24 September 2018

Want a More Ethical 401(k) Plan?

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If you're interested in steering your retirement money toward companies with values that match your own, there's a good chance you'll start seeing more opportunities to invest in them through your 401(k) plan. In recent guidance that essentially rescinded an earlier opinion, the U.S. Labor Department has now made it clear to 401(k) sponsors that, really, it's okay to offer investments that fall under the umbrella of socially responsible investing — as long as it meets the same criteria as any investment under fiduciary rules.

While 401(k) plans are not obligated to offer such investments, the persistent and growing enthusiasm for SRI suggests plan sponsors would be remiss not to explore including options that fulfill workers' financial and social objectives. Indeed, according to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, assets in such investments stood at more than $6.5 trillion in 2014, up from $2.7 trillion in 2007 and $639 billion in 1995. Additionally, a survey done earlier this year by Calvert Investments, which offers a full menu of SRI mutual funds, shows that most 401(k) participants want SRI options.

Of the more than 1,200 401(k) plan participants and 300 eligible nonparticipants surveyed, 87 percent want investment options that align with their values and 82 percent would likely choose such an option if offered. Also, 55 percent of the nonparticipants said they'd be more likely to participate in their workplace plan if it offered an SRI option.

There are different terms used in the industry for socially responsible investments. The Labor Department calls them economically targeted investments, while some people talk about environmental, social and governance strategies. Regardless of the term, their commonality is an investment approach that examines a company's social or environmental practices instead of looking exclusively at its financial performance.

The recent Labor Department guidance, issued in October, overrides 2008 guidance that said such investing in 401(k) plans and the like should be "rare." The guidance chilled plan sponsors' willingness to consider SRI options. Indeed, DOL's new opinion acknowledges that its 2008 guidance "unduly discouraged fiduciaries" from even considering SRI options.

Data provided by consulting firm Mercer show that based on a survey of workplace retirement plans, 11.3 percent offer socially responsible investment options. Among nonprofits, endowments and foundations, that figure is significantly higher, at 29.4 percent. Some financial advisors have seen interest in SRI growing among their clients' non-workplace investments, although Calvert Investments' research shows that 80 percent of advisors do not mention SRI unless a client asks about it.

Pell, who calls it "impact investing," does not wait for a client to express interest; she routinely offers it. "You can build an entire portfolio out of impact investing," Pell said. "When I bring this up to clients, they are interested in hearing more." Only a small number of clients reject the idea outright, she said. Pell said that millennials are among the most interested. They are more concerned about investing for causes and investing in things they believe in, than just investing to make money, Pell said.

Various data shows that SRI strategies can be as profitable as standard investment approaches. For instance, the Calvert Equity Portfolio — one of the oldest SRI funds — returned 5.45 percent this year through Oct. 31, compared with a 2.12 percent return for the Standard & Poor's 500 index in the same time period. Not all SRI-oriented funds beat the market, of course, but many pros have been pleased with their relative performance.

Arthur Stein, CFP and owner of Arthur Stein Financial, recently constructed an SRI portfolio for a new client. After doing lots of research and creating the portfolio, Stein analyzed its performance and saw it compared favorably with his standard U.S. stock portfolio. One tricky thing about responsible investing is that it means different things to different people.

Click here to access the full article on CNBC.

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