From the July 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

July 1, 2008

A Dialogue with Ibbotson's Peng Chen

David Macchia: Let me begin with a question that's a bit more personal in nature. Many people know you by reputation in our industry. You are, after all, one of our leading lights. But I think people would also like to know about your earlier life in terms of the personal aspects; where you grew up; where you were educated; and how you came to become the President and Chief Investment Officer of IbbotsonPeng Chen: Well, I grew up in China, a part of north China close to Siberia and North Korea, in city called Harbin. It's famous for its ice sculptures. I grew up there, went to college there, graduated, and then came to the United States for my Ph.D. studies. I went to Ohio State. It was at Ohio State that my interest in investing really picked up, especially in terms of individual investing.

Upon finishing the Ph.D. program I started work here at Ibbotson. I was offered a job because I had used some of the Ibbotson data in my research. I also felt that it would be great to have a job at Ibbotson, should one be available. I applied for a position that seemed to fit, and I was hired.

That's how I started at Ibbotson, in 1997. My first job was with the research group. Research was very important for the firm: Because of where Ibbotson came from, we have a strong academic root. I worked with Roger Ibbotson a lot, worked with Mike Hinkel quite a bit, as well as other research colleagues, such as Paul Kaplan.

Then things changed. I was promoted a few times, and in 2003 and 2004 we were starting to get more into advisory type of services where we increasingly acted as investment advisors for different asset allocation programs, including sub-advised asset allocation funds, or helping 401K investors to more effectively invest their 401K balances. There was a need to create an investment officer position and I was basically tapped in to run the investment decision group's portfolio management. That was in 2004. Then in 2006 Morningstar acquired Ibbotson and our president, Mike Hinkel, stayed on for about six months following the acquisition. Mike decided to pursue other opportunities and I was asked to step in, including helping manage the overall business.

Tell me about your current responsibilities.Sure. First of all, lead the business; that includes things like managing the current products and services, and helping our client find new solutions. I still do quite a bit of research and also help with investment decisions. I have a few roles here, and that's kind of the nature of our business; helping our clients by using our academic roots. We emphasize an investment process and methodology.

From your vantage point what is the biggest investment mistake that you see individuals making?Well, I think the biggest mistake individuals make is probably that they do not focus on both their long-term objectives and the long-term risk/return trade-offs. Often times they get sucked into the short term market and react to that. I think that's probably the biggest mistake. If you look at investing, I think there are quite well-established principles in terms of what works over a long time, and what doesn't work- both from an academic as well as from an industry practice perspective. I often see people making mistakes because of the short- term market; people reacting to what's happening right now. And then they deviate from those principles. Often times that leads to results that are not as good as they could be.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see advisors making when they counsel their clients?What I see in terms of mistakes is- I'd rather say it's an area of needed improvement- I think advisors help their clients understand investing principles, and, over the long-term, what actually does and does not make a difference. That's one. And secondly, I think the fundamental reasons investors make some of these mistakes are behaviorally and emotionally related. Or, psychologically related rather than analytically related. I think they're all smart people, so once you put numbers together they all understand them. But psychologically and behaviorally they still exhibit some bias. I think sometimes advisors don't pay enough attention to those things, and I think that's one area that could be improved.

You mentioned asset allocation earlier, and I'd like to ask you how it's possible for an investor to know his or her true asset allocation?Right. How do the investors really know?

Yeah, how does someone really know?Well, I think that's a very good question. I think what we try to do is establish two steps in the process. The first step is to try to determine from a pure asset class perspective in terms of, for example, US stocks, international stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, and from these pure asset class perspectives next determine what the appropriate asset allocation is.

Once you've decided that, then the second step is to put that asset allocation into work in the marketplace, really implementing that particular asset allocation policy. That's where you have to be very practical in terms of what managers you feel comfortable with. And, often times, you have to give them leeway, because you don't want to tie their hands if they are able to add value over time on top of the asset allocation policy.

But nonetheless I think you don't want to undermine your asset allocation policy. So it's a balance in terms of giving up some freedom in terms of achieving one hundred percent of asset allocation policy, but at the same time making sure the manager is effective over time. There's a process that you can use to ensure that you give up the necessary freedom for a manager to do his or her job, but you'll still be close enough to your long-term asset allocation policy so that you're not jeopardizing that long-term perspective.

Are we becoming more of a world economy in the sense that more and more equity asset classes are moving in the same direction?I think that the answer is yes. I think that with globalization the economies are much more tightly linked together. So if you look at the stock markets, at the end of the day they reflect the economic activities of that economy. However, given that economies are interlinked there's definitely more correlation among them.

In terms of globalization, the second thing I think people often don't talk much about, but I think it will have an equally important impact on this inter-correlation, is the development of financial markets. If you look at financial markets today they are so much more closely tied together than they were before, and not only with different companies treated in different stock exchanges, but also the trading activities themselves. The players or the investors that trade on these different exchanges are trading these instruments across the globe now. I think that has also helped, I shouldn't say helped, but that it's pushed the inter-linkage to be much tighter. And as a consequence, the equity markets have moved more in the same direction than probably at any time over the past twenty or thirty years.

It may be true that much of the return to U.S. investors in recent years has been due to the climb in the value of foreign currencies versus the US dollar. Does this enter your thinking in setting recommended allocation to international equities on a going forward basis?Sure, I think it's fair to say a significant portion of investment returns on international assets over the past four or five years is due to the currency appreciation. And, that's certainly something that we've factored it in. However, one of the things we also try to keep in mind is that, at the end of the day, the currency is just a nominal denomination of measuring the underlying value of a firm. The underlying value of the firm is determined by the product and services the company sells. And the value of those products and services, which tend to have more of a real economic meaning as opposed to the nominal currencies they're denominating in over time.

I'm not trying to say currency doesn't have an impact, but over the long-term you really have to look at what's really driving the stock returns. And certainly currency creates a big impact, especially over the short-term and volatility side. But over the long-term, the number one determinant is what we call real economic activities. Meaning what the firms produce and supply, and the value they add to the customer or consumers at the end. So from that perspective, from a longer-term perspective, currency plays a lesser degree, but one that is certainly important.

In making changes to recommended allocations, does Ibbotson make a judgment as to an asset class's current valuation being, say, relatively high or relatively low?Well, when you talk about these investment decisions there are different time frames. For example, most of our decisions are related to long-term investing, because if you look at the investment landscape the vast majority of the investors are long-term investors. It's critical to find the appropriate long-term policy, asset allocation policies.

We definitely take valuation into consideration, and as a matter of fact, we published a paper in 2003 in the Financial Analysts Journal to talk specifically about the market valuations and their impact on stock market returns over a long while. So that's the long-term decision. But on the other side there is a short-term decision. When you see there are market opportunities in the short-term to add value to the portfolio, basically add more returns to the portfolio by deviating from that long-term policy.

That's when these valuations come into play as well, as when the market is - from a valuation perspective - somewhat at a point of equilibrium. Those are the area of opportunities you can take advantage of. The technology and real estate sectors in the past year or two, for example. For our clients that have requested us to make short-term decisions, we've underweighted real estate for the past year and a half primarily due to valuation measures. Valuation impact on our work goes to the long-term and the short term.

Looking ahead, how do you view Ibbotson's long-term role in the spend down phase?Do you mean Ibbotson's role in terms of the retirement industry overall? In terms of what role we can play?

Yes, how you see the role that you'll play.Well, I felt that that there is a unique role Ibbotson can play. For years Ibbotson has been the leader in long-term asset allocation. As the shift into retirement and income generation unfolds, there are needs of individual investors, advisors and institutions in terms of how to allocate their assets to generate the retirement income. This is something that is a natural extension from what we have done in the past.

What we have done really is to extend our foot print into retirement both from a pure asset allocation perspective in terms of large cap, small cap bonds and so forth, to helping the individual investor generate income. But also we've begun to broaden the scope a little bit. We've done quite a bit of work looking at different- what I would call, outcome-guaranteed types of investment strategies in retirement.

What I mean is that these types of investment vehicles guarantee a particular outcome, whether it's income or protection of principal in retirement. Those can help, in our opinion. And if you use them properly, can definitely help investors improve their risk return tradeoffs in retirement. So we have actively expanded the scope of asset allocation to include some of these investment vehicles, such as payout annuities or variable annuities with GMWB type benefit riders, and so on. That's one of the things we wanted to do, is really to stay at the forefront to help advisors and help individual investors think about not just asset allocation in retirement, but also how these different outcome guarantee type of strategies fit into an overall portfolio. That's the first area that we're trying to spend a lot of time on.

The second is where we are one of the industry leaders of providing individualized advice to plan participants. Currently we advise almost twelve and a half billion dollars in our 401(k) managed account platform. What we're doing is basically helping individual investors in analyzing their asset allocation, their savings decision, their spending decision, and giving them some systematic and customized investment advice that they can follow in terms of picking mutual funds, in terms of how much to save, in terms of how much to spend. That's one of the areas that I think is also in the great demand. To summarize, we feel that we're in the unique position to stimulate solid leadership in retirement income in terms of issues related to what the retirement income portfolio ought to look like for individual investors. Not just from a pure asset allocation perspective, but also including some of these different investing strategies including using guarantees.

The third role we play is by acting as a reputable third party independent advice provider, providing individual investor advice. That might be through the retirement managed account services we offer, or through some target maturity funds, target date funds, or target risk type of funds which have our investment expertise embedded in them.

Right. Let me mention that I had a fascinating conversation with your friend, Moshe Milevsky. I know that you and Moshe worked together on an intellectual property design that was awarded a patent. I'm interested to know how that work is being implemented at Ibbotson.Well, I think that falls into the first category I discussed. We're actively expanding the scope of investment process and investment strategies we can utilize to help investor better manage their retirement portfolios. That particular piece that we did with Moshe was to try to figure out to what extent payout annuities make sense in the retirement portfolio, and if so, how can we develop a framework, a mechanism, to help the individual investor decide how much they need to annuitize. I think your question is how do we intend to implement this strategy?

Yes.We have actually implemented it with a few of our clients already. Mostly as a guidance and advice type of mechanism, to help individual investors and specifically 401K participants understand the benefits and costs of these annuity products. This provides some guidance, depending on their circumstances; over how much and when they should think about buying some of these annuities.

I really applaud your efforts in this area. At the same time I'd like to make an observation and gauge your reaction. The industry is putting a lot of effort into the development of software tools, like optimization, designed to help advisors become more effective in putting assets into a distribution mode. At the same time, I've been speaking about and writing about another dynamic, one which I feel is underappreciated and potentially quite costly to retirement income businesses. Let me explain what I mean.

In more than 30 years of working with advisors over the curse of the accumulation phase, I consistently witnessed one phenomenon that repeated itself over and over again. That is, people invested in products and strategies that they truly did not understand. What they did understand was that they had confidence in their financial advisors.

As we enter the spend down phase I believe that the role of confidence begins to change in a dramatic fashion. Specifically, because of the financial liability potential for all parties associated with even one individual investor making a "mistake" in income distribution strategy - to the investor who may suffer portfolio ruin, to the retirement product provider that created a product which turned out to be sub-par, to the distributor that sold the product, to the financial advisor that recommended the product- the resulting financial liability could be extreme. Therefore, because the stakes are so high, I believe investors are going to demand confidence in the retirement product itself, not just the advisor. If I'm right about this it implies a massive communications and educational challenge. And at least for now, there is too little emphasis being placed on that vital confidence-building. I'm wondering if you agree with me on this assertion?I do agree. I think you're spot on. I think it's critical to educate and communicate the tradeoffs as well as the benefits of costs of all these different products and services. I think there is a transition into definitely more solution oriented discussions. To help build the confidence from individual investors in terms of how they are understanding the product, as opposed to how it used to be positioned: here is a great manager or here is a great product, or here is a great service. We've seen firms taking active steps to try to elevate the discussion on, not necessarily to a total solution, but on a solution perspective. They are basically saying "Okay, here's your retirement landscape, here's your social security benefit, here's some DB pension you have, and here's some 401(k). Let's look at all these together and help you put it together. By the way, this may not be easy. You have to make some choices, not only in terms of risk return with the investment, but also in terms of in retirement. I think the most important thing is how much you want to spend and how fast you want to spend all your money. So we are actively developing those strategies, although currently I think you would agree that a small percentage of advisors are well versed in these types of discussions, and in terms of communicating them to individual investors there is much work to be done.

Well, I do agree. And I see that the solution to this problem is, to an extent, reliant upon technology that can communicate to the retail investor in the manner that retail investors like to receive information today. Recognizing that they want to sit back and be entertained- preferring to learn more by watching then by reading. They crave engaging experiences, and they want to be convinced that something is good for them. I think we have to institute this technology to help advisors, distributors and manufacturers of all types convey their value more effectively.

Let me ask you about something else that's relevant, at least in retirement. I'd like your opinion on it. I had an interesting conversation not long ago with Phillip Hensler, the chairman and CEO of DWS Scudder Distributors. Phillip was talking about insufficiency in retirement investing, the insufficiency of limiting one's view to only traditional asset classes. Philipp is quite compelling on the notion of what he describes as liberating the efficient frontier, in opening up people's attention to new asset classes, using the strategies in the retail markets that mimic what some very sophisticated institutional investors have been using for years, and bringing about a sort of democratization of sophisticated investing techniques. I wonder what you think about that?Well, in terms of general direction I totally agree. I think that kind of coincides with some of the discussions I mentioned early on. Really, we felt that by including some of these outcome guaranteed type of products, whether it's an immediate annuity we did with Moshe, or some of the variable annuities with GMWB, or some principal protected product, for certain investors these can really help improve the efficient frontier.

When I'm talking about efficient frontier I'm not talking about the traditional mean variance efficient frontier. I'm really talking about the income efficient frontier, the amount of income the portfolio can generate, and the amount of risk- the income risk- that this portfolio has. So from that perspective I think it definitely makes sense.

I think the trick is when you talk about employing these sophisticated strategies there are a couple of things to keep in mind. One is the cost. I think you have to be aware of how much it costs at the end of the day, especially if you are building something for the typical individual investors. It's true that a lot of these strategies have been used as a mechanism for institutional investors, for wealthy or high net worth individuals, but the economics are a little different here. That has to be taken into consideration.

Secondly, going back to your earlier point, it's a challenge of communication. How does it fit in? That's where we felt Ibbotson can play a pretty important role there, given our expertise in figuring out these tradeoffs in a portfolio, given our expertise in on-going management, as well as just being a solid leader in the industry that both advisors and institutions look up to. We're actively doing research in this area, and trying to help financial advisors understand what the specific strategy is, what kind of value they bring to the table, what kind of cost they bring to the table. For example, we did that payout annuity piece with Moshe several years ago, and I think now it's more or less embraced. Recently we did another piece on variable annuities withdraw benefit riders, and we're actively looking at some other of types of things, trying to help advisors understand what's going on, how much it costs, and understanding where are benefits are..

Let me ask you about new types of products. For some time I've been interested in structured products, and structured notes, etcetera. I wonder what you think about these products, and I wonder if you're mindful of the experience over in Europe where they are a dominant factor. The notion of applying capital protection, especially in the transition management phase of retirement, is something that I think everyone would agree is sensible. There's built in attractiveness to the notion of what these products provide, including their ability to provide growth potential based upon non-traditional asset classes. I wonder if you see the potential of structured products to be really significant. I think there is that potential, based on our work. We haven't really published a work here yet because it's internal. But based on our preliminary work there's definitely a benefit to include these types of structured strategies in a retirement portfolio. But, I have to give caveats here because there's a lot of different structured strategies, different underlying instruments, different ways of constructing the payout pattern, and so forth. But if you look at some of these more basic type of strategies, for example principal protected notes, let's say, where you a protect the principal and at the same time, if the market goes up, and you enjoy a certain amount of upside, that's attractive. For some investors in the transition phase, where we know that one critical risk factor is market downturn, if you go back to year 2000, 2001, 2002, if investors enter into that market with their retirement asset and without any protection, they would've been down roughly fort to sixty percent by the end of 2002 because of the bear market. Now granted, that's a pretty extreme scenario, but nonetheless it will have a tremendous impact on one's ability to generate retirement income. Just think about it; three years into retirement you lost half your assets, and some people fared even worse if their portfolio was not diversified. They loaded up on technology stocks and so forth. There are certainly roles for these principal protected products, in retirement, in particular in the early-on transition phase.

That's kind of what we've seen already, but like I said, there are many different types of structured notes, and each of them are structured a little differently, with different underlying investment payouts, fees and so forth. You really need to understand them before you get into it. I think that's one of the bigger challenges for the advisor community. You don't want to do something that you don't understand.

Right. I had a question to ask you about the likely long-term performance of the equity markets given the dynamics of Boomer retirement, and then for context I coincidentally read something this morning that really pulled it together for me. Let me ask it this way: some people have expressed concern that the phase of Boomer retirement will be characterized by widespread selling of stocks and bonds. I recently read that Professor Jeremy Siegel has said that his computer model shows that Boomer retirement may cause stock prices to fall forty to fifty percent. How do you feel about such a proposition?Well, I think that's certainly something that people talked a lot about. From my perspective I think it's probably a little bit exaggerated. I think, certainly, there is a lot of money coming out and that will have impact on the market. At the same time, you have to look at fundamentally what's driving, things, like going back to our beginning conversation, what's driving these stock market returns. Fundamentally, these are driven by the economic value that these firms are generating. Supply and demand in aggregate certainly has an impact, but at the end of the day if the firm, or if the overall stock market is generating value, there are going to be buyers out there. That's the first thing, I think that people need to recognize. That at the end of the day, the number one determinant of these markets is really economic value that these firms are producing over time.

Secondly, I just want to make an additional point. If you look at stock market ownership in terms of who owns the market, and certainly Boomer retirement asset is a pretty big portion, but if you look at it there's a lot of other ownership. Secondly, even if you look at people entering into retirement, the majority of the equities owned are really by wealthier individuals. And the likelihood of all those folks selling out, spending it all, is probably unlikely because they are going to leave some money to charity, to their kids, and so forth. So don't forget about that as well.

That's a good point. Let me ask you this, from your executive vantage point of managing Ibbotson, if there's anything that you think about when you look out over the economic landscape today that makes you worry. If there is anything that makes you worry, what is it?Well, I in terms of long-term worries, I think that the shortage of some resources, commodities, could cause a potentially impact. I also think that over time, how does the US, and for that matter most of these developed countries, how do they fund the retirement programs, the social security programs, the healthcare programs? I think that's going to be a very big issue, and it has to be coming from a couple of different angles to solve it. I don't think increasing tax is the only solution, but it's going to be interesting to see how that's going to play out over the next five to ten years. To see what kind of solutions people put together.

I'm also interested to know about, as a native son, your thinking on China. We look at this immense country, with so much economic development. It reminds me of some comments a friend of mine recently made about China, in the context of the upcoming Olympics. He believed that the upcoming Olympic Games will unleash forces for transparency and democratization in China that will prove unstoppable. I'm wondering if you think that that might be true? And in general what you think about outlook for the continued growth and prominence of China.Oh I think in general I'm of an optimistic view. I think there's a lot of- how shall I put it- there's a lot of drawbacks in terms of the system it China has today. If you look at what they have done both from an economic perspective, they have done a very remarkable job, kept the economy growing at a pretty fast speed, and at the same time more or less achieved a balanced growth.

Certainly there are a lot of areas in which they can do a better, but I think from an overall perspective they've done a pretty decent job. Let me talk about transparency and the democratic movement. In terms of creating transparency, I think that's probably already happened, although in terms of the political system it's still very tightly controlled. As far as in the economic sector I think that's already happened and the Olympics will just push it further. I think if you study the transformation of different countries over time, if you go back to Britain, the European countries, or even America, a hundred, two hundred years ago, it all started from economic development then pushed the political reforms and the political movements into a more democratic type of country.

I think that will eventually happen, I don't know exactly what the timeframe is going to be, but with the economic development continuing, I think that the rest will change and will happen. As a native son, like you mentioned, I'd like to see a more orderly type of transition from a one party rule. A more democratic society or political system over time because I think any dramatic change will create a lot of issues, especially for a country as big as China. .

Thanks for that. Next I'd like to ask you a couple of personal questions. Sure.

Well, actually, before I go to that, one other question. I recall that when I entered the insurance business in 1977, it was still the pre-personal computer era. I recall working with books of rates, and having to explain insurance in a very conceptual manner. Things changed dramatically when the PC emerged. I also recall that at that time the insurance companies in the U.S. were the primary custodians of the pension assets. Then, new companies began to emerge, small companies with superior business models in terms of greater transparency, lower costs, new technology, technology like a toll free number, and all of a sudden these new competitors begin to take market share away from very entrenched players. The landscape shifted dramatically and the large insurance companies lost those assets to mutual fund complexes that today have grown to be very large.Sure.

When I look at the retirement phase now beginning to unfold, the growth of broadband, the further development of technology, new kinds of products, new financial engineering, I see the potential for the same kind of thing to happen. Meaning that even today's biggest entrenched players may run the risk of being marginalized by new business models, new technologies, lower costs and eater transparency. I wonder if you agree that this may be true?I think so. I think that definitely this is an exciting time in the retirement marketplace. There's a lot of innovation, and a lot of new ideas are coming into the market, and many of them probably won't be around if you look down the road five to ten years. In particular, I think, going back to your point about how to communicate and find the right solutions for individual investors, I think that's going to be the key in terms of the success of a business strategy or direction.

With respect to the technology advancement in the Eighties and Nineties in terms of record-keeping, client service, the custodian, those type of things, I think those are increasingly becoming, how do I put it, pretty much everybody has them. I think in that area certainly skill matters and skills drive some of these players. I think the next phase is really about how you connect with the individual investors.

Yeah. Thank you for that. Let me now ask you a couple of personal questions.Sure.

First, if I could somehow convey to you a magic wand, and by waving this magic wand you could affect any change in financial services you'd like to make, what would it be?I think I'd like to change financial services in a way that provides the individual investors easier access to different products and services. So investors can basically build their portfolios and manage their income through that. I think we're still a little bit further off from that, where you have different accounts with different players you have. For example, you can't put products in one account. I think that's a big obstacle for us to change and that if I can change that from the operational side that would make the advisor's life a lot easier, make an individual investor's life a lot easier and make the solutions a lot more robust.

I see. Let me ask you this, because I know that you think a lot about retirement. If you can forward project, I know you're a young man still, but if you forward project to your own retirement, and you were to imagine it in its most conceivably perfect form, where would you be and what would you be doing?Personally?

Yes.Personally I think I would probably be in spending more time with my family, especially my more immediate family in China and Taiwan, because I'm living in the States and am far away from them. So that's one thing I think I'd like to do. Secondly, I would still like to be involved with the investment industry, and the retirement industry. Because that's what I love to do. Hopefully, I will still have the opportunity to do that. Those are probably the two things that I look forward to.

Okay, good answer. Here's my last question. If you were not in your present profession, ii you were not the president of Ibbotson, but instead could have any other occupation in any other field, what would it be?Well, when I was growing up I really wanted to be a police officer. One of the reasons was my father was a police officer and I just felt that it would be great to be one, too. Actually I applied at the police academy when I came out of high school, and I was accepted. But my father kind of steered me away from it because he knew the life of police officers. He felt that doing something different is better for me. So that would be something, if I want to change, I've always thought about. Being a police officer and wearing that uniform.

That's fascinating. And it's interesting to contemplate how your life might've changed had you stayed with the police academy.Exactly. And, again I was literally accepted. But my father talked with the academy's acceptance officer, and the admissions office, and kind of got me off the list. In China there are two channels the military academy and the police academy make for one channel, and then the regular colleges the other.

Well, the financial services industry is grateful that you made the decision to not become a policeman.Oh thank you. Thank you and I really thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing. One of the things I want to say is that I feel really fortunate and lucky to be where I am. A lot of great people helped me along the way when I was in China, as well as when I was at Ohio State. And that's certainly continued at Ibbotson and Morningstar. A lot of great people helped me, made me who I am and helped me to get where I am. I'm very grateful and I'm enjoying it.

And I too am grateful for this time and this opportunity to have this conversation with you. I can't thank you enough.Well, thank you, David. Thank you for spending the time. Your writing and your columns are actually a favorite of mine. I read the one with Moshe, among others. You do a fantastic job, and I'm really honored to be included in the same group of people you interview.

Well, actually, it's you who honors me. Thanks again, and I look forward to catching up soon and perhaps we can meet up for lunch or dinner some day when our schedules cross paths.I look forward to it.

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David Macchia runs Wealth2K, www.wealth2k.com, a financial-services media and marketing company focused on retirement income.

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