Meet our writer
Quantitative Investing Associate, Betterment
Ben is a member of Betterment's Investing team in the role of Quantitative Investing Researcher. Previously, he worked on the data team at GiveDirectly, a nonprofit NGO that operates cash transfer and basic income programs. Prior to GD, he worked on the Private Bank Chief Investment Officer’s team at J.P. Morgan, contributing to the team's research, analysis, and content creation. Ben studied finance and history at the University of Virginia and is a CFA charter holder.
Articles by Ben Bakkum
What Recent Bank Failures Mean for Retirement Investing
A closer look at the recent banking crisis and its potential impact on retirement savings.What Recent Bank Failures Mean for Retirement Investing A closer look at the recent banking crisis and its potential impact on retirement savings. Headlines recounting the failure of banks naturally draw concern, given they’re a marker of many of the darkest periods in American economic history. For anyone saving for retirement, this type of news likely comes with the fear of a downturn in their 401(k) and other investments. At Betterment, we manage our portfolios in a manner designed to help investors weather such risks and reach their goals. We discuss the potential impact of recent developments on retirement accounts in this note, addressing the risk of further troubles in the financial system, the possible effects on stock investments within portfolios, and the ramifications for bond allocations. Will the crisis spread to other banks and industries? A well known characteristic of bank runs is that they have an ability to snowball. They are by their nature self-reinforcing, so investors now worry whether, after Silvergate, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), and Signature Bank, there may be more shoes to drop. We believe, however, that the extraordinary measures taken jointly by the Federal Reserve, Treasury department, and the FDIC have the ability to stop this bank run in its tracks. Such measures include ensuring all depositors at the failed banks would have full access to their funds and that other banks could borrow from the Fed on favorable terms to meet their liquidity needs. The FDIC has also entered an agreement with a subsidiary of New York Community Bancorp, to purchase Signature Bank. They continue to seek bids for SVB. Since then, stability concerns have also plagued Credit Suisse and First Republic Bank. In a series of rescue efforts, UBS is set to acquire Credit Suisse while several large U.S. banks have deposited a total of $30 billion into First Republic Bank. There may be more volatility to come, but the strong intervention on the part of policymakers and acquirers gives us confidence that these failing and struggling banks do not represent a significant systemic risk, i.e. one that threatens the entirety of the financial and banking systems. What is the fallout for investments in stocks? So far, apart from pockets of the market including small regional banks, stocks have held up well in the face of this historic hiccup in the financial system. Fortunately, Betterment constructs globally diversified portfolio strategies which reduce the risk of being overly exposed to a particular sector like banking. We have not seen our broad allocations to US, international developed, and emerging market stocks in portfolios suffer significant drawdowns, and we maintain conviction in holding these investments for the long-term. The Betterment Core portfolio does also hold an explicit allocation to small-cap and mid-cap value stocks, accessed via the Vanguard Small-cap Value Index Fund (Ticker: VBR) and Vanguard Mid-cap Value Index Fund (Ticker: VOE). These funds contain exposure to some of the regional banks that have experienced selloffs, and they were among the funds most impacted in the portfolio following the failures of Silvergate, SVB, and Signature Bank. Yet these funds remain well above their 2022 lows, and we believe the Core portfolio’s allocations to them are sized appropriately to manage risk, with VBR and VOE holding around 5.8% and 6.9% weights in a 90% stock version of the portfolio, respectively. What do the bank woes mean for bonds? Betterment recommends, and in most cases enables through an automatic glidepath, investors closer to retirement or who have already retired maintain a relatively larger weighting to bonds in their portfolio compared to investors with a longer time horizon. Bond prices have adjusted to a shift in expectations for the interest rate environment in the wake of the bank failures. Due to the financial instability, the market has begun to behave as though it expects the Federal Reserve may not aggressively increase its policy interest rate in the future. This repricing of expectations has generally caused a decline in fixed income yields, and the diversified bond funds used in Betterment portfolios have overall provided a positive return in the days after the failure of Silvergate, SVB, and Signature Bank. Given that inflation remains high, the risk remains that bonds will face challenges, yet we believe that the parts of the bond market to which we allocate within portfolios continue to be appropriate for retirement investors in how they balance risk with return.
Crypto in 401(k) Plans: The Department of Labor’s Guidance
The US Department of Labor (DOL) released fresh guidance on cryptocurrency investments ...Crypto in 401(k) Plans: The Department of Labor’s Guidance The US Department of Labor (DOL) released fresh guidance on cryptocurrency investments for fiduciaries of retirement plans. This article describes the DOL’s guidance and its implications for retirement plans. The US Department of Labor (DOL) issued on March 10th what can be considered a warning to retirement plan fiduciaries that already or will in the future provide cryptocurrency options for 401(k) plan participants. In the wake of President Biden signing an executive order that directs the federal government to develop plans for regulating cryptocurrencies (and digital assets), the DOL published Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-01, a note that details its perspective on crypto investments and hints that the department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration will conduct investigations of plans that currently offer crypto and related investment options. This article will describe the DOL’s guidance and its implications for retirement plans. What does the DOL note say? The release issued by the DOL primarily serves as a heads up of some of the concerning aspects of crypto investing that should be very carefully considered by plan fiduciaries in order to avoid a breach of their duty to “act solely in the financial interests of plan participants and adhere to an exacting standard of professional care.” The release does not explicitly forbid crypto and related investment options within 401(k)s but instead lists risks associated with such investments. It also conveys that fiduciaries must be able to answer how they “square” providing crypto, if offered, with their fiduciary duties in the context of these risks. The specific risks the DOL identifies are shown below. Risk Description Speculative and Volatile Investments The DOL warns that many crypto investments are subject to extreme volatility, exhibiting sharp swings higher and lower, with the potential that a large drawdown could significantly impair a plan participant’s retirement savings. The Challenge for Plan Participants to Make Informed Investment Decisions The DOL notes that difficulties exist for unsophisticated investors to “separate the facts from the hype” and make informed decisions when it comes to crypto, especially when compared with more traditional investments Custodial and Recordkeeping Concerns The vulnerabilities of much of the current crypto investment infrastructure to hacks and theft is a specific concern to the DOL given the severity of a plan participant losing the entirety of their crypto position Valuation Concerns The difficulty of determining a fundamental value of crypto investments compared to traditional asset classes, along with differences in accounting treatment and reporting among crypto market intermediaries, make up additional concerns to the DOL Evolving Regulatory Environment According to the DOL, “fiduciaries who are considering whether to include a cryptocurrency investment option will have to include in their analysis how regulatory requirements may apply to issuance, investments, trading, or other activities and how those regulatory requirements might affect investments by participants in 401(k) plans” What does this mean for Betterment at Work? 401(k) plans accessed through the Betterment at Work platform currently do not offer crypto investment options. As a 3(38) investment fiduciary, Betterment reviews investments on an ongoing basis to ensure we’ve performed our due diligence in selecting investments suitable for participants' desired investing objectives. As crypto markets and the regulatory environment around retirement plans evolve, Betterment will re-evaluate the suitability of crypto investments within retirement accounts. We will continue to monitor ongoing developments and keep you informed, similar to our efforts to track the DOL’s guidance for Environmental, Social, and Governance-related investing within retirement plans. The above material and content should not be considered to be a recommendation. Investing in digital assets is highly speculative and volatile, and only suitable for investors who are able to bear the risk of potential loss and experience sharp drawdowns. Digital assets are not legal tender and are not backed by the U.S. government. Digital assets are not subject to FDIC insurance or SIPC protections.