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Aron Szapiro: 'You Can't Fix What You Can't Measure'

Morningstar's director of policy research on what's ailing the U.S. retirement system, the new SEC rule on advisor conflicts of interest, and why policy recommendations must be data-driven.

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Is there a retirement crisis in the United States, and what role does the government have in improving the system? What's the current status of a fiduciary standard for financial advice? 

Aron Szapiro, Morningstar's director of policy research and our guest for The Long View podcast, obsesses over these topics. In his role, he and his team conduct research on various matters of public policy and formulate views on policy proposals under consideration by Congress and regulatory bodies. Szapiro has testified before Congress, and he has an inside view of how Washington works: Before venturing into the private sector, he was a senior analyst in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and he also worked for the New Jersey state legislature. 

In this wide-ranging interview, Szapiro defines Morningstar's approach to policy research and homes in on some of the policy matters dominating our discourse today: whether financial advisors should be held to a fiduciary standard, how the U.S. retirement system might be improved, and whether meaningful retirement legislation can make it through partisan gridlock in Washington. 

This conversation was recorded on April 30, 2019. Since then, the House passed the SECURE Act (on May 23); that legislation has provisions related to annuities in 401(k) plans, multiple employer plans, and required minimum distributions. As of June 11, 2019, the provisions have not passed the Senate. And the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a final version of Regulation Best Interest, which aims to hold broker/dealers to a higher standard of care than was previously required.

Show Notes and References

Background and Professional Development
Szapiro's trajectory into policy research: "It was this arcane language that I wanted to understand." (1:15-2:39)

10 Millennials Making Their Mark on Washington and Beyond 

Policy Research
What policy means at Morningstar and for investors: "Policy really drives and dictates a lot of what ends up happening to investors." (2:40-4:55)

How his team avoids conflicts with Morningstar's business interests: "What would be best for investors and what evidence do we have to support that position?" (4:56-6:25)

How his team works to ground policy recommendations in the data: "What we don't do is we don't try to make values-based arguments." (6:26-8:25)

On whether investors are shaping the investment landscape more than policymakers are: "It's in government's long-term interest to make sure we have a system that protects and empowers people to save and make some decisions." (8:26-10:35)

Policy Matters Today
The state of fiduciary regulation for financial advisors: "It's sort of a mess." (10:36-14:53)

States' role in creating policies that affect investors: "I hope these things build toward a federal solution." (14:54-16:58)

What will drive substantive change in Washington with respect to the investment and retirement landscape: "It's a very slow-moving ship." (16:59-19:51)

The State of the U.S. Retirement System
Retirement preparedness in the U.S.: "There are a lot of people who have been left behind by the fragmented system that we have." (19:52-22:48)

How to measure retirement adequacy: "People should be able to sustain their standard of living that they had during their working lives in retirement." (22:49-24:13)

Whether today's retirees are running out of money, and how we would know. "You don't want to do policy by anecdote." (24:14-26:38)

On the bifurcation in retirement-plan quality between big and small employers. "Small employers are busy keeping the lights on." (26:39-29:22)

On whether the Thrift Savings Plan for federal workers should be available to more workers. "It's great as a model that others can aspire to." (29:23-31:50)

About the Podcast: The Long View is a podcast from Morningstar. Each week, hosts Christine Benz and Jeff Ptak conduct an in-depth discussion with a thought leader from the world of investing or personal finance. The podcast is produced by George Castady and Scott Halver.

About the Hosts: Christine Benz and Jeff Ptak have been analysts and commentators on investments and the investment industry for many years. Christine is Morningstar's director of personal finance and senior columnist for Jeff is head of global manager research for Morningstar Research Services, overseeing Morningstar's team of 120 manager research analysts in the U.S. and overseas.

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