Stable value funds have become today’s most popular 401(k) investment, but they come with complex risks

Stable value funds have become today’s most popular 401(k) investment, but they come with complex risks

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Amid market mayhem, retirement plan participants are pouring money into a 401(k) investment option that is widely seen as a safe haven yet comes with a convoluted set of potential pitfalls. 

Stable value funds, which combine diversified bond portfolios with bank or insurance-company contracts that help guard against market volatility, took in 85% of 401(k) trading inflows in May, according to the Alight Solutions 401(k) Index. Looking at data going back to 2013, stable value funds have never attracted such a large percentage of trading inflows, according to the index, which tracks the daily trading activity of over 2 million plan participants with more than $200 billion in total assets. 

Right now, “stable value is the vehicle of choice for capital preservation” in 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans, said Steven McKay, head of global defined contribution investment only at Putnam Investments, where stable-value assets climbed 87% between the end of 2019 and June of this year, to $16.4 billion. 

While stable value funds’ relatively smooth, consistent returns can look appealing when both stocks and bonds are sliding, their inner workings involve complicated tradeoffs and risks that vary widely depending on how the fund is structured. In some of these products, the underlying assets are owned by the retirement plan, fees are transparent, and there’s a diversified set of issuers providing the contracts that ensure smooth and steady returns. In other stable value products, the retirement plan owns nothing but a piece of paper: A single insurance company owns the assets and provides the guarantee, earning a spread that’s typically not disclosed to investors and exposing plan participants to considerable risk in the event that insurer goes belly up. 

Often, “people don’t understand the risk they’re taking” in such products, says Chris Tobe, a retirement plan consultant and expert witness in litigation involving stable value funds. 

Investors should also be aware of trading restrictions and how rising rates may affect these funds, stable value experts say. As interest rates rise, stable value returns will ultimately move higher, but they may react more slowly than some other investments such as money market funds. Plan participants can generally sell their stable value holdings whenever they like but in many cases can’t move their money directly from stable value to a money market fund. And at the plan level, dumping a stable value fund isn’t easy: In some stable value products, it can take years for the plan to extract all its assets from the fund. 

Like money market funds, stable value funds aim to preserve principal and generally let investors trade in and out at a steady price. But while money market funds have to stick with short-term debt, stable value funds can invest in a broader swath of bonds that give them a substantial yield advantage over money funds. That gap tends to narrow, however, when short-term rates rise. During the second quarter of this year, the average stable value fund’s “crediting rate”–the interest rate applied to the principal and accrued income in a stable value contract–rose to 1.92%, from 1.69% at the end of March, according to investment analysis platform Morningstar Direct. The average seven-day yield of money funds tracked by Crane Data’s Crane Money Fund Average jumped to 0.97% at the end of June, up from 0.09% three months earlier. 

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In many retirement plans, stable value is now the only conservative investment option. These funds, which are available only in defined-contribution plans such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s, had about $918 billion in assets as of the first quarter of this year, accounting for about 9% of all defined-contribution plan assets, according to the Stable Value Investment Association, an industry group. But unlike many other 401(k) investment options, stable value funds aren’t mutual funds and can’t be easily tracked and compared using ticker symbols.

Stable value investments, like money market funds, have shown cracks during past periods of market turmoil. In early 2009 Congressional testimony, former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke defended the Fed’s 2008 bailout of AIG, saying that if the insurance giant had been allowed to fail, “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.” 

In recent years, many retirement plans have shifted toward more transparent, diversified stable value funds that don’t rely on insurance contracts provided by a single issuer. But more than 40% of stable value assets remain in insurance-company general account products, where a single insurance company provides the guarantee, according to the Stable Value Investment Association. 

Rising rates and value gaps 

The bank- and insurance-company contracts wrapped around stable value funds allow investors to trade in and out of these funds at a relatively stable “book value” even as the market value of the underlying investments bounces around. As rising rates have hurt bond portfolios, the market value of the underlying investments in many stable value funds is now below the funds’ book value. 

In many stable value funds, the crediting rate calculation is designed in part to gradually close any gaps between market value and book value. That slows down any increase in these funds’ crediting rates as interest rates rise. Generally, the Fed’s interest-rate increases are quickly reflected in money market fund yields, while “stable value will follow the general direction of interest rates, but with a lag,” says Michael Norman, co-president of Galliard Capital Management, an Allspring Global Investments subsidiary that manages stable value portfolios.  

The current gap between market value and book value in many stable value funds also underscores the importance of having high-quality wrap contract issuers protecting the portfolio. If a stable-value fund’s investors suddenly run for the door and the fund is forced to sell its bonds at depressed prices, wrap contract providers can step in to ensure investors receive book value.   

Right now “stable value is the vehicle of choice for capital preservation” in 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans

— Steven McKay, head of global defined contribution investment only, Putnam Investments

In the more transparent stable value products, assets are owned by the plan, and investors can generally see a clearly disclosed expense ratio and a breakdown of the underlying bond holdings. These funds are typically run by an investment manager, either as an account managed for a single plan’s participants or as a fund that pools assets from multiple plans. The contractual guarantees are diversified across multiple issuers–generally at least four or five but sometimes a dozen or more. If the financial strength of any one issuer starts to look wobbly, other issuers can quickly step in to ensure the whole portfolio remains protected. Fees for the insurance protection in these products are often less than 0.2%, although widely varying fees for investment management and recordkeeping can be added on top of that, says Daniel Farkas, director of manager selection at investment-research firm Morningstar. 

In stable value products provided by a single insurance company, the risks and costs can look very different. In these products, the assets are owned by the insurance company and held either in a segregated account or the insurer’s general account.

Insurance-company general account products are still the largest stable-value category by assets, according to the Stable Value Investment Association. In these products, “you own no securities, zero, nothing. Just a contract,” Tobe said. The insurance guarantees are only as strong as that single issuer, and if questions arise about the issuer’s financial strength, plans can’t quickly or easily jump ship. It may take several years for a plan to extract itself from the product. 

The tradeoff: Assets in these products can be invested for the longer term, potentially leading to better returns for investors. But that’s not always the case. The insurance company pockets the difference between the investment earnings and the rate it gives investors. That “spread” generally isn’t disclosed, but it’s often 2% or more, stable value experts say. Some general-account products are offering a crediting rate of only about 1%, Farkas says, while their longer-term investment returns are likely considerably higher. 

Concerns about the murky costs and credit risk of insurance-company general account stable value products have triggered recent 401(k) litigation. In a complaint filed last year in a federal court in Tennessee, participants in a 401(k) plan offered by AutoZone
the auto parts retailer, alleged that the plan “failed to monitor and to replace an obscenely overpriced Prudential stable value fund,” which was the plan’s largest investment by assets. The Prudential Guaranteed Income Fund, an insurance-company general account product, exposed the plan’s participants to single-entity credit risk and charged them 2 percentage points more than the same type of product that Prudential offered to other similar retirement plans, costing participants more than $13 million in retirement savings, the complaint alleged. 

AutoZone did not respond to requests for comment. In a court filing, the company acknowledged that the Prudential stable value fund was an investment option in the plan but denied the other allegations. Prudential Financial
which did not respond to a request for comment, earlier this year sold its retirement business, including its stable value products, to retirement-plan provider Empower. Prudential was not named as a defendant in the case. An Empower spokesman declined to comment on the case, saying, “we are not involved.” 

Some stable-value experts say that 401(k) plans’ continued use of insurance-company general account stable value products deserves some scrutiny, given the potential drawbacks and the widespread availability of cheaper diversified stable value funds. “It just depends on all the options available” to the plan, Farkas said. The general account products “seem inferior in a lot of ways. But they have generally delivered on what they’ve promised.”

Gina Mitchell, president of the Stable Value Investment Association, said the plan sponsors using those products “tend to be pretty sophisticated” and weigh the tradeoffs, including the potential returns and expense.

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