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.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why Your Recordkeeper Might Not Be an Automatic Enrollment Fan

I recently wrote about what’s wrong with automatic enrollment. Turns out there’s more – and it has to do with when things actually go “wrong” with automatic enrollment.

See, it’s one thing to say that eligible employees should be automatically enrolled – and yet another to actually get them enrolled automatically. Even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) goes so far as to acknowledge that two common errors found in 401(k) plans are: (1) not giving an eligible employee the opportunity to make elective contributions; and (2) failing to execute an employee’s salary deferral election.

Now, as it turns out, both are “fixable” – through the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS). But that’s only the start of things. See, in both of those situations you’re looking at a corrective contribution of 50% of the missed deferral (adjusted for earnings) for the affected employee. And then fully vesting the employee in those contributions – contributions that are subject to the same restrictions on withdrawal that apply to elective deferrals.

The only difference in the correction for the two situations outlined is the calculation of the amount of the missed deferral. In the case of an erroneously excluded employee, the missed deferral is based on the average of the deferral percentages (ADPs) for other employees in the employee’s category (for example, non-highly compensated employees), whereas if the error involves failing to implement an employee’s election, the missed deferral is based on the employee’s elected deferral percentage, or in the case of missed automatic contributions, the automatic contribution percentage. For plans with automatic contributions, however, the corrective contribution for the missed deferrals is reduced to 0% or 25% of the missed deferrals, depending upon how soon the error is corrected.

Your head starting to hurt?

Hold on – those corrective contributions also need to be adjusted for earnings – from the date that the elective deferrals should have been made through the date of the corrective contribution.1 In all cases the employer must contribute any missed matching contributions, adjusted for earnings.

‘Tell’ Tales

Now, in addition to the regular array of plan notices that will now be required for those new participants, automatic enrollment has its own special set of notices. While most larger plans rely on what is called an eligible automatic contribution arrangement (EACA), smaller programs may have in place what is called a qualified automatic contribution arrangement (QACA), a type of automatic enrollment 401(k) plan that automatically passes certain kinds of annual required testing (generally referred to as a safe harbor plan). A QACA must include certain features, such as a fixed schedule of automatic employee contributions, employer contributions, a special vesting schedule and specific notice requirements.

The automatic enrollment notice details the plan’s automatic enrollment process and participant rights. The notice must specify the deferral percentage, the participant’s right to change that percentage or not to make automatic contributions, and the default investment. The participant generally must receive the initial notice at least 30 days, but not more than 90 days, before eligibility to participate in the plan or the first investment. Subject to certain conditions, the notice may be provided, and an employee may be enrolled in the plan, on the first day of work. An annual notice must be provided to participants and all eligible employees at least 30 days, but not more than 90 days, prior to the beginning of each subsequent plan year. And guess what happens if those notices don’t go out when they are supposed to?

So, it’s not as though you just have to flip a switch on payroll and you’re done.

Even When It Works

There are, of course, issues, even if there are no processing missteps. Cost, particularly as it relates to the match – which may have been designed to encourage workers to sign up, and which, with automatic enrollment, may no longer need to – and which may have been budgeted for a 70% participation rate that, thanks to automatic enrollment, may be more like 95%. Turnover can leave behind smaller 401(k) balances, which incur additional recordkeeping costs, and which can prove to be a real administrative burden with ongoing notice and communication requirements. Which again, if those notices aren’t going out when they should…

The bottom line is that automatic enrollment is an important component of helping more Americans save, and save effectively. But as is often the case, it’s not as easy as it sounds, and plan sponsors looking to embrace this design – and advisors who tout it – should do so with a full awareness and appreciation of all the implications.

For some other issues, see “Why Doesn’t Every Plan Have Automatic Enrollment?

Nevin E. Adams, JD
  1. Not that that’s not an improvement from how it used to be. Under Rev. Proc. 2015-28, if the error is detected within 9½ months after the year of the failure, no corrective qualified non-elective contribution (QNEC) is required to an affected participant’s account for the missed deferral opportunity, as long as the person is enrolled within the 9½ month period (or earlier if the affected employee notifies the employer of the mistake).

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Are SDBAs the Next Litigation Target?

Back in the 1990s, the ability to support a self-directed brokerage account (SDBA) capability was a widely utilized means of winnowing the field in a 401(k) search, and more recently, the option seemed to hold promise as a foil for excess fee litigation charges. But that could be changing.

The SDBA option allowed participants to make investment choices outside the standard retirement plan menu – a big deal at a time when you could count the number of choices on two hands. Vanguard’s 2017 “How America Saves” report notes that one in six (17%) plans offer the SDBA option, though nearly a third (30%) of plans with more than 5,000 participants do. And while this amounts to nearly 3 in 10 Vanguard participants having access to the option, only 1% of these participants used the feature in 2016, and in those plans, only about 2% of plan assets were invested in the SDBA feature that year. PLANSPONSOR’s 2017 DC Survey pretty well mirrors those findings: 18.7% of plan sponsor respondents have the option, with nearly half of plans with more than $1 billion in assets choosing to do so.

Of course, with SDBAs, it has never been about how many used the option, but who – and for the very most part, the option has its greatest appeal among those whose balances (or financial acumen, real or perceived) calls for it, particularly among closely held small businesses and professional practices, such as lawyers and doctors.

Fee Litigation

In the early days of the so-called excessive fee litigation, at least one court (the 7th Circuit, in Hecker v. Deere) found compelling the notion that the existence of the SDBA gave participants access to a sufficient variety of reasonably priced funds to refute excessive fee claims against a plan that had a “regular” fund menu comprised of nothing by the proprietary funds of its recordkeeper.

However, and while it hasn’t been a primary focus of recent litigation, several of the more recent suits do raise concerns with the existence of the SDBA, but more importantly, how it was managed.

About a year ago, in a suit brought by American Century participants against their own plan, the plaintiffs took issue with how the SDBA was administered, and while they acknowledged that usage of the SDBA is higher within than industry statistics would suggest, they went on to state that that result was “no doubt due to Defendants’ imprudence and self-dealing” (less than 7% of the plan’s assets are held in SDBAs).

In a 2015 suit involving PIMCO, the plaintiffs argued that “…those who choose to utilize an SDBA are typically assessed an account fee and a fee for each trade” — fees that they said “often make an SDBA a much more expensive option compared to investing in the core options available within the Plan.” Additionally, they claimed that because “employees investing in mutual funds within an SDBA must invest in retail mutual funds, rather than the lower-cost institutional shares typically available as core investment options,” those who do use the option again pay higher fees.

And then, just this year, in a suit brought against Schwab, the participant-plaintiffs charged that not only that Schwab received revenue sharing payments from third-party ETF and mutual fund providers whose funds were made available to via the platform, but that the SDBA’s “byzantine complexity and confusing schedule of fees alone make it inadvisable for all but the most sophisticated of investors.” The plaintiffs framed the availability of the option to all participants (rather than just more sophisticated participants) as an issue, and charged that Schwab made no effort to determine: (a) if the SDBA was a prudent option at all, or (b) if another provider’s SDBA might have been better.

All of which should remind us that plan fiduciaries have a responsibility to carefully select and monitor their SDBA provider and these services. That could include:
  • the qualifications and qualify of the provider;
  • the reasonableness of the fees; and
  • the security of the account and stability of the provider.
And just like any provider of services to a qualified plan, if the brokerage window can’t be prudently selected, the plan should not offer that window.

Something on which the plaintiffs’ bar now seems to be focusing.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What’s Wrong with Automatic Enrollment?

Automatic enrollment has long been touted – and proven – to be an effective way to overcome retirement savings inertia in 401(k) plans. But these days automatic enrollment plan design seems to be suffering from its own inertia.

For all the good press and positive results that automatic enrollment gets, one might well expect that every plan would embrace it. And yet today, nearly a decade after the passage of the Pension Protection Act, many still don’t. What’s wrong with automatic enrollment?

Everybody doesn’t do it.

Only the most na├»ve industry professional ever assumed that the Pension Protection Act of 2006, even with all its incentives and encouragement (and not a few barrier removals) would transform a voluntary savings system into something that all employers everywhere would feel comfortable – or would be able to afford – automatically enrolling every eligible worker.

And yet, more than a decade later, only about two-thirds of the largest employers have embraced automatic enrollment – and only about a quarter of the smallest programs, according to PLANSPONSOR’s 2017 DC survey. Oh, you see numbers that suggest the adoption rate is higher, but those surveys tend to skewer toward larger programs, where – as the numbers above indicate – automatic enrollment is much more common.

There are legitimate concerns, mind you. Anecdotally many plan sponsors – particularly small plan sponsors – are simply unwilling to impose another financial “draw” on their workers’ paychecks, and most will tell you that they have had those “you need to participate” conversations with their workers, only to have them decline. Moreover, the costs of an employer match when you’re talking about taking participation from a 70% (or thereabouts) level to 95% or higher can be significant.

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%.

On the workforce management front, it’s worth noting that there are surveys that show that American workers are increasingly delaying retirement (or think they will be able to) due to concerns about retirement finances. Delayed retirements may also reduce the employer’s ability to hire new employees, reducing the flow of new ideas and talent into the organization.

But even when the plan includes automatic enrollment…

There’s a fault with the 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 the PPA – is 3%. There is some interesting history on how that 3% rate originally came to be, but the reality today is that it has been chosen because it is seen as a rate that is small enough that participants won’t be willing to go in and opt-out – and, after the PPA, we have some law to sanction that as a target.

That said, nobody thinks 3% will be “enough” – neither to maximize the employer match in most plans, nor certainly to allow workers to accumulate sufficient funds for retirement. That wouldn’t be so bad – it’s a starting point, after all – except that…

The contribution rate is set – and never “reset.”

The authors of PPA’s automatic enrollment safe harbor knew that the 3% default wouldn’t be “enough,” and they had the wisdom to include a provision that called for an automatic “escalation” of that contribution rate – 1% a year (though, weirdly, they included a cap of 10% in the law). Plan sponsors – for many of the reasons that have slowed the adoption of automatic enrollment – have been even slower to embrace automatic escalation. The PLANSPONSOR DC Survey found that only about a third (35.7%) of the largest plan sponsors automatically escalate contributions unless the participant opts out (about the same amount allow the participants to choose to automatically escalate). However, once again smaller plan sponsors are significantly less likely to embrace this plan design.

But even then…

Only the newly hired are automatically enrolled.

For years now, the standard – even among employers who embrace automatic enrollment – is to extend it only to new hires – we’re talking only about a third of plans extend this to other than new hires. The rationale is that existing workers have had their opportunity – and in all likelihood many opportunities – to participate in the plan. Moreover, while the PPA doesn’t mandate going back to older workers, plan sponsors desirous of those safe harbor protections either have to, or have to be able to establish that they have.

Regardless of safe harbor concerns, it’s hard to imagine that plan sponsors who have cared enough to embrace automatic enrollment aren’t just as concerned about the retirement well-being of their more tenured workforce as they are about those recent hires.

However, even among the newly hired, some may have previously participated in another plan – and at a higher contribution rate. Automatically enrolling them certainly removes one of those “first day” new employee hassles – but may not be doing them any favors in terms of their retirement savings.
As with the default contribution rate, surveys have found positive movement on this front in recent years, particularly at the point of provider conversions (amongst a series of other plan changes).
Indeed, a small, but growing number of plans are…

Giving workers a second chance.

There’s a new-ish concept called reenrollment. Initially, it was a means by which plans could, at the point of conversion to a new platform, “reenroll” participants into a newly selected default investment fund, generally a balanced or target-date fund that had been chosen as the plan’s qualified default investment alternative, or QDIA (they were generally given time to opt-out of that decision before conversion). More recently, it has been expanded to basically treat all eligible non-participants as new hires – auto-enrolling them in the plan, and in some cases, reenrolling at the default rate if they happened to be contributing below that rate.

That said, this approach is not only new-ish, but not very common. Even among the largest plans (more than $1 billion in assets) responding to the PLANSPONSOR DC Survey, more than 86% don’t do any part of this.

There are, of course, good things with automatic enrollment, mostly that there are today many participants saving at 3% (and a match) who weren’t saving anything previously.

So, what’s wrong with automatic enrollment? Well, there are some participants who were auto-enrolled at 3% who would probably have enrolled at a higher rate, and some who change employers and are being auto-enrolled at a “start over” rate. In most cases the default contribution rate isn’t changed (by the employer, and certainly not by the participant), and auto-enrollment is still (mostly) limited to new hires.

What’s wrong with automatic enrollment? Nothing, once we remember that it’s (only) an effective starting point – and one that, like most good decisions, requires some follow-up.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also, 3 Things You Should Know About Automatic Enrollment. And for some caveats on automatic enrollment, see Why the ‘Ideal’ Plan Isn’t.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Fiduciary Lessons from the Founding Fathers

Anyone who has ever found their grand idea shackled to the deliberations of a committee, or who has had to kowtow to the sensibilities of a recalcitrant compliance department, can empathize with the process that produced the Declaration of Independence we’ll commemorate next week.

Indeed, there are any number of things that the experience of today’s investment/plan committees have in common with that of the forefathers who crafted and signed the document declaring our nation’s independence. Here are four:

It’s hard to break with the status quo.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened in May of 1775, the “shot heard round the world” had already been fired at Lexington, but many of the 56 representatives there still held out hope for some kind of peaceful reconciliation, even as they authorized an army and placed George Washington at its helm. Little wonder that, even in the midst of hostilities, there was a strong inclination on the part of several key individuals to try and put things back the way they had been, to patch them over, rather than to declare independence and move into uncharted waters (not to mention taking on the world’s most accomplished military force).

As human beings we are largely predisposed to leaving things the way they are, rather than making abrupt and dramatic change. Whether this “inertia” comes from a fear of the unknown, a certain laziness about the extra work that might be required, or a sense that advocating change suggests an admission that there was something “wrong” before, it seems fair to say that plan sponsors are, in the absence of a compelling reason for change, inclined to rationalize staying put.

As a consequence, new fund options are often added, while old and unsatisfactory funds linger on the plan menu, there is a general reluctance to undertake an evaluation of long-standing providers in the absence of severe service issues, and committees often avoid adopting potentially disruptive plan features like automatic enrollment or deferral acceleration.

While many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were restricted by the entities that appointed them in terms of how they could vote, plan fiduciaries don’t have that “luxury.” Their decisions are bound to an obligation that those decisions be made solely in the best interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries – regardless of any other organizational or personal obligations they may have outside their committee role.

Selection of committee members is crucial.

The Second Continental Congress was comprised of representatives from what amounted to 13 different governments, with everything from extralegal conventions, ad hoc committees, and elected assemblies relied upon to name the delegates. Delegates who, despite the variety of assemblages that chose them, were in several key circumstances, bound in their voting by the instructions given to them. Needless to say, that made reaching consensus on the issues even more complicated than it might have been in “ordinary” circumstances (let’s face it – committee work is often the art of compromise).

Today the process of putting together an investment or plan committee runs the gamut – everything from simply extrapolating roles from an organization chart to a random assortment of individuals to a thoughtful consideration of individuals and their qualifications to act as a plan fiduciary. But if you want a good result, you need to have the right individuals – and if those individuals lack the requisite knowledge on a particular issue, they need to seek out that expertise from advisors who do.

It’s important to put it in writing.

While the Declaration of Independence technically had no legal effect, its impact not only on the establishment of the United States, but as a social and political inspiration for many throughout the world is unquestioned. Arguably putting that declaration – and the sentiments expressed – in writing gave it a force and influence far beyond its original purpose.

As for plan fiduciaries, there is an old ERISA adage that says, “prudence is process.” An updated version of that adage might be “prudence is process – but only if you can prove it.” To that end, a written record of the activities of plan committee(s) is an essential ingredient in validating not only the results, but also the thought process behind those deliberations. More significantly, those minutes can provide committee members – both past and future – with a sense of the environment at the time decisions were made, the alternatives presented and the rationale offered for each, as well as what those decisions were.

Committee members should understand their risks, as well as their responsibilities.

The men that gathered in Philadelphia that summer of 1776 to bring together a new nation came from all walks of life, but it seems fair to say that most had something to lose. True, many were merchants (some wealthy, including President of Congress John Hancock) already chafing under the tax burdens imposed by British rule, and perhaps they could see a day when their actions would accrue to their economic benefit. Still, they could hardly have undertaken that declaration of independence without a very real concern that in so doing they might well have signed their death warrants.

It’s not quite that serious for plan fiduciaries. However, as ERISA fiduciaries, they are personally liable, and may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. And all fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are – and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

Indeed, plan fiduciaries would be well advised to bear in mind something that Ben Franklin is said to have remarked during the deliberations in Philadelphia: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, June 17, 2017

What Plan Sponsors Want to Know About Financial Wellness

Several years back the concept of “wellness” crept into benefits planning. More recently, HR’s affinity for that wellness concept has been expanded upon by the concept of financial wellness. But as appealing as the notion is, a number of key questions linger.

With regard to wellness generally, the notion was simple: Rather than just treating the symptoms of poor health with insurance-funded trips to the doctor (or the hospital) after the damage was done, we’d get ahead of things by emphasizing healthy habit steps (smoking cessation, weight loss, etc.) programs that would reduce doctor bills (and insurance premiums).

As regards financial wellness, the notion is that bad financial health contributes to (and/or causes) a bevy of woes: stress, which can lead to things like lower productivity, bad health and higher absenteeism, and even a greater inclination toward workplace theft, not to mention deferred retirements by workers who tend to be higher salaried and who have higher health care costs.

But if the rationale is straightforward enough, and the interest somewhere between intrigued and highly committed, plan sponsors still have some questions that merit addressing.

What do you mean by ‘financial wellness’?

“Financial wellness” is a term widely bandied about these days, and by many different firms (and advisors). Unfortunately, it is a concept that is being applied somewhat inconsistently. I’ve heard stories of folks who affix it to practices that are little more than glorified enrollment meetings, to the simple inclusion of an “outcomes” analysis to the retirement plan report, to a full-blown series of workplace seminars on topics ranging from budgeting to estate planning.

So, the first question that needs to be answered is “What do you mean by financial wellness?”

What difference will it make?

The answer to the first question will, of course, have a great deal of bearing on this one. Naturally, the more modest the scope and scale, the less impact, but a lot depends on what issues the program attempts to address, not to mention the demographics (and overall financial well-being) of the workforce to which it is being applied.

Still, even if a comprehensive impact assessment can’t be completed without the collaboration of the plan sponsor, it’s important to be able to at least quantify an estimate of the potential impact(s), whether it be increased participation, improved deferral rates, or even just higher satisfaction with the program(s).

How long will it take/last?

Common sense suggests that financial wellness is a process, not an event, and one that, run well, may well run for some time following its introduction. Nonetheless, plan sponsors will, if not at the outset, at some point during the program, have some interest in knowing just how long until they can expect to see results.

How much will it cost?

Obviously, there will be a relationship between the nature and scope of the program and its cost. Anecdotally, there seems to be a fair amount of skepticism among plan sponsors – particularly on the HR side – of the cost-effectiveness of these programs. It is therefore worthy remembering that there is an “I” in ROI, and that plan sponsors will be interested in knowing what it is (or might be).

Who pays for it?

Once again, while the answer may well depend on the program envisioned, to the extent this represents new expenditures, how it will be paid for may well impact the scope and/or timing. Plan sponsors may be able to consider covering it out of general funds, but, depending on the nature of the program components, it might also be appropriate to consider tapping into health plan budgets, communications, or even retirement plan assets.

How will you measure success (or lack thereof)?

The good news is that ROI is increasingly the lead selling point in presenting these programs, and the “return” will almost certainly include some quantification, some combination of measurable deliverables. Of course, some of the deliverables of a financial wellness program are less quantifiable, but even in those situations, worker surveys can provide insights.

The bottom line is that a shared understanding and appreciation of the desired outcomes will go a long way toward achieving not only financial wellness – but customer relation wellness as well.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD