Saturday, August 18, 2007

PPA's SWAY


These days, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is sometimes referred to as the “Pension Destruction Act.” That’s too harsh an assessment, IMHO, but it certainly has a foundation in reality.

Without question, the PPA (it was just a year ago Friday that President Bush signed the legislation into law) imposed some new—and for many plans, harsh—restrictions on funding and accounting for funding. Additionally, it did so after many of the worst offenders and abusers of the system were already “out” (legislation frequently closes the barn door after the cow has escaped), and it did so at a time when many plans seemed particularly vulnerable, and many through no real fault of their own.

We may never know how many problems were averted by its passage—and by the time its new defined benefit provisions took hold, investment markets, interest rates, and contribution levels had combined to make the problems confronting pension plans much less severe than they were at the time of the law’s passage. Mind you, I’m not prepared to say that it protected any pensions, but it probably didn’t—on its own, anyway—trigger the early demise of many programs, either (though it may have accelerated the deliberations). Moreover, the PPA’s explicit sanction of the cash balance design, by some accounts, has given a new lease on life to that hybrid approach, at least in some market segments.

Defined Contribution Impact

As for defined contribution plans, I think the PPA did some good in putting structure around some of the “automatic” solutions, and, for the very most part, took into account some of the aspects of those programs that needed tending to; notably state wage law preemption and the ability to return those “mistaken” contributions. We now have some discrimination testing relief for plans that adopt the automatic enrollment approach codified in the PPA, and if some find the matching contribution requirement too expensive, the contribution acceleration provision distasteful, or the testing relief unnecessary (current safe harbor plans already enjoy much of that relief)—well, it’s optional, after all, not mandatory. If you like automatic enrollment, but not the PPA’s particular flavor, nothing prevents you from implementing your own version. As for the qualified default investment alternative—well, the DoL was working on this ahead of the PPA. Ironically, passage of the PPA may have actually slowed the timing of this particular enhancement—but we’ll have clarity soon enough.

The PPA’s participant notification requirements have been something of a burden, and almost certainly aren’t the aid to participant clarification that they ostensibly were mandated to provide. As for the concept of a fiduciary adviser—well, there’s perhaps not as much precise clarity there as some would prefer. But we do now understand (from the PPA and FAB 2007-01) that the plan sponsor’s fiduciary responsibility is for the selection/monitoring of the adviser, not the advice provided—and for many plan sponsors (and no doubt many advisers), that’s a welcome clarification. And within the guidelines of the PPA, there is another way for qualified fiduciary advisers to be compensated for their services.

Of course, almost overlooked in all the attention paid to the new tools included in the PPA is the fact that it removed the legislative “sunset” on an enormous number of crucial provisions of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001—EGTRRA—including the Roth 401(k), increased contribution limits, repeal of the multiple use test, and modification of the top-heavy rules.

All in all, there may not be much “protection” in the Pension Protection Act—but, IMHO, there’s still a lot of good to be found there.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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