Patience, it turns out, can be indeed a virtue — especially for retirement plan sponsors. Sunil Wahal, professor of finance at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, and his co-authors compiled a database of hiring and firing decisions made by more than 3,700 plan sponsors between 1994 and 2003. The reasons plan sponsors change investment management firms vary, but often the sponsors hire firms that have recently earned significant excess returns.
However, Wahal and his team found that those high fliers do not perform as well after they are hired, and the fired firms sometimes go on to turn in impressive numbers. If plan managers had stayed with their original managers, Wahal says, their excess returns would have been larger than those delivered by the newly hired managers.
“When firing decisions are made, one needs to be very careful and cognizant of the costs involved,” Wahal says.
Factor costs into decisions
Wahal’s study of the selection and termination of investment management firms by plan sponsors looked at 9,684 hiring decisions by 3,737 plan sponsors between 1994 and 2003. The plan managers hired by the sponsors were responsible for delegating $737 billion in investments. The study also examined 933 firing decisions by 515 plan sponsors between 1996 and 2003. Nearly $117 billion of investments were impacted by those decisions.
“There is an enormous amount of money that is invested in the market by plan sponsors. These organizations make a lot of decisions about who gets to manage the assets for the beneficiaries,” Wahal observes. “Sometimes the hiring and firing decisions they make work well. Sometimes they don’t. The frictions involved in these decisions are costly to beneficiaries.”
The rationale for a change varies. Plan sponsors usually fire investment management firms for poor performance, but sometimes they act because of an organizational change. For example, the investment management firm may have gone through a merger, or a star stock picker or portfolio manager may have left. The plan sponsor also may decide to change direction with its investments, such as switching from running a large-cap stock portfolio to a bond portfolio.
Factors that point to success
Wahal found that consultants are hired to assist plan sponsors in nearly two-thirds of all hiring decisions. Excess returns from consultant-supported decisions are higher, consistent with the notion that a consultant’s expertise adds value when selecting managers. But there’s a downside to consultants. They often take the blame, in place of the firm’s treasurer, when a company with a defined benefits plan selects a plan manager that performs poorly. Even so, using a consultant led to a 3.7 percent increase in three-year, post-hiring returns.
The researchers also found that returns were higher as the size of the plan increased, presumably because the sponsors of bigger plans have more experience selecting investment managers. In addition, they discovered that plan sponsors like to hire investment management firms within their own states. The study found that those in-state, post-hiring returns were positive.
Despite evidence that a number of factors can predict success, plan sponsors typically selected investment management firms by screening their performance based on excess returns. Firms are usually hired after investment managers have done very well, with an average excess return of 13.8 percent three years before the hiring decision.
Yet, after an investment management firm was hired, the study found the excess returns were close to — or below — zero.
“It’s not that they do poorly,” Wahal explains, “they don’t do as well as they had been doing prior to being hired. In other words, when you chase returns, you chase hot hands. But those hot hands don’t seem to persist.”
Wahal also learned that three years after the firing decisions, excess returns were sometimes up, with performance-based firings resulting in bigger return reversals. In fact, it was discovered that had plan sponsors stayed with the fired investment managers, excess returns would be more than what the newly hired managers delivered at some horizons.
Transition costs can add up
When a plan sponsor decides to fire an investment manager, the sponsor then has to take those funds and provide them to the newly hired investment management firm. This process entails what are commonly referred to as transition costs, that is, the cost of selling the old portfolio and creating a new one. Wahal says that “such costs can frequently be as much as 2 percent, and add to any other losses that the plan sponsor might suffer.” So, the newly hired manager is expected not only to deliver superior returns, but also perhaps to recover the 2 percent transition costs. Wahal argues that “to the extent that we do not live in Lake Wobegon, this is quite a challenge.”
“What’s really important is that the firing and hiring process be set up very well,” he says. “You can’t be too quick to jump the gun on firing and hiring because those costs have to be factored into the decision. Someone’s going to bear that loss and typically it’s the beneficiaries of the plan sponsors.”