Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Missed" Deeds and 401(k) Fees

The Nov. 7 issue of The New York Times included a story about “Finding, and Battling, Hidden Costs of 401(k) Plans.” The story focused primarily on the plight of Ronald Tussey, the named plaintiff in Tussey v. ABB, Inc., one of the so-called “excess fee” revenue sharing cases.

Tussey, now 70, claims that he was told that his retirement plan was “free,” even though, according to the Times article, “middlemen1 were deducting expenses from his savings.” The story also notes that Tussey “never thought that his retirement plan might be flawed,” and that “he trusted his company so much he kept his money in his 401(k) long after he left.”

Over the years, I have been astounded at the allegations of fiduciary misconduct in these revenue-sharing cases. Each has its own flavor, of course, but for the most part they have struck me not so much as the outcomes of bad acts, per se, but rather steps that should have been taken in keeping with their fiduciary duty to ensure that the fees and services provided are reasonable and in the best interests of participants and their beneficiaries.

In Tussey’s case, ABB (his former employer) is alleged to have been told by a consultant that they were paying too much for record keeping fees, and then did nothing about it — for instance, though their decision to close a balanced fund and force participants into age-appropriate target-date funds. The use of float was also challenged. Both of those charges were dismissed by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; just this week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

But the point of the Times article was all about fees,2 outlining places and ways that readers can find out about the “…raft of obscure fees and services that few employees will be able to discern,” while also cautioning that none of those resources can help them figure out how much is too much. (That did not, however, keep the author of the article from redefining ERISA’s prudent man standard of care to mean “…finding a reasonable selection of low-cost funds and services.”)

A couple of weeks back, my wife and I met with our financial advisor to transfer and consolidate some small IRAs. Having attended to the basics, the conversation turned to investments, and then to a couple of fund recommendations. The advisor carefully outlined the expense ratios associated with the fund (which seemed reasonable to me), and then turned to the charges associated with investing in that fund. He didn’t call them a load, of course,  but that’s what it was, and a hefty one at that. And, Ronald Tussey’s status notwithstanding, I was reminded again just how lucky most 401(k) participants are.

Even if, as the article frets, participants aren’t able to find or understand thier 401(k) fees and don’t know what is reasonable — even if they assume such things are free — their retirement savings are under the care and oversight of a plan fiduciary. That fiduciary is personally responsible for ensuring that the fees and services are reasonable, is expected to engage the services of experts, if necessary, to make that determination, and is accountable not only for the things that are done wrong — the misdeeds — but for the “missed” deeds as well.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

1. “Middlemen” in this case seem to have been Fidelity Management Trust Company, the plan’s trustee and record keeper, as well as Fidelity Management and Research Company, the investment advisor to the Fidelity mutual funds on the plan.

2. Lending numerical support to their claims, the Times article cites a
2012 report on 401(k) fees by the left-leaning Demos advocacy group claiming that “nearly a third” of the investment returns of a medium-income two-earner family was being taken by fees, according to its model. That model, it should be noted, assumed that each fund had trading costs equal to the explicit expense ratio of the fund. The report was authored by Robert Hiltonsmith, who some may recall being featured in the 2013 PBS Frontline special, “The Retirement Gamble.”  

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Access "Able?"

Though I’ve now spent more than three decades working with employment-based benefit plans, I’ve also worked for some very different employers, ranging from organizations that employed tens of thousands of workers to those that were a fraction of that size. Those organizations were all very different, of course, but they all had at least one thing in common: All offered a workplace retirement savings program.

That’s apparently not as common as one might think, certainly among smaller employers. In fact, a new study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) notes that the probability of a worker participating in an employment-based retirement plan increased significantly along with the size of his or her employer.

How significantly? Well, the EBRI report notes that for wage and salary workers ages 21‒64 who worked for employers with fewer than 10 employees, just 13.2% participated in a plan, compared with 57.0% of those working for employers with 1,000 or more employees. Filtering for those workers who are full-time, full-year, at employers with 1,000 or more workers, two-thirds (66.5%) participate, compared with just 16.9% at employers with fewer than 10 workers.

One is inclined to look for other explanations than employer size alone. Perhaps smaller employers pay less, or hire younger workers (who might also be paid less) — and those factors might play some role. However, the EBRI analysis found that, even controlling for age, workers at smaller employers still had persistently lower levels of participation across the age groups.

Moreover, across various earnings levels, workers at small employers (less than 100 employees) were less likely to participate in an employment-based retirement plan. Indeed, even among workers making $75,000 or more, a considerable disparity was found — just 27% of those in that income category working for the smallest employers participated in a plan, compared with 81% of those working for employers with 1,000 or more employees.

But when you adjust for access to a plan — the percentage participating divided by the percentage working for employers that sponsor a plan — you find that those differences largely disappear. For example, while just 16.9% of those full-time, full-year employees who work at workers participate in a plan. That’s about 86% of the 19.5% of workers in that category whose employer sponsors a plan — which is nearly identical to the participation of private-sector employers with 1,000 or more employees.

A few years back the Maryland Lottery had a simple slogan: “You gotta play to win.” That’s a motto that those saving for retirement should take to heart.

However, when it comes to retirement plan participation, it looks like a lot of those who work for small employers aren’t yet getting a chance to “play.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Room to Grow

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

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

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

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

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

Limit 'Ed'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Just "Because"

As you may have heard (but may not), we recently celebrated National Save for Retirement Week. Of course, there’s no “magic” to a week dedicated to a focus on saving for retirement — even one that Congress has seen fit to acknowledge with a resolution.

That said, saving for retirement — which seems far away for some (though likely not as far away as some think) — is something that many find easy to defer for another day, a more convenient time, a more settled financial situation. We all know we should do it — but some figure that it will take more time and energy than we can afford just now, some assume the process will provide a depressing, perhaps even insurmountable target, while others don’t even know how to get started.

You deal with these objections all the time. However, in recognition of National Save for Retirement Week, here are five simple reasons why you, or those you care about, should save — and specifically save for retirement — now:

Because you don’t want to work forever.

If you want to stop working one day, you are going to have to think about how much income you will need to live after you are no longer working for a paycheck.

Because living in retirement isn’t free.

Many people assume that expenses will go down in retirement, and they may for some. On the other hand, retirement often brings with it changes in how we spend, and on what — and that’s not necessarily less.

For example, research by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has found that health-related expenses are the second-largest component in the budget of older Americans, and a component that steadily increases with age (see “How Does Household Expenditure Change With Age for Older Americans?”).

Because you may not be able to work as long as you think.

In 1991, just 11% of workers expected to retire after age 65, according to the Retirement Confidence Survey. Twenty-three years later (2014), that same survey found that a third of workers report that they expect to retire after age 65, and 10% don’t plan to retire at all.

Expectations are one thing, but realities seem to be different. The RCS has consistently found that a large percentage of retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned (49% in 2014), and many who retire earlier than they had planned often do so for negative reasons, such as a health problem or disability (61%) — things that are not within their control.

Because you don’t know how long you will live.

People are living longer and the longer your life, the longer your potential retirement, particularly if it begins sooner than you think. Retiring at age 65 today? A man would have a 50% chance of still being alive at age 81 (and a woman at age 85); a 25% chance of living to nearly 90; a 10% chance of getting close to 100. How big a chance do you want to take of outliving your money?

Because the sooner you start, the easier it will be.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Moving Targets

Before target-date funds were “cool” (or widely available), I had steered my mother toward an asset-allocation fund as a good place to invest her retirement plan rollover balance.

The logic was, I thought, impeccable: A professional money manager would be keeping an eye on and rebalancing those investments on a regular basis. The fee was reasonable, and the portfolio was split about 60/40 between stocks and bonds, which also seemed reasonable in view of her investment horizon. From time to time Mom would call and ask if we needed to rebalance that investment — and I confidently assured her that there was no need to do so, that the fund’s design took that into account.

Then at some point (though definitely between 2006 and 2008) that professional manager decided that a “better” allocation was to shift the asset allocation to be invested nearly entirely in stocks. Now, knowing how such things work, I can’t imagine that a shift that dramatic wasn’t clearly and concisely communicated to holders on a timely basis — or at least in a manner that the legal profession deemed sufficient. But by the time we realized what had happened — well, that reasonably priced professional fund management wound up feeling more like someone had decided to bet it all on “red.”

With that experience under my belt, and a wary eye on recent market movements, I couldn’t help but notice a Reuters report this week which noted that within the last year, several large target-date fund providers had increased the equity allocations of their TDFs. Now, honestly, I don’t know what their previous allocations were, much less where they currently stand, nor am I privy to the rationale behind these moves. I don't know if it's a broad-based shift across their entire family, or specifically focused on those with longer time horizons.

The Reuters piece is cautionary in tone — basically intimating that these moves might be underway at a time when the markets have peaked, with an undertow of concern that the timing could be problematic. Doubtless the headline will draw clicks, if not concern — after all, you don’t have to be very old or in this business very long, to remember that just prior to the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, several performance-lagging TDF managers made what seemed, at least in hindsight, to be a badly timed equity shift in their portfolios. Nor was it that long ago that we heard concerns expressed by participants, particularly older ones (and subsequently regulators on their behalf) who were, in the aftermath of that crisis, surprised to find just how much exposure their TDF investments had to those equity markets.  

Despite these concerns, TDFs have continued to gain prominence in retirement plans, and in retirement plan participant balances. Consider that nearly three-quarters (72%) of 401(k) plans in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database included TDFs in their investment lineup at year-end 2012, and 41% of the roughly 24 million 401(k) participants in that database held TDFs. Consider as well that at year-end 2012, 43% of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in TDFs. Older workers have not been as inclined to invest in those options, though it may simply be that, as older workers, they aren’t as likely to have been defaulted there.

Whether or not this time will be different in result, only time will tell. But we can all hope that the communications about such shifts are understood and appreciated by plan participants and plan sponsors before the results make it too late to do so.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Crisis "Centered"

Is there a retirement crisis or not? 

Though you may have missed it, last week a Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required) claimed that there was an “imaginary” retirement income crisis that was being pushed by some who want to boost Social Security benefits and reduce tax incentives for saving (such as those available to 401(k) plan participants). In fact, authors Andrew Biggs and Syl Schieber claimed that the statistics relied on by the crisis were “vast overstatements, generated by methods that range from flawed to bogus.”

Within a day, New School economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci responded, claiming in an opinion piece on the Huffington Post website that “The Retirement Crisis Is Real,” referring to the WSJ op-ed as making “startling and misleading claims.”

Ultimately, those who believe (or who want to believe) that there is no retirement crisis will likely draw comfort from the assertions of Biggs and Schieber, who have made similar points before. Similarly, those who are inclined to see a retirement crisis looming will likely be reassured by Ghilarducci’s quick and pointed response. Unfortunately, those who have not yet made up their minds are not likely to find much in either article to shed much light on the discussion.

If indeed a “crisis” looms, it’s one that we’ve seen (and been cautioned about) for a very long time. What seems likely is that at some point in the future, some will run short of money in retirement, though they may very well be able to replicate a respectable portion of their pre-retirement income levels, certainly if the support of Social Security is maintained at current levels. In fact, a recent analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that current levels of Social Security benefits, coupled with at least 30 years of 401(k) savings eligibility, could provide most workers — between 83% and 86% of them, in fact — with an annual income of at least 60% of their preretirement pay on an inflation-adjusted basis. Even at an 80% replacement rate, 67% of the lowest-income quartile would still meet that threshold — and that’s making no assumptions about the impact of plan design features like automatic enrollment and annual contribution acceleration.

That is, of course, for workers who have had a full career of retirement plan eligibility at work, and while tens of millions of workers do, many do not yet. That’s a missed opportunity to forestall a potential crisis, since we know that the primary factor in determining whether or not a middle-income worker is saving for retirement is whether or not they have a retirement plan at work. It’s also probably a factor in how individuals feel about their retirement readiness, a point emphasized in findings from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey where there was a clear distinctions, not only in confidence, but in preparations that might support those sentiments (see "The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds — for Those With Retirement Plans").

At the end of Ghilarducci’s op-ed, she cites the concerns about retirement expressed in a recent Gallup poll. “If things are as rosy as Mr. Biggs and Mr. Schieber state, why is everyone so afraid?” she asks.

At least part of the answer, it seems to me, is that they keep reading headlines like hers.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Left" Overs?

I’ve never been big on leftovers. Now, I know that many relish the taste of cold pizza for breakfast, while others swear that a desirable marinating takes place during storage. As for me, no matter how good the original dish, and despite the wonders of microwaving, I have a hard time getting excited about sitting down to a meal comprised of things that (at least in some cases) weren’t good enough to finish the first time.

When it comes to retirement savings, most still seem to “begin” with whatever is “left over” — after bills, living expenses, food and the like.

Not that we’re comfortable with that approach. A recent Wells Fargo/Gallup survey found that, taking their savings and Social Security income into consideration, more than two-thirds (69%) of investors say they are “highly” or “somewhat” confident they will have enough money to maintain their desired lifestyle throughout their retirement years. However, nearly half (46%) are still “very” or “somewhat” worried about outliving their savings, including 50% of non-retirees and 36% of retirees.

Nor is it a uniquely American issue; the Towers Watson Global Benefit Attitudes Survey found that in developed economies typically two-thirds of respondents believe their financial resources will support 15 years of retirement, but less than half are confident when considering 25 years into retirement.

So, how are we dealing with this worry about running out of money? Well, surveys are beginning to indicate that this uncertainty is already translating into extended work lives — or at least some expectation of being able to do so. Simply stated, for some, the “answer” to not having enough saved to retire is simply to work longer. Mathematically, those assumptions can produce a satisfying projected outcome. Unfortunately, like an assumption that your retirement investments will return 12% annually for the next 30 years, the data suggests that the reality of working longer is often undermined by circumstances beyond the individual’s control.

On the path toward more realistic assumptions, a growing number of providers now make available a projection as to how much monthly income a participant’s retirement savings would produce, and in May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has proposed that a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance. These efforts will doubtless make it easier for today’s workers to anticipate how much retirement income they will have available, based on certain assumptions.

As for those already in retirement — and unable to adjust assumptions— some studies have shown that retirees are adjusting to their income realities — though arguably those are the kind of reality adjustments most would rather not be forced to make.

For those with time to prepare ahead, while we know that the requirements of the “here and now” frequently intrude on our preparations for the “there and then,” there’s something to be said for taking the time now to think about what those retirement savings “leftovers” could taste like — and how small the portions could be.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD