Actively managed exchange traded funds are the NextShares big thing [Brookings Institution]

Co-authored with Theresa Hamacher

Actively managed exchange traded funds are a hot topic in the asset management industry these days. To date, most ETFs have been structured as passively managed index funds, because of concerns that the daily portfolio disclosure requirements of ETFs are inappropriate for actively managed funds. Regulators have rejected proposals that would allow active ETFs to keep their portfolio holdings confidential.

However, Eaton Vance Management recently received approval from the US Securities and Exchange Commission for a new type of fund, branded as NextShares, which addresses these disclosure concerns. Yet NextShares are not the same as ETFs; they are hybrid vehicles that combine elements of traditional mutual funds with certain features of passively managed ETFs. In other words, NextShares are a compromise, but one that stands a good chance of success.

On the plus side, NextShares preserve one of the main features of ETFs in the US, namely their tax efficiency compared with traditional mutual funds. ETFs normally generate fewer capital gains for investors, a result of their approach to handling investor purchases and redemptions.

Investors in an ETF do not deal directly with the fund. Instead, transactions go through intermediaries, called authorised participants. Only these intermediaries may purchase shares from the fund, which they then resell in the public market to investors. Therefore, when investors want to cash in their ETF holdings, they sell them on the exchange. To keep supply and demand for shares in balance, authorised participants may purchase the shares in the open market and redeem them with the fund.

Read the rest at brookings.edu

U.S. Corporate Tax Reform: Why Obama’s Good Ideas Don’t Add Up [Fortune]

In President Obama’s new budget released earlier this week, he proposed four major changes in the way the U.S. taxes foreign profits of U.S. multinational corporations. The document contains several useful ideas for much needed corporate tax reform. And while the rates proposed are quite unrealistic, perhaps these are the President’s opening bids in what could become a lengthy negotiation with Republicans in Congress.

Under today’s rules, the U.S. taxes foreign profits at 35% — but only if and when these profits are brought back to the US. As a result, U.S. multinationals have chosen to defer indefinitely the payment of US taxes on $2 trillion in foreign profits by keeping them abroad.For instance, General Electric holds $110 billion in foreign profits abroad; Microsoft  MSFT $76 billion and Pfizer 2.87% $69 billion, according to Audit Analytics.

In response, Obama’s proposed repealing the right to defer US corporate taxes on foreign profits. Under the current deferral system, US multinationals have a powerful tax incentive to construct facilities and buy companies located outside the US. If deferral were ended, these companies would make locational decisions based on business factors, rather than tax rates. Thus, a substantial portion of foreign profits of US multinationals would likely be brought back to the US to build plants, buy technologies and pay dividends.

Read the rest at fortune.com.

Has the Death Knell of Active Management Been Rung Too Soon? [Financial Times]

Coauthored with Theresa Hamacher

The death knell of active portfolio management has been rung. But with recent studies suggesting that the costs of passive management are rising, has the bell tolled too soon?

Last year, Charles Ellis seemed to predict the imminent demise of active management when he wrote that “the costs of active investment are so high and the incremental returns so low that, for clients, the money game is no longer a game worth playing”. Mr Ellis, a longtime commentator on asset management trends, suggested that investors would be better served if investment professionals shifted their focus toward financial planning and away from stock picking.

Mr Ellis’s comments only reflected what was happening in the investment world. Investors have been steadily shifting assets from actively managed funds into passive. At the end of 2013, index funds accounted for one dollar of every five invested in U.S. mutual funds overall and, stunningly, more than one-third of the assets in US equity funds.

While the interest in index funds is understandable, the disdain for active management is ironic. Active management is what makes index funds attractive in the first place.

How is that? Proponents of passive investing argue that index funds are the only logical alternative when markets are efficient, meaning that asset prices accurately reflect all information. Active managers have a tough time making money in efficient markets because asset mispricings are rare. In efficient markets, index funds generate the same returns while costing less.

Read more at ft.com

The Other Debt Bomb in Public Employee Benefits [Brookings Institution]

Unlike pension plans, governments are not required to contribute to separate trusts to support health-care promises. As a result, only 11 states have funded more than 10% of retiree health-care liabilities, according to a November 2013 report from the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s. For example, New Jersey has almost no assets backing one of the largest retiree health-care liabilities of any state—$63.8 billion.

Only eight out of the 30 largest U.S. cities have funded more than 5% of their retiree health-care obligations, according to a study released last March by the Pew Charitable Trust. New York City tops the list with $22,857 of unfunded liabilities per household.

What exactly are retiree health-care obligations? State and local governments typically pay most of the insurance premiums for employees who retire before they are eligible for Medicare at age 65. That can be a long commitment, as many workers retire as early as 50. Many governments also pay a percentage of Medicare premiums once retired workers turn 65.

Total U.S. unfunded health-care liabilities exceeded $530 billion in 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated, but the current number may be closer to $1 trillion, according to a 2014 comprehensive study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Governments usually finance health-care spending with current revenues from property taxes and other sources. They’ll need to reverse this spending growth to have enough revenue to pay for essential services such as schools and police.

Read the rest at brookings.edu

Unfunded Retiree Healthcare: The Elephant in the Room

Unfunded Retiree Healthcare: The Elephant in the Room

The following outline is accompanied by a set of slides that were recently presented at the the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in November 2014
Download the Slides
Watch the presentation on youtube.com

  1. When Detroit declared bankruptcy, the press highlighted its unfunded pension obligations. But actually its unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities were almost twice as large. This is why we say that retiree healthcare is the elephant in the room –sitting quietly with little notice in the halls of cities and states
  2. This set of slides will turn the search light on retiree health care benefits in 4 steps:
    1. Define these benefits and how they are reported by states/cities,
    2. Outline the huge amounts of unfunded liabilities for these benefits,
    3. Compare the rules on public pension to those on public retiree healthcare, and
    4. Evaluate various proposals to curb the growth of unfunded healthcare liabilities.
  3. Retiree healthcare benefits mainly take the form of government subsidies of insurance premiums to public employees who retire before going on Medicare at age 65. Sometimes these premium subsidies extend to premiums for Part B of Medicare and even Medigap. These subsidies range from 50% to 80% of the retiree’s premiums on a high-end healthcare policy.
  4. Retiree healthcare benefits constitute the bulk of OPEBs – other post employment benefits. Before 2006, there was virtually no disclosure about OPEBs so they could be increased without political accountability. Since 2006, GASB has required states and cities to report on their OPEBs in the footnotes to their financial statements. But GASB has never required any advance funding of OPEBs, as is required for public pension plans.
  5. Recently, GASB has announced proposals to standardize the calculation of OPEBs – most importantly, by mandating the use of a discount rate based on AA rated bonds. Under these proposals, OPEBs would be included as liabilities on city and state balance sheets. These proposals, if adopted, could affect bond ratings and focus political debate on this subject.
  6. Turning to the scope of the problem, we can see a big discrepancy between states. States like NY and NJ each have over $60 billion in unfunded liabilities (and high OPEB per capita). States like South Dakota and Idaho have low unfunded liabilities (and low OPEB per capita). This depends on the number of public employees covered by OPEBs and the extent of their benefits. (The median state in this S&P survey of unfunded OPEB liabilities was $1,219 per capita).
  7. The problem of unfunded OPEB liabilities is growing in many states due to chronic underfunding. Here we see in the left bar the percentage of state tax revenues actually used to fund OPEBs, versus the higher percentage that should have been contributed based on 6% returns and 30 years of level payments. States are justifying their lower contributions by back-loaded amortization periods and assumptions of higher returns. According to JP Morgan, most states annually contributed 30% to 60% of what was needed to fund its OPEBs.
  8. Similarly, on the city level, we see a great disparity in levels of OPEB funding across the country. The unfunded OPEB liabilities of New York City were twice the total of the 30 largest cities. And New York City also had the highest unfunded OPEB liability per household, followed by Boston. The figures of New York City include its obligations to teachers for retiree healthcare. By contrast, Denver, Minneapolis and Tampa had very low unfunded OPEBs by dollar amount and household.
  9. The situation in California is complex. The unfunded OPEBs from State government is almost the same amount as New York State, though California has a lower unfunded OPEB liability per capital. But other governmental units in California have promised healthcare benefits to their retirees. These include counties, cities, school districts, the UC system and the trial courts. Thus, the total OPEB liabilities for California were over $157 billion, of which less than 5% was funded.
  10. The level of OPEB funding is much lower than the level of pension funding , because there never has been a funding requirement for OPEBs.   As a result, OPEBs must generally be funded out of current tax revenues. On the other hand, pension obligations to employees are often protected by statute or state constitution. Since these protections do not generally apply to OPEBs, they are easier to change from a legal viewpoint, though these changes are still often subject to collective bargaining.
  11. Because OPEBs are generally funded out of current tax revenues, it is useful to compare the growth trends in OPEBs and property taxes. This comparison is made in the chart on page 11. The increase in retiree healthcare costs ( HC ) is absorbing a large portion of the growth in property taxes in 3 of the cities, and actually exceeds the growth in property taxes in Springfield.
  12. Let’s look at Newton, a Boston suburb with 170,000 people.   Newton is spending $21 million per year on retiree healthcare benefits — which equals $747 per household or 7.5% of the average property tax bill. To increase property taxes by $8.4 million, Newton had to pass an override of proposition 2.5. But most of that increase — $8.1 million — is going to pay retiree healthcare benefits as they rise. If that $8.1 million instead had gone into adding teachers, Newton could have hired 79 more teachers.
  13. So what can be done to constrain the growth of OPEBs? It is very difficult to reduce healthcare benefits going to those already retired. However, some jurisdictions have directly addressed healthcare costs in the future: by increasing future deductibles and copayments, decreasing cost of living adjustments and reducing the scope of subsidized healthcare services — e.g., retirees pay full premiums of dental and eye care.
  14. In California, the courts have generally been receptive to modest limits in OPEB benefits. The courts have generally taken the position that counties did not promise PERMANENT healthcare benefits as a specific level, and they are not guaranteed by statute or the constitution. But the court rejected the changes proposed by Los Angeles City as an impairment of a vested right — citing precedents from pension law.
  15. Another approach is to revise the eligibility standards for retirees to qualify for OPEBs. A worker can qualify for OPEBs in Mass, for example, after only 10 years of PART TIME work. Many workers can receive OPEBs even if they retire and go to work for a company with healthcare benefits. When workers reach age 65 and go on Medicare, they could be asked to pay their own Part B premiums.
  16. The majority of states have cost of living adjustments built into their OPEB plans. Yet 17 states have recently reduced COLAs for retiree healthcare benefits. While most of these COLAs reductions were legally challenged, the courts have generally upheld these reductions on the theory that the COLA portion is not a contractual right.
  17. Most healthcare plans utilized by retirees with OPEBs are relatively high cost and high quality. Very few of these plans are provided through a state connector offering a menu of healthcare plans. However, an individual can receive federal premium subsidies under Obamacare only by purchasing a policy on a state connector. Thus, if retired public employees were required to obtain their policies through the state connectors, the federal premium subsidies could be used to offset local premium contributions.
  18. Here is an illustration of the costs and premium subsidies for a gold level plan from the Mass connector. For a family of four with an annual income of $50,000 per year, the government premium subsidy is $945 per month out of a total policy cost of $1,319 per month. Thus, the city or state could be pay NO premium subsidy and the retiree would receive a high quality plan for only $374 per month.
  19. Conclusions — While unfunded OPEBs have been rising faster than unfunded pensions, the OPEB situation will become highlighted by the new disclosure and accounting rules.These new rules should stimulate an open and honest debate on the various proposals to limit the growth of unfunded OPEBs, which are legally easier to change than the provisions of a public pension plan.

Will More Small Firms Self Fund Their Healthcare Plans? [Real Clear Markets]

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was intended to increase access to quality and reliable healthcare, partly through the employer mandate. However, the ACA may inadvertently push small firms toward riskier activities by financing their own healthcare plans.

In the past, most large firms took the risk of financing their own healthcare programs, rather than buying traditional insurance. By contrast, self funding has historically been limited to 8% to 16% of small firms – defined as 1 to 100 full-time employees (FTEs).

In the future, these statistics may change dramatically because the ACA creates new regulatory incentives for small firms to self fund their healthcare plans. If these incentives lead to a substantial increase in self funding by small firms, this would pose significant risks to these firms and the insurance market for small groups.

Read the rest at realclearmarkets.com…

Incentives for Small Firms to Self Fund Their Healthcare Plans [Brookings Institution]

Coauthored with Anant Vinjamoori

When firms offer healthcare plans to their employees, they have two main choices. They can buy insurance from traditional health insurers like Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield, or they can self-fund their own healthcare plan.

In self funding, the employer usually hires a third party administrator ( TPA ) to help run the healthcare plan – establishing a network of doctors and hospitals; and then collecting premiums from employees (which would otherwise be paid to insurers) and making payments for claims that are incurred.  Most importantly, in self-funding, the employer bears the risk that the costs of providing healthcare to its employees will exceed the premiums collected.

Most large firms self fund their healthcare programs, rather than buy insurance. By contrast, just 8%-16% of small firms (between 1 and 100 full-time employees) choose to self-fund.

However, the Affordable Care Act ( ACA ) creates new regulatory incentives for small firms to self fund their healthcare plans: If these incentives lead to a substantial increase in self funding by small firms, this would pose significant risks to these small firms and the insurance market for small groups.

This article will first explain the ACA’s regulatory incentives for small firms to self fund their healthcare plans. Second, it will review the potential risks involved with self funding by small firms even with stop-loss reinsurance.  Third, it will discuss various proposals to reduce these risks within current political and legal constraints.

Read the rest at brookings.edu

SEC’s new rules give US money market funds a floating feeling [Financial Times]

Coauthored with Theresa Hamacher

After years of heated debate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US regulator, recently adopted stricter rules for US money market funds. The new rules are intended to limit the potential systemic risks of money market funds by reducing the likelihood of runs on these vehicles.

The rules will have the biggest impact on money market funds serving institutional investors, which will have to move from a constant to a floating net asset value. The rules will also put pressure on most institutional and retail money market funds to impose liquidity fees and suspend redemptions during financial crises. But neither set of rules will apply to money market funds holding 99.5 per cent or more of government securities.

Thus, the two critical questions are what constitutes a government security, and what differentiates an institutional from a retail money market fund?

Read the rest at FT.com…