With rock-bottom interest rates and low returns a continuing issue for most plan sponsors, a new wave of DC plan design and product structuring is on its way - though it's not going to be an easy trip, says PIMCO's Steve Ferber, senior VP for the company's DC division.
Ferber, chair of the FRA DCIO Market show in Boston, said Monday that plan sponsors also need to remember that taking the easy way out and loading up a DC plan with an array of simple, passively managed offerings may not offer them any additional protection in a fiduciary sense.
"We've started to see that passive funds management is not necessarily any better or safer than actively managed funds," he notes.
But in a world where sponsors are seeking to boost savings and build participants' purchasing power over time, Ferber says the trend now is for simplified, but not necessarily easier ranges of products for DC plans.
Instead of the classic "nine-box" offerings with a heavy emphasis on brand-name funds, Ferber says the future will include wider use of "white labeling" - generic categories into which a variety of investment tools can be circulated ("and they're also easier to get rid of," he says).
A new asset-class-focused approach is also beginning to be adopted, with a better fixed income and equity balance. Ultimately, more plans will also move even further into risk diversification mode, with even more concise blends of equities, fixed income and inflation-related and stable value funds offered to participants.
And more requests for inflation protection and diversification is also going to prompt multi-asset solutions, he said, with unconstrained portfolios.
Capital preservation is key, as well, as money markets seem to be a one-way ticket to negative returns, now and in the foreseeable future, and even stable value funds are showing some turmoil. Alternatives, he says, might show some promise, including modified short-term investments, low-duration or even laddered approaches.
Ultimately, Ferber notes that the industry will eventually have to content with a gigantic move into decumulation mode, although there's been very little action on that subject and attendees at the conference also confirmed they're having little success in the market so far.
Annuities in some form will certainly plan a major role in that movement, but the continue to be an unpopular and misunderstood tool - with TDFs, stable-value investment products and managed accounts instead being utilized.
"There's a big opportunity for someone who could figure this all out," Ferber says. "Plan sponsors are asking for them, but solutions are hard to find and the decisions are hard to make. They're not panicked, but they're also not in a rush to do something."