Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Second Opinion on Self-Medicating Your 401(k)

At a recent event, one of the speakers was taking our industry to task for expecting too much from participants. “We don’t expect individuals to diagnose and treat their own illness,” he said, going on to note that with 401(k)s we expect people who don’t have any knowledge or training in investments to decide how to invest those balances.

Admittedly, those 401(k) investment decisions can be complicated for some — and, since it (mostly) is their money, after all, most do give individual participants the ability to decide how it will be invested. As nice as it would be if individuals were exposed to the basics of finance — saving, budgeting, investments — sometime in their lives ahead of that workplace plan enrollment meeting, or the pages of that 401(k) enrollment kit, that’s not the current system’s fault.

In reality, individuals are routinely asked to make decisions on things in which they have no real knowledge or training. On numerous occasions, I’ve had plumbers and mechanics ask me to make decisions to either replace or repair enormously expensive systems with no ready information other than the explanation of the alternatives from the professional who is asking me to make that decision. A professional who, in some cases, has a relationship dating back only to the point in time at which his or her name was gleaned from the Internet (or Yellow Pages). Fortunately, most of those decisions aren’t matters of life and death, even if there is all-too-frequently a certain urgency to them.

However, the event speaker’s assertions notwithstanding, while we may not expect individuals to accurately diagnose their illnesses, we do ask them to make decisions on complicated matters in which they lack expertise. For example, several years back, a friend of mine received a troubling diagnosis from his regular physician. Now the area of concern was beyond the particular expertise of that doctor, so he suggested that my friend seek the opinion of a specialist. He did, only to find that the specialist’s opinion directly contradicted that of the doctor he knew and trusted.

Now my friend had to make a decision — and one in which he had a vital interest — even though he lacked the personal expertise to fully evaluate and appreciate the options.

Keeping up with a 401(k) isn’t like when the plumbing starts to leak, or the “check engine” light comes on — clear signals that there is a problem that requires prompt attention. For the most part, retirement investment and planning issues are less obvious, though even that hardly makes them unique. My friend’s serious medical situation was diagnosed only because he had gone in for a checkup because he was of an age where you schedule them whether you think you need one or not.

Similarly, you don’t need to be a financial expert to manage your retirement savings — you just need to have the common sense and discipline to schedule regular financial checkups with someone who does.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, December 06, 2014

First Things First

This may be the time of year when thoughts turn to stockings hung by the chimney with care, but it’s also the time of year when parents have to deal with assembling some of the things in those packages. And while Santa may have elves on staff to undertake the construction of a tricycle, dollhouse or Little Tykes airplane seesaw, in our house, that "elf" was named “Dad.”

A painful lesson learned over those years was the importance of following the instructions. No matter how self-evident the process appeared at the outset, or how much I thought I remembered assembling something similar in the not-too-distant past, lurching ahead and tackling things in the order I thought made most sense was inevitably a formula for disaster. And then there was the year some miscreant had apparently “liberated” the assembly instructions from the package. Since it was Christmas Eve by the time I discovered this, all I had to go by was common sense and the picture of the finished product on the package.

Debates about the best way to achieve retirement security often seem to resemble an assembly without a set of directions — frequently without even the benefit of an agreed-upon “picture” of what the finished product is supposed to look like.

A recent hearing held by the Bipartisan Policy Commission focused on three key threats to retirement security: longevity (the risk of outliving your resources), leakage (the distribution of retirement funds prior to retirement) and the costs associated with long-term care (LTC).

Jack VanDerhei, research director for the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), demonstrated the impact that each of these three events can have on retirement security. With regard to leakage, he explained that more than one in five of the middle 50% who are simulated to run short of money in retirement with leakages present would have sufficient funds if leakages were completely prevented. Unlike many who tout this as a solution, however, he took pains to acknowledge that that assumed no response from participants (such as individuals deciding to contribute less (or not at all) if they knew that they wouldn’t have access to those funds prior to retirement.

Of course, once you have attained retirement, longevity risk — the risk of outliving your resources — becomes a factor. VanDerhei noted that while nearly two-thirds (62%) of the middle 50% are simulated to have sufficient retirement income, those in the longest relative longevity quartile — who would live the longest — only had a 33% chance.

One potential solution —a qualifying longevity annuity contract, or QLAC — didn’t help much. Modeling the impact of a 25% QLAC on retirement readiness, and even among those projected to live longest, VanDerhei found increases in retirement readiness of only 6.6% for early Boomers and 9.6% for Gen-Xers. Overall — that is, with no filter for longevity — this option actually reduced retirement readiness, due to the expense of these arrangements.

As for LTC expenses, while this won’t be an issue for everyone, it can have an enormous impact on the retirement security of those who are affected. VanDerhei explained that only 17% of the middle 50% of those in the top LTC quartile (those most likely to incur those expenses) will have sufficient retirement income.

Ultimately, while each of the three highlighted elements (leakage, longevity and LTC) had an impact on retirement readiness, EBRI’s numbers indicate that a bigger threat is simply not being eligible for a workplace retirement plan. How big a difference? Well, looking at the second and third income quartiles (the “middle 50%”) of Gen-Xers, the probability of not running short of money in retirement soars from 51% to 80% when you compare those with no future years of eligibility in a DC plan to those with 20 or more years.

Put another way, regardless of which solutions are put forth to deal with issues like leakage, longevity and long-term care, they’ll be of little value to those who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.

It’s not just a matter of priority — it’s all about putting the “first thing” first.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanks Giving - A Retirement Plan Professional's List

Thanksgiving has been called a “uniquely American” holiday, and one on which it seems fitting to reflect on all for which we should be thankful.

Here’s my 2014 list:

I’m thankful that retirement plan coverage and participation is up, if slightly, and that there seems to be a expanding national dialogue about how to expand that.

I’m thankful that a growing number of policy makers are willing to admit that the “deferred” nature of 401(k) tax preferences are, in fact, different from the permanent forbearance of other tax preferences — even if the governmental accountants and academics remain oblivious.

I’m thankful that so many employers offer access to a retirement plan in the workplace — and that so many workers, given an opportunity to participate, do.

I’m thankful that most workers defaulted into retirement savings programs tend to remain there — and that there are mechanisms in place to help them save and invest better than they might otherwise.

I’m thankful that those who regulate our industry continue to seek the input of those in the industry — and that so many in our industry, particularly those among our membership, take the time and energy to provide that input.

I’m thankful that participants, by and large, continue to hang in there with their commitment to retirement savings, despite lingering economic uncertainty, and competing interests, such as rising health care costs.

I’m thankful for objective research that validates the positive impact that committed planning and preparation for retirement makes.

I’m thankful for the perspectives that remind us that the “golden age” of pensions wasn’t. And that allow us to appreciate the strengths of the current system, even as we work to improve it.

I’m thankful that the prospects of fee disclosure seem to have made the realities less of a shock than might otherwise have been the case for some.

I’m thankful that fewer seem to think that their 401(k) is free – though more than a bit concerned that some (including, according to surveys, some plan sponsors) still do.

I’m thankful that plan design enhancements such as automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration, and qualified default investment alternatives continue to be adopted — and hopeful that more plan sponsors will see fit to extend those advantages to their existing workers as well as their new hires.

I’m thankful for qualified default investment alternatives (QDIA) that make it easy for participants to create well-diversified and regularly rebalanced investment portfolios — and for the thoughtful review of those options by prudent plan fiduciaries.

I’m thankful that the “plot” to kill the 401(k) … (still) hasn’t …

I’m thankful, in this anniversary year, for the foresight of those who brought ERISA into being — and for all who have, in the subsequent 40 years, worked to make it better through legislation, regulation and interpretation.

I’m thankful for the team here at NAPA, and for the strength, commitment and diversity of the membership. I’m thankful to be part of a growing organization in an important industry at a critical time. I’m thankful to be able, in some small way, to make a difference on a daily basis.

I'm thankful for the warmth with which readers and members, both old and new, have embraced me, and the work we do here. I'm thankful for all of you who have supported — and I hope benefited from — our various conferences, education programs and communications throughout the year. I’m thankful for the constant — and enthusiastic — support of our advertisers.

But most of all, I’m once again thankful for the unconditional love and patience of my family, the camaraderie of dear friends and colleagues, the opportunity to write and share these thoughts — and for the ongoing support and appreciation of readers like you.
Here’s wishing you and yours a happy Thanksgiving!
- Nevin E. Adams, JD 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Cost of Living

At a recent conference, our luncheon table got to talking about savings trends and the unique challenges of Millennials, specifically the impact of graduating with so much college debt.

While several at the table had graduated with (and since paid off) college debt, the sums paled in comparison to the kinds of figures bandied about in recent headlines — or did, until I loaded up an online calculator that allowed us to see what our college debt at graduation amounted to in today’s dollars. To the collective astonishment of the retirement experts at that table, the totals, adjusted for inflation, were very much in line with the figures reported for today’s graduates.

Factoring in those kinds of cost-of-living adjustments is, of course, a crucial aspect of retirement planning. Unlike Social Security, there is no annual cost-of-living “adjustment” for retirement savings—no systematic means by which those accumulated savings are increased to offset the increased costs of things like heating fuel, food and medicine. After all, managing to replace a targeted amount of preretirement income is of little consequence if, 10 years into retirement, that amount isn’t sufficient to provide for life’s necessities.

The bottom line is this: We’re well advised as savers to take into account the inevitable cost-of-living increases that occur over time, even in a period of low inflation. To their credit, most retirement savings calculators retain an inflation assumption that can help those future projections reflect potential realities (though you often have to provide that rate).

However, those adjustments are also often incorporated in a projected annual increase in pay (and deferral) that, for a significant number of American workers, may be little more than a quaint anachronism. Unfortunately, the cost of living moves on without our proactive involvement — unlike our rate of savings (in the absence of design changes such as contribution acceleration).  

Every generation has its own challenges, of course. And even if this newest generation of workers lacks the promise of a defined benefit pension (as noted previously, the realities of those promises were often something else altogether), a growing number will find themselves enrolled automatically upon hire and invested in a diversified asset allocation portfolio. Some will also find that their initial deferral is raised automatically each year.

Certainly the level of college debt is daunting for many, and may well dissuade some from saving for retirement, at least until some of that obligation is “retired” — as it did many of their parents.  Doubtless this newest generation of workplace savers feels that they are dealing with a set of extraordinary financial constraints, though those constraints may not be as unique as they may think once one takes the cost of living into account.

Not to mention the costs of living — in retirement.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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