it the change would mean that, for example:

–unlike today, your broker would have to point out, when he gives you a computer-generated analysis of your financial needs and a resulting asset allocation, that the names suggested consist solely of funds that pay fees to be on the list–and that potentially better-performing, lower cost funds that don’t pay have been excluded.

–that his (about 90% of traditional brokers are men) favorite fund families, whose offerings he always touts to you, also treat big producers like him (and a companion, usually) to periodic educational seminars at a sunny resorts in return.

More than that, depending on how any new regulations are written, he might also have to tell you that the trade his firm is charging $300 for could be executed just as well at a discount broker for less than $10.

brokers say No!

Brokerage houses are strongly opposed to Mr. Obama.  They’ve apparently already raised enough of a lobbying fuss in a very short time to cause the President to weaken his proposal.

How so?  From a business perspective, wouldn’t it make sense for traditional brokers to hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct?   They might thereby improve their very low standing  in the public mind and possibly stem the continual loss of market share they’re suffered over the past decades.

Two practical problems:

loss of skills

–over the past twenty years, brokers have homogenized their sales forces, moving them away from having their own thoughts and opinions about stock and bond markets to being marketers of pre-packaged products and ideas developed at central headquarters.

The ascendancy of pure marketing over investment savvy may have had sound reasoning behind it (although I regard it as one more triumph for the former in the battle of jocks (traders) vs. nerds (researchers) that I’ve witnessed through my Wall Street career).  However, most of the experienced researchers who had the skills to shape an investment policy and retrain the sales force have been fired either before or during the recent recession.

It’s easier in the short run to lobby against change than to revamp operations–or rehire the newly laid-off nerds needed to accomplish the task.

red ink = loss of bonuses

–in almost any phase of economic (or any other kind of) life, the status quo is extremely powerful.

Traditional retail brokerage is extremely high cost.  Remember, the retail broker himself nets only about half the fees he generates.  The rest goes to support very elaborate–and now seriously outmoded–bricks-and-mortar infrastructure and central overhead.  Lowering fees to get closer to discount broker levels, spending to raise the quality of proprietary products sold or consolidating real estate would all diminish–or even temporarily erase–operating income.  In a culture that values short-term trading profits over all else, it’s hard to develop support for a move like this.

 

why more equity managers don’t outperform

1.  Most US equity managers, prompted by personal inclination and the wishes of their employers and their institutional clients, adopt either a value (buying undervalued assets) or a growth(buying accelerating profit growth) investment style.  In a typical business cycle, the first two years favor value stocks, the latter two growth issues.  Over that cycle, a manager is likely to have two good years, one so-so year and one bad year.  A skilled manager, however, will outperform over the cycle sc s whole, no matter what his style is.

This is another way of saying that the criterion of outperforming every year is unreasonable.

2.  a truism:  the pain of underperformance lasts long after the glow of outperformance has faded.  A manager who builds a riskier portfolio expecting fame and fortune from significant outperformance risks exploding on liftoff and outperforming badly–thereby losing both his clients and his job. He also gives his firm a significant black eye. No one, however, gets fired for underperforming slightly and being in the middle of the pack of competitors.

As a result, many long-lived investment organizations are constructed on the idea of strong marketing and so-so performance.  I’ve always regarded Merrill as the poster child of this approach in the mutual fund arena.

In other words, outperformance isn’t the most important attribute of a successful investment product.

3.  Most investment organizations find that a running a research department of their own is difficult and expensive.  Many, especially (in my view) the majority which are run by professional marketers, have long since eliminated proprietary research and have been depending heavily on brokerage houses to supply this service.   Doing so has the additional advantage that in-house analysts are no longer a drain on management fees received (brokerage house research is paid for with clients’ commissions).  That “solved” a problem and enhanced profits at the same time.

However, brokerage houses gutted their research departments during the market downturn in 2008-09.  The sharp decline has also accelerated an ongoing trend away from traditional investment managers and toward a diy approach using index funds.

So there’s no longer a plethora of high-quality brokerage reports and no “extra” management fee money to reconstitute proprietary research departments. Where are the good new ideas going to come from?  I think this new client preference for investment performance over salesmanship will create severe difficulties for traditional investment organizations.

 

Wall Street firms are running out of retail brokers

In the post-recession world, traditional brokerage/investment banking firms have become much more interested in the steady income that can come from providing financial advice to individuals.  This is partly due to the demise of proprietary trading, partly a new respect for recurring income.   But Wall Street is finding it hard to maintain its retail sales forces.

One would think that with the Baby Boom beginning to retire, and having 401ks and IRAs rather than traditional pensions to support them in their “golden” years, there would be a lot of demand from this quarter for professional investment advice.  Yet, brokerage firms are finding it hard to recruit salesmen.  The demographics of the big (or “full service,” as they’re called) brokerage forces themselves are also telling:  lots of over-fifties, few under-thirties.  Why is this?

In general:

1.  The internet has replaced financial services as the destination of choice for ambitious college graduates.

2.  Brokerage firms have traditionally been hostile toward women, thereby eliminating half the possible job candidates.

3.  Being a financial adviser is–something I kind of get, but kind of don’t–a relatively low status position, down there with used car salesman.

Specifically:

4.  People under the age of, say, fifty (maybe it’s sixty, though) would prefer to deal with a discount broker over the internet than face-to-face with a traditional brokerage salesman.  I have no short answer as to why, but they do–even when introduced to an honest, competent broker by their parents.  Of course, maybe that in itself is the kiss of death.

5.  Traditional brokerage firms have decimated their research departments as cost-cutting measures during the recession.  This eliminates the only reason I personally would consider a traditional broker.

6.  A broker typically gets a little less than half of the commission revenue he generates (see my post on how your broker gets paid for more detail).  The rest goes to the firm, which uses part of that to pay for offices, recordkeeping, and marketing…   For many years, however, firms like Fidelity, Charles Schwab or other, more low-profile companies have been willing to provide established brokers with back-office support for a small fraction of that amount.  I’m not current on today’s arrangements, but while I was working a broker could easily increase his “net” commission from 45% to 80% by switching to one of these firms.  Yes, he might have to provide his own office, but the headline is that he could increase his income by 78% with the move.

 

What’s new about this situation isn’t that it’s happening–this has been going on for well over a decade–but that traditional brokers are finally concerned.   Their retail business model is broken, however, and I don’t see it getting fixed any time soon.  My question is how Baby Boomers are going to get the financial advice they need to manager their money during retirement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when quantitative investment strategies “add up to fraud”

Yesterday’s online Financial Times contains an article titled “When use of pseudo-maths adds up to fraud.”  It references an academic paper (which I haven’t read yet–and may never) which concludes that while quantitative management strategies may look impressive to neophytes, many are mathematically bogus.  This could be why they often fail deliver the superior investment performance they appear to promise.  Anyone with mathematical training needed to construct such a statistical stock-picking system should know this.

Quelle surprise!, as they say.

There’s a powerful cognitive urge to simplify and systematize data.  But that’ not why investment management companies typically create the mathematical apparatus they tout to clients.

The reality is that investment management has a large right-brain component to it.  It depends on individual judgment and intuition honed by experience.  This fact makes clients uncomfortable.

Typically the company treasurer, or other person in the finance department who is in charge of supervising the company pension plan, has little or no investment training or experience.  He may know corporate finance, but that’s a lot different from portfolio investing.  Suppose the manager I just hired begins to lose something off his fastball, he thinks.  He tells me he reads 10-Ks, but suppose he just goes into his office, takes an hallucinogen and picks stocks based on the visions he experiences.  How can I explain this to my boss if the pension plan returns go south?

That’s why his first step is to hire a third-party pension consultant.  It’s not necessarily that the consultant knows any more than the treasurer–in my experience, the consultant probably doesn’t.  Hiring an “expert” is a form of insurance.

Selecting a manager with a quantitative stock-picking system is another.  The supposed objectivity of the system itself–safe from emotions or other human foibles–is a second form of defense.

Up until now, the apparent safety net created by hiring the consultant and selecting a recommended manager who relies on “science” instead of intuition has been enough to clinch the deal for many quantitative managers.   Of course, while this decision may make the treasurer feel better–and may be an effective defense as/when the quantitative system in question blows up–it doesn’t eliminate the risk in manager selection.  It simply shifts the risk fulcrum away from the human portfolio manager to the statistician who has constructed the stock selection model.  The paper the FT references, “Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism,” argues that, empirically, this is a terrible idea.

I wonder if anything will come of it.