Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ripple Effects

One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” The story takes place in the future when, having figured out time travel, mankind has found a way to commercialize it by selling safaris back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Not just random dinosaurs, mind you—cognizant of the potential implications that a change in the past can ripple through and affect future events, the safari organizers take care to target only those that are destined to die in short order of natural causes. Further, participants are cautioned to stay on a special artificial path designed to preclude interaction with the local flora and fauna. Until, of course, one of the hunters panics and stumbles off the path—and the group finds that, upon returning to their own time, subtle (and not so subtle) changes have occurred. Apparently because in leaving the path, the hunter stepped on a butterfly—whose untimely demise, magnified by the passage of time produced changes much larger than one might have expected from its modest beginnings.

The recently released White House budget proposal for 2014 included a plan to raise $9 billion over 10 years by imposing a retirement savings cap for tax-preferred accounts. While initial reports focused on the aggregate dollar limit of $3 million included in the text, it soon became clear that that figure was merely a frame of reference for the real limit: the annual annuity equivalent of that sum, $205,000 per year in 2013 for an individual age 62.¹

Of course, there are a number of variables that influence annuity purchase prices. As an EBRI analysis this week outlines, while $3 million might provide that annual annuity today, if interest/discount rates were to move higher, that limit could be even lower. As the EBRI analysis explains, if you look only as far back as late 2006, based on a time series of annuity purchase prices for males age 65, the actuarial equivalent of the $205,000 threshold could be as low as $2.2 million—and a higher interest rate environment could result in an even lower cap threshold.

At the same time, the passage of time, which normally works to the advantage of younger savers by allowing savings to accumulate, tends to increase the probability that younger workers will reach the inflation-adjusted limits by the time they reach age 65, relative to older workers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) allows us to estimate what the potential future impact could be. Utilizing a specific set of assumptions,² EBRI finds that 1.2 percent of those ages 26–35 in the sample would be affected by the adjusted $3 million cap by the time they reach age 65, while 4.2 percent of that group would be affected by the cap of $2.2 million derived from the discount rates in 2006 cited above.

While the EBRI analysis offers a sense of how variables such as time, market returns, and discount rates can have, there are other potential “ripples” we aren’t yet able to consider, such as the potential response of individual savers—and of employers that make decisions about sponsoring these retirement savings programs—to such a change in tax policy.

Like the hunters in Bradbury’s tale, the initial focus is understandably on the here-and-now, how today’s decisions affect things today. However, decisions whose impact can be magnified by the passage of time are generally better informed when they also take into account the full impact³ they might have in the future.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ With the publication of the final budget proposal, we also learned that the calculation of the threshold also includes defined benefit accruals. While our current analysis did not contemplate the inclusion of defined benefit accruals, it seems likely that the number of individuals affected will change. The White House budget proposal is online here.

² The specific assumptions involved taking age adjustments into account in asset allocation, real returns of 6 percent on equity investments, and 3 percent on nonequity investments, 1 percent real wage growth, and no job turnover. This particular analysis was focused on participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database with account balances at the end of 2011 and contributions in that year. The assumptions used in modeling a variety of scenarios is outlined online here.

³ As with all budget proposals, most of the instant analysis focuses on the numbers. The objective in this preliminary analysis was simply to answer the immediate question: How many individuals might be affected by imposing such a cap on retirement savings accounts? Of necessity, it does not yet consider the administrative complexities of implementation and monitoring such a cap, nor does it take into account the potential response of individual savers and their employers to such a change in tax policy—all of which could create additional “ripples” of impact. The latter consideration is of particular importance in considering the implications of tax policy changes to the current voluntary retirement savings system.

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