Sunday, July 28, 2013

Foregone “Conclusions”

Behavioral finance drives much of the discussion around retirement plan design innovations these days, for the very simple reason that it seems to help explain what might otherwise be viewed as irrational behaviors. For example, human beings are prone to something that behaviorists call “confirmation bias,” a tendency to favor information that confirms what we already believe. While doing so generally contributes to quicker assessments of information, there are some obvious shortcomings to that approach in terms of critically evaluating new information, particularly information that contradicts what we have already chosen (rightly or wrongly) to accept as reality.

Last month EBRI published an analysis of a direct comparison of the likely benefits under specific types of 401(k) plans and defined benefit (DB) pension plans.(1) As anyone who has worked with employment-based retirement plans knows, individual participant outcomes can vary widely based on a complex combination of decisions by both those that sponsor the plans and the individual workers who are eligible to participate in them, as well as a host of external factors (notably the investment markets) that lie outside their control.

The EBRI report took pains to not only select but to explain the key assumptions in our analysis. As it turns out, the analysis highlighted a number of circumstances in which traditional pensions (where offered) could produce a higher benefit at retirement—and some in which 401(k)s were superior in that regard.

However, some of the reporting and commentary that followed its publication suggest that some either did not read with care the entire analysis, or chose to ignore the totality of the report. Here, in a Q&A format, we deal with most of the mischaracterizations(2) we’ve seen thus far:
  • Did the report conclude that 401(k) benefits were better for almost every age and income cohort?
♦ No. While an analysis of just the median results for just the baseline assumptions might suggest this conclusion, the EBRI Issue Brief followed with seven different sensitivity analyses with different assumptions that produce different results. Moreover, the entire analysis was restricted to employees currently ages 25–29, because those individuals would have the opportunity for a full working career with those 401(k)s, as well as the modeled defined benefit results.
  • Did the study make assumptions that are biased toward 401(k)s?
♦ Quite the contrary. The baseline used historical averages and ran many sensitivity analyses that were biased AWAY from 401(k)s to test how robust the results were.
  • Why did you exclude automatic enrollment designs in 401(k) plans from the analysis?
♦ While a great many employers have adopted automatic enrollment with automatic escalation provisions in recent years, sufficient time has not yet passed since the establishment of most of these escalation features to know how long, and to what levels, participants will allow the escalation provisions to continue before they opt out.
  • How does excluding those automatic enrollment plan designs from the analysis impact the results?
♦ Some have argued that automatic enrollment is actually bad for retirement savings because, in some cases, the AVERAGE rate of deferral—when computed only for those who make a contribution—initially decreases.(3) However—and as previous EBRI research has documented—the decline in average deferrals masks the reality that while some individuals initially save at lower rates (certainly in the absence of provisions to increase those initial rates automatically), many lower-income workers become savers under an automatic plan design who would not contribute anything had they been eligible for a voluntary-enrollment 401(k) plan instead.
 
The June 2013 Issue Brief(4) specifically treats these individuals as making zero contributions and does NOT simply exclude them. This is the major reason why low-income employees do not do as well as high-income employees under THIS TYPE of 401(k) plan. EBRI has done previous analysis(5) showing the difference between automatic-enrollment and voluntary-enrollment types of 401(k) plans and specifically documents how much better automatic enrollment was for the retirement savings of lower-income cohorts.
  • Aren’t workers today changing jobs more frequently than they did during the heyday of defined benefit pensions?
♦ Actually, no. While it was not an explicit part of this report, a recent EBRI Notes article points out that the data on employee tenure (the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer) show that so-called “career jobs” NEVER existed for most workers. Indeed, over the past nearly 30 years, the median tenure of all wage and salary workers age 20 or older has held steady, at approximately five years. While the new analysis focused on the outcomes for younger workers, including the implications of their tenure trends on DB accumulations, the historical turnover trends suggest that this would have been problematic for full DB accumulations among previous generations of workers as well.
  •  Were the rates-of-return scenarios “realistic” for 401(k) participants?
♦ The EBRI analysis presented baseline results under historical return assumptions that were adjusted for expenses by reducing the gross return by 78 basis points. Additionally, sensitivity analysis was also conducted in this study by reducing the returns by 200 basis points to determine the robustness of the findings.
  • What about the fact that private-sector pensions are largely funded exclusively by employers, while much of that burden falls on individual workers in 401(k) plans?
♦ The report acknowledges this difference, but as the title of the Issue Brief specifically states, this is a comparative analysis of future benefits from private-sector voluntary enrollment plans vs. two stylized types of defined benefit plans—not the financial impact on the individual participants during the accumulation period, or how he/she might deploy assets not committed to retirement savings. However, as both the academic papers cited in the Issue Brief state, a comparison of ALL aspects of this difference would likely need to incorporate the assumption that more costly employer contributions to a plan (whether defined benefit or 401(k)) will be at least partially offset by lower wages over the long run, everything else equal.
  • Is it reasonable to compare defined benefit and 401(k) plan benefits?
♦ Retirement income adequacy studies have been undertaken in several reports by other organizations with the implicit assumption that 401(k) plans are unable to generate the same amount of retirement income (regardless of the source of financing). One of the primary objectives of the June EBRI Issue Brief was to actually test whether these implicit assumptions were correct.

So, which is “better”—a defined benefit plan or a 401(k)?

Well, as was noted in the Issue Brief, there is no single answer because a multitude of factors affect the ultimate outcome: interest rates and investment returns; the level and length of time a worker participates in a retirement plan; an individual’s age, job tenure, and remaining length of time in the work force; and the purchase price of an annuity, among other things.

The best answer depends on an incorporation of all the relevant factors, the tools to provide a thorough analysis, and an open mind with which to consider the results.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) Jack VanDerhei, “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans,” online here.

(2) For example, see “Claim that 401(k)s Beat Defined Benefit Plans Stirs Controversy,” online here.

(3) This is the same type of mistake made in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article. See the EBRI blog “What Do You Call a Glass That is 60−85% Full?” as well as  “More or Less?”

(4) “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans,” online here.

(5) See Jack VanDerhei and Craig Copeland, “The Impact of PPA on Retirement Savings for 401(k) Participants.” Washington, DC: EBRI Issue Brief, no. 318, June 2008, online here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cost Conscience

In about a month my eldest will be setting up a new home in a different state. It won’t be her first time living in another state, and it won’t be her first apartment. It will, however, be her first apartment as an entrant into the full-time career workforce, and so the criteria—and budget—are quite different than our past experience(s). And while she’s done a great job of constructing a budget (including savings), I can’t help but notice that she also spends “her” money a little differently than when Dad was footing the bill.

My daughter’s spending inclinations aren’t unusual, of course. As parents we tried to give our kids a sense of the cost of things, certainly as they grew older. There were, however, plenty of times over the years we didn’t share that information, either because it wasn’t important, or, in some cases, because we didn’t want them to make a decision based solely on price.

There’s a similar logic afoot with consumer-driven health plans (CDHPs). Advocates of these programs¹ contend that providing participants with an account and subjecting their health insurance claims to high deductibles will induce enrollees who would likely be spending more of their own money (than might be the case with traditional health coverage) to make more cost- and quality-conscious health care decisions. On the other hand, CDHP skeptics caution that these individuals lack the kind of information they need to make good decisions—and, worse, might make cost-centric choices that aren’t the best health care choice, and might even prove to be less cost-efficient (and even more expensive) over the longer term.

In one of the first studies of its kind, EBRI has analyzed detailed claims data over a five-year period from a large Midwestern employer that adopted a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account (HSA) for all employees in place of its traditional health care offering. The research, published in the July EBRI Issue Brief,² found that in this case, where the HSA plan was the only type of health plan the employer offered, the HSA reduced the plan’s total health care spending by 25 percent in the first year ($527 per person in the aggregate). Moreover, the cost savings continued over the succeeding three years—albeit at a slower pace.

The study also found that each category of health spending experienced statistically significant reductions in the first year of the HSA plan, with the exception of spending on inpatient hospital stays. Spending on laboratory services and prescription drugs had the largest statistically significant declines (36 percent and 32 percent, respectively). Indeed, reductions in pharmacy spending were large and mostly sustained over the four years after the HSA was adopted. In the first year of the HSA, pharmacy-spending reductions were 40–47 percent for individuals in all but the highest quintile of spending.

There are some limitations to what can be inferred from this particular study, which focused on the experience of a single large employer, and participants with continuous coverage throughout the study period, among other things. While it did not allow for distinguishing utilization of discretionary from necessary services, the data suggest that the highest users were least affected and that moderate users were most vulnerable. If the cost savings trends don’t necessarily speak to the quality of those health care decisions, the report clearly adds to the consumer-directed-health-plan literature, and our understanding of how these programs can influence cost and utilization—information that is essential to our understanding of the value of account-based, high-deductible plans.

After all, when you don’t know the cost of something, it’s hard to appreciate the value.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ A recent EBRI report notes that employers have now been using CDHPs for over a decade. In 2012, 22 percent of smaller employers, 36 percent of larger employers, and 59 percent of jumbo employers offered some form of a CDHP, and nearly 1 in 5 workers were enrolled in one.

² “Health Care Spending after Adopting a Full-Replacement, High-Deductible Health Plan With a Health Savings Account: A Five-Year Study” is available online here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Game" Changers

Major League Baseball recently showcased its best and most popular in the “Midsummer Classic,” better known as the All-Star Game. Purists can (and have) taken issue with the involvement of the fan vote, the intermittence of the designated hitter rule, and the impact that this contest can eventually have on the home field advantage in the World Series. Still, even casual fans of the game can relish the opportunity to see so many great players together on the field for one special night (those who don’t care about baseball can perhaps relish the fact that for a couple of days, there won’t be any baseball games or scores with which to contend).

It has been my good fortune to have had the opportunity to spend my entire career working with employee benefits, in a widely varied range of capacities. It has also been my great pleasure over those years to meet, and in some cases, work directly with, some truly talented people—who care deeply, passionately, about helping others enjoy better lives and retirements. Most, I am happy to say, could look back on their careers and find numerous examples where they made a difference, sometimes in the betterment of a single individual’s retirement prospects, and often across a broader spectrum. Some have had—or made—the opportunity to impact and influence thousands of lives during the course of their career.

In a couple of months the Employee Benefit Research Institute will announce the recipient of the 2013 Lillywhite Award.¹ The award was launched in 1992, the year that Ray Lillywhite, for whom the award was named, retired. Lillywhite, a pioneer in the pension field for decades guided state employee pension plans, and helped found numerous professional organizations and educational programs. He retired from Alliance Capital at the age of 80 after a 55-year career in the pension and investment field. Throughout that career, Ray exemplified not only excellence, but also innovation in lifelong achievements, teaching, and learning.

I recently was looking back over the list of Lillywhite Award recipients (available online here), remembering some old friends, some newer acquaintances, and recalling the contributions of some I never had a chance to meet—individuals like Stanford University’s Bill Sharpe, CalSTRS’ Jack Ehnes, Pension & Investments’ Mike Clowes, Russell’s Don Ezra, to name a few. It brought to mind the contributions of others not yet on that list that I’ve met along the way—individuals who have had an impact, influenced the direction of employee benefits, and over the course of their careers helped make things better for others, whose “outstanding service enhances Americans’ economic security.”

Next week’s All-Star roster may well represent the best baseball has to offer at present, a roster that includes some that may one day be regarded as the best in their field, who may change the outcome of a particular contest, and who—in rare situations—can even transform the nature of the game itself.

EBRI’s Lillywhite Award acknowledges the best of the best in the investment management and employee benefits fields. I’m betting you know some of these individuals, these game changers—and perhaps someone whose contributions warrant this kind of recognition.

If so, I’d encourage you to nominate them for this prestigious award—today.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹Nominations for the 2013 EBRI Lillywhite Award are scheduled to close on July 31. The winner will be announced shortly after Labor Day, and will be presented during the Pensions&Investments West Coast Defined Contribution Conference, October 27–29 in San Francisco.

The nomination form for the 2013 Lillywhite Award is available online here.

More information about the award is available online here.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

"Better" Business

It has become something of a truism in our industry that defined benefit plans are “better” than defined contribution plans. We’re told that returns are higher(1) and fees lower in the former, that employees are better served by having the investment decisions made by professionals, and that many individuals don’t save enough on their own to provide the level of retirement income that they could expect from a defined benefit pension plan. Even the recent (arguably positive) changes in defined contribution design—automatic enrollment, qualified default investment alternatives, and the expanding availability of retirement income options(2)—are often said to represent the “DB-ification” of DC plans.

However, a recent analysis by EBRI reveals that DB is not always “better,” at least not defined as providing financial resources in retirement. In fact, if historical rates of return are assumed, as well as annuity purchase prices reflecting average bond rates over the last 27 years, the median comparisons show a strong outcome advantage for voluntary-enrollment (VE) 401(k) plans over both stylized, final-average DB plan and cash balance plan designs.(3)

Admittedly, those findings are based on a number of assumptions, not the least of which include the specific benefit formulae of the DB plans, and the performance of the markets. Indeed, the analysis in the June EBRI Issue Brief takes pains not only to outline and explain those assumptions,(4) but, using EBRI’s unique Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) to produce a wide range of simulations, provides a direct comparison of the likely benefits in a number of possible scenarios, some of which produce different comparative outcomes. While the results do reflect the projected cumulative effects of job changes and things like loans, as well as the real-life 401(k) plan design parameters in several hundred different plans, they do not yet incorporate the potentially positive impact that automatic enrollment might have, particularly for lower-income individuals.


Significantly, the EBRI report does take into account another real-world factor that is frequently overlooked in the DB-to-DC comparisons: the actual job tenure experience of those in the private sector. In fact, as a recent EBRI Notes article(5) points out, the data on employee tenure (the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer) show that so-called “career jobs” NEVER existed for most workers. Indeed, over the past nearly 30 years, the median tenure of all wage and salary workers age 20 or older has held steady, at approximately five years. Even with today’s accelerated vesting schedules, that kind of turnover represents a kind of tenure “leakage” that can have a significant impact on pension benefits—even when they work for an employer that offers that benefit, they simply don’t work for one employer long enough to qualify for a meaningful benefit.

So, which type of retirement plan is “better”? As the EBRI analysis illustrates, there is no single right answer—but the data suggests that ignoring how often people actually change employers can be as misleading as ignoring how much they actually save.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) In the days following publication of the EBRI Issue Brief, (“Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans,” online here),  a number of individuals commented specifically on the chronicled difference in return in DB and DC plans; outside of some exceptions in the public sector, DB investment performance generally has no effect on the benefits paid.

(2) A recent EBRI analysis indicates that, even in DB plans, the rate of annuitization varies directly with the degree to which plan rules restrict the ability to choose a partial or lump-sum distribution. See “Annuity and Lump-Sum Decisions in Defined Benefit Plans: The Role of Plan Rules,” online here.

(3) While the DC plans modeled in this analysis draw from the actual design experience of several hundred VE 401(k) plans, in the interest of clarity it was decided to limit the comparisons for DB plans to only two stylized representative plan designs: a high-three-year, final-average DB plan and a cash balance plan. Median generosity parameters are used for baseline purposes but comparisons are also re-run with more generous provisions (the 75th percentile) as part of the sensitivity analysis.

(4) The report notes that a multitude of factors affect the ultimate outcome: interest rates and investment returns; the level and length of participation; an individual’s age, job tenure, and remaining length of time in the work force; and the purchase price of an annuity, among other things.

(5) The EBRI report highlights several implications of these tenure trends: the effect on DB accruals (even for workers still covered by those programs), the impact of the lump-sum distributions that often accompany job change, and the implications for social programs and workplace stability. “See Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012,” online here.