At the height of summer, the defined contributions wars heat up

At the height of summer, the defined contributions wars heat up
Amidst the summer lull, the Department of Labor (DoL) has issued Field Assistance Bulletin 2015-02, a clarifying document that aims to open the door to the broader use of annuities within defined contribution (DC) plans.   While annuities have been allowed within DC plans for some years, a lack of guidance as to fiduciary obligations post sale has tempered sponsor enthusiasm. The bulletin explains that while sponsors are considered under fiduciary obligation at the time of annuity selection and at each periodic review, they will not be held to this standard in the case of specific purchases by a participant or beneficiary.   This distinction is important in that it grants significant protection to sponsors, but the DoL leaves significant wiggle room as to the frequency of required reviews. Clearly, published reports of the pending insolvency on an issuing insurer would trigger the need for a review. Otherwise, the degree of diligence that must be exercised by the sponsor post-selection will need to be evaluated on a case by case basis:  first by the plan sponsor, presumably, and then by the DoL.   This may be a best effort solution to an irreconcilable problem, but such a measured response by the DoL is unlikely to eliminate what it describes as “disincentives for plan sponsors to offer their employees an annuity as a lifetime income distribution.” Plan sponsors have little incentive, in any case, to assume the risks of offering annuities when these are readily available for purchase outside the pre-tax space, and so the DoL will need to aim higher.   What is noteworthy here is not so much the narrow scope of the little noticed bulletin, or its limited reach, but the degree to which it signals an acceleration of DoL efforts to clean up the DC business.  To a large degree, this acceleration reflects a heightened jockeying for position among regulators and other industry actors with an interest in guiding reform. The recent Supreme Court case of Tibble vs. Edison International, which affirmed the nature of the fiduciary responsibility of plan sponsors to participants on an ongoing basis, appears to have brought issues of power and control to a head.   I’ll talk about this in my next post.

Newfound financial freedom – pension reform in the UK

Newfound financial freedom – pension reform in the UK
The UK pension industry will undergo significant regulatory changes in a few weeks’ time. From 6th April, millions of savers aged 55 years old will be permitted to take the cash from their pensions and will no longer be herded into buying annuity products.  Historically, savers had the freedom to take 25% of their pension in a tax-free lump sum, then were encouraged to buy an annuity with the remaining 75%.  However, pension reforms will now enable savers over the age of 55 to take out smaller lump sums (in each case 25% of the sum will be tax-free). The government has also changed rules around the 55% inheritance tax rate. What are the implications of this newly instituted “financial freedom” that impacts millions of Britons?  This historic change will bring about opportunities and challenges to the investment management industry and raise questions among retirees about tax consequences, suitable products and fees, life expectancy calculations, and wealth transfer and estate administration, for example. While these liberties provide retirees with control over their financial destiny, one must ask if they are adequately prepared to make the critical investment decisions that will impact the rest of their lives, as well as that of their heirs. Who is poised to help them? Perhaps this an opportunity for automated investment advisors and traditional investment managers to join forces (Nutmeg’s recent entrance into the pension space & “Retiready” from Aegon both come to mind).

Celent Roundtable: Exploring Digital in Financial Services

Celent Roundtable: Exploring Digital in Financial Services
  If you get together a room full of bank and insurance executives and ask them to define the term ‘digital’, don’t be surprised if you get a lot of different answers. Some view digital in terms of devices, others think of delivery channels, a third group understands digital as a marketing tool. We surveyed the participants at our recent Digital Roundtable in New York and got all those definitions and more. What is incontestable is that digital, with its outsized impact on the customer experience, has become part and parcel of the front- or customer-facing end of the banking, investments and insurance businesses. Back-end processes that enable scale and automation, such as documentation and STP, are being lumped under the rather inglorious label of ‘e-business’. That raises the question: given that many customers are ahead of their financial institutions in terms of technology use and adoption, what are the requirements for a powerful customer experience? If digital is going to anchor the client-advisor relationship (or the financial institution to client relationship), what needs to be in place? One bank participant noted that digital offers must be ‘contextual’. An example of this might be mortgage offers prompted by a customer virtually touring a house for prospective purchase. Digital interactions become even more powerful when context is coupled with data.  Presenter Tsukasa Makino of Tokio Fire and Nichido Marine insurance showed how his company used data to market special policies, such as one-day car insurance, to non-car owners, as well as medical insurance offers linked to the physical activity levels captured in clients’ mobile devices. In the wealth management arena, evolving client characteristics are presenting new opportunities for remote servicing, including via video, chat and tablet. Time-starved and increasingly tech savvy clients, 20% of whom live more than 50 miles from their advisor, often prefer mobile delivery. In the same vein, firms need to step up efforts to develop real-time, device-neutral client reporting systems, while encouraging advisor use of social media for thought leadership and networking. Today, 98% of affluent investors choose not to use the same financial advisor as their parents, and social media is one of the first places they look for ideas and recommendations. It’s clear that the financial services industry has entered a new, more competitive era. From the mass market to the ultra-affluent, customers are increasingly collecting more data about themselves, and they are largely willing to share. Inspired by the example of non-financial firms such as Zappos, Amazon and the airlines, these customers are driving the most fundamental change in delivery that the industry has ever seen. They ask: As a flier, I can pull up real-time seat assignments on my phone; why can’t my bank let me do cool and convenient stuff, too?  

Outsourcing in Wealth Management: A Growing Trend

Outsourcing in Wealth Management: A Growing Trend
Outsourcing has been in use in the financial services industry for quite some time, at least for a couple of decades. However, wealth management firms have lagged the financial services industry in adopting outsourcing, primarily due to issues relating to privacy, data security, and loss of control. Many of them did not invest in technology from a strategic point of view for a long time, instead taking a siloed approach depending on specific business needs. The global financial crisis has contributed to a major paradigm shift in this regard. The crisis has significantly impacted both revenue and costs. Lacklustre market conditions have prevented them from generating superior returns impacting top line; this has been exacerbated by loss of clients, who, driven by disappointing returns and loss of trust, have looked away from their advisors or looked to diversify wealth management relationships. At the same time increasing regulatory pressures and newer regulations have compelled wealth managers to grapple with newer challenges in terms of control, compliance, risk management and streamlining operations. In this evolving environment wealth managers have slowly started to wake up and embrace technology and operations outsourcing as one of the solutions to meet the challenges. Cost cutting remains the primary driver behind adoption of outsourcing, which typically can save 20% to 30% of costs over a 3 to 5 year period. Secondly, outsourcing also offers easy scalability options; this is more relevant now as firms are either cutting down or closing operations in certain markets, while looking to expand in others – all in a short period of time. Time to market has therefore become critical. Data management, especially in large organizations offering multiple services, is another aspect that firms are looking to outsource. Along with benefits, there are a number of areas for concern with outsourcing. The most important of them is loss of control and security, both of great importance to wealth managers. Data privacy and data hosting constraints continue to be key concerns; violations in this area can be harmful for wealth managers’ brand image, which somewhat limits the universe of functionalities that wealth managers are comfortable to outsource. Another concern is around fiduciary responsibility and compliance and operational risk. Since the firm is responsible for regulatory compliance for all operations, including the ones outsourced, there is an increased need for easily accessing data and information for enhanced control and client and enterprise reporting. Firms will need to demonstrate their ability to provide the information requested by both clients and the regulatory authorities on-demand and in formats for consumption tailored to the individual’s preferences. Over time the industry has evolved a set of norms to overcome the concerns related to outsourcing. Extent of outsourcing adoption varies by region, the US being far ahead of Europe, while Asia lags the other two regions by some distance. Adoption also depends on the size and nature of wealth management firms. While Tier I and Tier II retail banks, insurance companies and brokerages have outsourced significantly, adoption of outsourcing remains moderate in smaller sized firms, especially in trust companies and family offices. In terms of functionalities, the further a wealth management function is from a client “touch point,” the more likely it is to be outsourced. Therefore, mid and back office functionalities are more likely to be outsourced. Outsourcing in the areas of global custody, securities lending, client servicing, and accounting and settlement of trades in is relatively widespread. Front office functionalities have been outsourced less; while some firms are slowly outsourcing their client on boarding or financial planning functions, outsourcing in the areas of product development, marketing, and fraud management is still limited. Outsourcing in the wealth management industry is likely to see further adoption in the near future. This will be mainly driven by firms in the US and Europe. Outsourcing practices in wealth management is still not as mature as those in other parts of the financial services industry and wealth management firms are starting to realize its benefits. In addition, existing market conditions as well as external factors like regulation will drive the growth in outsourcing business. IT budgets are expected to remain flat or decline in most markets. This will restrict firms’ ability to spend on technology. However, this also means firms will now have to do more with less and channel investments efficiently. Outsourcing provides one option for increasing efficiency without needing significant investments in infrastructure. Tier II and tier III firms will embrace outsourcing following the lead of tier I firms. While IT outsourcing has been the dominant part of outsourcing practices till now, process outsourcing is likely to gain more traction in future.