retirement building blocks

Getting Formal With an Investment Policy Statement

Your defined contribution (DC) plan clients have an investment policy statement (IPS), whether they realize it or not. Those with formal policies probably have a written document; others have an unwritten, and probably unrecognized, policy based merely on the investments their plan offers. Given the investment policy’s potential importance, especially if participants ever pursue litigation against the plan, it makes sense to take control of it, make it intentional, put it in writing and review it periodically.

Motivation

Jon Chambers, managing director with SageView Advisory Group in Orinda, California, points out that ERISA regulations do not require an IPS. In practice, however, the Department of Labor (DOL) almost always asks for it when they are investigating a plan. While it’s not a fatal mistake to tell the DOL a formal statement doesn’t exist, it’s certainly not a good way to start communications with the agency, he cautions.

“The bigger factor is ERISA, as a statute, is all about process. It’s not about results,” says Chambers. “It’s very difficult to have a good process for fund selection and fund monitoring if you haven’t spent some time committing your rationale and approach to paper and putting it in a document. If you’ve done that, you’ve really done what you need to do to create investment policy.”

A well-designed IPS also makes a plan committee’s work easier, he adds. It sets basic standards for investment monitoring and retention, which helps the plan consultant’s reviews. It also keeps the plan committee on track by avoiding emotional decisions during turbulent markets. “You usually draft investment policy when times aren’t so dire and you spend some time thinking about what makes sense for the plan long term. We find that referencing back to the investment policy during times of market stress helps committees avoid knee-jerk reactions that might seem important at the time but in retrospect were probably imprudent.”

There are numerous resources available online that provide in-depth guidance on writing IPSs for DC plans

  • See Chambers’ white paper “Investment Policy for Defined Contribution Plans” here.
  • ERISA attorney Fred Reish with Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP has a helpful guideline on the topic here.

Contents

There’s no such thing as a perfect IPS that fits every situation, Chambers adds. The most important thing is that it outlines both the plan’s objectives and how it intends to meet them.

Jerry Huggins, a principal with Denver-based Innovest Portfolio Solutions LLC, says that a well-structured IPS should contain:

  • Information about the plan’s committees and operating procedures
  • Statement of the policy’s objectives and the plan’s investment requirements
  • Guidelines and investment policies to meet objectives
  • Securities guidelines on the plan’s investment alternatives
  • Details on the investment manager selection process
  • Control procedures for the plan’s service providers identifying roles and responsibilities

This information creates “institutional memory” of a plan’s decisions, says Huggins, which is important when committee members leave and new members are brought in. It also benefits participants. “Participants can feel more assured that the investments are being more prudently selected and monitored by having something in place that is governing the decision makers,” says Huggins.

Review Process

Consultants who cobble together a cut-and-paste IPS aren’t providing added value, says Tom Krusic, CPC, AIF, lead advisor with Retirement Plan Services with Brighton Jones in Seattle. A better approach is to first ensure that the statement reflects the plan’s investment philosophy. For example, strategies like sustainable, responsible and impact investing (SRI) won’t be suitable for every sponsor and employee demographic. Nonetheless, an IPS should be sufficiently flexible to include that option for clients who want it. It’s also important to conduct formal, periodic IPS reviews at least annually in addition to ad hoc reviews, says Krusic: “I think it needs to be dynamic based on how quickly organizations change directions and change strategies, and an investment policy statement should also be looked at in that light, as well.”

Chambers agrees that there is no single timeline standard but recommends annual reviews to his clients. A review doesn’t necessarily result in amendments, however—roughly two-thirds of his reviews result in no changes. But when circumstances change, such as the addition of new plan features or modifications to investment options or portfolio managers, that can be a reason to amend the document, he adds. 

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