Q&A: EBRI’s new CEO Harry Conaway outlines the retirement industry’s key issues

Harry Conaway assumed the role of chief executive officer of the Employee Benefit Research Institute on Jan. 1, succeeding Dallas Salisbury, who had held that position since EBRI’s founding in 1978. Conaway, who has been a member of EBRI’s board of trustees for decade, previously was a senior partner with Mercer and head of its Washington Resources Group. Conaway, an attorney by training, began working at Mercer in 1989, following a stint at the Department of the Treasury, where he served as associate tax benefits counsel with a focus on benefits. EBN recently spoke to Conaway about EBRI and his new role.

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What do you consider EBRI’s value proposition?

EBRI is not a trade group. It's not a consulting firm. EBRI is focused, particularly in the retirement area, on collecting data that gives us a uniquely comprehensive understanding of the big picture, and at the very granular, individual level. Our database enables us to do analysis and projections of the current state of things. More importantly, we do projections of the likely impact of policy changes, such as on retirement asset accumulation, taking into account DB plans, 401(k) plans, IRAs and Social Security.


What have you been doing since you started your new job?

I’ve been doing a lot of talking to the trustees and research partners that EBRI has, and other research organizations, to learn their views of EBRI – what's working well, what really should be reviewed and refreshed or modified. I've been focused on developing the strategy plan for EBRI and priorities in 2016 and beyond. And so, I have not yet gotten involved in sort of the more operational and tactical things.

Do you anticipate any changes in EBRI’s research focus going forward?

There's a general view that we should sort of allocate more energy working with the trustees on healthcare research. Obviously that's a big topic, a complex issue, a lot of change going on there, so there are a lot of questions that independent research can help to answer. That's one area.

In the retirement area, there continues to be a lot of interest on things like the DOL fiduciary rules. It's not clear what EBRI's role would be in that, but certainly sort of the state retirement initiatives, trying to assess what auto-enrollment in those would mean or might mean at the state level, and the interaction with employer plans.

The next couple months are really set up [as] more of a participatory process with trustees where we are better able to identify and take on more cutting-edge research topics.

What are the big public policy issues in the retirement area that EBRI research is helping policymakers grapple with?

Retirement income security is of course the big one, and it’s often framed in the context of the shift from DB to DC plans. But it does seem that the distinction between DBs and DCs is sort of overdrawn in a lot of cases. There is a wide range of DB plans, and their effectiveness at contributing to retirement adequacy, and there's a wide range of DC plans and 401(k) plans as well.

It does seem that the distinction between DBs and DCs is sort of overdrawn in a lot of cases.

There’s no one rule that applies to all individuals. Accommodating the range and diversity of choices is really the theme of the day. I think we're headed more toward a mass customization approach with some embedded intelligent design or intelligent participant-specific assumptions built in to plan design.

Can you elaborate on the “intelligent design” aspect?

Service providers and employers are going to move more in the direction of pre-designed patterns that enable the employee to make intelligent choices based on his or her preferences without having to know all of the guts, all the details of these investment options or these distribution options, etc., etc. It's really trying to go beyond sort of where we are now. The target-date fund is not the final victory on that issue.

How is EBRI supporting the development of these kinds of plans?

Our economists are helping some of the trustees who are focused on this topic to assess the likely changes in retirement adequacy and 401(k) accumulations, based on different scenarios.

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Do you have a way of measuring EBRI’s impact on laws and regulatory changes in the benefit arena?

Well, there's no way to quantifiably measure it. But, I know, even as far back as when I was at the Treasury Department and Tax Policy Office in the 1980s, I relied on EBRI information and data. And in my position at Mercer, we used EBRI research, analysis and projections to help us develop policy viewpoints. EBRI has always been very involved with policymakers in Congress, the executive branch and policy organizations all around Washington.

Jack VanDerhei, our research director, gets calls from congressional staff and the professional staff on the committees of jurisdiction asking him to do special runs for them on the databases that we do have that's relating to the things that they're thinking about. And this does not necessarily get included in current legislation, but we hear from them quite frequently. And Paul Fronstin, our director of health research, also gets similar requests, particularly related to HSAs, because that's an increasingly important element on the health side. But, the fact you don't see legislation introduced doesn't mean that nothing's happening up there.

We also do a lot of work with [Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Retirement and Health Policy] Mark Iwry and with [Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security] Phyllis Borzi.

What sort of research topics related to the Affordable Care Act has EBRI taken on?

A lot of the questions we get are around the effectiveness of different design options, or the role that public and private health exchanges are playing, the robustness of the individual health plan market and the impact that might have on employer plans. As for the broader impact of the ACA, we would have to talk with the trustees and the health economists to see whether we thought this was something that we would want to try to look at. We want to focus our energy where we can make a difference, and not just be another source of noise adding to the dissonance.

How is EBRI doing financially?

The membership and the revenue trends over the last several years have been flat, basically. And lot of that is because of mergers of the companies our trustees work for. Also companies are being very careful about how much they invest in policy-related activities. But we have strong reserves and are in a very stable position.

During political campaigns, candidates often make sweeping statements about the plight of the average working family, and how they’re going to fix it. Do you think EBRI data ever bubbles to the top and informs the things candidates say?

EBRI's data is relevant, regardless of whether anybody thinks that candidates, Congress or the administration is taking a thoughtful approach to policy changes. My view is facts play a role as policymakers combine their vision of the future, with practical considerations of how to get things done. Facts can always have an impact on priorities and policy decisions. That's EBRI’s niche. And we need to continue to work hard – always do better, but work hard on that path to research and analyze and identify implications and perspectives around the various proposals based on the facts.

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