IMHO: A Window of “Opportunity″

The past year has brought with it an extraordinary amount of change to our industry.
And yet, I have yet to meet an adviser—in any setting—who isn’t brimming (some are even bubbling) with enthusiasm for the opportunities they see for their business in all this change.
That’s a very different perspective than I hear from their plan sponsor clients. Not that plan sponsors aren’t appreciative of positive change. It’s just that, as a general rule, my experience has been that plan sponsors are significantly more likely to associate change with work, rather than opportunity—and with some justification, IMHO.
Consider the recent finalization of regulations on the qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs). Plan sponsors finally have some reasonably clear definition of what constitutes an appropriate default investment choice (at least according to the Department of Labor), one that provides a fair amount of flexibility for the sizeable number of plans that previously relied on a stable value option as a default to effect a reasonable transition—and those that adopt the new QDIA approach will, in turn, receive protection from participant lawsuits that is identical to the ERISA 404c that so many have found so elusive (whether they know it or not). And they get that protection without all the work attendant with acquiring that elusive ERISA 404c shield. All this for, in many cases, doing nothing more than embracing as a plan default investment option the asset-allocation solutions that so many have already adopted over the past couple of years. A huge opportunity, right? Easy, right?
Second Thoughts?
Well, sort of. What they also have to do is put out a notice that lets participants that are to be defaulted into that QDIA know that they are being defaulted, and that they have the option not to be defaulted. Oh—and for purposes of previously defaulted monies they have to let those participants know as well…assuming, of course, that their current recordkeeper could tell the difference between someone who was defaulted and someone who simply managed to direct their monies to the default option (and I understand that many/most can’t). Oh, and to take advantage of the protections at the earliest possible date—12/24/07 (yes, that’s right, Christmas Eve)—they would have to have had that notice out to participants 30 days ahead of the effective date (Thanksgiving Week). Assuming, of course, that their recordkeeper was in a position to facilitate that communication—and we’ll ignore, for a second, the possibility/likelihood that their recordkeeper will assess a fee for their support of this effort. Oh, and what if the plan’s current default option doesn’t seem to meet the QDIA criteria (say a conservative risk-based fund that doesn’t take into account the plan’s age demographics)?
Of course, there’s no need for plan sponsors (or advisers) to jumble up an already hectic holiday season with an “everybody on deck’ scramble to obtain those new QDIA protections on day one, IMHO, and there’s an argument to be made that those who do may well regret their haste (at leisure, as they say). Furthermore, additional questions are already emerging as we all begin to work through actually implementing these regulations/requirements—and more are sure to follow.
Creating a Real Opportunity
The best advisers are working right now to understand those implications, and to assess the capabilities of providers in supporting the notice requirements. They’re evaluating the QDIA-applicability of current plan defaults (and doubtless gearing up to recommend new ones, where necessary)—and they’re providing a valuable sounding board for their plan sponsor clients in helping them evaluate a reasonable timeframe for taking advantage of these new protections without pressing them to take hasty actions that might turn out to be imprudent in result or application.
They’re realizing that there’s opportunity, sure. But they’re also realizing that there’s potentially a lot of work for their plan sponsor clients, between where they are – and where they want to be.