Monday, December 5, 2016

Is the Time at Hand for 'Open Meps' - repost from Unified Trust Blog

Time and timing are funny things.  A good idea may be a good idea, but the timing of that idea can be everything.  Back in 2010 and 2011, it seemed like I couldn’t have a conversation with an advisor or go to an industry conference without hearing about so-called ‘Open Multiple Employer Plans’ or ‘Open MEPs’.  At first, they almost sounded fake to me, as we in the industry have a tendency to create marketing or sales terms.  Of course, I was aware of MEPs, but only in the context of what we’re now calling ‘closed’ or ‘traditional’ MEPs.  The concept behind a MEP was always that the related business’ sharing some kind of a nexus or commonality could essentially join into the same retirement plan.  By banding together, economies of scale had the potential to provide better investments, lower fees and less fiduciary risk-all good benefits.  The nexus was important as it kept this exclusive to related or very similar entities.

There had been  a lot of noise in the market that Open MEPs, where this commonality didn’t exist, were also okay.  This struck me as odd.  Did the rules change when I wasn’t paying attention? I don’t think so.  I’ve come to the conclusion that what did change was that the market decided that the existing rules weren’t clear enough. There was a disconnect between what was written into ERISA on MEPs and what was absent in the Internal Revenue Code about MEPs.  Because of this lack of continuity, some aggressive players in the market went ahead with the Open MEP idea, taking the position that if it isn’t explicitly prohibited, it was therefore permitted.  I remained skeptical and even wrote about it on my personal blog (MEP’s EBSA Speaks and More Opinions).  Then in May of 2012, the Department of Labor issued the TOTH Letter, DOL Advisory Opinion 2012-04A.  With this stroke of the pen (or keyboard), all of the noise in the market quieted down.

Flash forward four years and this concept is again at the forefront of the conversation.  In fact, a version of Open MEPs, now being called Pooled Employer Plans (PEPs) is close to becoming a legal structure.  Prior to the election, I was interviewed on this subject (Multiple Employer Plans Have a Bright Future) and discussed whether or not this idea would have its day.  The creation of these new PEP plans is part of a bill that was marked up by the Senate Finance Committee in September called The Retirement Enhancement Savings Act of 2016.  This bill supports the notion of an Open MEP, now being called a PEP, effectively removing the nexus requirement if certain conditions are met.  Timing is everything and now the question really is, when will this bill get passed?  It has made it through Senate Finance unanimously (a very rare occurrence) and has bipartisan support.  At this point, it seems that the only decisions left to be made are regarding  what broader piece of legislation will this Act be attached to and which president will get the credit for it, Obama or Trump.

Professionally, I find this exciting.  As readers know, Unified Trust Company is a professional ‘named fiduciary’ in our role as Discretionary Corporate Trustee over retirement plans.  Within these new PEP requirements are the appointments of a “pooled plan provider”, a ‘named fiduciary’ to act as the plan administrator and one or more named trustees who “must be  a bank or other financial institution” that would be responsible for contributions and assets.  Unified Trust would be a great fit potentially for some of these roles.  Whether these come to fruition sometime soon or not, the future is looking very bright.

- Jason Grantz

Monday, November 14, 2016

Will he or won't he....put the Kibosh on the DOL Fiduciary Rule - Trump I mean

Of all of the words in the English language that I never thought would appear on my blog, the name; Donald Trump would be at the top of that list.  Yet, here it is!!!   The following is a post where I will discuss my initial thoughts of a republican congress and a Donald Trump presidency as related to the retirement plan industry and retirement policy.  This falls into two categories.  First, will this now party-aligned legislative body pass retirement legislation (almost certainly, yes) AND will this new regime seek to unwind any of the previous regime's legislation and regulation.....again, almost certainly yes. 

Regarding the first part, tax reform is almost a veritable certainty to occur in the first couple of years of the Trump presidency.  With that will occur other tax policy initiatives and some of the one's related to retirement and pension reform have been kicking around for a while.  Will it be the most recent one, The Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2016  or something similar?  My guess is yes.  This calls for a re-imagining of the rules around Multiple Employer Plans (MEPs) into something new called Pooled Employer Plans or PEPs.  This concept is similar to what the industry has been tauting for years as Open MEPs.  Here is a link to the full mark-up from the Senate Finance Committee. RESA 2016 Full Description.

Regarding the new Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rules.  I've seen/read a lot in the last few days about how this regime is going to squash these rules since they aren't friendly to the financial services industry which is largely aligned with the republican side of the debate.  However, killing a regulation once it's enacted is very difficult to do, it's not like the DOL (assuming new leadership) could just pull it, nor could they subject it to changes without a review and comment period.  This would take us well beyond the upcoming implementation date of April 10. 

So if they were to do this, it would have to be done with an overriding interim regulation or some longer term solution where it gets scrapped as an add-on to a future piece of legislation or just simply delaying implementation of it past April 10th as something to deal with later on.  One thing I find  interesting, is that Trump himself has never spoken about it publicly and his website is silent on the matter altogether.  So whether it is a high priority of the new administration or not remains to be seen, but even if it is a high priority, my expectation is that April will come and go and this new DOL rule will be enforceable at that time BY the private sector. 

For how long after.......time will tell.

- Jason Grantz, QPA, AIFA



Friday, October 21, 2016

Scary Times (not an October pun)

First, I'd like to apologize to those who regularly read this blog for delays between my last and this blog post.  It's been an extremely busy summer and often the first thing that gets pushed to the side when time is short are passion projects.  That said, while this is not a political blog and I'm not a political person, no post in mid-October of this particular election year couldn't ignore the scariness of our current presidential race and the potential ramifications.  

Earlier today, I read a blog post from 401(k), linked here called How a Hillary Win Means Government Run 401ks.  That's a pretty scary title!!  I'm not giving a presidential opinion, but rather opining on the....aghast.....thought of the government taking over and running (er...eliminating) the 401(k).  The ramifications of this are scary as well, complete elimination of an entire industry that's been helping people for over 30 years and despite what they tell you, an even WORSE result.  Despite the negative noise around the private sector system, the 401(k) helps more people financially then ANY other program out there with the exception of Social Security, and everyone acknowledges that Social Security falls far short for most and when supplemented with 401(k) can give people a financial chance.

In the article, it describes how Hillary Clinton is considering Tony James for Secretary of the Treasury.  Tony James is a co-promoter of Guaranteed Retirement Accounts, an idea that's been put forth by Teresa Ghilarducci, the professor of economic policy analysis at the New School for Social Research and a well known enemy of the 401(k) and the 401(k) industry.  She often makes glib disparaging commentary about the 401(k) referring to it as an 'immature child' and the like. 

Her  idea is to mandate a 3% of compensation contribution into a new retirement system run by the government.  This would be in addition to what folks already put into Social Security.  This "new" idea has been around since Carter was president!!!!  If anyone thought that 3% was enough to make retirement inadequacy a thing of the past, they would have passed it through already!!!  We're talking almost 40 years and 6 Presidents!  Don't get me wrong, I think we can all acknowledge that their are problems, coverage is certainly an issue and costs, while already compressing, still have room to go down.  But, most professionals in this space will tell you that a minimum of 10% of compensation is what people need to be saving to ensure financial security in retirement.  That's the FLOOR, so 3%.....REALLY???!!! 

It is alarming that this type of socialist reform is the main idea of the folks advising this future potential president.  However, if Hillary wins the presidency, there's no guarantee that she'll be re-elected and scrapping an entire retirement system in favor of this sort of reform is going to be highly resisted, four years won't be enough time, not to mention, Secretary's of Treasury don't make laws.  So, in my opinion, this won't be what actually occurs, but it is something that we should all be keeping an eye on as these types of ideas from powerful and influential people have a way of sticking around. 

- Jason Grantz

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why would ANYONE want to self-trustee a 401(k) Plan?

Very interestingly, a recent lawsuit has made a lot of noise in the retirement plan industry, but not for the reason people think.  This suit doesn’t involve a famous company or a huge service provider or even a large sum of money, rather what makes this case so interesting is that it is, in fact, a very ordinary every day plan.  The case I’m referring to is Damberg v. LaMettry’s Collision a $9-$10 million 401(k) plan who’s trustees (two owners) are being sued by two long term employees for excessive fees.  This is the first case of this nature that is “down market” of notoriety.   

Joe Reese walks through the paces of the implications here in a recent blog post on Unified Trust’s blog, linked here à  

Makes me wonder, why would ANYONE want to self-trustee a 401(k) Plan?

- Jason Grantz

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Fiduciary Rule: Intentions vs. Results

I was recently contacted by Christopher Carosa of who was looking for insights on the recently released Department of Labor (DOL) Conflict of Interest Regulations.  I found it particularly interesting that his questions regarding the rule weren’t so much mechanical in nature, meaning how it will work, but rather whether or not the rule will have the desired impact.  More specifically, he wanted to know whether it would actually prevent conflicts of interest or allow conflicts of interest to  persist. 

To see the full  dialogue as well as thoughts from other industry professionals, click here:

Outside of the article, Chris was also interested in how retirement savers can be more aware of potential conflicts of interest.  I identified three questions they could ask their current or potential service provider to hopefully help ensure that conflicts of interest are being properly disclosed or mitigated entirely.
  1. Do you (advisor or service provider) charge fees in a level manner neutral of any investment advice or recommendations you might make?
  2. Do you have any formal or informal arrangements with any investment product or product manufacturer that would create a bias in the advice you give me?
  3. Will you provide a simple summary that clearly defines all fees, services and investment recommendations in a format that is easily comprehendible?
A recommended best practice would be to have the service provider respond to these questions in writing so that it’s fully documented and the service provider can be held accountable.   My firm, Unified Trust has always operated as a fiduciary and taken a no conflict-of-interest approach.  Our strong fiduciary governance process focuses on improving the results and outcomes for our participant clients. 

However, the reality is that we are very different in the industry, and there are service providers in the industry who will continue to do business in a conflicted manner.  They will need to be prepared to be up front about any potentially inappropriate conflicts-of-interest that they might have.

It may be wishful thinking, but wouldn’t it be great if the industry took a different approach to the one taken when the fee disclosure rules came out?  Instead of being opaque and doing the minimum to comply, this time make clarity a priority, be direct with clients and do more than the minimum.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Managed Accounts are More Effective

Recently, Plan Sponsor Magazine published their 2015 PLANSPONSOR Defined Contribution Survey and in it was some very interesting data regarding Managed Accounts and outcomes.  See the full survey here: PLANSPONSOR 2015 Defined Contribution Survey

After reviewing the data, one thing becomes very apparent, plans that use a Managed Account combined with an advisor acting in a fiduciary capacity have better results than plans not using these services.  The article below from planadviser magazine dives into the data a little deeper and focuses on average balances.

Managed Accounts - Plans with Managed Accounts have better outcomes

**WARNING: A little commercial below, apologies, but that stats are what they are.**

These results correlate to my personal experience.  At my firm, Unified Trust, approximately 9 out of every 10 plans we bring on board are choosing to adopt our full suite of recommendations, most of which are maternalistic.   We suggest clients utilize automatic enrollment (starting at 6%), automatic deferral escalators and the UnifiedPLan Managed Account Solution.  When looking at these plans, the results are astounding.

As of the date of this writing, we see roughly 80% of participants stay in the defaulted managed account solution.  This solution provides the participants with the answers AT enrollment to most of their questions.  When can I afford to retire? Am I on track?  What will my monthly income be?  How much of that is from the plan, social security, outside assets and other sources of income?  What should my deferral rate be in order for me to get or stay on track?

Of the participants offered this managed account, we are seeing 71% of those participants on track for a fully funded benefit.  Most industry studies we've reviewed has the industry average at about 25% (lowest I've seen is 15%, highest is 40%).  The system of defaulting participants into a solution that delivers AND implements all of the answers is proven here to be nearly 3 times more effective than traditional methods in delivering the outcome that matters most, retirement readiness.

Whether it is outside studies like PLANSPONSOR's survey, or our first hand experience, I think the results speak for themselves.  The more that we as professionals take on ourselves and do for our clients, the better the results.

-Jason Grantz

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Real Threat - State Run Plans

Now that the OMB has released the final version of the DOL's Conflict of Interest rule, it is a perfect time to look at the other major event looming on the horizon in the 401(k) world.  Arguably, as far as threats to industry are concerned, this one is the bigger threat. This is the issue of State offered and State-Run retirement plans.

In Brief:
Right now approximately ½ of the states are considering some type of public sector retirement offering.  In general the types the states are considering fall into one of three categories:

     1.)    Mandatory Plan using a State-Run Automatic Contribution IRA
a.       Typically for Employers over a certain size not currently offering a 401(k), Pension, Simple IRA, SEP or other type of plan, minimum # of employees will vary from state to state
b.      This grants them safe harbor from being covered under ERISA per the DOL
c.       Generally what the “blue” states are considering

     2.)    Voluntary Marketplace Model – For companies with less than 100 employees
a.       IRA Type products, includes the OBAMA MIRA program
b.      Both Blue and Red states considering this

     3.)    Voluntary State Run plan – Akin to the state entering as a competitor to the private sector
a.       Mainly the “red” states that are thinking about these

DOL/FED Stance:  In December, 2015, the DOL provided an opinion letter regarding state offered plans.
1.)    That the states could be granted Safe Harbor from ERISA if the state program was 
     a.) Mandatory and 
     b.) Auto-IRA based

2.)   It allows for creation of State-Run OPEN MEPs – No states have yet to pursue this b/c this would NOT be exempt from ERISA.  This potentially gives an unfair advantage to a state offering since Open-MEPs are not yet available within the private sector

3.)    Now the DOL is done with the Fiduciary Rule – State Run plan rules/regs. is the main priority.  The DOL will be trying to get rules to OMB by July to get them through under Obama’s term

State by State: California, Maryland and Connecticut are closest to passing something in 2016
Website: houses all of the state-by-state details.  Here is a summary.

California - Mandatory State-run auto IRA program. – Looks likely for 2016, applies to companies with 5 employees or more not yet offering a retirement plan
Connecticut – Their study was completed in 2014, looks likely to pass in 2016.  There is a potential hold back to passage which is that in 2017 CT will be having major budget cutbacks, and this new bill will cost CT $10m to implement.  There may not be $$ for this at this time.
Some wrinkles here.  
1.)    There was some interest within the state to add certain coverage requirements, specifically that if you were a CT resident who was employed but wasn’t offered a workplace retirement plan and your employer has 5 or more employees, that the employer would be required to offer you the state option.  The wrinkle was that this would be for ALL employees, so for example, a CT based employee of a company out of Kentucky that didn’t offer a workplace retirement plan.  That KY employer would now be required to offer the CT based employee the state auto-IRA plan.  This would also go for CT employees that were excluded for some reason, such as part-time employees.  This was wrinkle was removed.
2.)    50% of Accumulated funds will be mandatorily converted into a lifetime annuity at retirement.  This is still in play.
Georgia – Just at the beginning.  Have commissioned a cost/benefit study
Hawaii – Just at the beginning.  Have commissioned a cost/benefit study
Illinois -  Illinois is the first state to actually enact a state run retirement program.  It is a state run auto-IRA required (mandatory) for employers of 25 or more employees not offering a workplace plan. 
-          The mandate won’t kick in until the program becomes operational.  They have not yet issued RFP’s for recordkeeping.
Indiana – This is a VOLUNTARY state-run program.  Because it is voluntary, it is subject to ERISA.  This is basically Indiana entering as a competitor in the space. 
Maryland- very close to becoming law.  Mandatory State Run Auto IRA for employers with 10 or more ees.  One twist here is a $300 filing fee being waived as an incentive for employers.  This has unanimous support in Maryland
New Jersey – NJ is adopting the Voluntary Marketplace model.  It is early stages, so details are fuzzy right now.  They aim to have it up and running by 2018.  This is b/c it is a partisan issue, Christie is out in 2018, and wants this in effect in case Democrats take over as governor.  Auto-IRA was originally presented, but got vetoed by Christie.
Oregon – One of most liberal states in U.S.  In 2015 passed their law.  It will be a mandatory Auto-IRA program, NO minimum employee threshold.  Board is working through schematics on it now.
Utah – Voluntary State-run Auto IRA program.  Thus, it is subject to ERISA>
Washington – Similar to NJ, opting for Voluntary Marketplace model.  They have just issued an RFP for a website and for product specs.

Again, more detail within the website link ( about what every state is doing.  I think this is important b/c, as an industry we potentially will have a new public option competitor in every state, but every  state may be different.  Interesting times. 

- Jason Grantz

Friday, April 8, 2016

The DOL Conflict of Interest Rule is finally here! Some implications....

Implications of the Fiduciary Rule 

After months of anticipation and years of debate, the Department of Labor (DOL) “Conflict of Interest Rule” has finally been released.  During the proposal process, the DOL fielded over 400,000 comments, some of which were in opposition to the rule while others were seeking clarification to specific areas within the rule.  The one thing there is little debate about is the intent of the rule.  There may be arguments around the government’s role in this process, or the nuances of what constitutes investment advice, but how do you argue that a rule requiring the industry to act in the best interest of their clients is a bad thing?

It will likely take weeks, if not months, to fully dissect and understand the scope of the new fiduciary rule and how the landscape will change as it is phased into implementation.  Here are a few of my initial interpretations and what I think the potential implications are.

Potential Impact on Financial Advisors
The registered investment advisors (RIAs) that have already been acting in a fiduciary capacity just saw their marketplace get considerably more crowded.  With the vast majority of advisors now being considered fiduciaries, RIAs will be forced to adjust their value proposition to distinguish themselves amongst their competitors.  My opinion is that the most impactful point of differentiation will be to not only improve outcomes for participants but to quantify those outcomes for the plan sponsors and retirement plan committees.

Some broker-dealer registered reps may need to utilize the ‘education carve-out’ to limit or avoid fiduciary status.  However, the carve-out is going to be narrower than it previously was (per DOL Interpretive Bulletin 96-1) and the education provided under this approach will be limited and may be considered unsatisfactory to many plans.  Registered reps who wish to stay in the retirement plan industry using the education carve-out may ultimately need to rely on a very strong fiduciary partner to do so (a view shared by notable fiduciary expert Fred Reish in a recent blog post as an evolving “common solution” for 401k-focused registered reps in the wake of the new fiduciary rule).

Potential Impact on Advisory Fees
In recent years, fees have been compressing as a result of the DOL’s fee disclosure initiatives and the increasingly competitive nature of the marketplace—something that is expected to accelerate under the new fiduciary definition rule.  It’s also highly likely we’ll see increased litigation over the matter.  

However, we don’t believe that there will be a bright-line test on fee reasonableness.  It’s not necessarily about the fee but rather what is being done to earn the fee.  For that reason we believe that an advisor’s business model will need to include greater fee transparency, a prudent documentation and monitoring process, and the ability to quantify participant level outcomes.  Advisors that can accomplish this will be in a better position to justify their fees and differentiate their services in a fiduciary environment where everyone is essentially viewed as an equal.

Potential Impact on Compliance
Compliance complexity and oversight will greatly increase.  For example, testimony to the DOL indicated in the first year the rule goes into effect financial institutions will have to produce more than 86 million written disclosures and notices.  This does not come without a cost.  Who will pay for this?

Potential Impact on Vendors
Many major vendors will be exempt from the fiduciary rule or attempt to structure relationships to avoid fiduciary status under the rule.  This means litigation that develops may be between the plan sponsor and the advisor since the vendors may not be a fiduciary—that is unless you are working with a vendor that is willing to accept fiduciary status such as my firm, Unified Trust who not only is willing to accept fiduciary status, we sign on as discretionary trustee, and thus a named plan fiduciary, in the plan document for every plan on our platform.

The DOL Conflict of Interest Rule will no doubt have a sizable impact on the industry.  The extent of that impact will unfold over the coming months and years.  We do firmly believe that it will increase the need to have a fiduciary process that is not only accurate but also automated and algorithm-based.  In other words, it won’t be enough to say you’re a fiduciary, rather you will need to show prudent fiduciary processes are in place and in the best interest of the investor. 

- Jason Grantz, QPA, AIFA

Friday, March 18, 2016

Fear is a Lousy Investment Strategy
Co-Authored by Jason Grantz and Joseph Reese

As the markets close on St. Patrick’s Day, we find the Dow Jones Industrial Average up for the first time in 2016 after the fifth straight day in positive territory (and tack on a 6th straight day as of the March 18th market close). This is on the heels of a U.S. stock market that saw its worst January since 2009. 

Fear is a lousy investment strategy. According to a review of their 2.5 million recordkeeping participants by Aon Hewitt (Volatility Drives Stock Market Fears in 401k plans), January volatility made participants feel like they needed to do something…anything. Trading activity was up substantially in January – to levels not seen since January of 2009. Participants were fleeing to ‘safer ground.’

Interestingly, Aon Hewitt saw Target Date Funds (TDFs) with the biggest outflow at 39%.  This flies in the face of the basic premise of TDFs – a fully diversified, single decision asset allocation. What’s particularly interesting is that we typically would assume that inertia and procrastination rule the day when it comes to participant action or more pointedly inaction. However, it seems that myopia and loss aversion, aka extreme fear, combined with misguided focus is what is causing participants to take action when they shouldn’t.  By misguided focus, what we mean is that these TDF oriented plans are still focusing the participant on investment performance and not on what really matters, which is whether or not those participants are on track.  This is an enormous flaw and is being reinforced in the majority of 401(k) programs today.  This is exactly what our managed account service, The UnifiedPlan fights against.

In the UnifiedPlan, the focus of the enrollment and of the subsequent statements is on whether or not the participants are on track, not on short term returns or investment performance.  When contrasting the recent participant behavior in Target Date Funds highlighted above, participants with the UnifiedPlan managed accounts during the month of January didn’t react to the volatility.  In fact, we saw just 0.25% opt out. That’s a huge disparity; 39% reactive in TDFs vs. 0.25% for UnifiedPlan managed account participants.  Why is that? We believe that because the solution is personalized to the participant and the goal is illustrated as a percentage of monthly income replacement, it de-emphasizes short term performance and subsequently there is less fear in a volatile market. 

According to data offered by Aon Hewitt, “participant trading activity in January 2016 reached a three-year high, and 82 cents of every dollar traded moved from equity instruments to fixed-income funds.”

Just out of curiosity, we wonder how many of the participants trading out of equities in January are still on the sidelines as the market recovers?  If history is any guide, we think it is most, if not all.

For another take on the same topic, check out Justin Morgan’s post on the Unified Trust Blog linked here Managed Accounts Manage Behavior Better.

- Jason Grantz and Joe Reese