Funds And Investments
Betterment’s 401(k) Investment Approach
Helping employees make better decisions and providing choice to those who want it.Betterment’s 401(k) Investment Approach Helping employees make better decisions and providing choice to those who want it. Dan Egan, Betterment’s VP of Behavioral Finance and Investing, explains why Betterment’s investment approach is effective for all 401(k) participants Investment Approach Q&A Betterment’s 401(k) investment approach differs from that of traditional providers, but can you give us a little history about the 401(k) environment pre-Betterment? If I go back to the first job where I had a 401(k) probably about 20 years ago, there was a lineup of funds, and it was up to me as a 401(k) participant to figure out which funds to pick and in what ratios, how much to save and so on. The research coming from that period showed that people often ended up in an analysis paralysis state, where there was so much choice and so many things to consider. It was very difficult for people to know whether they were investing at the appropriate risk level, how much they were paying and so on. Many people were so overloaded that they decided to forego saving for retirement rather than risk making a “bad” decision. But as the industry matured, and everyone realized that more choice does not necessarily lead to better decision-making, the Pension Protection Act (PPA) was passed in 2006. The idea here was not to eliminate choice, but to encourage good defaults that would encourage 401(k) plan participation. How exactly did the PPA encourage more 401(k) participation? For one thing, it allowed for safe harbor investments in the form of QDIAs, or qualified default investment alternatives. The most popular QDIAs were target date funds, which are linked to an individual’s age so if you're 40, it’s assumed that you will be investing for the next 25 years and retiring at 65. Target dates have a glidepath so that the stock allocation becomes more conservative over time, so the employee doesn't have to do anything like managing a portfolio or rebalancing. After the PPA, it became much more common for employees to be auto-enrolled using a target date fund or something like it, and all of sudden, they no longer had to make choices. People were no longer worried about picking and choosing from a whole bunch of individual funds or even individual stocks. And the plan designs promoted by the PPA really worked: plan participation rates that had been languishing saw rates increase to more than 90% after implementing auto-enrollment. By the time Betterment started its 401(k) platform, the changes brought about by the PPA were already well established. So talk a little bit now about how Betterment's 401(k) investment approach differs from that of traditional 401(k) providers. Betterment takes and builds upon a lot of the ideas in a target date fund and goes further. Number one, we are not a fund provider. We are independent from fund companies. So part of our job as a 3(38) investment fiduciary is to be an investment advisor and financial advisor, and do the due diligence on all of the funds that we make available. If you're picking from amongst eight large-cap US stock funds, there's not a lot of variation in what their returns are going to look like and you can generally predict performance versus a benchmark knowing the fund costs. So part of our job is to actually do the work on the behalf of participants, to narrow down the field of funds towards just the ones that stand out within a given asset class and that are cost-effective. We then ask more specific questions including not just how old someone is, but also more personalized questions like when someone plans on retiring. Some people want to retire as early as possible. That might be 55, 57, 62 (which is the earliest possible age you can start collecting Social Security). Other people want to keep working as late as possible, which is 70 or 72. Those are extremely different retirement plans that should have different portfolios based upon those hugely different time horizons. So unlike a target date fund, which says, this is your age and you're done, Betterment is going to ask about your age, but also things like, when do you want to retire? Putting together a retirement plan might also involve your spouse or significant others, retirement assets, and even doing tax optimization across the account types that you have available to you. And how does that help the employee? A lot of it is about making it easy for consumers to make better decisions, not imposing a bunch of choices on them. You have to remember, the vast majority of people are not frequently thinking about stocks and investing. They don't want to have to look up prospectuses and put together a risk managed portfolio. So Betterment does the work for them to make it easy for them to understand how to get to where they want to be. I want to be clear that that's not necessarily about removing choice, it's about making it easy to get to a solution quickly. It’s also about minimizing the number of unnecessary choices for most people while maintaining choice for people who want it. At Betterment, 401(k) investors can still modify your risk level. You can say, "Yeah, maybe it makes sense for me to be at 90% stocks, but I'm not comfortable with it. I want to be at 30% stocks." Or they can modify their allocations using our flexible portfolio strategy, so that they can come in and say, "Actually I don't like international [investments] as much." So it's not about removing choice. And we let them see the consequences of that in terms of risk and return. So employees in Betterment 401(k)s have choice, but how do you respond to people who might already have a 401(k) or are already invested in funds outside of their 401(k), and have a favorite fund that they feel is an absolute must have? I’m not necessarily against people who have put time and effort into researching something and wanting to invest in it. But I think it is focusing on the wrong thing. When you look at long-run research statistics on funds, the predictability of fund success within a category is low. A fund that outperformed last quarter is unlikely to continue to outperform this quarter. So I would say that the fund is very rarely the most important aspect of the 401(k) plan or decision. And I’d guess most participants don't have a favorite fund. Again, going back to research we've looked at across a wide array of companies, most people are looking to minimize how much burden is imposed upon them in making decisions about what they should do for their retirement. There is generally a very small minority who have very strong views about what the right investments are. And that trade-off shows up in that we will generally look at low-cost funds, well-diversified funds. We do offer a range of choice in terms of portfolio strategy: do you want a factor-tilted portfolio or a socially-responsible portfolio or an income portfolio? Without necessarily saying that you're responsible for doing the fund due diligence yourself. It is true that we offer a trade-off: we're not the wild west where you can go out and get anything you want. And that is because that level of discretion is rarely used by plan participants. There's a lot of potential to do the wrong thing when somebody has a completely open access plan. Not to mention, all plan fiduciaries have an obligation to act in the best interests of their plan participants as a whole. So they have to evaluate what makes the most sense for the majority of plan participants, not a small, vocal minority. Somewhat related, what is your response to people who argue that Betterment’s all-ETF fund line-up is too limited? A 401(k) plan made up exclusively of ETFs is no less limiting than a 401(k) plan made up exclusively of mutual funds. Because mutual funds have been around much longer, it’s true that their universe is larger, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to argue that our expert-built and third-party portfolios are not enough to choose from. ETFs are critical to Betterment’s investment approach and a better alternative for 401(k) plans, in large part because mutual funds have complex fee structures and are typically more expensive than ETFs which have transparent and low costs. So why do so many plans still use mutual funds? We believe it’s not despite these issues but because of them, since fees embedded in mutual fund expense ratios are often used to offset the costs of 401(k) vendors servicing the plan. In addition, many legacy recordkeeping systems do not have the technology to handle ETF intraday trading and must restrict their clients to using funds that are only valued at the end of the day. Betterment’s 401(k) plan comes with a 0.25% investment advisory fee. What do employers and employees get for that? I think there's actually two levels to this. The first is “does this actually cost me more?” It’s definitely more transparent in its cost, but most 401(k) plans charge more via higher fund fees. The fund fees may even include embedded fees that go to pay for other plan services. In these more traditional models, the fees are hidden from you, the consumer. But trust me: everybody is getting paid. It's just a matter of whether or not you're aware how much and who you're paying. That also sets up the very important second aspect which is: what is this investment manager responsible for and what are they incentivized to do well? What does Betterment do for 25 basis points? Well, number one, that's how we make sure that we're independent from the fund companies; we don’t get paid by them. Every quarter, we go out and we look at all of the funds that are available in the market. We review them, independent of who provides them, looking at cost, liquidity, tax burdens, and more. And if we find a better fund, because we take no money from fund companies, we're going to move to that better fund. So one thing that you're paying for is, in effect, not only ongoing due diligence and checking, but you're paying for independence, which means that you know we’re unbiased when changes are made inside of your portfolio. The other thing you get is that we want to earn that 25 basis points by serving clients better. So we want to invest in things like personalized retirement portfolios (available to every 401(k) participant) where we are actually able to give better retirement advice that takes into account you, your partner, all the various kinds of retirement accounts you have: Roth, IRA, taxable, trust, and more. Or asset location, for example, which works across tax-advantaged retirement accounts so that employees can keep more of their money and enjoy higher levels of spending in retirement. Employees with a Betterment 401(k) can learn more about our investment options here; plan sponsors can explore them here.
The Case for Including ETFs and managed portfolios in Your 401(k) Plan
At Betterment, we firmly believe exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are better for 401(k) plan ...The Case for Including ETFs and managed portfolios in Your 401(k) Plan At Betterment, we firmly believe exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are better for 401(k) plan participants. Wondering if managed ETF portfolios may be appropriate for your plan? Mutual funds dominate the retirement investment landscape, but in recent years, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have become increasingly popular—and for good reason. They are cost-effective, highly flexible, and technologically sophisticated. And at Betterment, we firmly believe they’re also better for 401(k) plan participants. Wondering if ETFs may be appropriate for your 401(k) plan? Read on. What’s the difference between mutual funds and ETFs? Let’s start with what ETFs and mutual funds have in common. Both consist of a mix of many different assets, which helps investors diversify their portfolios. However, they have a few key differences: ETFs can be traded like stocks whereas mutual funds may only be purchased at the end of each trading day based on a calculated price. ETFs are transparent meaning you can see the underlying holdings daily. Mutual funds either report its holdings monthly or quarterly. Mutual funds are either actively managed by a fund manager who decides how to allocate assets or passively managed by tracking a specific market index (such as the S&P 500). While ETFs are usually passively managed, more differentiated ETFs that are actively managed or use other fundamentals like factors (smart beta) have emerged over the years. Mutual funds tend to have higher fees and higher expense ratios than ETFs, especially in instances where smaller plans do not have access to institutional share classes. Why do mutual funds cost so much more than ETFs? Many mutual funds are actively managed—requiring in-depth analysis and research—which drives the costs up. However, while active managers claim to outperform popular benchmarks, research conclusively shows that they rarely succeed in doing so. See what we mean. Mutual fund providers generate revenues from both stated management fees, as well as less direct forms of compensation, for example: Revenue sharing agreements—These agreements among 401(k) plan providers and mutual fund companies include: 12(b)-1 fees, which are disclosed in a fund’s expense ratios and are annual distribution or marketing fees Sub Transfer Agent (Sub-TA) fees for maintaining records of a mutual fund’s shareholders Revenue sharing agreements often appear as conflicts of interests. Internal fund trading expenses—The buying and selling of internal, underlying assets in a mutual fund are another cost to investors. However, unlike the conspicuous fees in a fund’s expense ratio, these brokerage expenses are not disclosed and actual amounts may never be known. Instead, the costs of trading underlying shares are simply paid out of the mutual fund’s assets, which results in overall lower returns for investors. Soft-dollar arrangements—These commission arrangements, sometimes called excess commissions, exacerbate the problem of hidden expenses because the mutual fund manager engages a broker-dealer to do more than just execute trades for the fund. These services could include nearly anything—securities research, hardware, or even an accounting firm’s conference hotel costs! All of these costs mean that mutual funds are usually more expensive than ETFs. These higher expenses come out of investors’ pockets. That helps to explain why a majority of actively managed funds lag the net performance of passively managed funds, which lag the net performance of ETFs with the same investment objective over nearly every time period. What else didn’t I realize about mutual funds? Often, there are conflicts of interest with mutual funds. The 401(k) market is largely dominated by players who are incentivized to offer certain funds: Some service providers are, at their core, mutual fund companies. And therefore, some investment advisors are incentivized to promote certain funds. This means that the fund family providing 401(k) services and the advisor who sells the plans may have a conflict of interest. Why is it unusual to see ETFs in 401(k)s? Mutual funds continue to make up the majority of assets in 401(k) plans for various reasons, not despite these hidden fees and conflicts of interest, but because of them. Plans are often sold through distribution partners, which can include brokers, advisors, recordkeepers or third-party administrators. The fees embedded in mutual funds help offset expenses and facilitate payment of every party involved in the sale. However, it’s challenging for employers and employees because the fees aren’t easy to understand even with the mandated disclosure requirements. Another reason why it’s unusual to see ETFs in a 401(k) is existing technology limitations. Most 401(k) recordkeeping systems were built decades ago and designed to handle once-per-day trading, not intra-day trading (the way ETFs are traded)—so these systems can’t handle ETFs on the platform (at all). However, times are changing. ETFs are gaining traction in the general marketplace and companies like Betterment are leading the way by offering ETFs. What’s even better than ETFs? At Betterment, we believe that a portfolio of ETFs in conjunction with personalized, unbiased advice is the ideal solution for today’s retirement savers. Our retirement advice adapts to your employees’ desired retirement timeline and can be customized if they’re more conservative or aggressive investors. Not only that, we also link employees’ outside investments, savings accounts, IRAs—even spousal/partner assets—to create a real-time snapshot of their finances. It can make saving for retirement (and any other short- or long-term goals) even easier. You may be wondering: What about target-date funds? Well, target-date funds are still popular, but financial advice has progressed far beyond using one data point—employees’ desired retirement age—to determine their investing strategy. Here’s how: Target-date funds are only in five-year increments (for example, 2045 Fund or 2050 Fund). Betterment can tailor our advice to the exact year your employees want to retire. Target-date funds ignore how much employees have saved. At Betterment, we can tell your employees if they‘re on or off track, factoring in all of their retirement savings, Social Security, pensions, and more. Target-date funds only contain that company’s underlying investments (for example, Vanguard target-date funds only have Vanguard investments). No single company is the best at every type of investment, so don’t limit your employees’ retirement to just one company’s investments. Now what? You may be thinking: it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your 401(k) provider or plan’s investment advisor. If so, here’s a list of questions to ask: Do you offer ETFs? If not, why not? What are the fees associated with our funds? Are there revenue sharing agreements in place? Are there any soft-dollar arrangements we should be aware of? Are you incentivized to offer certain funds? Are there any conflicts of interests that we should be aware of? Do you create managed portfolio strategies?
ESG Investments in 401(k) Plans
The DOL proposal provides clarity with ESG investing.ESG Investments in 401(k) Plans The DOL proposal provides clarity with ESG investing. In the beginning of 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a “final rule” entitled “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments,” pertaining to ESG (environmental, social, governance) investments within a 401(k) plan. In March 2021, the DOL under the Biden administration stated that they were not going to enforce the previous administration’s rule until they had completed their own review. Most recently, the Biden DOL released its own proposal, reworking parts of the rule to be more favorable to the inclusion of ESG investments within 401(k)s and clarifying areas that had a chilling effect on fiduciaries performing their responsibilities. So what’s changed? 2020 Rule New Proposal Evaluating investments Investment choices must be based on “pecuniary” factors, which include time horizon, diversification, risk, and return. Clarifies that ESG factors are permissible and are financially material in the consideration of investments. Qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) Cannot select investment based on one or more non-pecuniary factors. ESG factors are permissible, allowing the possibility of wider adoption of ESG funds and portfolios. Tie-breaker test (when deciding between investments) Non-financial factors such as ESG are permissible. However, they must have detailed documentation. Permitted to select investments based on “collateral benefits” such as ESG. Where collateral benefits form the basis for investment choice, disclosure of collateral benefits required. Detailed tie-breaker documentation not required. Proxy voting Fiduciaries are not required to vote every proxy or exercise every shareholder right. Revised language stresses the importance of proxy voting in line with fiduciary obligations. Special monitoring for proxy voting when outsourcing responsibilities. Proxy voting activities must be recorded. Additional special monitoring is not required. Removal of record keeping of proxy activities. Safe harbors: a fiduciary can choose not to vote proxy if (a) the proposal is related to business activities or investment value (b) percentage ownership or the proposal being voted on is not significant enough to materially impact. Removal of safe harbors. Voting to further political or social causes “that have no connection to enhancing the economic value of the plan's investment” through proxy voting or shareholder activism is a violation. Opens the door to ESG factors when voting proxies as under the proposed rule that they are economically material. Why is this important? Under the proposal, the DOL clarifies that “climate change and other ESG factors can be financially material and when they are, considering them will inevitably lead to better long-term risk-adjusted returns, protecting the retirement savings of America’s workers.” Under the previous rule, many ESG factors would not count as a “pecuniary” factor. However, in actuality ESG factors have a high likelihood of impacting financial performance in the long run. For example, climate change can shift environmental conditions, force companies to transition and adapt to these shifts, lead to disruptions in business cycles and new innovations, and ultimately be a material financial risk over time when a company declines from failing to adapt. For retirement plans, the DOL’s revised proposal acknowledges that ESG risks could be important to consider when reviewing investments for strategic portfolio construction. Driving impact through ESG investing and proxy voting works. We’ve seen this concept in action with Engine No. 1 winning three ExxonMobil board seats in a six month long proxy battle. The change in having three new board members that are conscious of climate change and favor transitioning away from fossil fuels will benefit the company in the long term as renewable energy grows in prominence. After its successful proxy battle with Exxon, Engine No. 1 reported cordial discussions with representatives of Chevron Corp. regarding the company’s emissions reduction strategy, and also has reportedly built a stake in General Motors and expressed support for GM’s management actions relating to increased electric vehicle production and GM’s long-term strategy. Ernst & Young also published data showing an increasing trend of how more Fortune 100 companies are incorporating ESG initiatives into proxy statements. For example, 91% disclosed they are incorporating workplace diversity into their initiatives in 2021 versus 61% in 2020. Demand for ESG products will continue We believe demand for ESG-focused investing will continue to grow, and it is important that regulations are clarified to accommodate this trend. Bloomberg projects that global assets in ESG will exceed $50 trillion by 2025, which is significant as it will represent a third of projected global assets under management. In the US, $17 trillion is invested in ESG assets. Trends within ESG ETFs tell the same story where fund flows this year have increased by more than 1000% compared to flows seen just three years ago. How Betterment incorporates ESG investing in 401(k) plans At Betterment, we believe investing through an ESG lens matters, and can be important to 401(k) participants investing on a longer time horizon. We’ve found many ways to thoughtfully weave ESG investing into our portfolio strategies. Betterment has a 10+ years track record of constructing globally diversified portfolios, along with a history of implementing ESG investment strategies in 401(k)s using our Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) portfolios. The SRI portfolios come with three different focuses: Broad Impact, Social Impact, and Climate Impact. Each of these portfolios allow our clients to choose how they want to invest to best align their portfolio with their values. Perceptions of higher fees in the ESG investment space has been a misconception that has historically posed an obstacle to the adoption of pro-ESG regulation. Expense ratios of ESG ETFs have declined to 0.20%, which is low compared to the 0.47% average expense ratio of all ETFs in the US. Within Betterment’s SRI portfolios, and depending on the investor’s overall portfolio allocation to stocks relative to bonds, the asset weighted expense ratios of the Broad Impact, Social, and Climate portfolios range from 0.12-0.18%, 0.13-0.20%, 0.13-0.20% respectively. Another misconception is that in order to adopt ESG investing, you have to sacrifice performance goals. As a 3(38) investment fiduciary, Betterment reviews fund selection on an ongoing basis to ensure we’ve performed our due diligence in selecting investments suitable for participants' desired investing objectives. To determine if there were in fact any financial tradeoffs associated with an SRI portfolio strategy relative to the Betterment Core, we examined evidence based on historical returns. When adjusting for the stock allocation level and Betterment fees, we found that: There were no material performance differences. The portfolios were highly correlated overall. In certain time periods the SRI portfolios outperformed the Betterment Core portfolio. Another example of how we’ve incorporated ESG impact investing is through the addition of the Engine No. 1 Transform 500 ETF (VOTE) into all three of our SRI portfolio strategies in 2021. With VOTE ETF, you can still maintain exposure to the 500 largest companies within the US at an inexpensive expense ratio of 0.05%. That may seem counterintuitive since it mirrors owning the S&P 500 Index, however the magic happens behind the scenes as the fund manager uses share ownership to vote proxies in favor of ESG initiatives. This is a new form of shareholder activism and another way performance goals, exposure, and fees do not have to be sacrificed to make a difference. What’s next? We are hopeful that ease of interpretation with this rule may allow wider adoption of ESG products as investment options and may lead to greater incorporation of ESG factors in the decision making process as we do believe they are material. This has been a focus of Betterment’s as we seek to remain ahead of the trend with our product solutions. We will continue to monitor ongoing developments and keep you informed. Note: Higher bond allocations in your portfolio decrease the percentage attributable to socially responsible ETFs.
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Crypto in 401(k) Plans: The Department of Labor’s GuidanceCrypto 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.