Saturday, January 24, 2015

Third Time a Charm for Fiduciary Reproposal?

So, advisors, how does it feel to be compared to a termite?

That’s right, a powerful coalition of retirement, union, and so-called consumer protection groups has launched a new attack on retirement plan advisors.

They’re doing so ahead of the president’s State of the Union address, and doing so now because he is expected to throw his support behind the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule (re)proposal. Yes, that one.

Not that they yet know what they are supporting. In a new website launched to help promote their position, even they say “If the Department gets the rule right…”, apparently relying on the word of the Department of Labor that “…its goal is to make sure that all financial professionals have a legal obligation to put the interests of their customers first when they offer retirement advice.”

We don’t yet know what will be in this latest version. What we do know is that the last version raised significant concerns about its impact on the retirement plan marketplace, especially with regard to plans for small business, for IRAs, and for distributions from qualified retirement plans. We know that they saw fit, as part of an unprecedented power grab, to create a right to impose Labor Department oversight on non-ERISA individual retirement accounts that has not existed since the origins of those programs a generation ago. We know that they didn’t believe that a comprehensive and transparent disclosure of potential conflicts and financial interests were sufficient to preserve the long-standing seller’s exception for business owners who might be considering offering a workplace retirement plan.

As for this newest version, there is reason to think it may go even further; that it might actually prohibit existing plan providers from advising participants on investment options for plan distributions, blocking retirement plan participants from the plan advisor they most know and trust — while at the same time effectively leaving them vulnerable to the solicitations of others outside the plan who often offer more expensive options.

No, we don’t yet know what will be in the latest version — because, having brought two previous flawed versions to light, the Labor Department seems to have developed a case of stage fright when it comes to sharing, much less discussing the new version. Will the third time be a “charm?” Not likely, with so little input from, or dialogue with, those actually working with these programs.

As for those advocacy groups backing this as-yet-sight-unseen regulation — well, they might see advisors as a colony of termites, but the so-called solutions that the Labor Department has put forth thus far seem more likely to burn down the house of America’s retirement than to save it.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

The website is funded by AARP, AFL-CIO, AFSME, Americans for Financial Reform, Better Markets, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Pension Rights Center.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

6 Things 401(k) Participants Need to Know

Our industry spends a lot of time and money educating workers about the advantages and mechanics of saving for retirement.

But here are six things I think too often go unsaid.

Your 401(k) isn’t free.

That’s right, it isn’t free. It may be heavily subsidized by your employer, and you’re likely paying a lot less for the fund(s) and features you have access to than if you were to try and buy them on your own (say, via an IRA or brokerage account) — but even then, it’s probably not “free,” nor should you expect it to be. But if you don’t know how much you are paying, you should find out.

You’ve probably been provided some information about your 401(k) plan fees already. You can find out how to use that information here. More information about 401(k) fees is available here.   

That employer match isn’t “free” either.

You may have heard that you should save enough to receive the full employer match — that “you don’t want to leave that free money on the table.” It is, of course “free” money to you when you save in your workplace retirement plan. But not every employer provides a matching contribution, and it’s a real out-of-pocket cost for those that do. Remember that, if you’re lucky enough to have an employer who makes a matching contribution — and thank them.

Saving to the level of the match is probably not enough.

As noted above, many employers choose to encourage your decision to save for retirement by providing the financial incentive of an employer matching contribution. While there are a number of factors that go into determining the amount and level of the match, how much you need to set aside for your own personal retirement goals is almost certainly not one of those factors.

You certainly don’t want to leave any of that match on the table by not contributing to at least that level. But if that’s where you stop saving, you’re probably going to come up short.

How much you save is more important than how you invest what you save.

There are bad investments that can cost you money, and good investments that can help your account grow faster. But what really matters in achieving financial security for retirement is how much you save (including the amount of the employer match, if any).

For more information, see “Missing the Forest for the Trees” here.  

If you’ve never tried to figure out how much you’ll need to live in retirement, you may not live very comfortably in retirement.

Surveys routinely show that most Americans have not even tried to guess how much money they will need to live on in retirement, much less actually made an educated guess. Sure, it sounds complicated, and sure, things can change over time — and yes, you’re busy. But saving for retirement with no idea of how much you might need is a bit like going on a long trip in a car you don’t know with a gas gauge that isn’t working.

Chances are, your 401(k) plan has some resources that will help you do the calculation. If not, or if you’d like a “second opinion,” try the free Ballpark E$timate at

If you don’t know what you’re doing, get help.

And not the kind you might get from Joe in the lunchroom, Sally in accounting or “experts” you’ve never met. If there’s a professional advisor working with your 401(k) plan, that’s a great place to start.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, January 10, 2015

5 Things Plan Sponsors Should Know

Whether or not you’re in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, this is a time of year when reassessments seem appropriate, and perhaps in no area as much as that of retirement plan administration. Many find themselves in the role of plan sponsor (or plan committee) with no background, limited training, and far more responsibility than they may appreciate at the outset.

For those of you who find yourself starting the year with new plan sponsor clients, or new members of the plan committee, or perhaps even incumbents who could benefit from some New Year’s resolutions, here’s five things every plan sponsor should know:

How much your 401(k) plan costs.

Okay, fees are just one of several factors plan sponsors need to consider, but when the fees for services are paid out of plan assets, there is an obligation to understand the fees and expenses charged. This is important because you are expected to ensure that the fees paid and services rendered to the plan are reasonable. It’s hard to know if the fees paid are reasonable if you don’t know what they are. Oh, and even if the plan fees were determined to be reasonable in the past, they need to be monitored. Things change over time, after all.

Need some help? Check out this information from the Employee Benefits Security Administration. 

The services that you receive for those 401(k) fees.

As noted above, determining reasonability of fees and services means not only understanding the fees paid, but also the services provided for those fees. Larger fees may, of course, be reasonable for more expansive or comprehensive services. But also note that paying big fees for unnecessary services could be considered unreasonable.

See also “Tips For Selecting And Monitoring Service Providers For Your Employee Benefit Plan.”

How much of your 401(k) plan fees/costs go to whom.

Arguably, knowing how much who is being paid for what is required to assess reasonableness. But the Department of Labor now requires that “covered service providers” (CSP) furnish in writing “the services to be provided and all direct and indirect compensation to be received by a CSP, its affiliates, or subcontractors. You can find out more about these requirements here.

Who the plan fiduciaries are.

Odds are, if you as a plan sponsor are reading this, you are one. But don’t take my word for it. Check out “Meeting Your Fiduciary Responsibilities.”

The responsibilities — and obligations — of plan sponsors.

Since you (probably) are one, you should make sure you know what your responsibilities are, the extent of your personal liability, and what kind of insurance is maintained by your employer to address that exposure.

Fiduciaries have important responsibilities and are subject to standards of conduct because they act on behalf of participants in a retirement plan and their beneficiaries. In addition to paying only reasonable plan expenses, these responsibilities include acting solely in the interest of plan participants and their beneficiaries and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them, following the terms of plan documents, and carrying out their duties prudently.

That brings up a sixth item for our plan sponsor list: If a plan fiduciary lacks the expertise to fulfill those duties, they should, of course, consider hiring a professional to help them.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Did YOUR 401(k) Increase by $50,000 This Year?

The winner of the year’s most ridiculous 401(k) headline may well be one that ran just last week.

The post was titled, “Did Your 401(k) Balance Increase $50,000 This Year? If Not, You May Be Falling Behind.”

Or, as I am inclined to think when I see such nonsense, “you may not.”

The article was mostly a simple recycling of information just released by BrightScope on their determination of the “Top 30 401(k) Plans of 2014.”  In looking at those 30 plans, BrightScope chose several data points to highlight — including the point that, among those 30 plans, the average account balances have increased nearly $50,000 since the top 30 list of 2013 was compiled.

In drawing insights from those results — specifically the $50,000 increase in average balance — the article’s author (a Certified Financial Planner, no less) opined:

That may be a good benchmark to determine just how effective your retirement savings plan is working for you. If your balance has grown an amount equal to or greater than that, congratulations — you're above average. Less than $50,000 of annual appreciation and maybe it's time to consider some changes.

So, let’s think about this for a minute. We’re supposed to consider as a benchmark for 401(k) plan performance the change in average account balance (which could, of course, include individuals of widely differing age, tenure and compensation levels), of just 30 plans (which could, of course, include widely different match levels, investment options and workforce compositions, not to mention the differences in participant characteristics noted)?  

Oh, and we’re not even talking about the same plans; more than a third of those 30 plans highlighted by BrightScope were not even on the firm’s 2013 list. So, on top of everything else, we’re told that a “good benchmark” may be drawn from comparing a one-year average increase in balance among a completely different set and diverse set of individual participant circumstances among a completely different set of plans.

There may be sillier points of comparison to be made in establishing a benchmark for your 401(k) — but I’ll be darned if I can think of one.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

 If you’re interested in a more realistic and real-world assessment of 401(k) plan growth, see “What Does Consistent Participation in 401(k) Plans Generate? Changes in 401(k) Account Balances, 2007–2012” here.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Retirement Ready" Resolutions

As the New Year begins, we are often of a mind to think about making a fresh start. If you are an individual, you may (finally) be ready to be serious about saving for retirement - or you may have mailed in that last tuition check - or crossed that age 50 threshold where you can start "catching up" on retirement savings. If you're an employer, you may well have established new goals for your retirement plans this year—a new threshold for participation, perhaps—or maybe you’ve just rolled out a new fund menu for your participants.

But whether your plans - or your programs - have undergone change or not, this is a good time of year to help participants reexamine their savings goals—and perhaps even some of their “bad” retirement savings habits.

Here’s a short list of “resolutions” that can help you get started.

___ Resolve to participate in your workplace retirement savings plan.

If you are not already saving for your retirement in your workplace program, you are missing out on one of the most important—and easiest—ways of making sure that you are on track for a financially secure retirement. Unless, of course, you have a rich (old) uncle.

___ Resolve not to miss out on the company match.

Odds are your employer matches your contributions to your retirement savings account up to a certain level, say 5% of 6% of your pay. Whatever that level is, if you do not contribute up to that point, you are letting “free” money slip through your fingers.

___ Resolve to increase your savings rate in your workplace retirement savings plan by at least 1%.

If you are already saving, are you saving enough? Have you ever made an attempt—with some kind of planning tool or the assistance of a financial adviser—to figure out how much you will need? Even if you have, it is remarkably easy to increase your current rate of savings by as little 1%--and you might be surprised just how much difference that will make!

___ Resolve to consider rebalancing investments at least once this year.

Your retirement savings account is being rebalanced all the time—by the investment markets. You can start out the year with half of your account balance in stocks and the rest in bonds, and a month later find that 70% is now in stocks and just 30% in bonds, or the reverse. How much and how fast depends on how your balance is allocated, and what is happening in the market. The bottom line: Once you have taken the time to put together a thoughtful allocation, you need to keep an eye on things. Once a month is good, once a quarter is probably enough, and once a year—well, that’s a minimum. Try picking a day that you won’t forget—your birthday, an anniversary…. Or any three-day weekend.

___ Resolve to use target-date investments properly.

Target-date funds are a pre-mixed investment solution—and most are designed in such a way that they assume that you are investing all of your retirement savings in that one investment. If you mix and match that with other funds on your retirement savings menu—or split your savings between two (or more) target-date funds—you will probably wind up with a mess. Just pick one. It’s the basket you SHOULD put all your eggs into.

What would YOU add to this list?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Naughty" or Nice?

A few years back — well, now it’s quite a few years back — when my kids still believed in the reality of Santa Claus, we discovered an ingenious website that purported to offer a real-time assessment of their "naughty or nice" status.

Now, as Christmas approached, it was not uncommon for us to caution our occasionally misbehaving brood that they had best be attentive to how those actions might be viewed by the big guy at the North Pole.

But nothing we said ever had the impact of that website — if not on their behaviors (they were kids, after all), then certainly on the level of their concern about the consequences. In fact, in one of his final years as a "believer," my son (who, it must be acknowledged, had been particularly naughty that year) was on the verge of tears, worried that he'd find nothing under the Christmas tree but the coal and bundle of switches he so surely deserved.

One could argue that many participants act as though at retirement some kind of benevolent elf will drop down their chimney with a bag full of cold cash from the North Pole. They behave as though, somehow, their bad savings behaviors throughout the year(s) notwithstanding, they'll be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a myopic, portly gentleman in a red snowsuit. Not that they actually believe in a retirement version of St. Nick, but that's essentially how they behave, though a significant number will, when asked to assess their retirement confidence, express varying degrees of doubt and concern about the consequences of their "naughty" behaviors. Like my son in that week before Christmas, they tend to worry about it too late to influence the outcome.

Ultimately, the volume of presents under our Christmas tree never really had anything to do with our kids' behavior, of course. As parents, we nurtured their belief in Santa Claus as long as we thought we could (without subjecting them to the ridicule of their classmates), not because we expected it to modify their behavior (though we hoped, from time to time), but because we believed that kids should have a chance to believe, if only for a little while, in those kinds of possibilities.

We all live in a world of possibilities, of course. But as adults we realize — or should — that those possibilities are frequently bounded in by the reality of our behaviors. This is a season of giving, of coming together, of sharing with others. However, it is also a time of year when we should all be making a list and checking it twice — taking note, and making changes to what is “naughty and nice” about our savings behaviors.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus — but he looks a lot like you, assisted by "helpers" like your workplace retirement plan, the employer match, and your retirement plan advisor.

Happy Holidays!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

P.S.: The Naughty or Nice website is still online, here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Choice" Architecture - for Plan Sponsors

In recent years, the notion that the ways in which choices are presented to individuals — known as “choice architecture” — can influence their decisions, has been widely embraced.

Well before the advent of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the retirement plan industry had acknowledged the positive influences of those behavioral finance techniques on overcoming, or at least countering, certain human behaviors.

Based on the evidence of several decades of adoption, we know that automatic enrollment — even with the ability to opt out — transforms voluntary participation rates of roughly 70% to near-unanimous participation. And yet, even with the structure and sanction of the PPA, today fewer than half of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents to the 2013 PLANSPONSOR DC Survey have implemented that design (large plans being significantly more likely to do so than smaller programs).

Even plan sponsors that have adopted automatic enrollment tend to do so with a default deferral rate that is almost assuredly too low to assure success for anyone (typically 3%, the rate specified in the PPA safe harbor) — which might not be so bad, but for the lagging implementation of contribution rate acceleration. The PLANSPONSOR survey found that only about a quarter (26.9%) did so. Even among the largest plans (more than $1 billion in assets), only about half (54.2%) “auto accelerate.”

And then there’s the inclination to automatically enroll only new hires. Industry surveys suggest that only about a third of auto-enrolling plans extend that to current workers.

Setting aside for a minute the reality that not every workforce is suited for the administrative rigor of automatic enrollment — and that many smaller employers have in place safe harbor plans that serve to automatically “enroll” workers via that safe harbor contribution — there are real, tangible, and often unacknowledged employer costs to undertaking automatic enrollment.  

Specifically, the transformative participation effects cited earlier frequently carry significant additional costs in terms of the employer match. The math of switching to a so-called “stretch match” — which seeks to ameliorate the cost issue by altering the rate of match (say by matching 25 cents on the dollar up to 12% of pay, rather than 50 cents on the dollar up to 6%) — may work, but workforces that have been accustomed to the latter formula will almost certainly see the former as a reduction in benefits.

Similarly, while PLANSPONSOR’s 2013 DC Survey found that three-quarters of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents said that it was either very important (41.1%) or important (36.8%) that their plan provide retirement income solutions to participants. Yet most do not offer any income-oriented products/services in their plan. That’s a disconnect, to be sure. But in view of expanding fiduciary concerns in selecting and monitoring those offerings, is it irrational?

Over the years, a lot of thought has gone into plan design features — choice architecture — that can help participants make better decisions (or, in some cases to make better decisions on their behalf). But policymakers and regulators, and the academics who sometimes advise them, tend to forget that the employer’s decision to keep, and to offer these programs in the first place, is also a choice.

A choice that the rules, regulations and limits bounding these programs don’t always encourage.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD