Sunday, January 09, 2011

What Lies Ahead - Part 2

If 2010 was not quite the return to “normal” we might have hoped, there was more than enough—both new and old—to draw the attention of plan sponsors. Here is the second part of our look at the trends that were on our mind this past year—and those just over the horizon.

Stop Gaps: Closing the Pension Funding Gap

What we said last year: It remains more expensive—and complicated—to walk away from pension commitments than most realize, though many employers remain committed to their pension plans for reasons that transcend those financial considerations. Still, it seems likely that freezes, both hard and soft, will continue to be applied, certainly in the private sector. The public sector’s commitment to pensions remains largely unabated—and yet, a sense remains that it may only be a matter of time before fiscal realities bring about a different result.

Where we are: For the very most part, little has changed. Pension funding remains a challenge, with the funding gap seemingly constantly buffeted between the ups and downs of the markets and interest rates, despite the conscientious efforts of most plan sponsors to keep up with ever-tightening funding requirements.


What’s ahead: It remains more expensive—and complicated—to walk away from pension commitments than most realize, though many employers remain committed to their pension plans for reasons that transcend those financial considerations. Still, it seems likely that freezes, both hard and soft, will continue to be applied, certainly in the private sector, while in the public sector, financial pressures seem likely to result in a different future solution for newer hires. Sound familiar?

Conflicts of Interests—Advice Regulations

What we said: Will we ever get final advice regulations? Almost certainly, though almost certainly regulations very different from the ones put forth a year ago. Or perhaps they will not come until after the concepts embodied in the PPA have been recrafted by legislators, such as Congressman Rob Andrews (D-New Jersey), who has already introduced legislation (the aptly named “The Conflicted Investment Advice Prohibition Act of 2009”) that would do just that. Between now and then, participants will continue to get advice the way they always have—or have not.

Where we are: Well, we now have those regulations—a proposed final version, anyway. For the most part, they seem to have restored and shored the status quo. Not that that’s a bad thing.

What’s ahead: The final proposed regulations will, likely, become the final regulations, at least in the important areas. The big change in advice seems more likely to emerge from a different direction—the recently proposed regulations on the definition of a fiduciary, not so much because it will change the rules on advice, but because the controversy on advice has largely revolved around trying to avoid becoming a fiduciary while offering advice (and getting paid for doing so). And it seems likely that if the proposed fiduciary regulations become law, the advice net some have tried so hard to become ensnared in will, quite simply, be inescapable.

Tax Treatment—Paying Now or Paying Later

Where we are: For years, much of the impetus for the growth in tax-deferred savings plans has been the premise that one’s taxes and/or income would be lower in one’s retirement future. Those prospects no longer seem quite so certain, and new Roth provisions for workplace retirement plans offer today’s retirement savers a different kind of choice. That, coupled with a unique window of opportunity to convert tax-deferred balances (albeit at a price), has some seeing the benefits of tax-deferred saving in a whole new light.

What’s ahead: As with self-directed brokerage accounts, the Roth conversion window (and its affiliated tax acceleration) seems most likely to appeal to the highly compensated minority. Of course, the impetus for the conversion itself is not only the timing window, but also the (still) looming sunset of the Bush Administration’s tax cuts (well, it was looming when I wrote this). Of course, the real issue may be a shift in assumptions about taxes; what if they won’t be dependably lower in retirement?

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Editor’s Note: If you missed it, you can check out the rest of the list HERE

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