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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Behavioral Finance – the Next Frontier

All too often the innovations honored with a Nobel Prize fly under the radar of “regular” Americans. But that wasn’t the case last week when the work of University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler was acknowledged.

Thaler was, of course, recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who said that his focus on limited rationality, social preferences and lack of self-control has “built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making.” More plainly, to my reading, Thaler (finally) managed to prove to economists that human beings don’t (always) act rationally and/or in their own self-interest.

Now, anybody who has ever actually interacted with human beings knows this. Indeed, in some ways the most amazing thing about Thaler’s insights of this reality is that it is seen as being innovative by economists.1 I still remember reading the report that Thaler and Schlomo Benartzi authored way back in 2004, “Save for Tomorrow: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving.” That’s where (among other things) I first learned about the concept of what we today call contribution acceleration, based on the premise that people are more likely to act (and act more aggressively) on their good (but painful) intentions in the future than if they had to do so today.

There’s no denying that Thaler’s work has had a big impact on retirement savings (about $29.6 billion worth, according to one estimate). And if Thaler and Benartzi did not exactly create the notion of automatic enrollment, they at least freed it from the “dark” connotations of “negative election,” as it was called at the time.

Today we may wonder at – but no longer question – the notions that human beings rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) when making complex decisions, that they fear loss more than they value gain, that they tend to diversify across the number of options provided, without regard to what lies within those choices, and that they tend to treat “old” money differently than “new” money. For this, Prof. Thaler and his collaborators over the years deserve our thanks.

That said, it may be worth remembering that while we tend to assume that plan fiduciaries are rational in all their decisions, they too are human beings making complex decisions. Consider that:
  • Many remain hesitant to “impose” automatic enrollment for concerns about negative response from workers, though multiple surveys suggest workers would appreciate the move.
  • Many continue to auto-enroll new hires, but not current workers.
  • Many extend auto-enrollment to eligible workers – once.
  • Many choose to implement auto-enrollment – and then wait 3 to 4 years to start contribution acceleration.
  • Long-standing (and probably ill-considered) fund choices are routinely mapped during a recordkeeping conversion. Perhaps through multiple conversions.
  • Plan committees often seem more worried about the negative reaction to removing a poor-performing fund than the possibility of being sued later on for keeping it on the menu.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any number of positive, rational reasons for those decisions (see “Why the ‘Ideal’ Plan Isn’t”). Indeed, most of us are rightly hesitant to superimpose our imperfect judgments on “other people’s” money – even on those on whose behalf fiduciaries are admonished to act.

But as we commemorate – and celebrate – those behavioral finance “nudges” that have done so much to buoy individual retirement security, perhaps some of those fiduciary decisions are worth (re) considering as well.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 14, 2017

6 Dangerous Fiduciary Assumptions

There’s an old saying that when you assume… well, here are five assumptions that can create real headaches for retirement plan fiduciaries.

Assuming that not being required to have an investment policy statement means you don’t need to have an investment policy.

While plan advisers and consultants routinely counsel on the need for, and importance of, an investment policy statement (IPS), the reality is that the law does not require one, and thus, many plan sponsors — sometimes at the direction of legal counsel — choose not to put one in place.

Of course, if the law does not specifically require a written IPS — think of it as investment guidelines for the plan — ERISA nonetheless basically anticipates that plan fiduciaries will conduct themselves as though they had one in place. And, generally speaking, plan sponsors (and the advisors they work with) will find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing, and not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

It is worth noting that, though it is not legally required, Labor Department auditors routinely ask for a copy of the plan’s IPS as one of their first requests. And therein lies the rationale behind the counsel of some in the legal profession to forego having a formal IPS: because if there is one thing worse than not having an IPS, it is having an IPS — in writing — that is not being followed.

Assuming that all target-date funds are the same.

Just about every industry survey you pick up verifies that target-date funds, as well as their older counterparts, the lifecycle (risk-based) and balanced funds, have become fixtures on the defined contribution investment menu. For a large and growing number of individuals, these “all-in-one” target-date funds, monitored by plan fiduciaries and those that guide them, are destined to be an important aspect of building their retirement future.

There are obviously differences in fees, and that can be affected by how the funds themselves are structured, drawn from a series of proprietary offerings, or built out of a best-in-class structure of non-affiliated providers.

However, and while the bulk of TDF assets are still spread among a handful of providers, there are different views on what is an “appropriate” asset allocation at a particular point in time, discrete perspectives as to what asset classes belong in the mix, notions that individuals aren’t well-served by a mix that disregards individual risk tolerances, arguments over the definition of a TDF “glide path” as the investments automatically rebalance over time, and even disagreement as to whether the fund’s target-date is an end point or simply a milepost along the investment cycle. Oh, and a new generation of custom TDFs are now in the mix as well.

(See also, “Five Things the DOL Wants You to Know About TDFs.”)

Assuming that hiring a fiduciary keeps you from being a fiduciary.

ERISA has a couple of very specific exceptions through which you can limit — but not eliminate —fiduciary obligations. The first has to do with the specific decisions made by a qualified investment manager — and, even then, a plan sponsor/fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of that investment manager’s activities on behalf of the plan.

The second exception has to do with specific investment decisions made by properly informed and empowered individual participants in accordance with ERISA Section 404(c). Here also, even if the plan meets the 404(c) criteria (and it is by no means certain it will), the plan fiduciary remains responsible for the prudent selection and monitoring of the options on the investment menu (and, as the Tibble case reminds us, that obligation is ongoing).

Outside of these two exceptions, the plan sponsor/fiduciary is essentially responsible for the quality of the investments of the plan — including those that participants make. Oh, and hiring a 3(16) fiduciary? Still on the hook as a fiduciary for selecting that provider.

(See also, “7 Things an ERISA Fiduciary Should Know.”)

Assuming that all expenses associated with a plan can be charged to the plan.

Assuming that the plan allows it, the Department of Labor has divided plan expenses into two types: so-called “settlor expenses,” which must be borne by the employer; and administrative expenses, which — if they are reasonable — may (but aren’t required to) be paid from plan assets. In general, settlor expenses include the cost of any services provided to establish, terminate or design the plan. These are the types of services that generally are seen as benefiting the employer, rather than the plan beneficiaries.

Administrative expenses include fees and costs associated with things like amending the plan to keep it in compliance with tax laws, conducting nondiscrimination testing, performing participant recordkeeping services, and providing plan information to participants.

Assuming that the worst-case deadline for depositing participant contributions is the deadline.

The legal requirements for depositing contributions to the plan are perhaps the most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. A delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common signs that an employer is in financial trouble — and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst-case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

(See also, “5 Little Things That Can Become Big 401(k) Problems.”)

Assuming you have to figure it all out on your own.

ERISA imposes a duty of prudence on plan fiduciaries that is often referred to as one of the highest duties known to law — and for good reason. Those fiduciaries must act “with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.”

The “familiar with such matters” is the sticking point for those who might otherwise be inclined to simply adopt a “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” approach. Similarly, those who might be naturally predisposed toward a kind of Hippocratic, “first, do no harm” stance are afforded no such discretion under ERISA’s strictures.

However, the Department of Labor has stated that “[l]acking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.” Simply stated, if you lack the skill, prudence and diligence of an expert in such matters, you are not only entitled to get help — you are expected to do so.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Generations ‘Grasp’

If you’re still struggling to figure out how to reach Millennials (even if you are a Millennial), take heart – there’s (already) another generational cohort entering the workforce.

This new cohort is called Generation Z (at one point, Millennials were referred to as Gen Y, so…) – they are, generally speaking, children of Gen X – born in the mid-1990s, and separated from Millennials by their lack of a memory of 9/11.

Gen Z is, in fact, already entering the workforce – and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they currently comprise a quarter of the population. They are seen as being more “realistic” when it comes to life and working than Millennials, who have been characterized as more “optimistic.” Gen Z is said to be more independent and competitive in their work than the collaborative Millennials, more concerned with privacy (Snapchat versus Facebook), and are said to have a preference for communicating face-to-face. It’s said they’ll eschew racking up big college debt, and are said to be interested in multiple roles within a single employer, rather than multiple employers (role-hoppers versus job-hoppers). They have been called a generation of self-starters, self-learners and self-motivators – and they’ve never known a world without the Internet and a smartphone to bring it to their fingertips wherever they are.

Unlike previous generations, whose parents didn’t mention money or focus on financial topics with their kids, more than half (56%) of Gen Z have reportedly discussed saving money with their parents in the past six months. The result, according to researchers, is a young generation that “behaves more like Baby Boomers than Millennials,” is making plans to work during college, to avoid personal debt at all costs, and… to save for retirement. Indeed, 12% of Gen Z is already saving for retirement, according to a recent research report.

Behavior ‘Patterns’

Now, as different as individuals in various generational cohorts can be, I’ve never been inclined to assign those behavioral differences to their membership in any particular cohort. Rather, I think there are things that younger workers are inclined to do (or not do) that workers in every cohort were inclined to do (or avoid) when they were younger. Do Millennials change jobs more frequently than their elders? Sure. But they didn’t invent the phenomenon; for a variety of reasons, younger workers have long been more inclined (or able) to pull up stakes and seek new opportunities (American private sector job tenure has actually been remarkably and consistently “short” running all the way back to WWII). Similarly, younger workers tend to put off saving (certainly for something as far away and obscure in concept as retirement), and when they do start saving, tend to save less than their elders. This was true of the Boomers, of Gen X and Millennials, and – despite their more rapid savings start – will almost certainly be true of Gen Z, left to their own devices.

That last part is a potentially critical difference, of course, in that today plan design differences like automatic enrollment were a relative rarity when the Boomers were coming into the workplace. Some of it is that – at least supposedly – their parents didn’t need to save because they had defined benefit pension plans to secure their retirement. But, even for those who were covered by those plans (and most weren’t) – the DB promise was of little value at a time when 10-year cliff vesting and 8-year workplace tenures were the order of the day. Moreover, Boomers would typically have had to wait a year to start contributing to their DC plan when they entered the workforce.

Headlines tout today’s improved behaviors – more diversified investments, an earlier savings start, a greater awareness of the need to prepare for retirement – as evidence of refined education efforts, or a heightened awareness of the need to save by generations who are more attuned to financial realities. Those are indeed welcome and encouraging signs.

Still, it seems to me that many in these newer generational cohorts are – as are their elders – really the beneficiaries of innovative plan designs – things like target-date funds, as well as automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration, and a heightened focus on outcomes – developed to overcome the behavioral shortcomings of human beings – regardless of their generational cohort.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 30, 2017

‘Talking’ Points

In the course of my day, I talk to (and email with) people, read a lot, and every so often jot down a random thought or insight that gives me pause and makes me think. See what you think.
  1. Disclosure isn’t the same thing as clarity. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
  2. It’s not what you’re doing wrong; it’s what you’re not doing that’s wrong.
  3. Sometimes just saying you’re thinking about doing an RFP can get results.
  4. The best way to stay out of court is to avoid situations where participants lose money.
  5. The key to successful retirement savings is not how you invest, but how much you save.
  6. It’s the match, not the tax preferences, that drives plan participation.
  7. Does anybody still expect taxes to be lower in retirement?
  8. If you don’t know how much you’re paying, you can’t know if it’s reasonable.
  9. You want your provider to be profitable, not go out of business.
  10. Retirement income is a challenge to solve, not a product to build.
  11. When selecting plan investments, keep in mind the 80-10-10 rule: 80% of participants are not investment savvy, 10% are, and the other 10% think they are. But aren’t.
  12. Participants who are automatically enrolled are almost certainly even more inert than those who took the time to fill out an enrollment form.
  13. 92% of participants defaulted in at a 6% deferral do nothing. 4% actually increase that deferral. rate.
  14. Plan sponsors may not be responsible for the outcomes of their retirement plan designs, but someone should be.
  15. Even if a plan has a plan adviser that is a fiduciary, the plan sponsor is still a fiduciary.
  16. Most plans don’t comply with ERISA 404(c) – and never have. And, based on litigation trends, apparently don’t need to.
  17. Hiring a co-fiduciary doesn’t make you an ex-fiduciary.
  18. “Because it’s the one my recordkeeper offers” is not a good reason to select a target-date fund.
  19. Given a chance to save via a workplace retirement plan, most people do. Without access to a workplace retirement plan, most people don’t.
  20. Nobody knows how much “reasonable” is.
  21. Innovative doesn’t mean nobody’s ever thought about it, or that nobody’s ever done it.
  22. You want to have an investment policy in place before you need to have an investment policy in place.
  23. The same provider can charge different fees to plans that aren’t all that different.
  24. You can be in favor of fee disclosure and transparency and still think that legislation telling you how to do it is misguided.
  25. The biggest mistake a plan fiduciary can make is not seeking the help of experts.
Thanks to all you “inspirations” out there – past, present and future.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 23, 2017

"Checks" and Balances

In about a month, the IRS will announce the new contribution and benefit limits for 2018 – and that could be good news even for those who don’t bump against those thresholds.

These are limits that are adjusted for inflation, after all – designed to help retirement savings (and benefits) keep pace with increases in the cost of living. In other words, if today you could only defer on a pre-tax basis that same $7,000 that highly compensated workers were permitted in 1986 – well, let’s just say that you’d lose a lot of purchasing power in retirement.

But since industry surveys suggest that “only” about 9%-12% currently contribute to the maximum levels, one might well wonder if raising the current limits matters. Indeed, 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, who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. Certainly 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.

Drawing on the actual account balance 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 has 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. (See chart.) In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes – and not “upside down.”

And yet, according to Vanguard’s How America Saves 2017, only about a third 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?

Arguably, 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.

Those who look only at the external contribution dollar limits of the current tax incentives generally gloss over the reality of the benefit/contribution limits and nondiscrimination test requirements at play inside the plan – and yet surely those limits are working to “bound in” the contributions of individuals who would surely like to put more aside, if the combination of laws and limits allowed.

One need only look back to the impact that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 had on retirement plan formation following the imposition of strict and significantly lower contribution limits – as well as a dramatic reduction in the rate of cost-of-living adjustments to those limits – to appreciate the relief that came in 2001 with EGTRRA.

Anyone who has ever had a conversation with a business owner – particularly a small business owner – about establishing or maintaining a workplace retirement plan knows how important it is that those decision-makers have “skin in the game.”

While we don’t yet know what the limits for 2018 will be, gradually increasing the limits of these programs to keep pace with inflation helps assure that these programs will be retained and supported by those who, as a result, continue to have a shared interest in their success.

And that’s good news for all of us.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Are You (Just) a Retirement Plan Monitor?

A recent ad campaign focuses on the distinction between identifying a problem and actually doing something about it.

In one version a so-called “dental monitor” tells a concerned patient that he has “one of the worst cavities that I’ve ever seen” before heading out to lunch, leaving that cavity unattended. Another features a “security monitor” who looks like a bank guard, but only notifies people when there is a robbery.

As an industry, we have long worried about the plight of the average retirement plan participant, who doesn’t know much (if anything) about investing, who doesn’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would really just prefer that someone else take care of it.

What gets less attention — but is just as real a phenomenon — is how many plan sponsors don’t know anything about investments, don’t have time to deal with issues about their retirement plan investments, and who, perhaps as a result, would — yes, also really just prefer that someone else take care of it.

Of course, if many plan sponsors lack the expertise (or time) to prudently construct such a plan menu, one might well wonder at their acumen at choosing an advisor to do so, particularly when you consider that surveys routinely show that plan sponsors choose an advisor primarily based on the quality of the advice they provide. One can’t help but wonder how that advice is quantified (certainly not in the same way that investment funds can be), and doubtless, that helps explain why so many advisors are (apparently) hired not on what they know, but on who they know.

But for many plan fiduciaries, the obstacle to hiring a retirement plan advisor is financial, not intellectual. Particularly for a plan sponsor who has not previously employed those services — or, more ominously, in the case of one who has hired an advisor that didn’t hold up their end of the bargain — the additional costs of hiring an advisor can be problematic. The question asked of a prospective advisor may be, “Why should I hire you?” But one can well imagine that the question that is often unarticulated, and perhaps the real heart of the matter is, “Why should I pay you (that much)?”

There are ways, of course, to quantify the value of those services, ways that quantify not only what that advisor is worth, but why those fees are what they are. Some advisors promote their services as a shield against litigation, or at least some kind of buffer against the financial impact of such an event, but in my experience, while most employers are glad to get/take the “warranty” (implied or explicit), they often aren’t willing to pay very much extra for it.

In the most obvious case, you can walk in and demonstrate the ability to save a plan money by upgrades to the menu, a change in providers, or perhaps even a better negotiation of the current arrangement. That’s clearly added value, and value that is readily measured (though it has a finite shelf life). Assuming, of course, that the plan sponsor is ready, willing (and in some cases, able) to act on those recommendations.

Indeed, most of the attempts to affix a value to having an advisor tend to focus on investment returns or cost savings for the plan. Both are valid, objective measures that can have a real, substantive impact on retirement security for participants, and fiduciary peace of mind for the plan sponsor.

Similarly, the ability to increase plan levels of participation, deferral, and investment diversification also adds value — quantifiable value, particularly measured against goals and an action plan for achieving them that is clearly articulated, and updated, up front. Ultimately, it’s about more than identifying issues and problems, it’s about having a plan for the plan, and being willing to be an agent for change in pursuit of it.

The “monitor” ad closes with the admonition, “Why monitor a problem if you don’t fix it?”
Indeed.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also: “The Value of Good Advice.”

Saturday, September 09, 2017

A "Real Life" Example

In addition to the books, reference guides, and a few personal “knick knacks,” I have for years had in my office a couple of model cars – but not for the reason people generally think.

These models happen to be Studebakers (a 1950 Champion, a 1953 Starliner and a 1963 Avanti). I’d wager that a majority of Americans have never even heard of a Studebaker, and the notion that a major U.S. automobile maker once operated out of South Bend, Indiana would likely come as a surprise to most. I keep them in my office not because I have an appreciation for classic cars (though I do), but because of the role the automaker played in ERISA’s formation.

Born into a wagon-making family, the Studebaker brothers (there were five of them) went from being blacksmiths in the 1850s to making parts for wagons, to making wheelbarrows (that were in great demand during the 1849 Gold Rush) to building wagons used by the Union Army during the Civil War, before turning to making cars (first electric, then gasoline) after the turn of the century. Indeed, they had a good, long run making automobiles that were generally well regarded for their quality and reliability (their finances, not so much) until a combination of factors (including, ironically, pension funding) resulted in the cessation of production at the South Bend plant on Dec. 20, 1963. Shortly thereafter Studebaker terminated its retirement plan for hourly workers, and the plan defaulted on its obligations.

At the time, the plan covered roughly 10,500 workers, 3,600 of whom had already retired and who – despite the stories you sometimes hear about Studebaker – received their full benefits when the plan was terminated. However, some 4,000 workers between the ages of 40 and 59 – didn’t. They only got about 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they had been promised, though the average age of this group of workers was 52 years with an average of 23 years of service (another 2,900 employees, who all had less than 10 years of service, received nothing).

ERISA did not create pensions, of course; they existed in significant numbers prior to 1974, as the workers at Studebaker surely knew (they certainly had reason to – Studebaker-Packard had terminated the retirement plan for employees of the former Packard Motor Car company in 1958, and they got even less than the Studebaker workers wound up with in 1964). But armed with the real life example of those Studebaker pensions, highlighting what had been a growing concern about the default risk of private sector plans (public sector programs weren’t seen as being vulnerable to the same risk at that time) – well, it may have been a decade before ERISA was to become a reality, but the example of Studebaker’s pensions provided a powerful and on-going “real life” reminder of the need for reform.

Has ERISA “worked”? Well, in signing that legislation – 43 years ago this past weekend – President Ford noted that from 1960 to 1970, private pension coverage increased from 21.2 million employees to approximately 30 million workers, while during that same period, assets of these private plans increased from $52 billion to $138 billion, acknowledging that “[i]t will not be long before such assets become the largest source of capital in our economy.” His words were prophetic; today that system has grown to exceed $17 trillion, covering more than 85 million workers in more than 700,000 plans.

The composition of the plans, like the composition of the workforce those plans cover, has changed considerably over time, as has ERISA’s original framework. Today much is made about the shortcomings in coverage and protections of the current system, the projections of multitrillion-dollar shortfalls of retirement income, the pining for the “good old days” when everyone had a pension (that never really existed for most), the reality is that ERISA – and its progeny – have unquestionably allowed more Americans to be better financially prepared for retirement than ever before.

It’s a real life example I think about every time I look at those model cars – and every time I have the opportunity to explain the story behind them.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Storm "Warnings"

Watching the incredible, heart-rending coverage this past weekend of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, I was reminded of a personal experience with nature’s fury.

It was 2011, and we had just deposited our youngest off for his first semester of college, stopped off long enough in Washington, DC to visit our daughters (both in college there at the time), and then sped home up the East Coast with reports of Hurricane Irene’s potential destruction and probable landfall(s) close behind. We arrived home, unloaded in record time, and rushed straight to the local hardware store to stock up for the coming storm.

We weren’t the only ones to do so, of course. And what we had most hoped to acquire (a generator) was not to be found – there, or at that moment, apparently anywhere in the state.
What made that situation all the more infuriating was that, while the prospect of a hurricane landfall near our Connecticut home was relatively rare, we’d already had one narrow miss with an earlier hurricane and had, on several prior occasions, been without power, and for extended periods. After each I had told myself that we really needed to invest in a generator – but, as human beings are inclined to do, and reasoning that I had plenty of time to do so when it was more convenient, I simply (and repeatedly) postponed taking action. Thankfully my dear wife wasn’t inclined to remind me of those opportunities, but they loomed large in my mind.

Retirement Ratings?

People often talk about the retirement crisis in this country, but like a tropical storm still well out to sea, there are widely varying assessments as to just how big it is, and – to borrow some hurricane terminology – when it will make “landfall,” and with what force.

Most of the predictions are dire, of course – and while they often rely on arguably unreliable measures like uninformed levels of confidence (or lack thereof), self-reported financials and savings averages – it’s hard to escape a pervasive sense that as a nation we’re in for some rough weather, particularly in view of objective data like coverage statistics and retirement readiness projections based on actual participant data.

Indeed, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Biggs, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute offers what is certainly a contrarian perspective these days: assuring President Trump (and us) that there is no retirement crisis (subscription required), at least not a “looming” one. And yet his point is basically little more than things are better than many would have us believe, based largely on data that indicates things are better now than they were before we worried about such things. Biggs, who previously testified before Congress that the use of the term “crisis” to describe the current situation was an “overblown non-solution to a non-crisis,” maintained that 75% of today’s retirees are “doing well,” and that Boomers are having a better retirement than their parents, who ostensibly lived during the “golden age” of pensions.

Another reassuring perspective was published earlier this year by the Investment Company Institute’s Peter J. Brady & Steven Bass, and Jessica Holland & Kevin Pierce of the Internal Revenue Service – who found, based on IRS tax filings, that most individuals were able to maintain their inflation‐adjusted net work‐related income after claiming Social Security. Not exactly an affirmation that the income was enough to sustain retirement expenses, but at least it showed that individuals were maintaining (and most improving upon) their pre-retirement income levels, at least for a three-year period into retirement.

Life is full of uncertainty, and events and circumstances, as often as not, happen with little if any warning. Even though hurricanes are something you can see coming a long way off, there’s always the chance that they will peter out sooner than expected, that landfall will result in a dramatic shift in course and/or intensity, or that, as with Hurricane Katrina – and apparently Harvey – the most devastating impact is what happens afterward. In theory, at least, that provides time to prepare – but, as I was reminded when Irene struck, sometimes you don’t have as much time as you think you have.1

Doubtless, a lot of retirement plan participants are going to look back at their working lives as they near the threshold of retirement, the same way I thought about that generator. They’ll likely remember the admonitions about (and their good intentions to) saving sooner, saving more, and the importance of regular, prudent reallocations of investment portfolios. Thankfully – and surely because of the hard work of advisors and plan sponsors – many will have heeded those warnings in time. But others, surely – and particularly those without access to a retirement plan at work – will find those post-retirement years (if indeed they can retire) to be a time of regret.

Those who work with individuals trying to make those preparations know that the end of our working lives inevitably hits different people at different times, and in different states of readiness.
But we all know that it’s a “landfall” for which we need to prepare while time remains to do so.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Footnote
  1. As it turned out, we got lucky. An apparently random and unexpected delivery of generators happened at our local hardware store where my wife had only hoped to be able to stock up on batteries. We got it home, and in record time learned enough to run it, managed to get in a supply of gasoline (before the pumps and cash registers ran out of juice), got our windows covered with plywood, and hunkered down for what still feels like the longest night of my life.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hypothetically Speaking

A new academic study offers some insights on taxpayer preferences for pre-tax versus Roth savings – at least in certain conditions.

The study – which carries the somewhat unwieldy title “The Relative Effects of Economic and Non-Economic Factors on Taxpayers’ Preferences Between Front-Loaded and Back-Loaded Retirement Savings Plans” – takes a look at the various factors influencing preferences for paying taxes “up front” on retirement savings (this is termed “back-loaded by the researchers, in that the tax advantages come in retirement) versus pre-tax treatment as with a 401(k).

Writ large, and pretty much across the board, the researchers – Andrew D. Cuccia, associate professor and a Grant Thornton faculty fellow at the University of Oklahoma, and Marcus M. Doxey and Shane R. Stinson, both assistant professors at the University of Alabama – found that individuals preferred Roth (back-loaded) – even in circumstances in which they thought a rational determination would favor a pre-tax option.

“Consistent with prior research, our results suggest that individuals, on average, do not respond rationally to the relative economic incentives associated with alternatively structured plans,” they wrote. And while “at least part” of the “failure to connect relative tax rates – those paid now versus those in the future – was attributed to “a lack of awareness and/or understanding,” the researchers found individuals largely reluctant to embrace the pre-tax approach, even when education specifically designed to help frame that understanding was employed. Or, as the researchers explained, “… although errors can be reduced with increased awareness, our evidence illustrates that individuals systematically incorporate non-economic factors into their retirement plan choices, often leading to a preference for [pre-tax deferrals] even when such a choice is economically adverse.”

The researchers determined that “participants do not incorporate expected tax rate changes into their plan choice without an explicit explanation of the impact tax rate changes have on relative after-tax returns,” and “even when participants were educated about the tax rate change-return relation, 49% who reported that they expected their tax rates to be lower in retirement nonetheless elected to make their contributions to a back-loaded (Roth) plan.”

Now, in fairness the research wasn’t based on actual administrative data – rather they constructed several scenarios to test responses to various factors, and ran a group of online survey respondents through those scenarios to evaluate and weigh those responses. So, it was basically asking individuals about their (hypothetical) response to a variety of conditions regarding (hypothetical) tax rates, market conditions, as well as non-economic attitudes and preferences.

While they found a general preference for the back-loaded Roth accounts, they found “mixed evidence regarding whether individuals appropriately weight expected tax rate changes in their plan choices,” even though tax rates were seen as the primary factor driving the relative after-tax returns of front- and back-loaded plans. Indeed, the certainty of knowing the tax rate that would be paid, even if paid “now” seemed to outweigh the concerns associated with the uncertainty of future tax rates, though those who did expect to pay higher taxes in the future were – as one might expect – inclined toward the back-loaded (Roth) option.

If the researchers seemed puzzled about some of the preferences for the Roth option, they also found that a sense of urgency regarding saving for retirement was “positively associated” with savings rates, and that perhaps what they saw as “the current crisis in retirement preparedness” suggested to them that “current marketing and education campaigns are not sufficiently stoking investors’ sense of urgency.”

Those of us who work with retirement plans – and retirement plan participants – might not be quite so perplexed by the notion that individuals don’t always act in their financial best interest.  Additionally, while the researchers seemed to be quite thorough in outlining (and doubtless executing) their test scenarios, it is arguably one thing in a “laboratory environment” to make a choice with someone else’s money, and perhaps something else again to make those same choices with your own retirement savings.

Still, those concerned about a negative response by participants to the imposition of a Roth choice, might find some comfort in these findings.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Pay Me Now, or Pay Me Later

Many years ago, there was a commercial (for car oil filters, as I recall) that cautioned, “You can pay me now, or pay me later” – in other words, spend a little now on an oil filter, or pay lots later on to fix the damage done by not doing so. It’s a mantra that I’ve heard employed to encourage retirement savings – but these days it might have a new twist.

We now have a second survey of plan sponsors expressing concern about the impact that switch from the current pre-tax preferences accorded 401(k)s would have on participation.

That member survey by the Committee on Investment of Employee Benefit Assets (CIEBA) found that 78% of the 61 member respondents believed that a switch to an all-Roth system would negatively affect participation rates in their 401(k) plans. In that sense, it roughly mirrored the findings of a survey by the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA) which found that more than three-quarters of the 443 employer respondents to the survey said they strongly agreed with the statement that eliminating or reducing the pre-tax benefits of 401(k) or 403(b) retirement savings plans would discourage employee savings in workplace retirement plans.1

While at least two other employer surveys are reportedly in the field and/or pending release, we (still) don’t know how participants will actually respond. However, it doesn’t require a massive leap of imagination to think that there might be a negative response of some magnitude to the federal government “taking away” the benefit of saving on a pre-tax basis that is, after all, what Section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code was all about.

Roth Rising?

Ironically, we find ourselves at a time when the availability of the Roth option in plans is at an all-time high, when providers like T. Rowe Price note that they have seen the biggest one-year increase in Roth contribution offerings in its clients’ 401(k) plans in 2016 – 61% of the plans for which it provides recordkeeping services – while Vanguard notes that two-thirds of the plans it recordkeeps now offer the feature, compared with 49% as recently as 2012.

Now, I realize that there is a difference between having the opportunity to contribute on a Roth basis, and having no option but to contribute on that basis. I’ve no doubt that there are individuals living paycheck-to-paycheck who would find the loss of the here-and-now tax preference to be a hardship. Individuals who, confronted with a Roth mandate, might indeed reduce their retirement savings in order to put food on the table, pay the rent, or put gas in the car so they can get to work.

Those concerns aren’t new, of course. For years they were – and in many cases still are – invoked as reasons to go slow, or go “low” on embracing automatic enrollment. Real as they may be, we also know what that means for retirement security.

Indeed, the surveys that have asked individuals about tax preferences – to the extent they are specific at all – nearly always focus on one particular aspect: deferring current taxes on contributions. The Roth advantages of not paying taxes on the accumulated earnings and the freedom from being forced to take RMDs aren’t even mentioned. Nor do most discussions about post-retirement drawdowns acknowledge that some large chunk of those retirement savings will be due Uncle Sam.

That said, it’s not as though the Roth doesn’t have its own set of tax preferences – and the closer one gets to retirement, the better they look. The odds that tax rates in retirement will be lower, particularly for younger workers, these days seems a quaint notion. Not surprisingly, Vanguard notes that nearly a third (30%) of Roth participants in Vanguard plans were in the age cohort of 34 or younger – and that’s without being defaulted in that direction.

Don’t get me wrong – like most of us, I’d rather have the choice than not. Nor would I diminish the communication challenge ahead if the long-standing 401(k) pre-tax preferences were capped or eliminated.

But of late, every time I see one of those reports about the average 401(k) account balances of those in their 60s, I can’t help but think that somewhere between 15% and 30%, and perhaps more, won’t go toward financing retirement, but will instead go to Uncle Sam and his state and municipal counterparts. And on a frequency dictated by the required minimum distribution schedules of the IRS.

And I can’t help but wonder how many plans for retirement don’t factor in that tax “cut.”

Nevin E. Adams, JD
  1.  I draw comfort from the findings in both surveys that very few employers indicate that they would discontinue or diminish their current programs if a shift, full or partial, to Roth would occur.