Saturday, December 09, 2017

Is Your 401(k) Kinda Bullsh*t?

The headline of a recent article didn’t pose that as a question. And that should make you think.

The article, penned by a not-yet-30-year old, was mostly negative on the nation’s primary private retirement savings vehicle, but to my read, that wasn’t her fault. Rather, it was the net result of the feedback she got from a number of what we might consider the “usual suspects” who garner headlines that bash the 401(k), including (at least indirectly) the man the mainstream media credits with being its “father” (trust me, there’s more to it than that).

One of the folks she talked to was yours truly – and while I clearly wasn’t persuasive enough to overturn (completely) the cynicism with which I sensed she came to our conversation (at one point she went so far as to say, “you’re a lot more positive about the 401(k) than anyone else I’ve talked to”).

In the course of our conversation we covered a lot of ground – the origins of the 401(k), why traditional pensions have faded in the private sector, the notion that they were widespread and provided full benefits to those who were covered, the benefit of the employer match, and the innovations (like automatic enrollment and target-date designs) that have helped the 401(k) become “better” since I began saving.

Not all of that made it into the article, and some of it was worded differently than I would have explained it – but it was clear that she was listening and trying to understand, even though her article indicates she spent only two days doing her research.

That said, last week if you had Googled “401(k)”, her article came up a lot higher than anything I had managed to write in the last month (though, in fairness, I almost never use profanity in my titles, and reserve use of the “f” word for things like fiduciary).

There is good news here. The author’s cynicism (and misunderstanding of the U.K.’s pension system) notwithstanding, she’s (already) saving in her 401(k), cognizant of issues like fees and investments, and willing to press for continued improvements even as she continues to save. She sees value in having access to the advice of an ERISA fiduciary (though, perhaps since we didn’t discuss it, she doesn’t quite understand the impact of the fiduciary rule, or that it’s currently in place), and is desirous of steps that would make the 401(k) simpler and easier to use by non-experts.

Her 401(k) may still be “kinda bullshit.” But I’m pretty happy with mine. How about you?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Familiar ‘Grounds’?

A recent report by the GAO paints a pretty bleak picture of American retirement. Is it accurate?

For the most part, the report covered familiar ground, bemoaning the “marked shift” away from the traditional defined benefit pension plan (glossing over how few private sector workers were covered by these plans, even in their heyday, and the fraction of those who received a full pension), and highlighting low savings rates, the pervasive lack of broad-based access to workplace retirement plans and the daunting challenges confronting even those who do enjoy that access.

The report also spends several of its 173 pages chronicling (with pictures) the ways in which “leakage” also undermines retirement savings. And for good measure, it invokes the findings of the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index  — which the GAO calls the “most comprehensive” — that ranks the U.S. retirement system 20th out of 25 countries surveyed (and gives us a “C” grade). Indeed, the report treads such familiar ground in such a familiar way that it hardly seems controversial.

In fairness, having seen, studied and even commented on the data, reports and surveys cited in the GAO report, the authors can hardly be faulted for their air of pessimism. As they explain in their introduction, “More and more people are retiring, and many are living longer in retirement. Health care costs are rising, Social Security is stretched to the limit, and debt — both personal and public — is a threat to financial security.” But in retreading this “familiar” ground, they also restate as fact some things that have been drawn into question — and gloss over some more recent findings that provide valuable context.

‘Over’ Looked?

For example, the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF) is a widely cited report, and is invoked repeatedly by the GAO in its assessment of the resources available to American workers in retirement. This is a reputable and well-regarded source of consumer information, drawn from a sampling of about 6,000 households (different ones every cycle). That said, the information contained is “self-reported,” which is to say that it tells you what individuals think they have (or perhaps wish they had), but not necessarily what they actually have. Now, the GAO has previously relied on this data — and in fact recalls a 2015 report by the GAO that claimed (and was titled) “Most Households Approaching Retirement Have Low Savings.”

The rationale for the “most” in the 2015 report headline appears to come from its focus on households age 55 and older, where the GAO noted that (only) 48% had some retirement savings, and thus one might reasonably assume that the remaining 52% had no retirement savings — and that would seem to be the case. However, 23% of that 52% said they had a defined benefit plan. Now, that assessment may be inaccurate (see above), but if they do, in fact, have a DB plan, that plus Social Security might well be sufficient. So, “most” have no savings, but about half of that “most” might not need savings. Admittedly, that distinction makes for a clumsy headline.

Among those age 55-64 with no retirement savings, the median net worth was $21,000 (about half of these had no wage or salary income), while among those in the same age bracket with any retirement savings, their median net worth was $337,000. Compared to those with retirement savings, these households (those aged 55-64 with no retirement savings) have about one-third of the median income and about one-fifteenth of the median net worth, and are less likely to be covered by a DB plan. The bottom line is that, even accepting the self-reported data of these individuals, there is a considerable disparity, and one that suggests that a more targeted analysis (and dare I suggest remedy) might be more in order.

In evaluating things like retirement income and coverage, the GAO report draws on information from, among other sources, the Current Population Survey (and in some cases other reports based on that information). While it is one of the most-cited sources of income data for those whose ages are associated with being retired (typically ages 65 or older), and has also been used to provide annual estimates of employment-based retirement plan participation, a 2014 redesign of the questionnaire has resulted in much lower estimates of the percentages of workers who participate in an employment-based retirement plan. In fact, the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has cautioned that it has resulted in historically “sharp and significant” reductions in the levels of worker participation in employment-based retirement plans.

Missed ‘Out’?

Not mentioned in the GAO report (but cited in a recent Forbes article by Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute) is an analysis by Census Bureau economists Adam Bee and Joshua Mitchell, who used IRS data to measure the share of new retirees receiving benefits from private retirement plans. Biggs notes that in 1984, only 23% of new retirees received any sort of private pension benefits, but by 2007, 45% of new retirees received private pension benefits.

As for the aforementioned ranking of the U.S. retirement system, it’s really hard to compare apples to oranges, as such comparisons inevitably do. But in the Forbes article noted above, Biggs reminds us that Mercer measures adequacy by virtue of things like tax preferences for retirement savings, ages at which participants can access their savings, whether savings must be annuitized, etc. As things to consider, perhaps — but a ranking based on subjective weightings and criteria that includes certain qualitative factors doesn’t necessarily produce an objective result.

‘Post’ Retirement

Another recent analysis, “Using Panel Tax Data to Examine the Transition to Retirement” — conducted by Peter J. Brady and Steven Bass of the Investment Company Institute and Jessica Holland and Kevin Pierce of the IRS — found that most individuals were able to maintain their inflation‐adjusted net work‐related income after claiming Social Security. Looking only at how much individuals reported as net income on their taxes the year before they started drawing Social Security benefits, compared with the three years after they began that draw, they found that, looking at working individuals age 55 to 61 in 1999 who did not receive Social Security benefits that year, three years after they started claiming Social Security (which could be viewed as a proxy of sorts for entering retirement) that median ratio of net work‐related income at that point compared to net work‐related income one year before claiming was 103% — which means, of course, that three years later, they are actually reporting (slightly) higher income levels than they were prior to retirement. Does that mean they will still be doing so a decade later? No — but why not even an acknowledgement that such results have been documented with actual IRS data?

Other Points

The GAO report does remind us that where you work matters (in 2016, 89% of workers in information services had access to an employer-sponsored plan, compared with 32% of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry), and how you work matters (“one reason lower-income workers lack access to employer-sponsored retirement plans is that they struggle to meet plan eligibility requirements related to sufficient tenure and hours worked”) in terms of having access to a retirement plan, and how much you make really matters (“…workers in the lowest income quartile were nearly four times less likely to work for an employer that offered a retirement plan, based on our analysis of 2012 SIPP data, controlling for other factors”). And it highlights the critical importance of, and the very real danger posed to the nation’s retirement security by the projected shortfalls in Social Security.

On the other hand, for some reason the GAO report cites the creation of the QDIA safe harbor as a failure of sorts, in that no surge in new plan adoption accompanied it (completely disregarding the huge boost to diversified savings and increased participation via automatic enrollment that has resulted). Ditto the demise of the MyRA, whose dismal take-up rate stood in some contrast to its shockingly high cost. It had a different — and more sympathetic — perspective on the state-run programs for private sector workers, decrying the uncertain status of such offerings after the signing of legislation that overturned the safe harbor rule from the Obama administration.

Ultimately, the GAO report makes one very simple recommendation: the appointment of an independent commission to “comprehensively examine the U.S. retirement system and make recommendations to clarify key policy goals for the system and improve how the nation can promote more stable retirement security.” All well and good.

But here’s hoping that, should such a committee be formed, it will look beyond the all-too-familiar ground that the GAO chose to tread.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Thankful Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has been called a “uniquely American” holiday, and though that is perhaps something of an overstatement, it is unquestionably a special holiday, and one on which it seems appropriate to reflect on all for which we should be thankful.

Here’s my list for 2017:

I am thankful that – for the moment, anyway – it looks as though retirement savings will be largely spared tax reform’s ravages (though I’m not convinced that we’re out of the woods – yet). 

I’m thankful that participants, by and large, continue to hang in there with their commitment to retirement savings, despite lingering economic uncertainty and competing financial priorities, such as rising health care costs and college debt.

I’m thankful for the strong savings and investment behaviors emerging among younger workers – and for the innovations in plan design and employer support that foster them. I’m thankful that, as powerful as those mechanisms are in encouraging positive savings behavior, we continue to look for ways to improve and enhance their influence(s).

I’m thankful for qualified default investment alternatives that make it easy for participants to create well-diversified and regularly rebalanced investment portfolios — and for the thoughtful and on-going review of those options by prudent plan fiduciaries.

I’m thankful that those reviews are guided, in a growing number of situations, by the thoughtful input of advisors who are ERISA fiduciaries.

I’m thankful that so many employers voluntarily choose to offer a workplace retirement plan — and that so many workers, given an opportunity to participate, do.

I’m thankful that the vast majority of workers defaulted into retirement savings programs tend to remain there — and that there are mechanisms (automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration and qualified default investment alternatives) in place to help them save and invest better than they might otherwise.

I’m thankful that figuring out ways to expand access to workplace retirement plans remains, even now, a bipartisan focus – even if the ways to address it aren’t always.

I’m thankful that so many employers choose to match contributions or to make profit-sharing contributions (or both), for without those matching dollars, many workers would likely not participate or contribute at their current levels — and they would surely have far less set aside for retirement.

I’m thankful that the on-going “plot” to kill the 401(k)… still hasn’t. Yet.

I’m thankful to be part of a team that champions retirement savings – and to be a part of helping improve and enhance that system.

I’m thankful that those who regulate our industry continue to seek the input of those in the industry — and that so many, particularly those among our membership, take the time and energy to provide that input.

I’m thankful for all of you who have supported – and I hope benefited from – our various conferences, education programs and communications throughout the year.

I’m thankful for the constant – and enthusiastic – support of our Firm Partners and advertisers.

I’m thankful for the warmth with which readers and members, both old and new, continue to embrace the work we do here.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to acknowledge so many outstanding professionals in our industry through our Top Women Advisor, Top Young Advisor (Young Guns) and Top DC Wholesaler (Wingmen) lists. And thankful to have had such a tremendous response to the newest addition here - our Top DC Advisor Team list.
 
I am thankful for the blue-ribbon panels of judges that bring so much expertise and insight to those evaluations.

I’m thankful for the prospect of expanding the reach and impact of our work here to plan sponsors via the contemplated combination with the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

I’m thankful to be part of a growing organization in an important industry at a critical time. I’m thankful to be able, in some small way, to make a difference.

But most of all, I’m once again thankful for the unconditional love and patience of my family, the camaraderie of an expanding circle of dear friends and colleagues, the opportunity to write and share these thoughts — and for the ongoing support and appreciation of readers…like you.

Thanks for all you do to help make our nation’s retirements better.  

Have a VERY happy Thanksgiving!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 18, 2017

4 Retirement Savings Benchmarks That (Generally) Miss the Mark

Behavioral finance tells us that human beings are prone to relying on heuristics – mental shortcuts, if you will – to solve complex problems. While these may not be very accurate, survey data and anecdotal evidence suggest that participants often rely on these benchmarks.

Here are four that workers use more often than we’d perhaps like to admit.

The Company Match

Survey data and academic research have long suggested a link between the employer match and the level to which workers contribute. Indeed, there has been evidence (frequently invoked by advocates of the so-called “stretch” match) that it’s not the amount of the match that motivates, but the existence of the match at any level.

There is, in fact, evidence that a lot of people save only as much as they need to receive the full employer match (unfortunately, there’s also evidence that many don’t take full advantage – particularly lower income workers – and confusion about how much you need to save to get the full match.

There are, of course, a number of factors that go into determining the amount and level of the match; how much individuals need to set aside for their own personal retirement goals is almost certainly not one of those factors.

Saving to the level of the employer match is certainly a good starting point, but unless it’s truly extraordinary – well, it’s likely not “enough.”

The Automatic Enrollment Default

While you see surveys suggesting that a greater variety of default contribution rates is emerging, the most common rate today – as it was prior to its codification in the Pension Protection Act more than a decade ago – remains 3%. There is some interesting history on how that 3% rate originally came to be (it’s been the standard default for such programs going back to when they were still called “negative elections”), but the reality is that it has become that default because it is widely seen as a rate that is small enough that participants won’t be willing to expend the time and energy to opt out (if they even notice the withholding).

Little wonder that in automatic enrollment plans at Vanguard, more than half (55%) are contributing below the match initially, and one in five (21%) is still below that level after three years.

For those who worry that a higher default would trigger a higher rate of opt-outs, surveys indicate that the “stick” rate with a 6% default is largely identical to 3%. And though there are indications that the default savings rate is moving up from the traditional 3%, there is one thing that you’d like to think everyone knows.

Saving at a 3% rate, unless you have alternate financial resources, is definitely not “enough.”

The Pre-tax Cap

At the height of the Rothification “scare” (and make no mistake, we’re not out of those woods yet), there was a sense that existing automatic enrollment programs might be affected. Specifically, that plan sponsors wouldn’t be comfortable simply continuing to auto-enroll above whatever pre-tax cap was established by legislation ($2,400 was the rumored level at that moment) without some independent approval by the participant (setting aside the irony in turning to an automatically enrolled participant for some direction). Moreover, some providers had echoed that sentiment, saying that they would feel obliged to place that cap in the plans they recordkeep with automatic enrollment provisions — at least until plan sponsors told them otherwise. And if plan sponsors aren’t comfortable making that switch with their automatic enrollment programs — well, you can see how that Roth limit could in short order actually become a limit on retirement savings.

But one of the more unique arguments I heard against Rothification at the time was that that a pre-tax cap, whatever it turned out to be, would be viewed by workers as some kind of de facto sign from the government that the amount they would allow you to save on a pre-tax basis would be seen as a proxy for the “right” amount to save for an adequate retirement.

And just about the time you find yourself thinking, “there’s just no way anybody could be that stupid” – the sad reality sinks in.

A Guess

In the 2017 edition of the Retirement Confidence Survey, just 4 in 10 workers (41%) report they and/or their spouse have ever tried to calculate how much money they will need to have saved so that they can live comfortably in retirement (the all-time high was 53% in 2000). Not surprisingly, workers reporting that they or their spouse participate in a retirement plan are significantly more likely than those who do not participate in such a plan to have tried a calculation (49% vs. 15%).

Now, over the quarter-century (and change) of its publication by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, the Retirement Confidence Survey has produced any number of interesting, compelling, and even startling findings. And yet, the one that continues to puzzle me is not the percentage of workers who say that they have ever tried to calculate how much they need to save for a comfortable retirement – but the proportion of those who say that evaluation was based on… a guess. That’s not a finding included in this year’s RCS, but in the past, it was as much as 45%.

Several years back, those individuals were asked how much they need to save each year from now until they retire so they can live comfortably in retirement; one in five put that figure at between 20% and 29%, and nearly one-quarter (23%) cited a target of 30% or more. Those targets are larger than one might expect, and larger than the savings reported by RCS respondents would indicate.

All of which brings to mind the following; were the savings projections so high because so many workers didn’t do a savings needs calculation — or did participants avoid doing a savings needs calculation because they thought the results would be too high?

Or both.

Benchmarks can provide a ready and relevant measure of progress against goals. But if the goal is short of the need, the benchmark may be of little use.

There’s an old saying: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” And indeed, for many retirement savers who are relying on unreliable benchmarks, that “somewhere else” could be a pretty unpleasant destination.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 11, 2017

4 Reasons Why an Average 401(k) Balance Doesn’t ‘Mean’ Much

In recent days, we’ve gotten updates on average savings rates and 401(k) balances, and while for the very most part the reports have been positive and “directionally accurate,” I’ve always taken such findings with a grain of salt. Not so many in the press.

Indeed, the press coverage of those reports is generally quite negative, in the “how can people possibly retire on those small amounts” vein.

Here are four things to keep in mind about those “average” 401(k) balances.

Your average 401(k) balance may not be based on very many plans or participants.

Some reports of plan design trends and average balances may do so based on a relatively small customer base, and/or homogenous plan size. That doesn’t mean the results are without value – but let’s face it, sample size matters in discerning trends. The average 401(k) balance in a universe of 50 plans is surely less instructive than one that is a hundred times that size. In all surveys, sample size matters. And when it comes to averages, it matters a lot.

Your average 401(k) balance includes some very different people and circumstances.

Your average “average 401(k) balance” includes a broad array of circumstances: participants who may (or may not) have a DB program, who are of all ages, who receive widely different levels of pay, who work for employers that provide varying levels of match, and who live (and may retire) in completely different parts of the country. You might even have situations where ex-participants (who have zero balances in this plan, but might have balances elsewhere) are included in the mix. Those are all factors with enormous impact in terms of evaluating retirement income adequacy, and yet, because it is an average of so many varied circumstances, the result is almost never “enough” to provide anything remotely resembling an adequate source of retirement income.

This conclusion that the average is woefully inadequate as a retirement income measure is the main point, and often the only point, that is reiterated somewhat incessantly (and generally without the caveats about its somewhat tortured compilation) in the press.

Your average 401(k) balance doesn’t include the same people.

People change jobs all the time, and with astonishingly persistent regularity. High-turnover plans and plans in high turnover industries, almost by definition, will pull down averages. And when workers change jobs, they “start over” in their new employer’s plan. The bottom line is that the average 401(k) balance from a year ago almost certainly doesn’t include exactly the same participants. So exactly how valid are trendlines in average balances among completely different individuals?

Mitigating the distortions inherent with these averages, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) makes a point of reporting on consistent 401(k) savers, specifically in its most recent analysis, participants who were part of the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database throughout the five-year period of 2010 through 2015. Their report finds that this consistent group had median and average account balances that were much higher than the median and average account balances of the broader EBRI/ICI 401(k) database. How much higher? Nearly double at the average, and consistent participants had nearly four times the median account balance of the broader group.

Makes you wonder about all those conclusions based on the averages of inconsistent participants…

Your average 401(k) balance doesn’t include the same plans.

It’s not just workers who move around – 401(k) plans change providers all the time. And when they change providers, their plan and participant balances move as well. So, if in 2015 your plan (and 401(k) balances) were being recordkept by Provider A, those balances would be picked up in their report of average 401(k) balances. Now, you change to Provider B in 2016. All of a sudden your plan’s account balances “disappear” from Provider A’s reporting – and now show up in the numbers reported by Provider B. The net effect? Well, that could mean that the average balances as reported by Provider A decrease – not because of any change in savings behaviors, but simply because a plan (and its accompanying balances) have moved to a different provider’s base.

Yes, I’d say that your average 401(k) balance is, generally speaking, mathematically accurate – and, at least in terms of ascertaining the nation’s retirement readiness, nearly completely useless.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Tax Reform – ‘Tricks’ or Treat?

A few weeks back, my wife and I went to see the updated version of It. Now, I’ve been a fan of King’s work ever since a friend shared a copy of Salem’s Lot with me, though his work doesn’t always translate as well to the big screen. “It” is a malevolent entity that emerges about once every 27 years to feed, during which period it takes on various shapes designed to lure its prey – generally children, and then it returns to a hibernation of sorts. “It”’s most notorious incarnation is, of course, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (the lovely visage below).

Ironically, tax reform too seems to be a once-in-a-generational thing. It’s been 30 years since the Tax Reform of 1986 cut tax rates1 – and cut into retirement plan saving and formation with the creation of the 402(g) limit (and its tepid COLA pace), not to mention the cost and timing issues associated with multiple iterations of the nondiscrimination testing that often produced problematic refunds for the highly compensated group. There’s little question that those changes (and others) did what they were designed to do – generate additional tax revenue by limiting the deferral of taxes. But what did those constraints do for retirement security?

Much of that damage wasn’t repaired until – well, 2001 with the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA) – which, somewhat ironically, introduced the concept of the Roth 401(k).

Rothification Response

While tax reform has wrought its damage on retirement savings before, this time around a new way to raise revenue has emerged – “Rothification,” loosely defined as the limiting or elimination of the current pre-tax contribution limits.

We don’t really know what workers would do confronted with that kind of change (the surveys that are available – though not completely on point suggest that the response might be modest) – though we do know that if current participants continued to save at the same rate, retirement readiness would likely improve. There are also signs that it would be seen as a big enough change that some, perhaps many, plan sponsors would want to rethink, if not reconsider, their current automatic enrollment assumptions.

We may not know with certainty those outcomes, but there are lots of reasons to be nervous, if not downright fearful of change to retirement plans, particularly one that seems likely to give plan sponsors – and plan participants – a reason to rethink their current savings rates. Granted, surveys show that most plans already offer a Roth option, and more recent surveys indicate that most plan sponsors would continue to offer a plan even if the current pre-tax option for 401(k)s was reduced and/or eliminated (and how sad would it be if a plan sponsor decided to walk away from offering a plan just because the pre-tax savings option was clipped).

We also know that more than half of current 401(k) contributors would be affected by a $2,400 pre-tax contribution limit, based on data from the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), using their Retirement Security Projection Model® (based on information from millions of administrative records from 401(k) recordkeepers), and that the impact reaches down to some very moderate income levels.

That said, we don’t yet know – and this is significant – if the tax reform proposals that emerge this month will include some version of Rothification, nor at what level the Rothification restriction might be imposed (as it turns out, Rothification was NOT included in this first round!).

‘Pass’ Tense?

Consider the recent “unintended” consequence of a proposed tax break for pass-through entities (i.e., partnerships, S corps, and small business limited liability corporations). More than 320,000 of these entities sponsor a retirement plan (with the average size being 75 employees) – unfortunately, many of these businesses may reconsider adopting or maintaining a qualified retirement plan because of significant financial disincentives woven into the fabric of the tax reform proposal, which would establish a 25% maximum pass-through rate on that business income, versus the 35% top rate on ordinary income (as well as the favorable tax rate on capital gains income at 20%) that would be assessed when the money is withdrawn at retirement. In other words, the small business owner’s plan contributions and accumulated earnings will be taxed at 35% instead of the 25% pass-through rate and the 20% capital gains rate on accumulated earnings.

There are some things about tax reform proposals that we do know. One, that lawmakers – and sometimes regulators – often seem to operate on the assumption that employers will, and indeed must, offer a workplace retirement plan no matter what changes or cost burdens are imposed on plan administration. With an eye toward narrowing the benefit gap between higher-paid and non-highly compensated workers, limits are imposed that often outweigh the modest financial incentives offered to businesses, particularly small businesses, to sponsor these programs. This, despite the striking coverage gap among those who work for these small businesses, and the potentially burdensome administrative requirements and additional costs that the owner must absorb, alongside a pervasive sense that their workers aren’t really interested in the benefit (or, perhaps more accurately, would prefer cold, hard cash).

The debates about modifying retirement plan tax preferences – or the notion that these preferences are “upside down,” and thus may be dispensed with – are bandied about as though those changes would have no impact at all on the calculus of those making the decisions to offer and support these programs with matching contributions. In other words, while some attempt is made to quantify the response of workers to changes in their incentives, most studies simply assume that employers will “suck it up.”

Well, this week the GOP is slated to unveil its proposal for tax reform in the House of Representatives, and shortly thereafter we should see a separate GOP proposal emerge in the Senate. Those will have to be reconciled, and these days that’s no slam dunk.

It remains to be see what tax reform – with all its laudable objectives – might mean for retirement plans this time around. But here’s hoping that, if tax reform turns out to be “Pennywise,” it won’t be “pound” foolish.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Footnote
  1. And the time before that was 1954… with the creation of the Internal Revenue Code.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Forseeable Consequences

It is all too common in human affairs to make choices that have “unforeseeable consequences.” And then there are those situations where people should have known better. Like the current rumors about capping employee pre-tax contributions at $2,400.

Having the opportunity to put off paying taxes is something that most Americans relish — even those whose tax bracket means they really don’t wind up owing taxes. While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it is the employer match, rather than the (temporary) tax deduction that influences worker savings, most are happy to get both. Indeed, the ability to defer paying taxes on pay that you set aside for retirement is part and parcel of the 401(k) (though cash or deferred arrangements predated that change to the Internal Revenue Code).

Enter the talk about “Rothification” — the limit, or perhaps even complete elimination, of pre-tax contributions to 401(k)s. While a definitive notion of how participants would respond remains elusive, recent industry surveys have indicated a great deal of concern on the part of plan sponsors about their response. I’ve little doubt that some people would reduce their savings (if only because they would have less take-home pay), but certainly those who are anticipating a higher tax bracket in retirement than at present (are you listening younger workers?), the ability to pay a low tax rate now, while gaining the tax-free accumulation of earnings, and the freedom from mandated RMDs, makes a lot of sense. Older workers too might appreciate the tax diversification moving to Roth affords.

In considering the potential impact, I also drew comfort from the reality that so many of today’s workers are being automatically enrolled in their workplace savings plan. They may well have contemplated the potential tax implications before allowing that deduction to take place, but I’d guess most had not. And thus, a switch to Roth as an automatic deduction seemed unlikely to me unlikely to raise more than a brief ripple in current savings rates.

There are, however, signs that reactions beyond that of plan participants could produce seismic shocks. There were reports that some plan sponsors were not comfortable simply “flipping” automatic enrollment to Roth from pre-tax, at least not without some affirmative participant direction. Moreover, in recent days, a number of providers have been heard saying that, if a provision that would limit pre-tax contributions to something like the recently rumored $2,400, that they would feel obliged to place that cap in the plans they recordkeep with automatic enrollment provisions — at least until plan sponsors told them otherwise. And if plan sponsors aren’t comfortable making that switch with their automatic enrollment programs — well, you can see how that Roth limit could in short order actually become a limit on retirement savings.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the most recent set of tax reform rumors is the $2,400 limit itself. If it strikes you as a pretty low threshold, you’d be correct. None other than the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) using their Retirement Security Projection Model® (based on information from millions of administrative records from 401(k) recordkeepers), found that more than half of current 401(k) contributors would be impacted by a $2,400 contribution Roth. Even at the lowest wage levels ($10,000 to $25,000), nearly 4-in-10 (38%) of the 401(k) contributors would be impacted by the $2,400 threshold, as would 60% of those in the $50,000-$75,000 salary range. Can you say “middle-income tax increase”?

Tax reform might not happen, and even if it does happen, it might not touch retirement plans, or the delicate balances that incentivize both workers to save, and employers to offer the programs that allow workers to save.

Those who craft such legislation would do well to heed the danger signs already emerging from constraining and/or undermining retirement savings. It’s one thing, after all, to implement change without understanding or appreciating those consequences that are unintended, and something else altogether to know full well that those changes will have a negative impact, and then plow ahead with them regardless.

Those “foreseeable” consequences might — and should — have foreseeable consequences of their own for those who choose to disregard them.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD