Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Choice" Architecture - for Plan Sponsors

In recent years, the notion that the ways in which choices are presented to individuals — known as “choice architecture” — can influence their decisions, has been widely embraced.

Well before the advent of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the retirement plan industry had acknowledged the positive influences of those behavioral finance techniques on overcoming, or at least countering, certain human behaviors.

Based on the evidence of several decades of adoption, we know that automatic enrollment — even with the ability to opt out — transforms voluntary participation rates of roughly 70% to near-unanimous participation. And yet, even with the structure and sanction of the PPA, today fewer than half of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents to the 2013 PLANSPONSOR DC Survey have implemented that design (large plans being significantly more likely to do so than smaller programs).

Even plan sponsors that have adopted automatic enrollment tend to do so with a default deferral rate that is almost assuredly too low to assure success for anyone (typically 3%, the rate specified in the PPA safe harbor) — which might not be so bad, but for the lagging implementation of contribution rate acceleration. The PLANSPONSOR survey found that only about a quarter (26.9%) did so. Even among the largest plans (more than $1 billion in assets), only about half (54.2%) “auto accelerate.”

And then there’s the inclination to automatically enroll only new hires. Industry surveys suggest that only about a third of auto-enrolling plans extend that to current workers.

Setting aside for a minute the reality that not every workforce is suited for the administrative rigor of automatic enrollment — and that many smaller employers have in place safe harbor plans that serve to automatically “enroll” workers via that safe harbor contribution — there are real, tangible, and often unacknowledged employer costs to undertaking automatic enrollment.  

Specifically, the transformative participation effects cited earlier frequently carry significant additional costs in terms of the employer match. The math of switching to a so-called “stretch match” — which seeks to ameliorate the cost issue by altering the rate of match (say by matching 25 cents on the dollar up to 12% of pay, rather than 50 cents on the dollar up to 6%) — may work, but workforces that have been accustomed to the latter formula will almost certainly see the former as a reduction in benefits.

Similarly, while PLANSPONSOR’s 2013 DC Survey found that three-quarters of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents said that it was either very important (41.1%) or important (36.8%) that their plan provide retirement income solutions to participants. Yet most do not offer any income-oriented products/services in their plan. That’s a disconnect, to be sure. But in view of expanding fiduciary concerns in selecting and monitoring those offerings, is it irrational?

Over the years, a lot of thought has gone into plan design features — choice architecture — that can help participants make better decisions (or, in some cases to make better decisions on their behalf). But policymakers and regulators, and the academics who sometimes advise them, tend to forget that the employer’s decision to keep, and to offer these programs in the first place, is also a choice.

A choice that the rules, regulations and limits bounding these programs don’t always encourage.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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