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Retirement

What’s in a name?

Illustration of shadows of two people's heads

next issue no. 7: Participant engagement

Challenge

Helping plan sponsors avoid the common tendency and pitfall of naturally gravitating toward the easier, more common brand name options based on false, preconceived notions.

Opportunity

Consider a “white label” approach during the investment selection and/or review process within the qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) category.

Benefits

Consider a “white label” approach during the investment selection and/or review process within the qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) category.

What is bias?

Inherent biases are all around us, whether subconscious or more overt. The schools of thought around cognitive bias have grown massively of late, and how the field of study can be applied to corporate activities has become a hot topic. The field of behavioral financial theory is the directed study of psychological influences on investors and financial analysis. Broadly evolving from the underlying study that investors are not always perfectly rational, the field examines how investors can act against their self-interest, and can fail to objectively examine potentially more appropriate investment options.

More specifically, different types of group-think, loss aversion, and overconfidence all feed into types of bias that can impede a plan sponsor’s ability to identify the best investment options for participants. In this article we will examine a number of key bias types that can have an impact on collective decisions. We will examine how they may apply to plan sponsors and why we may want to work to combat these biases.

FIGURE 5 Behavioral finance

These four principles are, in essence, embedded in human nature, but a basic awareness of how our brains can conspire against our interest in making purely rational choices can have profound consequences when it comes to examining potential investment options.

Plan sponsor committee meetings

Within the context of plan sponsors’ planning options there are several more sets of biases to bear in mind, many of which are most potent within a group setting where communication might be challenged and time pressures may amplify errors.

Confirmation bias is the way that the human brain generally dislikes information that disagrees with preformed notions. New information that is presented is interpreted as reinforcing the decision that has already subconsciously been made. Within the context of plan sponsors this is especially relevant when given information regarding different fund options; the brain has already decided on a recognized brand of asset manager, or the fund with simply the lowest fees, and information that is gathered simply reinforces that decision, rather than challenges it. This poses particular difficulties in organizations where there is a hierarchy, as it can be tough to challenge senior leadership and push for new data to be interpreted in a way that pushes against preconceived decisions.

The sunk cost fallacy is common in investing more broadly, where costs, time and effort already put into a decision or investment count against conceding that the decision was incorrect. This is particularly relevant to plan sponsors when it comes to changing options, as the time, due diligence and overall effort put into adding funds to platforms means that even if those funds are underperforming or no longer the best options available, it can be difficult to change course.

Herd mentality, the tendency for groups of people to think as a single group, rather than as a collective of individuals, is relevant in investing and fund selection due to the pressures of operating as a Board or a Trust. Maintaining independence and the confidence to push back against the group is vital to overcoming this bias.

Applying this knowledge

The key is understanding the potential impact on plan sponsors and where these underlying biases can have a profound impact on decision-making. To apply this theory to plan sponsors and choices of funds that should be available for participants, we began to incorporate a “white label” approach in our finals scenarios. We encouraged breaking away from simply looking at the lowest fees, or funds that came from the best-known brands, or those that had sat in the top decile of performance for the most recent timeframe. Each of these elements may be erroneously utilized to justify investment decisions. We believe that incorporating a more holistic approach to fund selection is a more prudent process when building or adjusting a plan lineup.

It is critical to have a plan sponsor recognize that just because a fund option has been around the longest and/or has the lowest listed fees does not necessarily mean that it should be considered as the default option. That position, “if it’s been around the longest it must be the best” or “it is cheapest therefore we should choose it,”, lends itself very easily to many of the bias characteristics outlined above. Deeper analysis, double-blind viewing of investment options and breaking away from group-think can ultimately lead to better options being considered and potentially chosen.

The consultants that approach analyzing investment options in an unbiased blind manner can be a valuable differentiator. That the selection of investments is un-incentivized for the consultant and is a demonstrably non-biased approach, can have a range of valuable consequences. Having these conversations and having a plan sponsor buy into that approach can again allow broader options to be considered outside of those with the easiest brand recognition or lowest fees.

In the following anonymized-but-genuine example in Figure 6 we compare two large index target date providers. Company B has arguably a more recognizable name brand. However, when looking at the double-blind example, our focus is off the brand names and is more appropriately directed towards the more important aspect of performance. While Company A has a lesser known name, it has consistently outperformed Company B in every listed timeframe.

FIGURE 6 Performance as of 31 March 2021

How do we approach these issues in an unbiased manner?

Remove the brand name and emphasize the facts.

Summary

Analyzing investments using a white label approach allows us to discern the more important factors for the plan sponsor. Performance, fees and risk-adjusted measures are all considered.

In this issue
Retirement Rome wasn’t built in a day: Long-term trends driving real estate in volatile times
Investment corner: What has changed in the real estate investing universe?
Retirement SECURE Act 2.0: next steps for retirement legislation
Fiduciary perspective: A significant milestone in cementing the legislative structure around retirement savings.
Retirement Getting personal: Innovation in 401(k) investments
On the horizon: Why don’t we expect the same level of customization in our retirement plans?

The views and opinions expressed are for informational and educational purposes only as of the date of production/writing and may change without notice at any time based on numerous factors, such as market or other conditions, legal and regulatory developments, additional risks and uncertainties and may not come to pass. This material may contain “forward-looking” information that is not purely historical in nature. 

Such information may include, among other things, projections, forecasts, estimates of market returns, and proposed or expected portfolio composition. Any changes to assumptions that may have been made in preparing this material could have a material impact on the information presented herein by way of example. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investing involves risk; principal loss is possible. 

All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy is not guaranteed. There is no representation or warranty as to the current accuracy, reliability or completeness of, nor liability for, decisions based on such information and it should not be relied on as such. For term definitions and index descriptions, please access the glossary on nuveen.com. Please note, it is not possible to invest directly in an index. 

A word on risk 

All investments carry a certain degree of risk and there is no assurance that an investment will provide positive performance over any period of time. Equity investing involves risk. Investments are also subject to political, currency and regulatory risks. These risks may be magnified in emerging markets. Diversification is a technique to help reduce risk. There is no guarantee that diversification will protect against a loss of income.

Please note that this information should not replace a client’s consultation with a tax professional regarding their tax situation. Nuveen is not a tax advisor. Clients should consult their professional advisors before making any tax or investment decisions.

Nuveen provides investment advisory services through its investment specialists.

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