Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Crisis" Management

“Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s perhaps the most famous quote from one of my favorite movies—the 1995 “Apollo 13,” the story of the ill-fated moon landing mission of the same name. As the third such undertaking, it was a mission that the nation largely ignored—until that mission ran into trouble. Trouble in this case meant having an oxygen tank explode two days into their trip to the moon, which led to a reduction in power, loss of heat in the cabin, a shortage of drinkable water, and ultimately the need to jury-rig the system that removed carbon dioxide from the cabin.

Arguably, Apollo 13 didn’t have a “problem”; they had a crisis, and one that threatened their very lives.

While we’re a few years removed from the financial crisis that led to the so-called Great Recession, “crisis” is a word much bandied about these days. Crisis is, after all, one of those descriptors that cry out for swift and decisive action—and the industry of employee benefits has its fair share. Thus, whether it’s the looming retirement crisis some see (or see for some) on the horizon, the crippling impact of college debt on the finances (and future financial security) of younger Americans, or the health care crisis that the ACA was designed to forestall (or that some say is destined to create), we are all challenged and confronted—by those at nearly every point along the political spectrum—with the urgency of the need to address the “crisis.”

But do these circumstances constitute a “crisis”? A review of the dictionary definition of crisis reveals the following perspectives: “A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point”; an “unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change”; a “sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.”

On May 15, the Employee Benefit Research Institute will host its 74th Policy Forum, titled “‘Crisis’ Management: Uncertainty and the Workplace.” We’ll examine the current and projected future state of retirement readiness, employment-based health care, and the role that approaches such as financial wellness can play in alleviating the strains of uncertainty.

It promises to be an interesting and insightful discussion—one that you can expect to learn from and profit by participating, whether you’re looking for ideas to help stave off a systemic crisis, to better understand the current and future environment of employment-based benefits and the policies that could have an influence, or for ways to improve the current system(s).

It may or may not be a crisis—but these are topics whose resolution could well affect all our lives.

Reserve your place today at

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] Iconic as it might be, the movie’s most famous quote, “Houston, we have a problem”, wasn’t an accurate quote. According to NASA audio files, Astronaut Jack Swigert first said, “OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Mission Control said, “This is Houston. Say again, please.” Then Jim Lovell said, “Ahh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Because “we’ve had” implies the problem has passed, movie director Ron Howard chose to use “we have”.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reference "Points"

We started setting money aside for our children’s college education relatively early, but as they began actually considering their options, it was clear that our savings wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense at some of the schools on their lists. Moreover, while all three wouldn’t all be in college at the same time, there was enough overlap to make it “complicated.”

While we didn’t want to limit our kids’ college choices, we had certain real world constraints—and so we told them how much we could contribute to their college expenses, and that they were free to make up the difference between that figure and the actual expense of the college they chose through their own work, scholarships, and/or debt. As a practical matter, defining our “contribution” may have taken some options off their lists, but, certainly in hindsight, it seemed to give them focus and some real-world context—a reference point—for one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.     
Employers have been interested in and have tried to implement the “defined contribution” concept for health benefits in a number of different ways. The Revenue Act of 1978 started it with Sec. 125 and flexible spending accounts and “cafeteria plans.” A recent EBRI Issue Brief outlines some of the more recent history, the introduction of health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2001, health savings accounts (HSA) in 2004, and the more recent trend toward private health insurance exchanges, where employers provide a fixed amount of money for workers to use toward the cost of health coverage.

However, the primary focus of the report is another defined contribution approach called reference pricing (RP), under which plan sponsors either pay a fixed amount or limit their contributions toward the cost of a specific health care service. If a plan member chooses a health care provider or service that costs more, he or she must pay the difference in price. Reference pricing is receiving more attention and consideration today because of growing plan sponsor interest in managing health care costs, but the approach is still relatively new; in 2012, 11 percent of employers with 500 or more workers were using some type of RP, and another 16 percent were considering it.

How might such an approach impact cost? EBRI’s analysis indicates that the potential aggregate savings could reach $9.4 billion if all employers adopted reference pricing for the health care services examined in the paper, some 1.6 percent of all spending on health care services among the 156 million people under age 65 with employment-based health benefits in 2010.

As the report notes, savings from reference pricing materializes through the combination of 1) patients choosing providers at the reference price, 2) patients paying the difference between the reference price and the allowed charge through cost sharing, and 3) providers reducing their prices to the reference price. Obviously, any increase in prices among providers below the reference price would reduce the potential for savings.

From an employer perspective, the approach establishes a cost threshold for the service(s) selected, but as the EBRI analysis notes, plan sponsors should obviously consider a number of issues as they weigh adopting reference pricing, including how the reference price is determined and how providers may react. Communication to plan members is also key to effective use of reference pricing.

For plan members, it could represent the potential for expanded choice with some pricing context—but, as with my kids’ college selection process, they’ll likely need more data on prices and quality in order to make truly informed decisions.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

The full report is published in the April EBRI Issue Brief, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits” available online here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Needs "Assessment"

My eating habits have always tended toward what my mother politely calls “finicky.” Oh, she tried repeatedly over the years to broaden my horizons but without much success. My wife has similarly tried to expand and improve my dietary choices over the years, but even with the admonition of needing to set a good example for my kids, (my) old habits die hard. In exasperation, she’ll frequently say, “Have you ever even tried _____?”

One of the more surprising findings from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey was that fewer than half of respondents indicate they (or their spouse) have EVER tried to calculate how much money they will need to have saved so that they can live comfortably in retirement.

What’s even more surprising, of course, is that that percentage has held fairly consistent for the past decade, “peaking” at 53 percent in 2000, before slipping to 38 percent in 2002.[1] It’s recovered since, of course, but still—in this day and age, with so many free and easy-to-access tools available, despite the pressures of daily life and finances, it’s hard to imagine that so many have still not even bothered to make a single attempt to do so.

As you might expect, some are more likely to do a retirement savings needs calculation than others. Married workers are more likely to have done so than singles, and the likelihood of doing the calculation increases with household income, education, and financial assets. Moreover, workers reporting that they, or their spouse, have an IRA, defined contribution, or defined benefit retirement plan are more than twice as likely as those who do not have these to have done a calculation (56 percent vs. 25 percent).

There do appear to be benefits—both emotional and tangible—to doing a retirement needs calculation. Consistent with prior RCS findings, despite having set higher savings goals,[2] workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement (25 percent vs. 13 percent who have not done a calculation in this year’s survey). In fact, a previous EBRI analysis found that those using an online calculator appeared to set more adequate savings targets, as measured by the probability of not running short of money in retirement.[3]

So, why haven’t more done a retirement needs calculation? Perhaps they’re nervous about the time and energy it might take to do one; maybe they’re worried they don’t know enough to do the calculation; it might even be, particularly if they’ve made no preparations for retirement, that they are afraid to find out the answer.

Whatever their rationale, a great place to start figuring out what they -or you- will need is the BallparkE$timate,® available online at[4]

It’ll be good for you—will likely improve your retirement prospects—and you might even enjoy it.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

More information from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation, is available in the March 2014 EBRI Issue Brief, “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds—for Those With Retirement Plans,” online here.

[1] Even among those who have made an attempt, the methods of calculation reported have been quite “varied”—according to the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey, workers often guess at how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic retirement needs calculation. Eighteen percent each indicated they did their own estimate or asked a financial advisor, while 8 percent each used an online calculator or read or heard how much was needed.

[2] Workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation tend to report higher savings goals than workers who have not done the calculation. In this year’s RCS, 29 percent of workers who have done a calculation, compared with 15 percent of those who have not, estimate they need to accumulate at least $1 million for retirement. At the other extreme, 17 percent of those who have done a calculation, compared with 37 percent who have not, think they need to save less than $250,000 for retirement.

[3] See “A Little Help: The Impact of On-line Calculators and Financial Advisors on Setting Adequate Retirement-Savings Targets: Evidence from the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey,” online here.

[4] Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find a variety of free resources at, courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, ASEC. The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"Expected" Values

Over the past several years, a growing amount of attention has been focused on the decumulations of defined contribution plan balances in retirement. Much of that focus has, of course, been driven by concerns that those individuals won’t have enough resources accumulated to fund those retirements. More recently, there has been a sense that one way to help provide a different perspective on these retirement savings would be to provide participants with an estimate of what their current or projected savings would produce in terms of a retirement income stream.

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) focusing on lifetime income illustrations. Under that proposal, a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance.

As noted in a recent EBRI Notes article[i], there appears to be little empirical evidence on the likely impact of such a lifetime income illustration on defined contribution participant behavior. In an attempt to provide some additional evidence with respect to potential defined contribution participant reaction to lifetime income illustrations similar to those proposed by EBSA, EBRI included a series of questions in the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey that would provide monthly income illustrations similar in many respects to those provided by the EBSA’s online Lifetime Income Calculator.

Of course, any such projection is necessarily required to make a number of critical assumptions—including future contribution activity, future rates of return, future asset allocation, and future annuity purchase prices. Moreover, the estimates we provided were different in several aspects, notably:
  • Rather than using normal retirement age for the calculation, we asked their expected retirement age.
  • Since the age of the spouse was not known for married respondents, only the single life annuity income illustration was used.
  • Given that the information was being provided to the respondent during a phone interview, only the projected monthly income (based on the projected account balance given the respondents’ reporting of their current balances) was provided.
What we found was that fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) of the defined contribution participants said the monthly amount was much less than expected, though another 1 in 5 (19 percent) said it was somewhat less than expected[ii].

However, more than half (58 percent) thought that the illustrated monthly income was in line with their expectations.

Considering those results, it is perhaps not surprising that the vast majority (81 percent) of the respondents indicated that they would continue to contribute what they do now after hearing the projected monthly income amount, while 17 percent replied that hearing this information would lead them to increase the amount they are contributing. Similarly, the vast majority (89 percent) did not believe this information would impact their expected retirement age.

They may not have been much surprised by the results, but the vast majority of respondents said the retirement income projection was useful; more than 1 in 3 (36 percent) respondents thought that it was very useful to hear an estimate of the monthly retirement income they might expect from their plan, and another 49 percent thought it was somewhat useful. Moreover, the utility of the projection appeared to transcend the results; 90 percent of those whose illustrated values were lower than expected found the estimates somewhat or very useful, and nearly as many (86 percent) of those whose values were equal to what they expected also found the estimates somewhat or very useful. Even among those who felt the values were higher than expected, 79 percent found the estimates somewhat or very useful.

I’ve heard from several in the industry since the results were released who were surprised – that the survey respondents weren’t surprised. It is, of course, possible (as the article explains) that these respondents’ current participation in employment-based plans has already provided them the education and information necessary for an appreciation both of the projected total and the monthly income estimate, and thus a greater alignment of those projections with their expectations. It could also be that, having given some thought to the subject of savings and retirement over the course of the interview, they had more realistic expectations.

Of course, whether those expectations about living on those amounts in retirement will turn out to be realistic remains to be seen.
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
[i] The EBRI March 2014 Notes article, “How Would Defined Contribution Participants React to Lifetime Income Illustrations? Evidence from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey,” is available online here.

[ii] There were some interesting differences by income level; combining the “much less” and “somewhat less” categories, we found that 42 percent of those in the lowest quartile for illustrated monthly income indicated that the value was less than expected, versus only 9 percent of the highest quartile.