Saturday, May 23, 2015

3 Things You Should Know About Automatic Enrollment

One of the most celebrated plan design features of the 401(k) era is automatic enrollment. Nearly as old as the 401(k) itself, once upon a time it was called a “negative election.” But regardless of the name, the concept has been extraordinarily effective at not only getting, but keeping, workers saving via their workplace retirement plans.

However, adoption of the design, after a surge in the wake of the passage of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, now seems to have plateaued. Moreover, current data suggests that, while automatic enrollment adoption has certainly had a positive impact on retirement outcomes, we’re not getting as much mileage from it as we might.

So, here are three things that plan sponsors — and others — should know about automatic enrollment.

1. You don’t have to default contributions at 3%.

Three percent was the standard default contribution rate for automatic enrollment plans long before the Pension Protection Act of 2006 incorporated it as part of its auto-enroll safe harbor. Originally cited in a now-obscure IRS regulation years before the advent of the PPA, in the years to follow, it was largely embraced because it was seen as little enough that it wouldn’t spur massive opt-outs by automatically enrolled participants.

With more than a couple of decades of experience under our belts (a third of that under the auspices of the PPA), we know a couple of things. First, that 3% is indeed too small an amount to spur most auto-enrollees to opt out. In fact, there have been any number of studies — and some real-world experience — suggesting that a defaulted contribution rate twice as high would produce very nearly the same result.

What many plan sponsors may not know is that while that the auto-enrollment safe harbor of the PPA calls for a minimum starting deferral of 3%, it is a floor, not a ceiling.

But another, and more important, thing that we’ve all known from the very beginning is that a 3% rate of deferral is not enough.

2. If you are going to default at 3%, make sure you accelerate the contribution rate.

Automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration have always been separate things: the former a decision made by the plan sponsor, with the participant having the ability to opt-out; the latter a voluntary decision by the participant, facilitated by the plan sponsor.

These two traditionally separate concepts were wedded in the PPA’s automatic enrollment safe harbor, and for a very sound reason: As noted above, a 3% deferral is not enough.

Current survey data suggests that plan sponsors continue to separate these two design choices, and that tells me two things: 
  • most plan sponsors who adopt automatic enrollment designs aren’t doing so with an eye toward taking advantage of the PPA safe harbor; and
  • while many plan sponsors are willing to make one monetary decision on behalf of their workers, they apparently aren’t nearly as willing to make two, however integral it might be to retirement security. 
3. Automatic enrollment isn’t just for new hires.

Despite our extended history with automatic enrollment, and the PPA’s safe harbor that contemplates its extension to all eligible workers, to date most plans — roughly two-thirds — that have adopted automatic enrollment have done so only for new hires. Over the years, I have heard a variety of explanations for this trend — anything from a hesitation to “suddenly” take contributions from long-time workers (who have ostensibly declined to take advantage of previous opportunities to join) to a general resistance to running the risk of stirring up trouble with existing workers.

However, to me, the most logical explanation is economic: Just take the likely increase in participation rate (generally from 70% to 95% or so) resulting from automatic enrollment, and then figure out the increase in matching dollars that would result, particularly for an employee population that is likely more tenured and highly compensated.

Little wonder that so many decide to “let sleeping dogs lie.” Though in all my years of experience working with 401(k) plans, I have never heard of even a single participant who objected to being automatically enrolled. On the other hand, I’ve heard dozens of stories of long-tenured workers who had, for a variety of reasons, put off signing up for their 401(k) — but who, when they finally were enrolled, were oh-so-very-grateful for that “start,” however delayed.

And that, perhaps as much as anything else, is something plan sponsors should know.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The “New” Math?

One of my more frustrating memories of parenthood was trying to help my kids with their homework. Not because I hadn’t covered the territory once upon a time myself, or because I couldn’t manage to refresh my recollection(s) of the subject. It wasn’t enough to teach my kids a method sufficient to arrive at the correct answer, and to help them understand how we got there. No, it didn’t “count” unless I could arrive at the answer by adhering to what struck me as a weirdly inefficient and complicated regimen upon which their teachers insisted.

If this was the “new math,” I remember thinking at the time, I fear for the sanity of the next generation.

This past weekend The New York Times ran an article aptly, if somewhat awkwardly, titled, “New Math for Retirees and the 4% Withdrawal Rule.” The focus of the article, like the 4% rule itself, was how to pace withdrawals in retirement so that you don’t run out of money before you run out of retirement. However, like so many other things these days, it’s apparently not as simple as it once was, complicated by the low interest rate environment and the current high stock market values.

Though a lot of time, thought and attention has been paid to the 4% rule (and its progeny), to me it’s basically just math. After all, once you stipulate certain assumptions about the length of retirement, portfolio mix/returns, and inflation, a guideline like the 4% “rule” is really just a mathematical exercise.

‘Drawing’ Board

But if those rules purport to tell us how much we can draw from our retirement savings without running out, how does that compare with what people are actually withdrawing? The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has previously examined withdrawal patterns in their IRA database, and found that the median IRA individual withdrawal rates amounted to 5.5% of the account balance in 2010, though among those 71 or older (when required minimum distributions kick in) were much more likely to be withdrawing at a rate of 3-5%.

Those median numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course. A separate EBRI analysis, this one based on data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), found that lower-income workers were withdrawing money from their individual retirement accounts in much greater numbers, earlier, and at much larger percentages, than other workers. In fact, the report noted that nearly half (48%) of the bottom-income quartile of those between the ages of 61 and 70 had made such an IRA withdrawal, and that their average annual percentage of account balance withdrawn was 17.4% — higher than the rest of the income distribution. In sum, a number of individuals, again, notably lower-income workers, were withdrawing more from their retirement savings accounts than those in higher income groups — and apparently more than the 4% “rule” would suggest would allow them to avoid running out of money in retirement.

Will these drawdown rates create a problem down the road? Will these individual run short of funds in retirement? Will those withdrawals, along with other resources that may be available, be sufficient to live on? The answers, of course, depend on the individuals, their circumstances, health, needs, expectations — and preparations.

Those ultimate realities may be new for some — but the “math” won’t be.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, May 09, 2015

13 Things About Work You Probably Didn’t Learn in School

This weekend our youngest will graduate from college. It’s a big day for him, of course, and a big deal for us, having for some part of the past eight years had either one, two — and for one interesting year, all three — of our children in college at the same time.

Life has many lessons to teach us, some more painful than others. But as my son — and graduates everywhere — look ahead to the next chapter in their lives, it’s a natural time for the rest of us, particularly those of us who are parents, to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

So, for my son — and all the other graduates out there — here are some things I wish I had known when I entered the workforce:
1. If you don’t speak up, people will assume you’re happy with the way things are.
2. If you wouldn’t want your mother to learn about it, don’t do it.
3. Never assume that your employer (or your boss) is looking out for your best interests.
4. You can be liked and respected.
5. Be very careful when using the “Reply All” button.
6. Never miss an opportunity to tell someone “thank you.”
7. Be willing to take all the blame — and to share the credit.
8. Know at least a little about sports and the weather.
9. Never assume that “senior management” knows what they’re doing.
10. Watch your language. People notice people who don’t curse.
11. Sometimes the questions are complicated, but the answers aren’t.
12. That 401(k) match isn’t really “free” money — but it won’t cost you a thing.
13. Plan for your future now because retirement, like graduation, seems a long way off — until it isn’t. 

Congratulations to my son — and all the graduates out there. We’re proud of you!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Retirement Plans and Plans for Retirement

When is a plan not a plan? When you have a retirement plan at work, apparently.

The good news is that the 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey shows a strengthening of retirement confidence — at least among those who had some kind of retirement plan (DB, DC or IRA). Indeed, among that group, the number saying they were very confident has doubled since 2013.

The bad news? Well, there doesn’t seem to be much in terms of substantive savings accumulations1 or planning behaviors to account for this uptick in confidence.

Consider that fewer than half (48%) of workers report they and/or their spouse have tried to calculate — even a single time — how much money they will need to have saved by the time they retire so that they can live comfortably in retirement, a level that has held relatively consistent over the past decade.

In other words, while many have (or had) a retirement plan, they don’t seem to have a plan for retirement. 

On the other hand, workers reporting that they or their spouse have a DC, DB or IRA plan are twice as likely as those who do not have such a plan (60% vs. 23%) to have tried to do a calculation to estimate what they will need to finance retirement. And despite higher savings goals, workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement (33% vs. 12% who have not done a calculation). Moreover, worker households with a retirement plan are more likely than those without such plans to report having saved for retirement (90% vs. 20%).

That said, after a quarter century reading and studying the RCS, several things are clear:

Those who have made the effort2 — even a feeble one — to figure out how much they need in retirement are more confident, and likely better off in the long run, since they tend to set higher savings goals.

Those who work with an advisor are more confident, and likely better off in the long run, since they also tend to set more realistic (i.e., higher) savings goals.

And perhaps most importantly, those who have access to a retirement plan are not only more confident, they are probably better off, since they tend to have actual sources of income on which to draw in retirement.

But ultimately, while having a retirement plan may provide some quantifiable increase in confidence about retirement, it’s having a plan for retirement — and acting on it — that grounds that confidence in reality.

Nevin E. Adams, JD


1. While much will likely be made of the relatively low/modest savings amounts reported by RCS respondents, without knowing individual factors like age or income, it’s impossible to discern whether those amounts are woefully inadequate, or reasonable. 

2. Those plans for retirement need to be reconsidered on a regular basis, since many are forced (or choose) to leave the workforce earlier than planned.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

3 (More) Pervasive Retirement Myths - an Academic Perspective

Last week I highlighted three “myths” about the retirement system that will not die — all the more distressing because they are perpetuated by retirement industry pundits. Here are three more that (mostly) aren’t perpetuated by those who actually work with retirement plans, but by academics.  Academics who, sadly, are often listened to, and cited by those who regulate and legislate these programs.

The Match Doesn’t Matter

This doubtless comes as a surprise to those of us who work with retirement plans and retirement plan participants. More precisely, there are a few studies out there that suggest that a matching contribution doesn’t have a very strong impact on participation. The study that is cited most often in support of this one is one conducted several years ago in conjunction with H&R Block, where individuals were offered a financial incentive to take their tax refund and deposit it in an IRA. Most didn’t — and thus the notion that the promise of the match doesn’t produce (much) in the way of participation.

Now, if you find yourself saying, “But that’s not really an analogous situation to 401(k) saving” — well, you wouldn’t be the only one to think so.

But even if it has only a modest impact on the decision to participate, the data clearly suggests that it has a big impact on the rate of savings — and on the savings accumulations itself.

You Can Plug the Leakage Problem by Limiting Loans

Preventing “leakage” has become a constant drumbeat of many in our industry, their passion fueled by estimates of the enormity of the problem that seem limited only by the imaginations of those clamoring to solve it. As recently as a week ago, I was at a conference where a respected researcher went so far as to suggest that we are losing as much as $1 in leakage for every $2 contributed into the system. I kid you not.

Now, the “out” for these wild exaggerations is that nobody knows for sure, and so — if you’re looking for them — you see those estimates footnoted with disclaimers like “author’s calculations.” Or sometimes they come right out and admit that it’s based on a “host of simplifying assumptions.”

Don’t get me wrong — “leakage” can be a threat to an individual’s retirement security. But when the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) looked into the matter in testimony provided to the ERISA Advisory Council last year, it was cashouts — not loans or hardship withdrawals (even including the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions) — that turned out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.

So, if you want to solve the real leakage problem, you might want to start by accurately assessing the size of the problem, rather than just making numbers up. And then you might look for ways to make it easier for folks to keep their savings in the system at job change.

And let’s not forget — locking people’s money up with no access until retirement may solve the leakage problem. But it could also lead to a reduction in the amount of money people save in the first place.

The 401(k)’s Tax Incentives Are ‘Upside Down’

One of the comments you hear from time to time is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down” (or as it has been more colorfully described, “out of whack”) — that is, they go primarily to those at higher income levels, who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. And from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes.

Indeed, if those “upside-down incentives” were the only forces at work, one might reasonably expect to find that the higher the individual’s salary, the higher the overall account balance would be, as a multiple of salary. However, drawing on the actual administrative data from the massive EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei has found that those ratios hold relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000.

In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes. They are not “upside down.” Now this is the outcome — the balances — not just focused on the contributions, the amount(s) going in, which is what most of the criticism focuses on.

As retirement plan advisors are well aware, these programs are subject to a series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Code Sections 402(g) and 415(c), combined with the ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time 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.

More recently, the “fairness” of these incentives has been questioned since they “only” go to workers who are covered by workplace retirement plans (though, as I pointed out last week, those numbers are often distorted as well). A better solution might be to expand those covered by such plans, rather than to undermine the diligence of those who are saving.

You’re less likely to hear these statements in your earshot — they tend to show up in academic forums, and sometimes in legislative hearings — forums where “decorum” might suggest avoiding confrontation.

But this is not just an academic exercise. And no one is well served — even the often well meaning academics who are trying to help improve the current system — by perpetuating misunderstandings.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, April 04, 2015

3 Pervasive Retirement Industry Myths

Ours is a complex and complicated business — constantly changing and evolving. And yet, there are key fallacies about today’s retirement system — and how it compares with what used to be — that will not go away.

Back in the good old days being “covered” by a pension plan meant you would actually get a full pension benefit.

We’re routinely told that “once upon a time” individuals used to work for a single employer their entire career, and that most of those workers were “covered by a workplace retirement plan, frequently a defined benefit pension.”

While defined benefit plans were certainly more common a generation ago, they were not as ubiquitous as is often assumed (see here).  

Moreover, while some workers did spend their working career at a single employer (and some still do, particularly in the public sector), the data show that for the very most part we have long been a nation of relatively short-tenured workers. How short? Well, the median job tenure in the United States — how long workers stay at one job — has hovered around five years for the past three decades. Indeed, according to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), in recent years it has ticked up, to about 5.5 years, but that’s because women are staying in their jobs longer; job tenure for men has actually been dropping.

What that means is that even workers who were “covered” by a pension plan in the private sector weren’t working with that employer long enough to get much — or any — of that promised pension benefit.

Only half of American workers have access to a workplace retirement plan.

Speaking of coverage, this is one of those statements that, while technically accurate, is somewhat misleading. Applied to all workers, that is what the National Compensation Survey (conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics) indicates. But it includes all workers, including very young, very low-income, part-time and part-year workers.

If you focus on full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21-64, an analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) noted that in 2013, two-thirds of those workers — workers who might reasonably be expected to be covered by a voluntary workplace retirement plan under current law — did, in fact, work for an employer that sponsored a plan.

The average 401(k) balance tells us…anything.

Let’s say I told you that the average 401(k) balance in a survey sampling was $130,000 — would that be good or not?

What if I then told you that our sampling consisted of an individual who is 25 years old and has a 401(k) balance of $5,000, and an individual who is 64 years old and has a 401(k) balance of $255,000? How might that change your response? Would that tell you anything meaningful about the retirement readiness of that group?

Of course not — but surveys and coverage of those surveys routinely purport to glean a sense of retirement readiness from those kind of numbers. Despite the reality that they are comprised of savings totals for workers with a wide range of age, tenure, and savings rates — totals that are simply added together, and then divided by the number of workers in the sample.

The math on 401(k) averages is easy. The conclusions often drawn from that math, iffy. At best.

So, the next time you’re at an industry event and hear someone (who should know better) repeat one (or more) of those statements, or interviewed by a reporter who puts one (or more) of those presumptions forth as “proof” of the current system’s shortfalls, keep in mind that the data tells a different story.

And one that isn’t told often enough.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

At Long Last, Retirement Confidence Surges

New nonpartisan data has uncovered a major uptick in retirement confidence, as millions of Americans with access to workplace retirement plans finally took advantage of the wide array of resources long available to them.

Those tools included the use of online calculators and the help of plan advisors. “I was always too busy to take advantage of these resources,” noted survey participant Jack V. Copeland. “Frankly, with all the negative coverage about retirement shortfalls and such, I didn’t see much point.”

Not that the new research, published by the Oxford Newfound Institute of Nihilism (ONION), didn’t uncover retirement savings shortfalls among survey participants. However, with workers now taking the time to assess their personal situation, savings rate and projected retirement income needs, developing plans to address the situation rather than simply worrying about their dim prospects for retirement savings success became the order of the day. Previous research had shown that fewer than half of workers had made even a single attempt to assess their retirement needs, and many of those had simply guessed.

Ironically, despite this newfound and dramatic increase in confidence, the new retirement savings goals were not only more likely to produce a successful outcome, they were generally higher than the goals previously set by workers who had gone through the process.

Some of the most dramatic impacts were recorded by participants in plans where employers had not only provided for automatic enrollment immediately upon hire, but who applied automatic enrollment retroactively to existing hires as well. “All these years, I just assumed my employer thought it was too late for me to start saving,” said one long-time worker who had just been automatically enrolled under such a program.

A separate, plan sponsor-focused report found that the renewed focus and confidence translated into tangible workforce management benefits as well. “We found that a growing number of older workers were simply hanging on to their old jobs, afraid to retire because they had no idea how much they would need to have in retirement,” observed one. “Now, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing workers actively plan for their retirement date with confidence. We should have done this years ago!”

No foolin’.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Note: Sure it's April Fool’s, but while the post above has a certain tongue-in-cheek character, the implications are not as fictional as you might think. In fact, they are well within the realm of a very potential reality for millions more — with a little help from plan advisors, their plan sponsor clients and the cooperation of plan participants.