Having an advisor is no guarantee that a defined contribution plan’s investments will perform well, even when the market does, according to a new paper about to be published.
The paper, “Use of Advisors and Retirement Plan Performance,” will be published in the Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning. It is based on research conducted by Rui Yao, a retirement planning expert in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at the University of Missouri.
In the paper, Yao contends that employees cannot assume that the retirement plan sponsored by their employer is in good hands simply because the plan uses an advisor. They must proactively participate in their retirement planning.
Yao examined retirement plan performance based on the use of plan advisors, plan size and plan choices offered. She found that plan advisors alone are not enough to ensure strong retirement plan performance.
“Plan advisors make recommendations regarding investment options that are offered in the plan,” Yao said in the announcement. “It is critical for plan sponsors that such recommendations are beneficial to participants.”
Yao evaluated retirement plan performance for 2013, 2014 and 2015 and its relationship with the use of advisors, comparing the performance of plans and funds offered within plans against benchmarks. She said she chose this time period due to its considerable market variability.
Her data came from an independent provider of retirement plan ratings and investment analytics. She analyzed 2,000 plans, split evenly into four categories by size, ranging from $1 million to more than $500 million.
After controlling for plan size and use of advisors, Yao found that plans working with an advisor significantly underperformed the benchmark in 2013, the best year in terms of market return.
She detected only slight improvements or no significant results in 2014 and 2015, when the market was flatter.
Where does this leave employees who hope to make the most of their DC retirement plans? Yao’s advice: Ask a lot of questions, of both their own financial advisors and of their employers.
“Some advisors are incentivized to market different funds, and while they are financial experts, they do not always have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients,” Yao said.
“They are required by law to disclose this information, so it’s absolutely OK — and advisable — for plan participants to ask their employer what kind of legal responsibility the plan advisor bears.”
In order to strengthen retirement plans, Yao said, sponsors should require advisors to regularly provide objective data and disclose this information to plan participants.
For their part, plan participants should ask their employer how their plan advisor is paid, how funds in the plan are chosen and how those funds perform against benchmarks.
Yao advised individual financial advisors to monitor the plan performance and evaluate funds in their clients’ retirement plan portfolio by objective measures, identify performance issues and ask their clients to report such issues to their employer.