Specialty asset classes are those which do not fall into the “core” group of asset classes.
Core asset classes include: U.S. domestic equities, international, and fixed income. For the purpose of this commentary, specialty asset classes consist of the following: technology, health care, emerging markets, and real estate.
While specialty asset classes can provide value when constructing a fully diversified portfolio, their inclusion in a retirement plan as a stand-alone option is potentially problematic. The concern revolves around expanded fiduciary liability exposure created by potential unsophisticated participants utilizing specialty asset class investments inappropriately.
The classic scenario is where a participant nearing retirement learns of attractive returns a co-worker has obtained by investing in a specialty asset class (i.e. Technology in the late 1990’s). Subsequently, the participant decides to invest a significant portion of his/her account balance in the same specialty fund in an attempt to achieve similar returns. Due to volatility inherent in this asset class, the investment experiences a significant loss over the next year and the participant becomes disgruntled and seeks reparation from the plan. The participant may contend that he/she did not receive appropriate education regarding the risks inherent in the investment. And fiduciaries may be liable for allowing an imprudent investment to be offered within their plan.
Note that many core asset class funds do have some exposure to specialty asset classes. International funds may have some emerging markets exposure. Core bond funds may have high yield exposure. Domestic equities may have health care, technology and real estate exposure. This may cause some participants who invest further in specific specialty funds to be unknowingly and inappropriately overweighed in specialty asset classes.
Other concerning issues also exist. In the event of underperformance of a fund (or provider), where fund removal and mapping becomes appropriate, some providers do not have multiple options within a specific specialty class. Where then should these assets be mapped to? There is no clear “fiduciary safe” answer. In addition, many specialty asset classes do not yet have substantial benchmarks to assist in monitoring, a fiduciary responsibility.
The inclusion of specialty asset classes in a retirement plan menu should be considered carefully and subsequently the decision for or against should be well documented in the retirement committee’s meeting minutes. Your plan consultant is happy to help you with this process.