Wednesday, August 18, 2021

No. 434: Regulators Impose a $97 Million Settlement on TIAA

On July 13, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the New York State Attorney General (NYAG) announced a $97 million enforcement action against Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA). Here are the title and the subtitle of the SEC press release:
SEC Announces $97 Million Enforcement Action Against TIAA Subsidiary for Violations in Retirement Rollover Recommendations.
SEC and N.Y. Attorney General Secure Significant Relief for Investors and Reforms at TIAA.
The SEC Action
The SEC action took the form of a 17-page Order. Here are the first two paragraphs of the summary in the Order:
  1. This matter concerns TIAA's failure to disclose adequately conflicts of interest and dissemination of inaccurate and misleading statements in connection with recommendations that clients invested in TIAA employer-sponsored retirement plans (ESPs) roll over retirement assets into a managed account program called "Portfolio Advisor." TIAA had a conflict of interest because Portfolio Advisor generated greater revenue than other available alternatives.
  2. From January 1, 2013 through March 30, 2018, TIAA created positive incentives and negative pressures for its Wealth Management Advisors (WMAs) to prioritize the rollover of ESP assets into Portfolio Advisor over lower cost alternatives for rollover-eligible ESP participants who were receiving advisory services as part of the financial planning process TIAA offered. Those incentives and pressures included: (1) an incentive compensation plan that paid WMAs more in variable compensation when they signed clients up for the Portfolio Advisor program than for some alternatives, and (2) negative consequences for failure to meet related targets, including the placement of some WMAs on performance improvement plans and the threat of termination of employment. TIAA also trained WMAs to use the rollover process to discover areas of vulnerability for these clients, called "pain points," to "create pain" by helping clients "self-realize" the financial vulnerability, and then to recommend Portfolio Advisor as the solution to their problem.
The NYAG Action
The NYAG action took the form of a 24-page Assurance of Discontinuance. Here are the first two paragraphs of the NYAG's findings in the Assurance of Discontinuance:
  1. Beginning in or about 2012, TIAA and its salespeople used a false and misleading marketing pitch to convince investors to roll over assets from low-fee employer-sponsored retirement plans to individual managed accounts in TIAA's Portfolio Advisor program, on which TIAA charged lucrative management fees. TIA trained its salespeople to describe themselves as "objective, non-commissioned" advisors. In truth, TIAA's salespeople had a serious conflict of interest, since they were heavily incentivized—through financial compensation and supervisory and disciplinary pressures—to identify clients' "pain points" and recommend Portfolio Advisor as the preferred solution. In many cases, TIAA salespeople also presented clients with a misleading comparison of their investment options, promoting managed accounts as the only alternative to self-directed investment while downplaying or omitting advantages of employer-sponsored plans.
  2. TIAA has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in management fees on Portfolio Advisor accounts that clients opened with assets rolled over from employer-sponsored plans.
General Observations
I think the SEC/NYAG enforcement action against TIAA is an important development. For readers to understand it fully, I recommend you read in their entirety the SEC Order and the NYAG Assurance of Discontinuance. Those documents are available through links provided in this blog post.

Personal Observations
I joined the faculty of Indiana University (IU) in 1962. One year later, I was enrolled automatically in IU's faculty retirement plan with TIAA and its affiliated College Retirement Equities Fund (CREF). Since my retirement from IU, I have been receiving distributions from CREF. Thus I have had personal experience with TIAA and CREF for almost 60 years. Except for some minor administrative problems from time to time, my experience with TIAA and CREF has been satisfactory. Therefore, the news of the SEC/NYAG investigation came as a surprise and a disappointment. I knew personally some of the people (all now deceased) who were involved in the creation of IU's early relationship with TIAA. I think they would have been shocked by the findings of the SEC/NYAG investigation.