Saturday, October 25, 2014

Room to Grow

Several months back we acquired an aquarium, and I looked forward to filling it up with all kinds and sizes of exotic fish – only to be disappointed to find out that, despite the massive displays of what appeared to be whole schools of fish in similar sized tanks at the pet store, our tank would only support a handful of the fish I had hoped to display. The reason; they need room to thrive and grow. The more fish you want to have (and live), the bigger the tank.

The IRS has now announced the new contribution and benefit limits for 2015. Most were increased, notably the annual contribution limits for 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans (from $17,500, where it has been for the past two years, to $18,000) and the catch-up contributions for those over age 50 (from $5,500, where it has remained since 2009, to $6,000).

But since industry surveys suggest that “only” about 9%-12% currently contribute to those levels, does it matter?

It’s worth remembering, of course, that these adjustments only reflect increases in the cost of living; you’d need more than $6,000 to buy what that $5,500 catch-up contribution would have gotten you in 2009. Moreover, they are timed in such a way that those increases must accumulate to a certain level before the adjustment kicks in.

But why don’t more people max out on those contributions? Well, cynics might say it’s because only the wealthy can afford to set aside that much. But at Vanguard only 36% of workers making more than $100,000 a year maxed out their contributions. If these limits and incentives work only to the advantage of the rich, why aren’t more maxing out?

Limit 'Ed'

Those who look only at the outside of the current tax incentives generally gloss over the reality that there are a whole series of benefit/contribution limits and nondiscrimination test requirements. These rules are, by their very design, intended to maintain a balance between the benefits that these programs provide between more highly compensated individuals and the rest of the plan participants (those rules also help to ensure a broad-based eligibility for these programs). Surely those limits are working to cap the contributions of individuals who would surely like to put more aside, if the combination of laws and limits allowed.

In that vein, one of the comments you hear frequently from those who want to do away with the current retirement system is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down,” that they go primarily to those at higher income levels, those who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. And from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes. Indeed, if those “upside-down incentives” were the only forces at work, one might reasonably expect to find that the higher the individual’s salary, the higher the overall account balance would be, as a multiple of salary.

However, drawing on the actual administrative data from the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute found that those ratios were relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000. In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes — and not “upside down.”

Again, what keeps these potential disparities in check is the series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Internal Revenue Code Sections 402(g) and 415(c), combined with ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time to do just that — to maintain a certain parity between highly compensated and non-highly compensated workers in the benefits available from these programs. The data suggest they are having exactly that impact.

But let’s think for a minute about a group that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. It’s the group — millions of working Americans, in fact — who are not wealthy, but they earn enough that Social Security won’t come close to replicating their pre-retirement income.

These middle, and upper-middle income individuals apparently aren’t the concern of those who want to do away with the 401(k) — but, their personal retirement needs notwithstanding, these are the individuals who in many, if not most, situations, not only make the decision to sponsor these plans in the first place — they make the ongoing financial commit to make an employer match.

Allowing those contribution limits to keep pace with inflation not only helps remind us all of the importance of saving more — like the right-sized aquarium, it also helps provide us all with a little more room to grow our retirement savings.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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