Market & Economic Commentary| Summer 2018

By: Jim Scheinberg – August 29, 2018

Hottest Summer Ever!

25Sure the temperatures might be soaring across most of the U.S., but it’s the economy that’s really on fire. Every indicator we follow is showing ideal conditions. Jobs are abundant, wages are improving, business is booming, and so far, global trade is steady. Politically, the globe is peaceful – despite the usual rancor in Washington D.C. These rosy conditions led to advances in the U.S. stock markets in Q2, turning indexes positive for 2018. Strength in the U.S. economy also led to a 5% rise in the value of the dollar. This caused most global markets to show declines when measured in dollar-terms. A strong dollar may help buying power for consumers, but in the end, it makes our products more expensive overseas and can have a cooling effect on exports. For now, however, there is no ebb in sight.

How the Markets Fared

After the return to volatility that we experienced in January, trading normalized in the second quarter. Yes, the markets had their ups and downs, but in a narrow range of less than 5%, high to low. The S&P 500 advanced a few points, led again by growth stocks. However, it was U.S. small companies that enjoyed the biggest surge in Q2 with the Russell 2000 better than doubling the performance of the large caps. Here, value sectors edged out growth. The consensus was that smaller capitalization companies would not be as vulnerable to the impacts from trade tariffs and subsequent retaliation as larger, multinational firms. However, these smaller companies surely would benefit from the newly enacted 20% corporate tax rate. Internationally, the story was not as upbeat. With the dollar’s advance, most non-U.S. currencies lost ground. Therefore, assets such as international stocks, that are priced in Euros, Yens, and Pounds, etc. appeared to have lost ground from the perspective of a U.S. investor, while developed international markets were virtually unchanged, despite advancing in their own home markets. Emerging markets did not fare as well. With the drums of trade wars beating, Latin America stock markets sold off, as did their currencies, creating a double whammy of double digit losses. Mexico and Argentina both led Latin American stocks down over 17%, completely reversing an outstanding prior year of performance. 26

27The fixed income markets were relatively calm during the quarter despite the Federal Reserve raising short-term lending rates another quarter of a percent in June. The yield on the bellwether, 10-year Treasury rose a modest one-tenth of one percent in Q2. Most high quality bonds were virtually unchanged for the quarter. With the continued strength of the economy, credit spreads stayed tight, leading high yield bonds to essentially earn only their coupons. The only real movement in fixed income came from the international debt space. Again, if your asset wasn’t priced in dollars, you likely lost money during the second quarter. Developed market debt saw modest declines, emerging markets debt fared even worse for similar reasons to that of EM stocks, with Latin markets seeing the largest erosion of value.

Strong Planks

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PIERing Ahead

It doesn’t appear that the economic heat of the summer is looking to cool-off much as we head to the fall, at least here in the United State. Earnings for U.S. companies is stronger than ever, with over 80% of S&P 500 companies beating their already higher-revised estimates. Not only are earnings swelling from higher profitability, but top-line revenues are accelerating too, at their highest levels in 7 years. This has helped Price to Earnings Ratios to come back near longer-term averages (16.5 times forward 12-month earnings vs. 16.1 for long-term norms.) We have successfully digested higher short-term interest rates as well as higher mortgage costs without dampening the economy or housing markets. It is hard to imagine a non-geopolitical cause upsetting this momentum any time soon. Internationally, we don’t see an early winter for developed market economies either, as business and consumer conditions there continue to be quite favorable. So, if the U.S. is booming and Europe and Japan are expanding, then it is highly unlikely that emerging market economies are going to head into a tailspin (as one might have thought after Q2’s selloff). What is likely is that the more dramatic headlines are about tariffs, the more volatility we will see in stock markets and currencies around the globe.

Eventually, either an all-out trade war will end the party (which would be well telegraphed); or, far more likely, a new-normal  trade environment will be hatched, and the global boom will continue, with all players enjoying the advance. If the latter occurs, it is very difficult for me to see how longer-term interest rates, which are seemingly frozen around 3%, will keep from rising back closer to their historic norms of 4%-5% or more. Baby boomers and terminating pension funds will all be selling their longer-term bonds at the same time, leading to further upward pressure on interest rates. It will be higher rates, and not trade wars, that will likely cause the next recession. But that’s just what we can see… Piering ahead from here.


Fiduciary Commentary | Summer 2018

By: Brant Griffin – August 10, 2018

2018 Callan Defined Contribution Plan Trends Survey

Callan’s 2018 Defined Contribution Trends Survey captures the views of a broad spectrum of plan sponsors on various retirement plan issues. Most survey respondents sponsor a 401(k) Plan (64.5%) and were from large plans with 90% having over $100 million in plan assets and 60% or respondents over $1 billion.  It is important to factor that nearly a third of the 152 survey participants were from government entities. Government plans operate under different rules than private sector plans. They are often are not permitted to utilize certain plan features found in 401(k) and other defined contribution plans.

The following highlights the survey’s findings.

Plan Automation29

The survey found that extensive use of plan automation continues. Automatic enrollment features were used in more than seven out of ten respondent’s plans (71.4%). Almost two thirds of government plan sponsors indicated automatic enrollment was not permitted in their plans.  The default auto enrollment percentages among plans ranged from 2% to 10% with an average of 4.6% and a median of 4%. Additionally, over 25% of sponsors had either re-auto enrolled existing employees on a single occasion or, had periodically swept non-deferring participants back into auto enrollment.

Over 70% of the non-government plans utilizing automatic enrollment had an auto enrollment escalation feature. Consistent with prior findings, 86% of plans increased contributions by 1% annually. The survey also found that the cap on auto enrollment contribution escalation has risen consistently in recent years. The median cap reported was 15%, while a full 13% had no cap on escalation contributions.

Company Match

Very few changes were reported regarding company match structures in 2017 with only 2.3% of survey takers making an alteration to their match. However, nearly a quarter of the respondents expressed that they anticipated making match adjustments in the year ahead. The most frequently cited modifications to the plan match were an increase and restructuring at 27.3 and 22.7%, respectively. Several other match changes were cited with mid-single digit frequency (4.5%) including changing to a stretch match formula, changes to timing of contributions, adding a true-up feature and reinstating the plan match.

Target Date Funds

Target date funds (TDF) were offered in over 9 out of 10 plans with pver 85% of sponsors defaulting participant savings into the plan’s TDF series. The prevalence of proprietary TDF amongst the survey respondents continued to drop. In 2017 only 23% of sponsors used their recordkeepers TDF while the number was 50% five years earlier.  Passive TDF strategies were reported to be gaining ground amongst plan sponsors from nearly 44% of plans in 2017 from over 36% in the prior year’s survey. TDF due diligence was described as active with over 55% of sponsors undertaking some sort of review of their plan’s TDF investments. Evaluating the suitability of TDF glidepath was most frequently cited at over half of respondents, followed by changing the share class of the investment at over 22% and moving to a collective trust at 8.6%. Portfolio construction, fees and performance were identified as the three most important criteria for selecting and retaining the plan’s TDF.

Participant Advice

Over 75% of defined contribution plan sponsors offered investment advisory or guidance services to their employees. Online advice was the most frequently utilized tool at nearly 65% of plans, followed by seminars at the workplace (54.4%), investment guidance services (52.3%), and managed accounts (52.3%). A large majority of survey respondents that offered managed accounts (nearly 93%) offered it as a voluntary, opt-in plan feature.

Plan Priorities and Participant Communication

Survey respondents identified retirement readiness as their primary plan focus area for their defined contribution plans over the next 12 months. Plan fees and participant communication ranked closely behind as most important areas of focus.

From fifth place in last year’s survey, sponsors ranked financial wellness as the number one area of communication focus for 2018. Retirement income adequacy maintained its second place standing from last year and participant contribution levels was third. The most frequent media channels sponsors utilize to communicate plan changes were email and the recordkeeper website were tied at 93%, followed by mail (81.7%), company intranet (63.5%), and employee meetings (60.9%). The use of postal mail continues to decrease in frequency from nearly 93% in 2013.

Roth Features

The utilization of Roth contribution features continued to increase among Callan’s survey respondents. Over 71% of plans allowed Roth contributions, an increase from 67.6% in 2016 and 49.3% in 2010.

Callan’s survey provides valuable insight into the to gauge their plan’s features in comparison to large plan market. While better suited is an actual assessment of a plan to those in the same industry, the Callan survey is helpful in ascertaining design and benefit trends developing in the marketplace.

Significant Modifications to the Retirement Savings System on Deck

Lawmakers are working on the most significant changes to private retirement savings plans in more than a decade, exploring several proposals that expand access to retirement plans for workers and to promote the annuitization income in retirement. The major legislation, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA) would represent the most sweeping changes to the defined contribution plans since the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the law that paved the way for broader adoption of automatic enrollment and default investments.

RESA received overwhelming support in 2016, but the legislation wasn’t finalized before Congress adjourned its session that year. Today, it still claims broad interest in both parties. RESA includes several incentives for small businesses to establish and maintain a qualified retirement plan for its workforce. Specifically, the legislation would increase the tax credit from $500 currently to as much as $5,000, to defray the cost of starting a retirement plan. The proposal would also add an additional tax credit for plan designs with an automatic enrollment feature.

Among additional legislative considerations are a new type of employer savings account that would permit workers to automatically enroll employees into an emergency savings account. This much-needed tool would enable employees to build much needed savings accessible in an emergency. A recent Federal Reserve study found that 40% of adults could not cover a $400 emergency expense.

The bill would also encourage plans to offer annuities. Given the swelling ranks of retirees and increasing life expectancies, there is broad bipartisan support among legislators for investment products that could support participants in converting their savings into lifetime income streams. However, there remain lingering concerns on how to best utilize annuities into defined contribution plans.  Among the worries are the products typically high fees and the liability inherent in choosing an insurance company that offers the annuity. The bill gives those that follow certain procedures some liability protection from lawsuits when selecting an annuity provider.

RESA provides for small employers to band together to offer retirement plans in a Pooled Employer Plan (PEP) arrangement. With the identification of the entity that assumes responsibility for the operation of the plan, smaller employers can gain more preferential pricing and features through their economies of scale of the PEP. This pooling of plans together is permitted, but only to employers with an affiliation, such as members of the same industry trade association. RESA would eliminate that requirement.

Additional bill enhancements include a repeal of a provision that prevents savers over age 70 ½ from contributing to traditional IRAs and providing increased flexibility for plan spronsors to switch to a safe harbor plan.

The retirement proposal could face obstacles in a divided Congress as partisan tensions remain high. While it’s too early to tell which measures might be retained through the bill’s development, the effort does enjoy broad bipartisan support (which is a rare incidence these days). It remains to be seen though if Congress has the political will to move on this legislation in an election year.