Are Fiduciaries Paying Attention?

There are always naysayers.  Prognosticators and analysts who even in the best of times foresee disasters looming on the horizons.  I am very prone to be influenced by those cautious advisors.

However, over the course of my 25 year career, I have learned that more often than not the extremes rarely materialize and decisions based upon more moderate outlooks usually prevail.

And yet, right now, the magnetic pull of impending disaster and hyper-vigilant caution feels overwhelming.

Where will a crisis materialize? To name just a few potential catalysts, some of which were identified by global leaders at a recent gathering in Lake Como, Italy:

  1. Collapse of the Euro
  2. US Fiscal Cliff
  3. Middle East — either the Arab Spring or Israel/Iran
  4. Hard Landing in China
  5. Hyper-inflation.

Any one of these factors alone could trigger financial and/or political upheaval the likes of which our generation has never experienced.  But, what if 2 or 3 erupt concurrently.  I shudder to imagine.

As a fiduciary I worry about these things.  I’m required to make prudent decisions which can have long lasting implications for people’s retirements.  I take this responsibility very seriously.  Workers and retirees have worked long and hard to assemble their retirement nest eggs.

Of course, I can’t predict which crisis will occur or the consequences of any of these crises.  And, I’m very skeptical of anyone who offers any predictions, especially predictions with specificity.

Ever cautious, however, I’m trying to understand how to plan around these various potential crises.  Most importantly, I want to know how other investment fiduciaries are planning;. or if not planning, whether they are thinking about each of these various factors as they manage other people’s money.

I’m particularly concerned due to the general herd-like mentality of Wall Street, investment professionals and retirement professionals.   For the most part everyone does the same thing.

For example, before the 2007 financial crisis, and as $billions were being directed into various mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, industry professionals from various disciplines were all taking comfort in VAR — Value At Risk.

I never understood VAR, and I still don’t.   However, it was a numerical representation of the “risk” inherent in an investment portfolio.  Investment professionals cited VAR as if it was the holy grail. Everyone felt that they had mastered risk because the VAR calculations indicated so.

In retrospect, VAR proved to be overly narrow and somewhat simplistic.  VAR was meaningless as markets plunged and portfolios were depleted.  VAR was ephemeral, but the losses were real.

I’m nervous about today’s equivalent of VAR, and I don’t even know what it is.

Today’s $18.9 trillion of ERISA assets (as reported as of March 31, 2012 by the Investment Company Institute), are all generally managed the same way.  Steeped in the principles of Modern Portfolio Theory, retirement plans hire consultants who develop intricate asset allocations, spreading risk among all the asset classes.  Plan sponsors then hire multiple managers with proven track records in the specific asset class.  The industry supporting this system is gigantic.

This system has been in place for 25+ years.  In the explosive boom years beginning in 1982 all has worked well — for the most part.  However, the 2007 Financial Crisis revealed fissures in the extraordinarily complicated and intricate edifice constructed by the retirement investment industry.

What about the storm clouds forming on the horizon?  Are the foundations of the edifice strong enough?  Are fiduciaries exploring whether any levees are in place, and if so, whether the levees are capable of weathering the storm.

At a minimum fiduciaries should be talking about these issues.  They should demand that other investment fiduciaries outline their analyses and their proposed responses.  The debate on these issues should be robust and rigorous.

Unfortunately, my sense is that many are simply hoping that the clouds dissipate never gaining the force of a full fledged storm.

Personally, I often carry an umbrella when there is the slightest hint of rain.  Now, I’m concerned that an umbrella will be a mere cipher in an upcoming devastating storm.

Fiduciaries, what do you think?

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BlackRock Solutions Needs to Shed Light on Valuation Methods

Today’s Wall Street Journal, BlackRock’s “Geeky-Guys” Business, focuses a spot light on BlackRocks Solutions — a small business unit tucked away in the bowels of BlackRock, complete with its own elevator entrances, computers and separate office floors.  If nothing else, haven’t we learned from the ’08-’09 financial crisis, that “Geeky-Guys” hidden away from view have the potential to inflict great harm on our financial system.

Let’s give BlackRock Solutions (BRS) the benefit of the doubt — they have some really smart people who work really hard.  And, during the height of the financial crisis BRS assisted with the management of portfolios which held a lot of funky assets.  The system and US government (including the taxpayers) needed BRS.

As the WSJ reports, BRS provides various risk management services, including asset allocation, to major pension plans — both public and private.  As part of these services, BRS also values hard to value assets according to its own proprietary algorithms and processes.  These valuation process are secret — according to the WSJ.

While I obviously am not privy to the contracts between BRS and its clients, I have strong suspicions that BRS is hired as a fiduciary to provide these services.  Furthermore, the people at the pension plans who hire BRS are likely fiduciaries themselves.

Based upon these two assumptions, I have 2 simple questions:

1) If valuation processes are secret, how do the fiduciaries which hire BRS know that they are prudent processes?

2) Are the fees which BRS charge dependent upon these secret valuations?

These are not sophisticated questions.  But, the answers go to the heart of our pension system.

ERISA is very clear.   Plan fiduciaries are able to hire and delegate responsibilities to other fiduciaries.  If they do so, the decision to hire and delegate these responsibilities must be a prudent decision.  Furthermore, the plan fiduciaries must continue to monitor the hired fiduciaries.  How can the decision to hire BRS be prudent if the valuation methods are secret?  Furthermore, how can anyone monitor whether BRS is discharging its responsibilities in the face of secret valuation methods.

Finally, I also strongly suspect that BRS  charges a fee based upon the assets under management.  If this is the case, then the secret valuations placed upon the assets can directly effect BRS’s compensation.  This is a problem under ERISA.

Yes, the professionals at BRS are smart, and we should trust them.  But, that is besides the point.  Assuming that they are fiduciaries, secrets can’t be permitted.

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