10-point plan for employers and trustees of defined contribution pension plans

Defined contribution company plans began 2009 on the heels of a bruising year. The significant decline in capital markets coupled with extreme investment volatility raises many issues for companies with DC plans. There are numerous issues employers/plan trustees need to address when reviewing their plans this year. These range from the plan’s governance to the choice of low-risk investment options. Mercer’s Dublin office has prepared a 10 point plan that employers and trustees could potentially adopt as they re-evaluate their DC plans and related responsibilities in 2009.

  1. Review the adequacy of DC benefits and consider whether current pension provision is meeting employees’ needs. Economic conditions and future expectations have changed considerably since many DC arrangements were designed. Depending on their ages and time horizons, members may need to adjust their expectations of retirement income. Employers may also need to assess the workforce management implications.
  2. Review DC provider performance. The market for DC provision has evolved with new providers and products entering the market while others exit. Trustees should consider if the existing arrangements continue to meet the investment needs of all members and if performance continues to meet the objectives set when selected.
  3. Review the suitability of investment options. Poor investment choice is likely to be one of the main issues impacting members’ benefits and trustees should consider the current options available to members in light of new industry developments. If the investment range has not been reviewed for some time, consider the membership profile, how this might have changed, how members are making investment decisions and whether the existing range includes a facility for members to manage their investment needs over time.
  4. Review the default investment option. A feature of most DC plans is that the majority of members “end up” invested in the default option; this makes it crucially important for trustees and members.  Is it effective in varying investment conditions and over time for members’ changing investment needs? Does it protect members who are close to retirement from annuity risk or market risk, while at the same time catering for members with longer time horizons? As DC schemes develop, the member population becomes more diversified, and consequently the existing default option may no longer cater for all groups of members. There may also be an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the default option (in terms of the risk/reward trade off), given the wider range of investment vehicles now available.
  5. Monitor the choices being made by individual plan members (not in aggregate). Review individual member asset allocations and/or individual members’ rates of return. This type of review can provide good insight into whether your DC plan is working, and can point out areas for improvement, such as member education or fund choices.
  6. Assess the effectiveness of your member communications strategy. This is a good time to revisit financial and investment education. Given the market turbulence and economic uncertainty, what information should be provided to plan participants?
  7. Review and revise your plan’s Statement of Investment Policy Principles (SIPP). In the current market environment, fiduciary risk is high and a review of the SIPP can help minimise this risk.
  8. Ascertain if your plan members are engaged at all. Are they knowledgeable about their savings and retirement plan choices? Given the recent market volatility and economic turmoil, this is a good time to revisit engagement and education about investing and retirement planning. Larger employers/trustees may wish to consider focus groups to find out what members see as their challenges, education needs and barriers to understanding.
  9. Assess what kind of retirement income or replacement ratio employees can expect from the plan. If this is projected to be lower than previously expected, action is required sooner rather than later. Consider revising the scheme design, allowing additional member contributions, or reinforcing the importance of saving more outside the plan in order to secure a comfortable retirement for members.
  10. Review the stability and risk exposures of investment managers in light of the current economic turmoil.  Consider the status of the plan’s investment managers(s) and their commitment to continue to develop their offerings to meet member needs.