In the late 1980s, just as a puppet named ALF landing on television sets across America, a couple of academic researchers issued a paper purporting to show 97 percent of a portfolio’s return came from asset allocation, not security selection.
Or at least that’s the way it was famously misquoted. By the end of the decade, and long after network TV sent ALF back into syndication space, a volley of papers went back and forth arguing whether or not investors had been duped by an asset allocation hoax.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012, and the news is ALF is returning, this time to the big screen. And, to keep the universe in balance, we’ve also had a new paper published suggesting, again and especially pertaining to 401(k) investments, our confidence in asset allocation may have been severely misplaced.
But my purpose here is not to praise asset allocation, nor to bury it for that matter. It might be instructive, however, to examine why we have this infatuation with investments when it comes to long-term planning even though, in fact, investments represent the one factor we have the least control over and the least certainty about.
Think about it. The recipe for achieving a comfortable requirement contains four fundamental ingredients: when you start saving, how much you save, when you retire and, finally, how much your investments earn.
Retirement plan investors really only control the first three of these four elements. They may think they control the fourth, and aggressive marketing from the financial industry might try to convince them they can control their investment returns, but, as the SEC is wont to say, “past performance can never guarantee future results.”
Of more interest, and as identified in the new paper, even if 401(k) investors choose the optimal asset allocation, the gains only buy them a few months of salary.
In other words, the investments one chooses from one’s 401(k) menu are of secondary importance when it comes to achieving one’s retirement goal. Indeed, the research shows, by merely delaying retirement until age 70, more than 70 percent of workers will be able to retirement at the lifestyle they enjoyed while working.
And yet, what do 401(k) plan sponsors, employees and most of the supporting literature emphasize: investments. Why? First, it’s where all the big bucks are. Folks selling investments get paid a lot more than, say, folks hawking recordkeeping or payroll processing – two other vital components in the 401(k) service portfolio. It’s not that investment advisers shouldn’t get paid more, they probably should, for the same reason doctors get paid more than medical technicians.
All these jobs serve a vital function, but doctors, and to a lesser extent, investment advisers, need to invest more in their careers, are heavily regulated and are exposed to far greater liability than other professions. This is why doctors get paid tons of money compared to medical technicians. It’s also why investment advisers get paid more than, say, recordkeepers.
But that alone doesn’t explain our captivation with investments. There’s another reason. And half of you probably won’t like to hear it. I think it’s the same reason why Fox Sports spends an inordinate amount of air time showing scantily clad cheerleaders in any game involving the Dallas Cowboys. Investing appeals to the same base instinct. It’s a measure of virility, of dominance. And this applies to either gender, although they may use different terms.
The challenge to 401(k) plan sponsors, then, is to transcend this carnal lust for investments and its various ancillary terms like “asset allocation” by focusing 401(k) education on the three factors employees can control: when they start saving; how much they save; and, when they retire. Rather than applaud the short-term success of any investment or investment strategy, why not laud those retirees who meet their goals.
Maybe that means, in addition to matching annual contributions, offer a “retirement bonus” for those who have saved enough to live the same lifestyle at retirement that they lived when they were working. It also means employers need to accommodate later retirement ages, most likely up to 70 years.
I understand that’s the way they did it on Melmac, well, at least before it exploded and sent a certain little “burnt sienna” fur ball crash-landing in the Tanner’s garage.