How do we as fiduciaries approach investment governance?
That question is more important than ever.
Why? Because increased scrutiny around investment governance, fiduciary duty, and the performance of institutional investors — pension plans, endowments, and foundations, among them — coupled with ongoing regulatory supervision demands that we demonstrate best practice in a transparent and defensible manner.
This means that how we do things is just as important as what we do.
We need to embrace the human dimension and define investment governance not just for fiduciaries, but for everyone in the investment organization, regardless of their specific function, skillset, and experience.
Investment governance is both directional and relational: It is about policy and process as well as trust and culture.
It is more than tweaking investment policy statements, ticking another box in a compliance checklist, or being dazzled by an investment manager’s PowerPoint wizardry during the beauty contest/manager-selection process.
Great investment governance is more than compliance. When investment governance is about compliance alone, it limits the scope of our deliberations. We only ask, Are we doing things right? Great investment governance goes deeper: It asks the harder questions, such as, Are we doing the right things?
That means going beyond Sharpe ratios, Jensen’s alphas, or models of manager skill. To explore both the human and the qualitative dimension, we must find a common vocabulary and framework to meet the challenge.
Investment governance is about values, about achieving great outcomes for those we serve. Fiduciaries must bring coherence to their investment governance practice. And that requires mission clarity: We need to tackle the “why” question!
As “purpose-driven” fiduciaries, we need clear investment beliefs to inform the “how.” These beliefs are our metaphorical North Star that guides the investment process we create to solve the beneficiary’s investment problem.
Around the world, fiduciaries are struggling with the challenging investment outlook. Cash rates are low, inflation is low, and discount rates are compressed.
In the late 1980s, an expected return of 7.5% could be generated with just cash and bonds. Today, to achieve the same expected return, a fiduciary may have to hold 90% growth assets, a third of which would be alternatives. That is, the same expected return and a six-fold increase in expected volatility.
This has placed much greater demands on investment governance. Monitoring a multi-asset process with private market exposure requires much more from fiduciaries than a portfolio of cash and bonds. Has your internal resourcing of the investment governance process — the “governance budget” — kept pace with these radical changes in portfolio composition over the past three decades?
The investment governance process must protect the beneficiary, to the greatest extent possible, from all the potential mishaps of the investment industry. We call this ongoing fiduciary process OPERIS: Objective; Policy; Execute and Resource; Implement; and Superintend. This framework puts the beneficiary first and ensures role clarity by defining a fiduciary line.
OPERIS constructs a metaphorical fortress that facilitates the selection of the next great asset class or investment manager, but it also places as much or more weight on avoiding poor investment decisions. We see this defensive mindset as a sustainable, comparative advantage available to the fiduciary investor. Our central thesis is that achieving outcomes for beneficiaries is as much, if not more, about managing risks in the broadest sense as it is about harvesting returns.
This requires that the fiduciary defines the mission — the why. That means asking, What’s our objective? This requires a holistic understanding of the beneficiary’s investment problem. Too often, fiduciary boards’ answer to this question is, “Our primary objective is to outperform our peers.”
This is not the right answer.
Inputs to the Outcome
Great investment governance approaches investment returns as inputs to the outcome, not the outcome itself. In the context of a defined-contribution (DC) plan, for example, a beneficiary may measure success by, say, replacing two thirds of their pre-retirement income in real terms over the retirement phase. In this instance, the fiduciary needs a dual monitoring approach that includes both the traditional performance evaluation of their investment managers as well as understanding, on a periodic basis, the probability that the objective won’t be met.
We believe the prevailing approach to monitoring and review only addresses a subset of the questions facing the modern fiduciary. The fiduciary’s role is to ensure the investment organization and the beneficiary’s actual problem are in alignment. This means orienting and applying resources — people, policies, processes, and systems — to address the underlying investment challenge. It’s about creating collaborative cultures and securing accountability both internally and with external service providers.
It’s about building a fit-for-purpose investment governance capability for our task, in our context.
In a world where the consensus expectations for forward-looking returns are muted, fiduciaries need to exploit every advantage on behalf of those we serve. We cannot delegate accountability. And as history has shown, any fortress — military or metaphorical — is only as strong as its most vulnerable point.
Fiduciaries are the stewards of “other people’s money.” That money may be the retirement savings of millions of workers, the wealth of nations, or the legacy and good works of a charity.
Great investment governance provides a defensible, repeatable, and documented process that places our beneficiary at the heart of all we do.
For more from the authors on this subject, check out their recently published monograph Investment Governance for Fiduciaries.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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