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February 9, 2021
What lessons can one learn following the ExxonMobil Savings Plan (EMSP) for over 40 years?
I began as a participant back when it was the “Exxon Thrift Fund.” I was involved in its design and administration during the latter part of my ExxonMobil career.
More recently, as a financial advisor, I’ve assisted employees and retirees with managing or taking distributions from their EMSP accounts.
Four decades have given me a chance to observe successes as well as a few common mistakes. I want to share four mistakes I’ve seen. All are preventable with a bit of effort and education.
Not everyone enjoys investing or planning for retirement. I get that. But not focusing on a benefit like the EMSP is irresponsible. I’ve seen cases where an employee has put their account on autopilot and not looked back.
One should not over-manage the account. It’s an excellent fund for accumulating dollars and letting the power of compounding take hold. But occasionally, plan modifications are introduced, laws or IRS regulations change, or personal circumstances suggest a change in approach.
Read the Summary Plan Description, call an E&Y Financial Fitness advisor, or engage a knowledgeable financial advisor. These are a few ways to educate yourself on the EMSP. It can be a powerful benefit. You might be surprised how many folks have more than $1M in their account. But that doesn’t happen without some effort by the participant.
Some participants, put off by choices they don’t understand, decide to invest a large percentage of their contributions in one or two of the options. Often, it is ExxonMobil stock. Or the risk-averse participant opts to keep the bulk of their funds in Common Assets. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why a failure to diversify is a mistake. Unfortunately, hindsight doesn’t undo the mistakes of the past.
Generally, ExxonMobil employees are intelligent, self-confident, and resourceful. That’s part of the attraction of working at the company. But one of the toughest challenges each of us ever has is to recognize the limitations of our knowledge. It’s hard to know what we don’t know.
I remember the case of an ExxonMobil HR executive who retired with many low-cost shares of XOM in his account. Sometime later, I ran into him at someone else’s retirement party and asked him what he had done with his NUA stock. A blank look came across his face. He laughed nervously and said, “What’s NUA stock?” He didn’t realize he may have missed out on a good opportunity. He’d never bothered to ask anyone to explain NUA stock to him.
There are similar opportunities in other corners of the ExxonMobil benefits world. Discovering what you don’t know isn’t easy, but an inquisitive mind, attention to what others may be doing, and curiosity about how things work all help. Being humble enough to acknowledge that you may not know everything can be profitable.
It is not surprising that participants in the EMSP look at their accounts as distinct from the rest of their wealth. It is a stand-alone plan with its own rules and investment options. But failing to consider it in the context of one’s entire portfolio can set you up to invest too conservatively.
ExxonMobil employees often retire with lump sum pension benefits exceeding their Savings Plan balances. It’s hard to generalize. Much depends on contribution levels and investment choices. But the point is that after a full career, your XOM pension can be a significant benefit.
A good way to understand the significance of that from an investing perspective is to envision a pie chart of your retirement assets. At retirement, perhaps half of your assets will be in your Savings Plan. Another roughly half may be in the form of a lump sum settlement of your pension benefit.
Conservative investors with a decades-long investment horizon may wish to split their portfolios into roughly 50% equities and 50% fixed income.
Your pension benefit could be considered fixed income—its value won’t fluctuate based on stock market volatility. How about your EMSP balance? If a significant portion is invested in Bond Units or Common Assets, your allocation to stocks (or equities) will be reduced, and you could be more exposed to fixed income than you want.
Add in Social Security benefits, and you be more heavily weighted to fixed income than you imagined.
My point here is not to encourage you to invest aggressively but rather to take stock of your total investment. You may be happy with your overall allocation. But do so knowingly rather than by default.
It’s tempting to put off thinking about your EMSP account while you’re struggling to meet deadlines and finish projects. My recommendation is the opposite: make the time to assess your current investment allocation and contribution level and think through how your EMSP account fits into your retirement plans. And if you want help in doing that, we’d be glad to help. Let’s talk.
Cerity Partners is not endorsed by or affiliated with Exxon Mobil Corp.
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Doug is a Partner based in the Houston office and a member of the firm’s Wealth Management practice. He is responsible for delivering investment and...
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