By Christopher B. Tobe, CFA, CAIA
I contend that the Good version of Stable Value is still the best low risk investment for 401(k) plans. With an estimated $700 billion in assets, Stable value is typically 15% to 30% of assets in many DC plans. Stable Value’s popularity with participants is well deserved. It’s combination of principal protection like a money market and solid returns closer to an intermediate bond fund are unmatched among 401(k) choices. Stable Value in recent years has had yields nearly triple that of Money Market. A recent Wharton study has confirmed the superior risk/return profile of stable value funds compared to money market and bond funds. [i]
There has already been litigation against firms that did not offer stable value at all and only offered money market. Plans who want to avoid litigation need to get the Good versions of Stable value which are the diversified synthetic GIC based products.
All Stable Value funds use Guaranteed Investment Contracts (GIC’s) to provide them book value accounting, which allows for a smoothing of returns and no negative periods. There are 3 basic categories of stable value: 1. the original General Account or Traditional GIC (Ugly) 2. Insurance Company Separate Account GIC (Bad) 3. Synthetic GIC sometimes known as a wrap. (Good)
Mega ERISA 401(k) plans abandoned General account GIC’s almost 30 years ago after the Executive Life and Confederation Life defaults of 1992. Large ERISA plans for the most part abandoned Insurance company Separate Account stable value 20 years ago and have almost all converted to Synthetic GIC’s. Many mid-size and multi-employer plans access synthetic stable value via over 30 Stable Value Pooled Funds which are Bank Collective Trusts with well-known names such as Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others since stable value is not offered in mutual funds. With synthetic GIC’s the plan owns the underlying bonds usually 95% to 100% of the total value, while with the insurance company separate account and general account the plan does not own any securities but owns a contract with the insurance company. All the large independent consultants recommend synthetic stable value as evidenced in this recent February 2022 article in Plan Sponsor quoting Willis Towers Watson.[ii]
NAGDCA the association representing public DC plans in a September 2010 brochure had the following characterization of General Account stable value. Due to the fact that the plan sponsor does not own the underlying investments, the portfolio holdings, performance, risk, and management fees are generally not disclosed...[i]
Ben Bernanke spoke in 2008 in defending the AIG bailout saying, “Workers whose 401(k) plans had purchased $40 billion of insurance from AIG against the risk that their stable value funds would decline in value would have seen that insurance disappear.” I contend that an ERISA plan should not take on the single entity credit risk and liquidity risk of an insurance Company especially in the aftermath of AIG and in the so-called end of too big to fail?
The largest providers of the Bad and Ugly versions of Stable Value are Prudential, Principal, Lincoln, TIAA, MetLife, NYLife, MassMutual,John Hancock, Great West, Transamerica. You tend to still find them in 403(b)s, smaller 401(k)s and of course 457 plans which are exempt from ERISA. These bad and ugly versions of stable value are litigation magnets with their hidden fees many times in excess of 200 basis points (2%) along with high single entity credit risk.
Synthetic stable value options which are transparent, diversified and have low fees are widely available for any 401(k) plan over $50 million in size. Using bad stable value or skipping stable value increases your litigation risk. Even then with good stable value you still need to look at fees between options.
Chris Tobe, CFA, CAIA is a leading expert on Stable Value http://www.christobe.com/stablevalue/ writing dozens of articles and the only book “The Consultants Guide to Stable Value” published this century.