Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Gaps in Retirement Savings "Gaps"

As spring follows winter, so apparently do dire predictions about the nation’s retirement prospects.

For example, the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College now claims we are looking at a $7.7 trillion dollar “retirement gap” for American workers, up from $6.6 trillion five years ago. Meanwhile, a new report by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) on what it called the “Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis” didn’t cite a specific aggregate gap, but a year ago NIRS employed a similar approach to suggest that that gap was likely somewhere between $6.8 trillion and $14 trillion.

While these outcomes are cited widely (the CRR’s as recently as last week in a U.S. Senate hearing), the underlying methodologies and assumptions are worth understanding. Both rely heavily on self-reported numbers from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), and while both track the progress of American retirement readiness by examining how individuals in the SCF did over time, they fail to acknowledge that doing so compares the balances and readiness of two completely different groups of individuals at different points in time. The NIRS analysis builds on that shaky foundation by incorporating some assumptions about defined benefit assets and extrapolating target retirement savings needs based on a set of age-based income multipliers — income multipliers, it should be noted, that have no apparent connection with actual income, or with actual spending needs in retirement. But then, the math is easier.

There’s no question that there is a gap between what Americans are likely to need to live comfortably in retirement and the resources available to fund it. The non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently updated its EBRI Retirement Readiness Rating and found that the retirement savings gap was $4.13 trillion for all U.S. households (not just those who have retirement plan balances, though it uses actual 401(k) data for those who do have such plans, rather than relying on self-reported estimates), where the head of the household is between 25 and 64, inclusive. That may be well short of the projections offered by the NIRS and CRR, but it’s a big number, nonetheless.

Indeed, considering the enormity of that gap, policymakers — and Americans generally — might well feel like throwing up their hands and despair of ever closing it (indeed, earlier this month NIRS published a survey indicating that 86% of Americans believe the nation faces a retirement crisis).

What is unfortunately often lost in the trillion-dollar gap headlines (and the concurrent surveys that, unsurprisingly, talk about our deteriorating confidence about our retirement) is that not everyone has a retirement savings gap. Ironically, considering their differing methodologies, the CRR, NIRS and EBRI all put the number at about 50%. (EBRI’s number, which in its assumptions and use of actual data seems more conservative, says the number at risk of running short of money in retirement is in the low 40% range.)

How big is the gap at an individual level? The EBRI analysis breaks it down into manageable numbers: For those on the verge of retirement (Early Baby Boomers), the deficits vary from an aggregate of $19,304 (per individual) for married households, to $33,778 for single males and $62,734 for single females. If you look only at the individuals who do have gaps (EBRI’s projections, which take into account the potential costs of nursing home care and living expenses based on real experience, rather than arbitrary replacement ratios, indicate that about 57% will have sufficient retirement income), the gap for Early Boomers ranges from $71,299 per individual for married households to $93,576 for single males and $104,821 for single females.

Not surprisingly, those eligible to participate in workplace retirement plans fare better. Also not surprisingly, those who have jobs are more likely to have incomes and access to a workplace retirement plan — and those who work for larger employers are more likely to have both larger incomes and access.

However, even EBRI’s estimates include a wide range of personal circumstances, from individuals projected to run short by as little as a dollar to those projected to fall short by tens of thousands of dollars. For those seeking to understand, and perhaps craft solutions for, the current projected shortfalls, this is an important distinction, and one given short shrift by a headline’s focus on the aggregate.

There are, of course, broad policy changes that can, and have, made a big difference, nationally and at a plan level — things like automatic (and immediate) enrollment, contribution acceleration and prudent selection of a default investment option, not to mention ideas (or legislation) that expand access to those plans.

That said, ultimately the retirement savings gap is an aggregation of individual savings gaps. And as advisors well know, you close those one individual at a time.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Trouble With Tibble

Ours is a complex business. For one thing, it’s fraught with potential peril for inattentive plan fiduciaries, many of whom find themselves tasked with the responsibilities of the role (frequently as part of a much wider range of responsibilities) with little in the way of background, training or explanation to help.

And then you have the defendants in the Tibble v. Edison International case: a large ($2 billion-plus) plan that not only had an investment committee, but also one separate from the benefits administration function. Moreover, that investment committee had access to the services of an investment advisor (Hewitt’s investment consulting arm) to review, select and monitor funds and, according to the findings of the lower courts, a review process that was attentive to the requirements of an investment policy statement (IPS).

What they did not do was ask about the availability of lower-priced institutional shares.

However, that wasn’t the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court this past week. Rather, the Court was asked to decide how to apply ERISA’s statute of limitations to the action of selecting these funds. Three of the retail class funds were added as plan investment options in 1999; three more were added in 2002. The plan sponsor plaintiffs had successfully argued before the 9th Circuit that when the suit was brought in 2007, the funds which were added in 1999 had been on the plan menu for more than six years — beyond ERISA's statute of limitations. At issue was whether the prudence of that older selection could be challenged.

In the presentations before the Supreme Court, both parties agreed that there was a fiduciary duty to review plan investments, and both parties were willing to concede that the initial review and selection of an investment fund should be more extensive than just considering the retention or replacement of a fund that was already on the investment menu. It was the nature and extent of that review that consumed much of the discussion during the hearing.

In the initial ruling in the case, the district court said there had to be a change in circumstances significant enough to make the continued investment in that investment option an imprudent one, and cited legal precedent for its view. The discussion last week noted precedents in the 9th, 4th and 11th Circuits saying that change would have to be tantamount to adding a new fund. In Tibble, there doesn’t appear to have been a change in the funds on the menu per se, but rather, the mere existence of lower-cost institutional shares.

However, the Assistant to the Solicitor General, appearing in support of the plaintiffs’ position as a friend of the court, told the justices that in its assessment, the ongoing monitoring of investment options was "not limited to circumstances in which the fund changed so much that it's like a new fund is being put in place.” 

It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court’s view of the level of review and the circumstances that trigger it will affect the outcome of this case. We’ll have an answer by June.

That said, the words that linger in my mind — and that I think plan fiduciaries should remember — also came from the Assistant Solicitor General: “You have a duty to look on a periodic basis and, really, how are you going to know if there have been changes unless you looked.”

How indeed.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Importance of Having a Plan

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in any number of “projects,” and to manage more than a few.

Some were explicitly tagged as such at the start, while others simply expanded to fit that name. Most of those projects turned out well; others faded into the woodwork after a time; some drew to a close after “redefining success;” and a couple actually “crashed and burned.” A lot of variables determine whether a project will be a success or failure, but in my experience, projects that lack either a limited budget and/or a specific timeframe are doomed from the outset.

I was therefore interested in some of the findings from the 8th annual America Saves Week survey this week. The survey, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC), found that more than half (57%) of those with a savings plan with specific goals said they were making good or excellent progress meeting their savings needs — nearly three times the number without a plan.

Moreover, nine-in-ten of those with a plan were spending less than their income and saving the difference (compared with only half of those without a plan), and more than twice as many (65%) of those with a plan said they were saving enough for retirement as among those without that specific savings plan (31%).

While those gaps were found between those who had a specific, individual, savings plan with specific
goals, it’s long been established that having access to a retirement plan at work makes a big difference in terms of whether people save for retirement or not — and the impact transcends income, gender and age. In fact, data prepared by the nonpartisan EBRI shows that more than 70% of workers earning from $30,000 to $50,000 participated in employer-sponsored retirement plans when a plan was available, whereas less than 5% of those middle income earners without access to an employer-sponsored plan contributed to an IRA. In other words, middle class workers are 15 times more like to save for their families’ retirement at work than on their own.

During this America Saves Week, it’s important to reinforce the importance of saving. However, it may be even more important to remember the positive impact of having a specific plan.

Not to mention the positive impact of having access to a retirement plan at work.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also: “4 Things You Need to Know if You are Not Saving for Retirement.” 

For an idea as to the impact that eligibility for participation in a workplace retirement plan can make, see “Retirement Savings Shortfalls: Evidence from EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model.” 

Friday, February 20, 2015

3 Things Every Plan Committee Member Should Know

Plan investment committee members come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes drawn exclusively from staff of the employer sponsoring the plan, sometimes not. More importantly, they are frequently tapped for this important role for reasons that may have little to do with their background or expertise in the matters that will come before the committee.

Now, with luck they’ll learn early on about the requirement to act solely in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, the importance of process (and documenting that process) and the implications of the prudent expert rule.

But as important as those considerations are, there are some important things that every plan committee member should know before they sit down at their first committee meeting.

You are an ERISA fiduciary. Even as a small and relatively silent member of the committee, you’ll direct and influence retirement plan money — and it’s that influence over the plan’s assets that makes you an ERISA fiduciary.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal. How personal? Well, you may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. You can obtain insurance to protect against that personal liability — but that’s probably not the fiduciary liability insurance you may already have in place, or the fidelity bond that is often carried to protect the plan against loss resulting from fraudulent or dishonest acts of those covered by the bond. If you’re not sure what you have, find out. Today.

You are responsible for the actions of other plan fiduciaries. All fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. For example, the Department of Labor notes that if a
fiduciary knowingly participates in another fiduciary’s breach of responsibility, conceals the breach, or does not act to correct it, that fiduciary is liable as well. 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.


Having established those basics, as an ERISA fiduciary, you are expected to act solely in the interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries, and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them; to carry out those duties prudently (and by prudent, it is intended that you be a prudent expert); to follow the terms of the plan documents (unless inconsistent with ERISA); to diversify plan investments (specifically with an eye toward minimizing the risk of large investment losses to the plan); and to ensure that the plan pays only reasonable plan expenses for the services it engages.  

A couple of additional points on fulfilling those duties; it’s going to be hard to follow the terms of the plan documents if you haven’t read them, and it’s likely to be difficult to ensure that the plan pays only reasonable expenses if you don’t know what the plan is paying, or for what.

And finally, should you, as a plan fiduciary lack the expertise to carry out those duties, you will, of course, want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.

Additional information on fiduciary responsibilities can be found here.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Impact of Assumptions on the Impact of Leakage

It has become something of an article of faith in our industry that “leakage,” the distribution of money from retirement accounts prior to retirement, is bad.

Bad, of course, in the sense that those “premature” withdrawals, via hardship withdrawals, loans or the so-called “deemed distributions” that result when a termination occurs when a loan is outstanding, reduce individual retirement savings.

So when the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College published a paper last week entitled “The Impact of Leakages on 401(k)/IRA Assets,” it really wasn’t a question of “if” there was an impact, it was a question of how much. The answer, according to the paper: a reduction in wealth at retirement of a jaw-dropping 25%.

Now by any measure, a 25% reduction in retirement wealth is a massive problem — and one that would, if valid, call for the kind of countermeasures touted by the Boston College researchers.

But consider the findings published recently by the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) based on its massive participant database of actual participant balances and activity. Among participants with outstanding 401(k) loans at the end of 2013, the average unpaid balance was a mere $7,421, and the median loan balance outstanding was $3,973.

Moreover, the report notes — as it has for a number of years examining trend analysis in that database — that overall, loans from 401(k) plans tended to be small, with a sizable majority of 401(k) participants in all age groups having no loan outstanding at all: 88% of participants in their 20s, 73% of participants in their 40s, and 86% of participants in their 60s had no loans outstanding at year-end 2013.

So, how did the Boston College researchers manage to come up with a 25% reduction in retirement wealth? Quite simply, they started by deriving an estimate based on a “host of simplifying assumptions” — their words, not mine.

What are those simplifying assumptions? It starts with a hypothetical participant who initially makes $40,000/year, gets a 1.1% annual pay increase in real terms, assumes that he/she defers 6% of pay, is matched at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar, and whose investments gain a 4.5% real annual return. But the key assumption — and the one that arguably creates the conclusion of the paper — is their further assumption that 1.5% of assets leak out each year!

Under these assumptions, the leakages result in accumulated 401(k) wealth of $203,000 at age 60 compared with $272,000 with no leakage. So their math (and assumptions) lead to a conclusion that these leakages reduce 401(k) wealth by 25%. To “prove” the point, they provide a simple chart of the numbers they just produced, and direct the reader to it as though it provides some sort of independent corroboration.

They go on to clarify: “This estimate represents the overall impact for the whole population, averaged across both those who tap their savings before retirement and those who do not.” That’s right — averaged across everyone, not just those who actually dip into those savings prior to retirement.

Now at that point, it’s arguably just math, not so much a quantification of the impact of leakages as the mathematical impact of a series of simplifying assumptions. As for the so-called impact of leakages? It might more accurately be described as the impact of assumptions.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

That’s not to say that leakages don’t have an impact on retirement accumulations, and doubtless for some, that impact is significant. EBRI’s analysis found that among loan defaults, hardships and cashouts at job change, cashouts were found to have a much more serious impact on 401(k) accumulation than either plan loan defaults or hardship withdrawals (even with the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions included). The leakages from cashouts resulted in a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80% real replacement rate of 5.9 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 4.5 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. In fact, the effect from cashouts (by themselves) — not loans or hardship withdrawals — turns out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.  

It’s also worth noting that it’s one thing to quantify the impact of not allowing early access to these funds — and something else altogether to assume that participants and plan sponsors would not respond in any way to those changes, perhaps by reducing their contribution levels, or by either deciding to continue to participate or to participate in the first place.

Friday, February 06, 2015

A Deja View on Retirement Policy?

One of my favorite movies — and perhaps my favorite “holiday” move — is Groundhog Day, the 1993 film starring Bill Murray as an arrogant weatherman who finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney, Penn. by a blizzard, who then discovers that he is also “stuck” reliving February 2 — over and over and over. A feeling, quite literally, of “déjà vu all over again.”

Murray’s character goes through some semblance of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as he comes to terms with his predicament, but even as he tries to break out of this cycle, he learns from his past experience(s) and modifies his behaviors accordingly; avoiding stepping in a deep puddle of slush, ducking an insurance salesman, and even carrying his own jack to help change a tire. Eventually, of course, all that “learning” pays off, though not without a lot of pain and frustration.

There was, in fact, something of a feeling of déjà vu in President Obama’s budget proposal yesterday, certainly with regard to workplace retirement plans. In addition to some new incentives around encouraging automatic enrollment and expanding access to part-time workers, making a return appearance was giving the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) the authority to set risk-based premium rates for pension plans and the administration’s proposal to mandate employer offering of “automatic” IRAs who do not already offer a workplace retirement plan, this time channeled to the myRA structure outlined a year ago.

The 2016 budget proposal also resurrects the notion of imposing a reduction on the value of itemized deductions to 28% — including retirement contributions, and the imposition of a retirement savings cap.

Arguably, these proposals stand little chance of making their way into reality. That said, the latter two proposals in particular are blunt policy instruments, and seem likely to reduce, not enhance, the nation’s retirement security prospects.

Consider that a year ago when the savings cap was introduced in the 2015 budget, projections by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) show that more than 1 in 10 current 401(k) participants are likely to hit the proposed cap sometime prior to age 65, even at the current, albeit historically low, discount rate of 4%. When you apply the higher discount rate assumptions closer to historical averages, the percentage of 401(k) participants likely to be affected by these proposed limits increases “substantially,” according to EBRI.

As for the itemized deduction cap, it would mean that those affected — likely those making the decisions on matching contributions of offering a plan in the first place — would pay taxes on contributions in the year the contributions are made, and then again at the full rate when contributions are distributed at retirement. How’s that for dis-incentivizing workplace retirement savings?

Indeed, perhaps the thing most troubling about the latter two proposals in particular is that they reveal a basic misunderstanding about the interrelationship between the incentives to employers to offer these programs, and the existence and expansion of these plans.

In sum, they don’t appear to understand that if you diminish the incentives to employers of participating in workplace retirement plans, you’ll likely see fewer retirement plans in the workplace.

So, while we’d like to think that those guiding retirement policy would learn from their mistakes, it looks like instead it’s déjà vu all over again.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stocks Swayed by the Super Bowl?

Will your portfolio soar with the Seahawks, or get pummeled by the Patriots?

That’s what adherents of the so-called Super Bowl Theory would likely predict. The Super Bowl Theory holds that when a team from the old National Football League wins the Super Bowl, the S&P 500 will rise, whereas when a team from the old American Football League prevails, stock prices will fall.

It’s a “theory” that has been found to be correct nearly 80% of the time; for 38 of the 48 Super Bowls, in fact.

It certainly “worked” in 2014, when these same Seattle Seahawks bumped the Broncos, a legacy AFL team, and in 2013, when a dramatic fourth quarter comeback rescued a victory by the Baltimore Ravens who, though representing the AFC, are technically a legacy NFL team via their Cleveland Browns roots. Admittedly, that the markets fared well in 2013 was hardly a true test of the Super Bowl Theory since, as it turned out, both teams in Super Bowl XLVII — the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers — were NFL legacy.

However, consider that in 2012 a team from the old NFL (the NY Giants) took on — and took down — one from the old AFL (the New England Patriots, who once were the AFL’s Boston Patriots). And, in fact, 2012 was a pretty good year for stocks.

On the other hand, the year before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers (representing the American Football Conference) took on the National Football Conference’s Green Bay Packers — two teams that had some of the oldest, deepest and, yes, most “storied” NFL roots, with the Steelers formed in 1933 (as the Pittsburgh Pirates) and the Packers, founded in 1919. So, according to the Super Bowl Theory, 2011 should have been a good year for stocks (because, regardless of who won, an NFL team would prevail). But as you may recall, while the Dow gained ground for the year, the S&P 500 was, well, flat.

There was the string of Super Bowls where the contests were all between legacy NFL teams: 2010 (when the New Orleans Saints bested the Indianapolis Colts, who had roots back to the NFL legacy Baltimore Colts)), 2009 (the Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Arizona Cardinals, who had once been the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals), 2007 (where the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17), and 2006, when the Steelers besting the Seattle Seahawks. The markets were higher in each of those years.

As for 2008? Well, that was the year that the NFC’s New York Giants upended the legacy AFL’s Patriots’ hopes for a perfect season, but it didn’t do any favors for the stock market. In fact, that was the last time that the Super Bowl Theory didn't “work.”

Patriot Gains

Times were better for Patriots fans in 2005 when they bested the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles 24-21, and, according to the Super Bowl Theory, the markets should have been down for the year. However, in 2005 the S&P 500 climbed 2.55%. Of course, the 2002 win by those same New England Patriots accurately foretold the continuation of the bear market into a third year (at the time, the first accurate result in five years). But the Patriots’ 2004 Super Bowl win against the Carolina Panthers failed to anticipate a fall rally that helped push the S&P 500 to a near 9% gain that year, sacking the indicator for another loss.

Consider also that, despite victories by the (AFL legacy) Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999, the S&P 500 continued its winning ways, while victories by the NFL legacy St. Louis (by way of Los Angeles) Rams and the Baltimore Ravens, did nothing to dispel the bear markets of 2000 and 2001, respectively.

In fact, the Super Bowl Theory “worked” 28 times between 1967 and 1997, then went 0-4 between 1998 and 2001, only to get back on track from 2002 on (purists still dispute how to interpret Tampa Bay’s victory in 2003, since the Buccaneers spent their first NFL season in the AFC before moving to the NFC).

Indeed, the Buccaneers’ move to the NFC was part of a swap with the Seattle Seahawks, who did, in fact, enter the NFL as an NFC team in 1976 but shuttled quickly over to the AFC (where they remained through 2001) before returning to the NFC.1 And, not having entered the league until 1976, wherever they began, can the Seahawks truly be considered a “legacy” NFL squad? Bear in mind as well, that in 2006, when the Seahawks made their first Super Bowl appearance — and lost — the S&P 500 gained nearly 16%.

As for Sunday’s contest, after the Seattle Seahawks opened as 2-point favorites, the Patriots now appear to be 1-point favorites — and this is the first time since 1975 that we actually have two Number 1 seeds facing off in the Super Bowl. It looks like it will be a good game, and that — whether you are a proponent of the Super Bowl Theory or not, would be one in which whoever wins, we all do!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

1. In fact, Seattle is the only team to have played in both the AFC and NFC Championship Games, having relocated from the AFC to the NFC during league realignment prior to the 2002 season. The Seahawks are the only NFL team to switch conferences twice in the post-merger era. The franchise began play in 1976 in the NFC West division but switched conferences with the Buccaneers after one season and joined the AFC West.