IMHO: Staying on Course

One of my favorite quotations is George Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.″

It is also, unfortunately, one of the most overused quotations, generally during times when we are in the middle of repeating an unremembered mistake.

The current financial mess on Wall Street is the most recent example, of course. The problem—like the tech bubble that preceded it, the derivatives mess in the mid-1980s, the junk bond blow-up before that—is not that we don’t see it coming. It’s that we don’t do a very good job of knowing when it will hit. That, and nobody wants to leave the “party’ before it’s over. And then we all wind up with hangovers.

On the plan sponsor side, it was interesting to see the encouraging words of a number of public pension plans this week (see Public Pension Groups: We’re Still OK). Most spoke to the long-term nature of their investments, and the short-term security that comfortable funding levels provided. Some offered a comforting historical perspective—since both they and their members could recall times when the markets were poised even more precariously on the precipice. And most were able to point to returns that were better than most of their participants had been reading about in the headlines—mostly because their diversified portfolios haven’t been hit as hard as the equity-only indexes that get reported.

I thought about that as I reflected on a NewsDash survey this week (see “
SURVEY SAYS: Are the Markets Moving Your Participants?“) —and what plan sponsors said they had been hearing from their advisers and providers. Not surprisingly, most had been told to tell their participants “stay the course.’

In view of what has been going on in the markets, that didn’t seem to be bad advice, even if it did seem a bit trite. But I couldn’t help thinking that a broad-based message to all participants to stay put, however well-intentioned, wouldn’t necessarily be good advice for every participant, certainly not for the ones who haven’t yet found their way into a properly diversified portfolio. This should be—and perhaps will, once the “dust’ has settled on the current crisis—an opportunity to highlight the importance of diversification, the benefits of ongoing rebalancing.

Having said that, I suspect that “staying the course’ is what the vast majority of participants will do. After all, that is what nearly all do, day in and day out, year after year. Inertia in such things is not only the order of the day, it is a behavioral tendency we can focus on, and work around with approaches such as automatic enrollment, deferral acceleration, and asset allocation solutions. Those, in turn, are approaches that allow us to say—confidently and credibly—that participants are best-served by leaving their retirement investments in place.

Staying the course is sound financial advice, after all—but only if the course you are staying on is a good one.