Sunday, December 19, 2010

Naughty or Nice?

Editor’s Note: There’s so much going on in the world of retirement saving and investing that I never feel the need (or feel like I have the opportunity) to recycle old columns – but this one has a certain “evergreen” consistency of message that always seems appropriate – particularly at this time of year.

A few years back—when my kids still believed in the reality of Santa Claus—we discovered an ingenious Web site that purported to offer a real-time assessment of their "naughty or nice" status.

Now, as Christmas approached, it was not uncommon for us to caution our occasionally misbehaving brood that they had best be attentive to how those actions might be viewed by the big guy at the North Pole. But nothing ever had the impact of that Web site - if not on their behaviors (they're kids, after all), then certainly on the level of their concern about the consequences. In fact, in one of his final years as a "believer," my son (who, it must be acknowledged, had been PARTICULARLY naughty) was on the verge of tears, worried that he'd find nothing under the Christmas tree but the coal and bundle of switches he surely deserved.

Naughty Behaviors?

One might plausibly argue that many participants act as though some kind of benevolent elf will drop down their chimney with a bag full of cold cash from the North Pole. They behave as though, somehow, their bad savings behaviors throughout the year(s) notwithstanding, they'll be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a myopic, portly gentleman in a red snow suit. Not that they actually believe in a retirement version of St. Nick, but that's essentially how they behave, even though, like my son, a growing number evidence concern about the consequences of their "naughty" behaviors. Also, like my son, they tend to worry about it too late to influence the outcome—and don't change their behaviors in any meaningful way.

Ultimately, the volume of presents under our Christmas tree never really had anything to do with our kids' behavior, of course. As parents, we nurtured their belief in Santa Claus as long as we thought we could (without subjecting them to the ridicule of their classmates), not because we expected it to modify their behavior (though we hoped, from time to time), but because, IMHO, kids should have a chance to believe, if only for a little while, in those kinds of possibilities.

We all live in a world of possibilities, of course. But as adults we realize—or should realize—that those possibilities are frequently bounded in by the reality of our behaviors. This is a season of giving, of coming together, of sharing with others. However, it is also a time of year when we should all be making a list and checking it twice—taking note, and making changes to what is naughty and nice about our savings behaviors.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—but he looks a lot like you, assisted by "helpers" like the employer match, your financial adviser, investment markets, and tax incentives.

Happy Holidays!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

The Naughty or Nice site is STILL online (at An improved site and much better internet connection speeds produce a lightning fast response – more’s the pity. I used to like the sense that someone was actually going to the list, and having to check it twice!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Measure of the Plan

Not so long ago, plan sponsors gauged the success of their defined contribution offerings by a single metric: participation rate. It’s not that they didn’t pay attention to other criteria, but participation rate is objective, easy to calculate, and, certainly for a voluntary savings program, it’s not an inappropriate gauge of the program’s perceived value.

Over the past couple of years, a growing number of plan providers have brought to market a new set of plan diagnostic measures, measures that not only show individual and plan balances, but also project those balances out to an estimate of what those balances will provide in retirement income, or presented as a measure of retirement readiness—compared with an established level of income replacement.

It’s not a new idea, of course. Heck, there has even been legislation introduced to place—on participant statements—a projection as to what the participant’s monthly retirement income would be. Meanwhile, despite long-standing fears that participants, confronted with the stark realities of their savings situation, would abandon the cause, the realities seem to be quite different. One might well expect the providers touting such wares to extol the virtues of the approach (and they do), but I have yet to meet a plan sponsor who had adopted these enhanced gauges of retirement readiness who said it had had a negative impact.

That said, there are still many plan sponsors that have not yet taken that step. At the PLANSPONSOR National Conference this past June, I asked the audience of some 200-plus plan sponsors if they had established any kind of target replacement ratio as part of their program design. While the survey sampling was admittedly unscientific (though I would suspect skewered toward more-active, involved, engaged plan sponsors) a whopping 78% said “no.” Just one in 10 said yes, while the remaining 12% responded “not explicitly, but it’s in the back of our minds.” (1)

Based on that result, I wasn’t too surprised that just 28% said their participants will be able to retire comfortably, while 43% said “maybe” (the polling was anonymous). (2)

Now, most of us have a hard enough time answering that comfortable retirement question for our individual situation, much less an entire employee populationbut I was struck by how many of those in that particular attendance didn’t even seem to have a rough notion in the back of their mind. As I explored that poll result with the audience, a couple of themes emerged: First, plan sponsors only know so much about an individual participant’s lifestyle, sources of income, and/or plans for retirement, and generally don’t have the time or inclination to know any of that, anyway. Second, these are voluntary programs, and while plan sponsors take seriously their responsibility to see that they are well, reasonably, and efficiently run, most don’t see it as their responsibility to make sure that participants are doing what they need to do (in fairness, most plan sponsors have their hands full just trying to make sure that THEY are doing what they need to do).

In casual conversations with plan sponsors about these types of programs and their reluctance to embrace them, it isn’t the cost or complexity that holds them back, nor is it concern about the response of newly enlightened participant-savers. Rather, it’s an underlying concern that, once those retirement replacement goals have been established at a plan committee level, and once those readiness results are presented in black and white (or multi-color) to plan fiduciaries, they could be held accountable for the results and/or shortfalls. Ignorance, to some it seems, is not only bliss, it’s a litigation shield.

Personally, I think plan sponsors already carry burdens and responsibilities beyond what many, perhaps most, are compensated for (and some beyond what they are aware). That said, it seems to me that presenting plan participants with specific information about their retirement savings situation, coupled with the kinds of diagnostic tools that accompany most of these offerings (not to mention the counsel of a trusted adviser) not only serves to help them make better decisions sooner, it effectively undermines their ability to later turn on the plan fiduciaries and try to hold them accountable for the participant’s results.

Now, some might argue that sponsoring these programs with no specific goal in mind is not much better than participants who save with no goal or focus to those efforts. Others would go so far as to suggest that failing to administer these programs with those kinds of specific goals in mind runs afoul of ERISA’s fiduciary charge.

For me, it’s not about measuring your program—it’s about seeing how your program measures up.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD ,

(1) While I don’t have a correlation between the responses and the program designs represented, it seems fair to say that many were in the DC-only camp.
(2) As for the rest of the responses, 16% said “no,” 10% were “not sure,” and 3% said “I’ve no idea.”

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fiscal Therapy?

This week I will undergo one of those “you’re getting older” physicals. This has been scheduled for about six months now (yes, that’s how long it takes to get in for a physical these days)—and I have dreaded it, more or less consistently (and, more recently, constantly) ever since the appointment was made.

I know that I’m eating too much of the wrong things, and not exercising enough (at all?)—and while I sincerely meant to alter some of those behaviors over the past six months, other things have taken priority. What remains to be seen is what my doctor will see/say—and what, if any, lifestyle changes lie ahead.

In random conversations over the past several weeks, it was easy to find people who were supportive of the need to do something about the yawing federal deficit, and even easier to find folks who had problems with one—or more—of the recommendations of the so-called Deficit Commission that were made formal last week. Like my trip to the doctor, we all knew that we had some fiscal behavioral imbalances that needed to be addressed—we just didn’t know how painful the cure might be1.

Retirement Plans

Those in our industry were primarily focused on two things: the reduction of tax-favored treatment for benefits (impacting both workplace retirement and health benefits) and changes to Social Security. The latter drew a lot of focus and angst though, at least as I read them, they seemed relatively modest, certainly compared with the 1983 moves (though, make no mistake—in my reading, a large number of decidedly middle-income workers will pay much more and get less in benefits under the proposal).

My issues with the proposed Social Security reform were that they ultimately seemed to be just one more step down the path of institutionalizing it as a kind of uber-welfare program, rather than one that retains at least a modest cognizance of individual contributions to the system. But the real pushback on Social Security reform seemed mostly of the type that has staved off serious discussion for decades 2; to wit, the program is not REALLY in trouble, because it can keep paying benefits for a long time with no changes at all (clearly Social Security isn’t hemmed in by the accounting rules that have been brought to bear on the funding premises of defined benefit pension programs).

Regardless of this proposal’s fate (or its inevitable progeny), sooner or later we all know that the “normal” retirement age will be lifted, the rate of FICA tax withholding imposed will be raised, and more of the benefits paid will be taxed. Like my exercise regimen, the longer we put that off, the bigger the changes will have to be.

The implications for workplace benefit programs that would be sheared of much of their current tax-advantage are more complex. Now, I’ve certainly had in mind the tax preferences accorded my pre-tax contributions when I make them (and the future of tax rates as I begin to slide some into my Roth account)—and, if I’m reading the recommendation correctly (and there’s less than a paragraph of the 66-page report devoted to this3), the individual limitations would still allow most workers to save at the pace they do at present (there’s also a call for an expansion of the Savers’ Credit in the report).

The presumption by some industry advocates was that once the tax preferences for employers sponsoring the programs were removed, employers would no longer sponsor the programs. Also, that the aforementioned change, along with the limitation of tax preferences for individual savings to the lower of $20,000 or 20% of income would, in the words of the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA), “effectively eliminate employer sponsored profit-sharing plans, shifting responsibility for retirement savings to workers.”

Indeed, one has to wonder: If the federal tax incentives for sponsoring workplace retirement (and health care) programs were removed, would employers still sponsor the programs?

The answer to that question is key because, while some of the changes advocated by the proposal might have unforeseen consequences 4, I’m reasonably certain that if employers don’t continue to sponsor these programs, private retirement savings will almost certainly go on a crash diet.

—Nevin E, Adams, JD

1 On an unrelated note, the editor in me was completely perturbed by the Commission report’s misspelling of “Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation” (it’s “Guaranty”). Perhaps a Freudian slip?

2 Many opponents this time around claimed that, since Social Security doesn’t technically contribute to the deficit, it shouldn’t have been on the table for consideration by this particular commission.

3 You can read the report at

4 In all likelihood, this effort was doomed from the beginning. The problem it is trying to solve—a $13 TRILLION deficit—is daunting both in its size and scope. Not that the proposal claims to solve the whole problem; rather, it just takes a good “whack” at it (a whack in this case being $4 trillion in savings, through 2020). To get to that result, the proposal cuts a broad swathe through the nation’s tax system and structure; calls for caps, though not cuts, in discretionary spending (albeit at 2011 levels and not until 2012); calls for a near doubling in the federal gasoline tax; and a three-year freeze (though again, no cut) on federal worker pay, among other things.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Liability Driven?

Having recently had a couple of new members join our 401(k) investment committee, I asked our investment adviser to conduct a briefing so that the new members – and those already serving on the committee – would have a better understanding of the responsibilities of being on that committee.

Most of that session focused on what was expected of them: the requirement to act solely in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, the importance of process (and documenting that process), and the implications of the prudent expert rule.

However, aside from the obvious motivations in helping my co-fiduciaries know what was expected of them1, at the conclusion of our session, I tried to summarize for our committee three things I think every investment committee member should know—and that, IMHO, kept top of mind, serve to keep an appropriate focus on those responsibilities:

You are an ERISA fiduciary.

Even as a small and relatively silent member of the committee, you direct and influence retirement plan money. I’m not saying that some crafty attorney couldn’t cobble together some kind of legal or practice exclusion that would technically suffice to erect some kind of legal shield—but I suspect that even that would be readily penetrated by a court2.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal.

You may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. Now, you can obtain insurance to protect against that personal liability—but that’s probably not the fiduciary liability insurance you may already have in place, or the fidelity bond that is often carried to protect the plan against loss resulting from fraudulent or dishonest acts of those covered by the bond. If you’re not sure what you have, find out. Today.

You are responsible for the actions of other plan fiduciaries.

All fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. For example, the Department of Labor notes that if a fiduciary knowingly participates in another fiduciary’s breach of responsibility, conceals the breach, or does not act to correct it, that fiduciary is liable as well. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are—and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 As an ERISA fiduciary, you are expected to act SOLELY in the interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries, and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them; to carry out those duties prudently (and by prudent, it is intended that you be a prudent expert); to follow the terms of the plan documents (unless inconsistent with ERISA); to diversifying plan investments (specifically with an eye toward minimizing the risk of large investment losses to the plan); and to ensure that the plan pays only reasonable plan expenses for the services it engages.

A couple of points of clarification: IMHO you can’t follow the terms of the plan documents if you haven’t read them, nor can you ensure that the plan pays only reasonable expenses if you don’t know what the plan is paying, or for what.

2 IMHO, “you don’t have to be a fiduciary to be on the investment committee” should be added to the list of great lies—like “the check is in the mail….”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanks Giving

Thanksgiving has been called a “uniquely American” holiday, and one on which, IMHO, it is fitting to reflect on all we have to be thankful for.

Here's my list for 2010:

I’m thankful that the vast majority of plan sponsors continued to support their workplace retirement programs with the same match and options as they had in previous years—and that so many of those who had to cut back in 2009 made the commitment to restore some or all of it in 2010.

I’m thankful that participants, by and large, hung in there with their commitment to retirement savings, despite the lingering economic uncertainty. I’m especially thankful that many who saw their balances reduced by market volatility and, in some cases, a reduction in their employer match were willing and able to fill those gaps, in most cases by increasing their personal deferrals.

I’m thankful that most workers defaulted into retirement savings programs tend to remain there—and that there are mechanisms in place to help them save and invest better than they might otherwise.

I’m thankful for the time, cost, and effort employers expend each year on health-care coverage for their workforce—never more so than this year with the absorption and assimilation of requirements under the new health-care law.

I’m thankful that those who regulate our industry continue to seek the input of those in the industry—and that that input continues to be shared broadly in open forums. I’m thankful that so many in our industry take the time to provide that input.

I’m thankful that so many employers have remained committed to their defined benefit plans and—often despite media reporting to the contrary—continue to make serious, consistent efforts to meet funding requirements that are quite different than when most initially decided to offer these programs.

I’m thankful that plan sponsors will soon have better access to more information about the expenses paid by their plans—and optimistic that it won’t be as bad as some fear. I’m thankful that we’re no longer talking about whether fees should be disclosed to participants, and are now trying to figure out how to do it.

I’m thankful that a growing number of advisers—and the firms that employ them—are willing to accept responsibility as an ERISA fiduciary.

I’m thankful that the “plot” to kill the 401(k)…hasn’t…yet.

I’m thankful that we might—finally—be ready to have a national, adult conversation about retirement income and entitlement programs.

I’m thankful to be part of a growing company in an important industry at a critical time. I’m thankful to be able, in some small way, to make a difference on a daily basis.

I'm thankful for the warmth with which readers, both old and new, have embraced me, and the work we do here. I'm thankful for all of you who have supported—and I hope benefited from—our various conferences, designation program, and communications throughout the year. I’m thankful for the constant—and enthusiastic—support of our advertisers.

But most of all, I’m once again thankful for the unconditional love and patience of my family, the camaraderie of dear friends and colleagues, the opportunity to write and share these thoughts—and for the ongoing support and appreciation of readers like you.

Thank you!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

“Sure” Things

In a very real sense, this has been a “rebuilding” year for many plan sponsors and participants: a time spent rebuilding account balances, resurrecting and/or reviving employer matching contributions, a time for shoring up participation rates, and—in some cases—restoring trust. The markets, overall, have been sympathetic to those causes, but in many respects, the still-soft economic trends doubtless weighed on the kinds of dramatic trend shifts that we have seen in recent years.

That said, only a quarter (24.9%) of some 6,000 plan sponsor respondents said that “all or nearly all” of their participants were deferring enough to take full advantage of the employer match, a reading that declines sharply with plan size. Additionally, participation rates were roughly flat with a year ago; with responding plans reporting a combined participation rate of 71.5%, compared with 72.3% a year ago. The median participation rate was also lower; 75.0% in 2010, compared with 78% in last year’s survey.

As for automatic enrollment, the 2010 trend line was mixed. While the overall adoption rate was slightly lower this year, there was a discernable uptick in adoption at the largest programs (62.7% in 2010, compared with 52.3% a year ago) and about a 10% increase in the number of mid-size and large programs—but small and micro plans showed no change at all. The overall pace of contribution acceleration—that process of providing for annual increases in the rate of deferral—slipped from a 15.5% adoption rate in 2009 to just one in 10 plans this year (though most of that decline came from the smallest plans). However, even the adoption rate at the largest plans was effectively flat from a year ago.

The number of plans not offering some form of financial/investment advice continued to shrink. In this year’s survey, fewer than one in four plan sponsors did not offer that support, though larger programs were more likely to eschew the option. Relying on a financial adviser outside the plan was the preference for 37.5% of this year’s respondents, though that option was significantly more appealing to micro and smaller employers. While there continued to be different trend lines in different market segments, there was a distinct and noticeable trend across market segments toward offering—and accepting—“help.”

But as I sorted through the results of our annual Defined Contribution Survey, the one thing that emerged as something of a theme across multiple categories was—a lack of clarity. Plan sponsor respondents—and I maintain that those who respond to our survey are some of the most knowledgeable and actively engaged in their responsibilities—expressed what I thought were relatively high levels of uncertainty around several key plan-design elements: fees, target-date glide paths, retirement-income offerings, the focus of their investment policy statements, and even the “best” option for a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA).

Now, that may simply be a reflection of the wide array of choices available, the pace of new product development, and the unsettling effects of volatile markets. In fact, it might even reflect a certain level of prudent humility on the part of serious plan fiduciaries, who are aware of just how much they don’t know in the midst of that change and turbulence and are willing to own up to that reality.

After all, as Mark Twain once said, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, November 06, 2010

“After” Thoughts

The morning after last week’s mid-term elections, a plan sponsor friend of mine called me up and asked me what I thought it all meant.

Still bleary-eyed from sitting up watching the returns pile in the night before, I immediately launched into what I felt was an insightful assessment of the mood of the electorate, the trends of various interest groups that had, at least according to exit polling, shifted allegiances since 2008, the influence of the Tea Party, and the historical context of the shifts.

After patiently listening to me ramble for several minutes, he finally interjected—“I mean, what does this mean for retirement plans.”

Well, IMHO, you can’t completely separate the two. By any measure, the results were historic; Democrats lost their so-called 60-vote “super majority” in the Senate and, more significantly, control of the House, and in numbers that outpaced 1994’s turnaround (though that election also gave Republicans control of the Senate). That will certainly slow, if not stop, the pace of legislative change coming out of Washington, and—based on the employers I have spoken with—that will almost certainly be a welcome respite.

Many are inclined to harken back to the 1994 elections as a harbinger, recalling that after that turnabout, then-President Clinton and the Republican Congress managed to come together on several key initiatives, even as the nation entered a period of relative peace and prosperity. However, aside from the fact that, IMHO, those perspectives ignore many differences in approach between the two presidencies, they also gloss over the fairly nasty political period that followed the 1994 elections. It was, after all, a period that led to a number of high-profile conflicts, duelling press conferences, and that infamous (and in my estimation, overhyped) government “shut-down.” In sum, things finally settled down (well, except perhaps for “tiffs” like a presidential impeachment), but there was a lot of venom and acrimony in evidence for an extended period after the election. I think it would be na├»ve to expect any less/better from the current players (though I’m willing to be wrong).

The bottom line is, the House can pass legislation, but the Senate’s not likely to go along with it—nor would ditto any legislation that might manage to emerge from the Senate seem to have much chance of getting past the House. And that’s without even having to contemplate the power of a Presidential veto (particularly since there are no “veto proof” majorities in sight).

It’s not that the mid-term elections won’t have any impact on retirement plans. I fully expect the debate about Social Security reform to re-emerge, and changes there, though not likely in the next two years, will of necessity at some point have a ripple effect through all our retirement planning assumptions. I wouldn’t expect to see much happen with that automatic IRA legislation, certainly not with its employer mandates intact.

That said, our industry doesn’t need legislation to keep things stirred up. We’ll be busy worrying about disclosing fees, helping plan sponsors (and participants) understand those disclosures, and pondering just exactly what a new definition of fiduciary might mean, while regulatory deliberations about 12(b)1 and target-date funds will also be on the radar screen, and perhaps even retirement income.

Indeed, the regulatory change already in motion seems more than adequate to keep plan sponsors, advisers, attorneys—and journalists—plenty busy trying to sort it all out. In sum, I anticipate a lot of noise, a fair amount of activity, and not much forward motion in Washington for the next couple of years—though I am not sure that is a bad thing.

As always, we’ll worry a lot about matters in Washington; but IMHO, what happens outside of Washington is, more often than not, what matters.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cost of Living "Adjustment"

A couple of weeks back, the Social Security Administration announced that, for the second year in a row—but only for the second time since 1975—there would be no cost of living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security recipients.

Of course, this close to an election, it should come as no surprise that some went scurrying to introduce legislation that would provide some kind of supplemental funding to the nation’s seniors; similar actions were undertaken a year ago, ostensibly in the interests of economic stimulus, as well as the importance of supporting those on fixed incomes. But this election year is one unlike most, perhaps any, in our memory—and concerns about the federal budget deficit have, thus far, overcome the political class’s natural inclinations in such matters.

Whether or not you are on a fixed income, it’s hard to credibly argue that prices aren’t rising on everything from food to gasoline to utilities; from real estate taxes (those reassessments never come as rapidly when prices decline, do they?) to the monthly cable bill. That said, there is a formula on which things are based, one that has, perhaps more often than not, worked to the benefit of those drawing Social Security benefits. It is a formula that, in 2009, provided those beneficiaries with a 5.8% increase in benefits, the largest in a quarter century. That’s right—did YOU get a 5.8% increase in 2009?

Now, some of this is the timing in the formula, which considers the period from September of one year to the next. For example, in the year that provided a 5.8% increase, if the formula had been applied from December to December (rather than September to September), the COLA would have been 0.8%, not 5.8%. Some of it is because the COLA is calculated on an index that considers the purchases that current workers make, rather than retirees1. And yes, some of it is because the Social Security benefit is never adjusted downwards—even when there is a decline in the cost index it tracks2. In fact, the real reason that Social Security recipients/beneficiaries 3 aren’t getting a cost of living adjustment next year is not because prices haven’t gone up, but rather because prices haven’t yet risen above the level of September 2008 (remember $4/gallon gasoline?).

However, for retirees accustomed to an annual, upward adjustment in their benefits, the lack of an increase surely came as something of a shock4, particularly after politicians found a way to smooth it over the previous year (and may yet again).

The good news for Social Security beneficiaries is that, at least under current law, their annual benefits do not decrease and retain the potential to increase based on adjustments, however imperfect, in a designated cost of living index5. Certainly, in a time when many have been asked to absorb a cut in pay or lost their jobs completely, with a family to support, there are worse things than living on a “fixed” income.

Still, it should serve as a reminder to us all that planning for retirement should look beyond the income we happen to be drawing when we leave the workforce. After all, if the income we have at retirement isn’t enough to adjust to the costs of living in retirement - It might well cost us an adjustment in how, or how well, we live through retirement.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 There were no automatic COLAs in Social Security until 1975 (see

2 Consider that, if costs were adjusted for downward as well as upward moves, last year benefits would have been cut by 2.7%.

3 Disabled workers and their dependents account for 19% of total benefits paid, according to the Social Security Administration (see

4 I never cease to be amazed at what a high percentage of retirement income Social Security provides—not because it was designed that way, mind you, but rather because it remains relatively constant in an otherwise variable pooling of retirement income sources. The Social Security Administration notes that Social Security provided at least 50% of total income for just over half (52%) of aged beneficiary couples and 73% of aged non-married beneficiaries. Moreover, it was 90% or more of income for more than one in five aged beneficiary couples and 43% of aged non-married beneficiaries, though “total income” in this calculation excludes withdrawals from savings and non-annuitized IRAs or 401(k) plans. Overall, the Social Security Administration says that Social Security benefits represent about 40% of the income of the elderly.

5 More information about the COLA is at An interesting 2009 webcast on the subject titled “What Happened to My Social Security COLA?” is viewable at, and a transcript is available at For more information on some of the alternative COLA indexes, the AARP Public Policy Institute has published a fact sheet on the consumer price index and how it impacts Social Security Benefits at

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Interests "Bearing"

Last week the Labor Department issued a proposal that would, by its reckoning, provide the first update to the definition of an ERISA fiduciary since shortly after the birth of the federal regulation (see DoL Broadens Fiduciary Net).

The move was much-anticipated and, in the eyes of many, long overdue. Clearly, the Labor Department wanted to narrow the exceptions to that definition (that were, somewhat ironically, put in place by the Labor Department of 1975) and, in the process, subject more advisers to ERISA’s fiduciary standards.

At a high level, the Labor Department is seeking to restore the two-part test for fiduciary status found in ERISA, one that was expanded to be a five-part test in the 1975 regulations. The proposal seeks to set aside the additional conditions that the advice be rendered “on a regular basis,” that the advice would serve as a “primary basis” for investment decisions with respect to plan assets, that the recommendations are individualized for the plan, and that the advice be provided pursuant to a mutual understanding of the parties. Instead, the new proposal would impose fiduciary status when a person renders investment advice with respect to any moneys or other property of a plan, or has any authority or responsibility to do so, and receives payment (direct or indirect) for that advice.

The Implications

That change is almost certainly going to drive some of those advisers (and their sponsoring organizations) away from these programs, though I am hard-pressed to mourn that loss (the proposal left intact the exemption for education, and if those lines are easily crossed, by now surely we all know where they are). Those who remain may well charge more for their services in compensation for the extra exposure, certainly in the short run. However, those who do so will be competing against organizations and advisers that made that commitment years ago and who appear to be competing quite successfully already. Consequently, if the newly “converted” seek to profit by a rapid escalation of their fees, I suspect they won’t find that to be a successful strategy.

Those responsible for closely held stock valuations are most likely to feel some pain in the short run. After all, they have long enjoyed a special dispensation from fiduciary status At this writing, I’m not altogether sure how one conducts a security valuation that is exclusively in the interests of the plan participants and beneficiaries—but I’m no more comfortable with the notion of a valuation that ignores the impact that those valuations could have on the exposure of the plan that takes on those assets based on that valuation.

One of the most interesting aspects of the proposal was the Labor Department’s expressed interest in reconsidering its position that a recommendation to a plan participant to take a permissible plan distribution would not constitute investment advice, even when combined with a recommendation as to how the distribution should be invested. Said another way, the DoL is now willing to consider that such encouragement could constitute advice at a level sufficient to trigger ERISA fiduciary status. In announcing its interest, the DoL noted that “[c]oncerns have been expressed that, as a result of this position, plan participants may not be adequately protected from advisers who provide distribution recommendations that subordinate participants’ interests to the advisers’ own interests.” In fact, there has already been litigation involving rollover advice—and there are any number of stories out there about advisers persuading participants to take advantage of early withdrawal provisions and pull their money out of the plan to put it in their hands. Not that that couldn’t be advantageous for the participant—but shouldn’t the adviser encouraging them to pull money from ERISA’s environs be held to that same standard of care?

Of course, at this point, the proposal is just that—though it will be interesting to see the comments that are made on this new definition over the next 90 days (1).

As for where this takes us, it has not always been clear that all plan sponsors fully appreciated the significance of working with advisers willing to put plan and participant interests ahead of their own. But they should; and, IMHO, this proposal will improve the chances that they—and their participants—will benefit from that protection, whether they seek it or not.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1)Comments on the proposal can be submitted electronically by e-mail to (enter into subject line: Definition of Fiduciary Proposed Rule) or by using the Federal eRulemaking portal at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paper “Trail”

Last week, the Department of Labor reissued its proposed regulation on participant fee disclosure.
Those familiar with the last proposal (put out by the prior Administration—see “EBSA Finishes Regulatory Package with Participant Disclosure Proposal”) will doubtless find this one to be a modest improvement (see “EBSA Releases Final 401(k) Fee Disclosure Rule”). Aside from the passage of time, this version incorporates additional input from the retirement plan community, financial services regulators, and even participant focus groups—most of it good, and all of it interesting.1

The rule itself is worth a read for, IMHO, it offers valuable insights not only into the suggestions made, but into the Labor Department’s reaction and response to those comments. As always, the devil lies in the final details, but one senses a strong interest in balancing the desire to give participants more information to make better decisions with the practical realities attendant in providing transparency and consistency of disclosure in an industry whose fee structure has become increasingly obtuse and intertwined.

That said, and while this is a marked improvement from the current state of affairs, IMHO, this regulation will still leave us a long way from producing what I think will actually show participants what they are paying for these retirement accounts.

Sure, they’ll get more frequent information on their investments, and sure, there will be more (and probably better) comparative information about those investments, both fees and performance. Yes, they will see fees expressed both as a percentage and as a dollar amount per $1,000 invested, and yes, they will get more information on account restrictions, annuity provisions, and revenue-sharing than many have probably ever received previously. And yet, for all this extra data that will be produced, provided, and distributed, I can’t quite shake the image of a participant’s eyes glazing over as they desperately try to make sense of what they have been given.

Of course, it’s possible that many won’t bother reading it at all, though a large part of the financial justification for these regulations is how much time the disclosures’ availability will spare participants searching for information about these investments. In fact, to my eye, perhaps one of the most significant revisions from the prior regulations was a reset in the estimation of just how many participants are expected to benefit from these reams of paper. The prior proposed regulation estimated that 29% of participants in these programs would realize some kind of time-savings, but the Labor Department, responding to a suggestion from a commentator, has upped that—to an eye-popping 70%-76%!2

Now, that determination isn’t, IMHO, essential to the importance of this effort. Personally, the 29% figure is much more in line with my experience, mostly because what I see, time and again, is that the more paper we sling at participants, the less attention they pay. And, make no mistake, with this new proposal, we will be slinging a lot more paper at participants, and more frequently. Despite the effort to alleviate the complexity of basis points and revenue-sharing, it’s hard to shake the sense that this well-intentioned effort will simply overwhelm participants, while at the same time placing a large and growing burden on the backs of those who must provide, administer, and explain it.

It’s clear to me that the information is needed, and as I read the proposal, it’s clear to me that the regulators have made a good-faith effort to strike a balance in providing it.

That said, I doubt very much that it will make much difference in participant behavior, nor am I optimistic that it will actually enlighten many, certainly not the three of four cited in the Labor Department’s projections. This is not a shortcoming of the DoL’s attempt here—frankly, in view of the tangled web that has become 401(k) retirement fee calculations, I think they are to be lauded for their vigorous and balanced efforts.

However, what participants really want and, IMHO, what they need to really understand what is going on here is to have that single figure on the statement—even if produced only once a year—that tells them what their retirement plan costs.

This new regulation may hasten that day’s arrival. But until it comes, I fear we may be doing little more than papering over the real problems.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 There is another interesting inclusion in this proposal—one that has to do with disclosures, but perhaps not participant fee disclosures, per se. With this proposal, which merges the 404(c) disclosure regulations with those of non-404(c) plans, the Labor Department added a provision to the 404(c) regulation, stating plainly what those of us in the industry have long understood; that, even where ERISA 404(c) protection applies, it does not shield fiduciaries from the duty to prudently select and monitor investments. However, this statement was only referenced in the preamble to those regulations rather than in the body—and thus, some courts had seen fit to disregard its implication in a series of revenue-sharing suit dismissals (see “IMHO: Second Opinions"). That, of course, is fodder for another day.

2 The recommendation was based on a finding from the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey, which indicated that 73% (plus or minus 3%) of workers saving for retirement used written materials received at work as a source of information when making retirement savings and investment decisions.

The regulation is online HERE

A fact sheet summary is online HERE

A model of the information chart is online HERE

Saturday, October 09, 2010

“Pressure” Point

Last week, I got an early morning call from my daughter. This, of course, is not an everyday occurrence, and since she had driven MY car to work that morning, it didn’t bode well as a start to the day for either of us.

Turns out, she had noticed an unusual warning light as she pulled into her workplace—and she had even taken the time to determine its meaning. The good news is, the light indicated nothing more serious than low pressure in one (or more) of the tires. Now, my vehicle routinely prompts me for certain scheduled maintenance visits—many of which I ignore/postpone since they seem mostly designed to keep me spending money at the dealer. Unfortunately, the last time this particular light came on, it was a somewhat belated acknowledgement that one of my tires was flat. Consequently, on this particular occasion, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that we were dealing with a flat tire.

By the time I got to the car (fortunately, it was sitting in a parking lot on a brilliant sunny morning and not along some busy highway in the rain), it was clear that my initial assumption was incorrect. Not only were none of the tires flat, they didn’t even look “low.” Nonetheless, I cautiously drove to the nearest gas station (at a speed commensurate with a fear that the tire would slip off the rim at any minute) and checked the tires. Working with a more precise measuring device than mere visualization, it seemed that one of the tires was “low.” Not critically low, mind you (in my estimation, anyway), but apparently low enough that the manufacturer thought it should be called to someone’s attention.

Initially, I was aggravated—after all, the owner’s manual didn’t specify at what level that indicator kicked on, and while the physical disruption to my day was minimal, the emotional toll was considerably higher. Ultimately, however, I felt pretty good about the whole thing—glad that it hadn’t turned out to be as bad as I had feared, glad that my daughter hadn’t been stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, and, yes, glad that I hadn’t been driving to work when that light came on. Personally, I think the manufacturer set the warning a little high—but then, I reminded myself, it was designed to alert you while there was still time to remedy the situation. And, while my morning had been somewhat disrupted, I kept thinking about the situation that warning averted (I tried not to think about the “discussions” I had with my kids just three weeks earlier about the importance of regularly checking the air pressure in their car’s tires).

These days, there are many measures of what we’ll need to enjoy a financially secure retirement. The problem, IMHO, is that the more precise those measures, the more obscure they are to the participants we expect to respond to them. You can quibble (and some do) about the need to garner savings sufficient to replace 70% or 80% of pre-retirement income. You can argue (and a growing number do) that Social Security shouldn’t be factored in, that retiree medical costs are too often given short shrift in projections, that inflation will reemerge with a vengeance (though I think most projection tools already provide a generous apportionment on that front), or that the inexorable application of regular, annual salary increases to those projections no longer comports with business realities.

You can argue, as some have (and do), that these projections are all wildly distorted as some kind of scare-mongering tactic by the money management industry to coerce the investing public into over-saving. Heck, you can even rationalize an aversion to undertaking these types of projections on the simple basis that there are far too many variables to consider to produce an accurate result.

Indeed, when it comes to retirement planning, IMHO, too many dismiss those warning signs of inadequate savings as idiot lights: an arbitrary setting by a product manufacturer that they can dismiss and/or defer until a time when it is more convenient for them to deal with it.

However, when it comes to trying to actually live in retirement on the funds we have been able to accumulate for that purpose, it seems to me that it’s better to err on the side of caution; to see the warning sign as an opportunity to do something small when it’s relatively easy—instead of being forced to do something hard when it’s not.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Scale "Model"

I’ve long had an issue with weight scales, for the perhaps obvious reason that, these days, they frequently deliver a message I’d just as soon not receive. See, even when I’m feeling pretty good about the way I look and feel, those scales generally remind me that is at a weight that I know is not “appropriate” for my height.

Over the years, I have rationalized that gap in any number of ways; that those scales are frequently inaccurate, that the definitions of “appropriate” are skewed, even that I’m wearing clothes (or shoes) at the moment that are throwing things off (hey, I’ve got pretty big feet). But since I know, deep down, that those are, after all, mere rationalizations for avoiding the truth, these days I pretty much just treat stepping on scales as I would stepping on a rusty nail—which is to say, I avoid them at all costs…at least until I manage to get back on a regular exercise regimen.

My sense has long been that that is how participants approach the issue of figuring out how much they need to save for retirement. It’s not that they don’t know they should know that number, and not always that they just don’t have time to deal with it. Mostly, they have a sense that the number will be larger than they would like it to be, and that, coupled with a sense that the savings they have accumulated will be smaller than it is “supposed” to be—well, let’s just say they don’t want to be reminded that their retirement plan health isn’t good.

There was some of that in the “National 401(k) Evaluation” published by Financial Engines (see Report Highlights Savings Gaps, Ways To Close Them). The report was, in fact, replete with signs that most participants in the sampling are not in very good shape when it comes to retirement, with roughly three-fourths not on track to replace 70% of their pre-retirement income at age 65. When you consider that about a third have badly allocated portfolios (the report somewhat euphemistically terms these “inefficient”), and that nearly 40% are not contributing enough to receive the full match—well, let’s just say that there are some obvious reasons for the gap.

IMHO, it’s more than a bit ironic that studies routinely show that participants who take the time to make that retirement assessment feel better—and are more confident—about their retirement preparations than those who don’t. Of course, it could be that the only ones taking the time to check things out are those who are already reasonably confident that they’ll get a good result; unfortunately, I don’t recall ever seeing a connection between pre-assessment confidence and post-assessment (nor, for that matter, do these confidence assessments typically correlate confidence with savings that justify that sentiment).

Still, I like to think that those who take the time to do the assessment find out that things are perhaps not as hopeless as they had thought—and that, following the assessment, they walk away with a specific action plan for either staying on track, or closing the gap between needs and reality.

Inside the Financial Engines report there are a couple of examples that illustrate the point. One is a 45-year-old participant making $50,000/year who currently has a $50,000 account balance and who is deferring 4% in a portfolio that is overly risky—a combination that the report says will leave him 27% below his idea goal (if the market performs “typically”). But the report notes that if this participant reallocates at an “appropriate” risk level, they can narrow the gap to 23%; if they do that AND save 2% more per year, they can cut the gap to 14%; and if they do both AND delay retirement two years—well, they’re on track. Or, this participant could simply save 8% more a year to achieve the same gap-closing result.

Now, like with my bathroom scale, you can quibble with the assumptions, but the important thing, IMHO, isn’t taking the time to figure out you have a gap—most of us probably have that sense before we ever sit down with our retirement plan statement. Rather, it’s the plan that comes out of that process—the plan that helps us get back where we need to be—that not only helps us feel better, but gives us a reason for that feeling. And, like that bathroom scale model, the longer you put that off, the longer that “recovery” will take – and the harder it will be.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Status Quo?

Last week, during our PLANADVISER National Conference, I asked a panel of four plan sponsors if their current adviser was a fiduciary—and if that status mattered to them.

It’s not the first time I’ve asked that question; in fact, I have asked it of these plan sponsor panels at each of our four such conferences to date (although the plan sponsors were, of course, different). I ask it for one simple reason: While I sense a certain unanimity of opinion on the matter in retirement plan adviser circles, plan sponsors frequently have a more nuanced view.

Sure enough, this year a plan sponsor panelist not only said that his adviser wasn’t a fiduciary, but that he wasn’t at all sure why that mattered. In fact, he wondered aloud why an adviser would want to go to jail with him if something went awry.

Now, you could tell that many of the advisers in the room were surprised, perhaps stunned, by that statement. And yet, IMHO, that plan sponsor demonstrated what I felt was a pretty insightful appreciation for the litigation shield—or lack thereof—afforded him in hiring a fiduciary. For my money, far too many plan sponsors think that when they hire a plan adviser who is a fiduciary (or a provider who touts itself as a “co-fiduciary”), they have, in fact, supplanted their own fiduciary obligations to the program. But here was a plan sponsor who understood that if something “went wrong,” even if his adviser were a fiduciary, he was still on the hook.

That said, this plan sponsor’s answer was the kind of response that should surely give pause to an industry that spends so much time and energy “angsting” over the fiduciary issue.

The truth is, hiring a fiduciary is no magic talisman against litigation for the plan sponsor—and those who think (or who are mislead into thinking) so are ill-advised, to put it kindly. So why should fiduciary status matter?

Consider for a minute, when you bought your last car, who was that salesman looking out for—even as he ostensibly went to lobby his manager on your behalf? What about that clerk that was so helpful as you considered that PC or big-screen TV purchase? How about that commission-based realtor? Did they really have your best interests in mind?

Advisers that have adopted fiduciary status routinely talk about how their fee-for-service approach insulates them from bias in making fund recommendations; note that it allows them to bring THEIR very best judgment to the fore. What is, however, IMHO, too often glossed over is that it’s not just their best judgment, even an unbiased judgment, that is the essential benefit to hiring an ERISA fiduciary. Rather, it’s that judgment applied, and applied solely, in the best interests of the plan and its participants.

And that matters most—or, IMHO, should matter most—to those who are themselves charged with making decisions that adhere to those standards

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, September 19, 2010

IMHO: “Forever” More?

Last week, the Treasury Department and Department of Labor held two days of joint hearings on the subject of retirement income (see Lifetime Income Hearing Witnesses Demand Fiduciary Shield).

There was discussion about the need for product design enhancement (though much of the focus seemed to be on better explaining what was already available); better (i.e. cheaper) pricing for the kinds of institutional purchases these plans might provide (though I’m hard-pressed to see how you get any kind of aggregation benefit in terms of product just because the buyers all work for the same employer); and the challenges of portability, both when a plan changes providers and a participant changes employers.

There was also talk about misunderstandings about annuities that no amount of communication or education seems able to dispel (my guess is the hearings won’t alter that dynamic, either), and there was concern about differences in gender-specific annuity tables (and, let’s be honest, gender-specific savings habits and longevity experiences). And, of course, there was a LOT of talk about things that would encourage employers to embrace these options as an integral element of their plan design. To my ears, those recommendations tended to fall into two basic themes: some kind of QDIA-like default safe harbor, and/or some kind of fiduciary safe harbor for annuity selection by the plan fiduciary.

IMHO, you can’t not address those concerns. While there are any number of operational impediments to incorporating a retirement-income option, I still find that the big challenge remains plan sponsors’ concern about being on the hook for a bad annuity provider choice—not today, or a year from now, or even 10 years from now, but forever. And while, as with investment advice, the Labor Department has tried to offer guidance in the interests of encouraging higher adoption rates, so far as I can tell, it hasn’t budged the needle at all.

I don’t fault the Labor Department for this; after all, there is a fine line between offering the level of protection that will actually change fiduciary behavior and just giving the store away. Clearly, the plan sponsor/fiduciary’s decision will have a significant impact not only on the choices available to, but the choices taken by, participants—and somebody knowledgeable needs to be accountable. That same rationale, though it’s often glossed over, is why the plan sponsor retains its customary level of prudent-expert responsibility for the choice of an investment advice provider, even if some protection is afforded them on the particulars of that advice; and why they are still on the hook for the prudent selection of a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA), even though they gain a great deal of protection from potential participant lawsuits so long as they comply with the safe harbor requirements.

That said, IMHO, there’s a world of difference between making a point-in-time choice of an advice or investment provider—a decision that can be monitored, reasonably readily benchmarked, and changed—and that involved in selecting a retirement-income option where the untangling can be considerably more “involved.”

It’s more than a little ironic that the very thing that makes it possible for those providers to offer those kinds of lifetime income guarantees also makes for a certain sense of irrevocability in the decision. Now, I realize that it doesn’t have to be irrevocable, certainly not in a forever sense (though there are generally financial penalties attendant with that decision). But that, I think, remains the real problem with annuity selection, not just for plan fiduciaries, but for plan participants as well. You not only have to weigh a lot of considerations that people generally aren’t comfortable weighing, you wind up making a call that seems like it not only has to be right for now, but “right” forever.

It is, quite simply, a decision that still seems perfectly suited to guarantee that no decision will be made for as long as it can possibly be postponed.

Ultimately, in fact, what we may need to help plan sponsors make these options more available is not a better way to help participants get into annuities—but a better way to help them get out.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Listening Post

With our PLANADVISER National Conference just one week away, I found myself turning back to my notes from the PLANSPONSOR National Conference in June.

Some of these came from presentations, others originated from the audience, and still others arose in the dozens of side conversations at breaks and such in between the official conference sessions. Some, honestly, are something of a synergy among the three. See if they don’t get YOU thinking…

You may not be responsible for the outcomes of your retirement plan designs, but someone should be.

How you spend your weekend is a microcosm of retirement.

“Free money” isn’t.

Retirement income is a lot less of a problem when you have saved a pile of money.

You can lead a horse to water, after all—but you can’t make him think.

No one expects taxes to be lower in retirement any more.

Auto-enrollment is still viewed as a very paternalistic type of event.

When it comes to fee comparisons, eventually there will be better sources of information, but right now it’s still a bit mystical.

Providing revenue-sharing information to participants is like giving car keys and whiskey to teenage boys.

If you don’t know how much you’re paying, you can’t know if it’s reasonable.

You want your provider to be profitable, not go out of business.

Retirement income is a challenge to solve, not a product to build.

If you’re having trouble connecting with an employee group, find—or create—a missionary within that group.

When selecting plan investments, keep in mind the 80-10-10 rule: 80% of participants are not investment savvy, 10% are, and the other 10% think they know enough—and usually chase returns.

While it’s a good idea to have fiduciary insurance in place to cover a loss, you should have a well-documented fiduciary process in place to avoid claims in the first place.

Now is a good time to renegotiate fees.

When advisers are examined, their plan clients usually are also.

Never ignore a letter from the IRS.

Left to their own devices, participants still don’t do anything.

Tax payers effectively subsidize the benefits of 401(k)s. Of course, they also subsidize the ability of many Americans to no longer pay federal income taxes.

A corollary: The tax benefits of 401(k)s are tiered toward those who actually pay taxes.

The best way to stay out of court is to avoid situations where participants lose money. The second best way is to have a well-documented prudent process.

Annuitization of defined contribution balances only makes sense if those balances are big enough to annuitize.

Some participants do opt out of automatic enrollment.

“Free money” is still a powerful incentive for participants.

The biggest mistake a plan fiduciary can make is not seeking the help of experts.

You can be in favor of fee disclosure and transparency and still think that legislation telling you how to do it is misguided.

The single most effective way for individuals to ensure that they have sufficient income in retirement is to accumulate more wealth; the amount of their savings before retirement defines their options in retirement.

I’m often asked how we come up with our conference and magazine topics, how we manage to keep our pulse not only on what’s coming down the road, but what people are focused on in the here and now.

The simple answer is—we listen. And when we listen, we all learn.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, August 28, 2010

“Miss” Perceptions?

Next week we will launch our eighth annual search for the nation’s best retirement plan advisers.

Each year, we receive a number of inquiries from advisers about the awards, many that fall into a category I tend to think of as “exploratory”—feelers as to what we are looking for.

Well, at its core, what we hope to acknowledge—and, thus, what we are looking for—hasn’t changed at all from when we first launched the award in 2005: advisers who make a difference by enhancing the nation’s retirement security, through their support of plan sponsor and plan participant information, support, and education. And, since its inception, we’ve focused on advisers who do so through quantifiable measures: increased participation, higher deferral rates, better plan and participant asset allocation, and delivering expanded service and/or better expense management.

Now, we’ve always tried to be very transparent about the award, and the process that underlies the selection. That said, I know that some have questions—and perhaps misperceptions—about the award and how it is administered. So, based on conversations I have had with some of you over time, not to mention the general inquiries that emerge around an award that garners this much attention, here are five things you should know about PLANSPONSOR’s Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award:

(1) It’s NOT a personality contest. Sure, advisers who are nominated by 30 of their closest friends and wholesalers stand out (though only after you’ve passed the quantitative round). But even then you get no extra points for having support in the “community.”

(2) You will have to provide actual data about the impact your firm is making on things that really matter. We look at participation rates, deferral increases, participant asset allocations, and even fee negotiations. And we will talk to your plan sponsor clients (and expect them to confirm your data). If you don’t have, or aren’t monitoring, those kinds of data, you probably aren’t ready for this award.

(3) Award semi-finalists and finalists are chosen based on a blind review of qualification data. Our process selects semi-finalists and finalists based solely on data and screened reference checks. Only after the finalists have been selected are their names known to the judges.

(4) Our judges sign nondisclosure agreements. Yes, we have judges for this award—judges who not only know the space, but know how to evaluate the data. Two of the five judges for each award are advisers; prior winners of the award, in fact. We have always thought their perspective was important as a “real world” check on the award criteria. That said, we understand that some advisers might be reluctant about sharing data about their practice1 with potential competitors—and our judges agree, in writing, to respect the confidentiality of that information.

(5) Those who don’t participate don’t win. It may be an honor “just to be nominated,” but those who don’t respond completely and accurately to the aforementioned requests for information don’t make it past the nomination round.

May the best adviser(s) win—and, based on our prior winners,they generally do.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Editor’s Note: Those who have additional questions should feel free to e-mail me at, or Alison Cooke-Mintzer at

More background information on the award is available HERE
Additional information is available here

1 We’re not talking about client lists here; average rates of deferral and savings across your client base, your average client size, that kind of thing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Double Dipping?

Last week, Fidelity published some data from their quarterly analysis of participant activity.

For the very most part, the data (see Fidelity Finds Q2 Uptick in 401(k) Withdrawals) revealed what we have come to expect from such reviews: Participants continue to stay the course, deferral rates are largely unchanged (average was 8%), and more increased their rate of deferral (5.3%) than decreased it (2.9%) in the most recent quarter. Additionally, the balance recovery continues apace, with the average account balance up 15% (though for this good news, you have to reach for a year-over-year comparison, because Q2 figures to be a pretty rough one for participant accounts—down 7.6% in Fidelity’s database).

However, this report drew more than the customary amount of coverage for its finding that rates of hardship withdrawals and loans were higher—and by some measures, significantly higher—than they were a year ago.1

My initial reaction was that this latter finding was something of an outlier; after all, in recent weeks we have seen other, similar reports from other providers that indicate that withdrawal volumes were down, certainly compared with the dark early days of 2009. But then, this was more recent data, and with the report of weekly jobless claims back up to half a million, well, let’s just say that it didn’t require much imagination to see a link between more people out of work and an uptick in “premature” distributions.

But later, as I considered the data, the findings didn’t seem so out of line. While the Fidelity survey found that 11% of participants took out a loan this quarter (9% did a quarter earlier), neither the average initial loan amount ($8,650) nor the loan term (3.5 years) seemed out of line. The report did, however, contain at least two alarming statistics. First, 22% of participants recordkept by Fidelity now have an outstanding loan, and while that isn’t much beyond the one in five that did a year ago, it nonetheless represented a decade-long record for Fidelity’s database. Indeed, this was the item that most media outlets qravitated toward (based on the calls I got).

In fact, IMHO, a more troubling trend lies in the fact that nearly half (45%) of participants who took hardship withdrawals one year prior also took a hardship withdrawal in the 12-month period ending in the second quarter of this year.

While participant loans are (too) frequently touted as borrowing from yourself, they put the participant in the position of having to replace—on an after-tax basis—the contributions you’ve withdrawn and a rate of “return” in the form of interest on the loan. Still, at least you’re on a schedule to replace the money you’ve withdrawn.

Now, properly administered, it’s not easy to obtain a hardship withdrawal. You actually have to be experiencing a financial hardship, for one thing, and you often not only have to prove that, but also that you have exhausted other sources. Worse, that hardship withdrawal is reduced not only by the need to pay taxes on the pre-tax monies you’ve now tapped, you have to fork over another 10% as a penalty to Uncle Sam (unless, of course, you’re older than 59 ½). What that means, of course, is that what you think you are seeing isn’t exactly what you are going to “get.”2 In fact, it could easily be just half what the requesting participant might be expecting.

The reality is that people are surely hurting, and if the money they have set aside in their 401(k) helps them through this period, puts food on the table, or keeps the family in their home, that’s, IMHO, a good thing. After all, there’s not much point in taking out a loan when you don’t have a source of income to repay it.

But what concerns me about the trends in the Fidelity report, aside from the implications that so many are struggling financially, is that, in my experience, hardship withdrawals, unlike loans, are not only gone for a while, they are savings that are often “gone” forever.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

1Loans initiated over the past 12 months grew to 11% of total active participants from about 9% one year prior. The portion of participants with loans outstanding also increased two full percentage points in the second quarter to 22%. The average initial loan amount as of the end of the second quarter was $8,650, with an average loan duration of three and half years, according to Fidelity.

According to Fidelity’s data, 62,000 of the participants recordkept by the firm initiated a hardship withdrawal in the second quarter, compared with 45,000 participants who did so the quarter before. As of the end of Q2, 2.2% of Fidelity’s active participants took a hardship withdrawal, compared with 2.0% a year earlier.

2 Those taxes aren’t always obvious at the point of distribution, unfortunately, but due at the individual’s next tax filing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

'Mandatory' Sentences

We have long lamented the reality that only about half of this nation’s workers have access to some kind of workplace-based retirement vehicle, and with good reason.

Well, we now have bills introduced in the Congress, both House and Senate, that will, eventually, require that every American business that hires 10 or more workers offer them the ability to save for retirement (see Auto-IRA Bill Introduced With Employer Mandates, Auto IRA Bill Introduced in the House).

Now, my first reaction was “it’s about time.” After all, we can talk about inadequate savings rates, inefficient asset-allocation decisions, and egregious revenue-sharing arrangements—but workers with access to the opportunity to save are surely better-served than those without. And any number of studies have shown that those without access to those programs save less—when they save at all—than those who have the opportunity to participate.

But honestly, the more I read through the bill1 summary (and that’s MUCH easier than the legislative language), the more I was struck by the potential complications. Workers, of course, can opt out—but under the legislation, employers are stuck with having to set the programs up.

Not that those workers will necessarily be saving much, nor is it likely to be “enough.” The default deferral rate will be 3%, with no escalation (though the worker can bump up the rate), nor is an employer match permitted. Workers have the choice of saving on a pre- or post-tax (Roth) basis, though the default is post-tax.

A default investment structure is outlined—basically, a principal preservation fund for balances under $5,000, with a lifecycle fund for larger balances—but the employer will still have to choose a provider, and could still wind up with fiduciary liability for that choice, unless the employer picks a provider on the approved list (from an online database that the government will establish). The bill summary suggests that an employer will fill in some basic information about its workforce, be provided with a list of suitable providers, click on one, and be connected2.

Moreover, there are eligibility standards to be monitored (those employed for at least three months and who have attained age 18 as of the beginning of the year), payroll deposit deadlines to be met (and an excise tax if they are not), a requirement to provide employees with some kind of standardized form explaining the program and investment decisions (though this could be part of the W-4), and a $100 excise tax per employee who is not properly covered by the program.

Oh—and to offset the costs of implementing and running this program, the employer will get a tax credit of…$250.

Will it Matter?

So, will this legislation live up to its promise? Will it provide 42 million more Americans with an “easy, effective way to take responsibility for their fiscal futures and plan for a secure retirement”? The truth is, I’m not sure.

We can only hope that regulators are as attentive to the fees assessed on these accounts, and on the investment structures created—accounts that are sure to be miniscule on an individual basis, but which will almost certainly in their entirety be an enormous pile of temptation.3 As for its impact on participant savings—well, it is perhaps a step in the right direction, certainly in terms of getting those who have jobs to begin putting some of that income aside for retirement. Surely the additional incremental cost and burden to the employer won’t by itself be enough to dissuade a hiring decision—though in tandem with other mandates and the promise of higher taxes, to boot, it might well.

There is, of course, always the possibility that a realization that a retirement plan mandate is coming will spur those who have been holding off on setting up a 401(k) to do so now—though, IMHO, it’s every bit as likely, and perhaps more likely, that they will simply set aside those plans and wait for the “government’s” version (which, even with all its requirements and costs, is surely less onerous).

To their credit, those pushing the bills are trying to plug a retirement savings hole that has too long been ignored. There is every indication that they have been thoughtful in their analysis, and have sought to minimize both the cost and the effort imposed on businesses.

That said, there is a cost—in time, effort, and focus—attendant with setting these programs in place (and it feels like more than $250 worth to me). While, in better times, this might be a laudable initiative4, it strikes me as oddly inappropriate at a time when concerns about additional government mandates appear to be restraining hiring and business growth.

Timing, it is said, is everything. Unfortunately, I think this mandatory IRA bill may well be a good idea at a bad time—and that, IMHO, could make it a bad idea.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) For simplicity, this column focuses on the bill introduced in the Senate, which was the first to be introduced, though the two appear similar, if not identical.

(2) From the Bingaman bill summary: “The website will be designed to assist employers in choosing a provider. The employer will enter a small amount of information about itself and its employees in a starting screen. Then, employers will be directed to a page listing providers willing to serve as trustee for employees’ Automatic IRA accounts. Once the employer makes a choice, it will be directly connected to the provider.”

(3) The Bingaman bill summary explains the phased implementation approach not as an accommodation to employers, but so that retirement service providers can “prepare for a significant expansion in the number of IRA accounts (through product innovation and marketing) and regulators to address enforcement and other regulatory issues.”

(4) The bill wouldn’t kick in for everyone right away: In the first year after enactment, the provision will apply only to firms with 100 or more employees (counting employees who earned more than $5,000 in the prior year); in the second year, 50 or more; in the third, 25 or more; and in the fourth, 10 or more. So, perhaps by the time it is effective, the “timing” will be better. However, employers may well focus on the future implications when they make current hiring decisions.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

"Wrong" Headed?—Part 2

Last week’s column presented half of a list that I titled “10 things you’re probably STILL doing wrong as a plan fiduciary.” As I mentioned then, this is a compilation based on my experience, the experiences of a group of experts who conducted a panel by the same title at the PLANSPONSOR National Conference in June, and a list of “Common Plan Mistakes” from none other than the Internal Revenue Service itself.

Here’s the rest of the list:

6. Not providing required notices to participants (e.g., safe harbor notices or QDIA notices).

The law provides plan fiduciaries with certain protections conditioned on the timely provision of notices deemed sufficient to alert participants to their rights and the obligations of the plan fiduciaries. This holds true with so-called “safe harbor” plan designs as well as the selection of qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs), or the implementation of automatic enrollment, where the participant could opt out of deferrals, select a different deferral amount, or select another investment option.

While the implications of failing to provide a timely notice vary depending on the purpose of the notice, generally speaking, a failure to provide the notice invalidates the protections afforded the fiduciary.

7. Failing to obtain spousal consent.

The IRS notes that a common plan mistake submitted for correction under the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) is the distribution to a participant of a benefit in a form other than the required QJSA (e.g., a single lump sum) without securing proper consent from the spouse. This often happens when the sponsor’s human resources accounting system incorrectly classifies a participant as not married (or when the participant was not married at one point and subsequently got married—or remarried). The failure to provide proper spousal consent is an operational qualification mistake that would cause the plan to lose its tax-qualified status.

8. Paying expenses from the plan that are not eligible to be paid from plan assets.

Plan sponsors are frequently interested in what expenses can be paid from plan assets. The first step in that determination involves making sure that the plan document allows the payment of any expenses from plan assets.

Assuming that the plan allows it, the Department of Labor has divided plan expenses into two types: so-called “settlor expenses,” which must be borne by the employer; and administrative expenses, which—if they are reasonable—may be paid from plan assets. In general, settlor expenses include the cost of any services provided to establish, terminate, or design the plan. These are the types of services that generally are seen as benefiting the employer, rather than the plan beneficiaries.

Administrative expenses include fees and costs associated with things like amending the plan to keep it in compliance with tax laws, conducting nondiscrimination testing, performing participant recordkeeping services, or providing plan information to participants.

9. Not knowing (or making an effort to ascertain) if your plan fees are reasonable.

As a plan fiduciary, you have several key responsibilities, one of which is to make sure that the fees paid by, and the services rendered to, the plan be reasonable. Fulfilling that responsibility would seem to require that you know the services that are being rendered, and that you know the fees paid for those services.

Determining that the combination is reasonable may seem as much art as science, but if you do not have the answers to those two key variables, it is hard to imagine how you can satisfy your obligation as a fiduciary.

10. Not seeking the help of experts when you lack the expertise to make fiduciary decisions impacting the plan.

ERISA imposes a duty of prudence on plan fiduciaries that is often referred to as one of the highest duties known to law—and for good reason. Those fiduciaries must act “with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims.” The “familiar with such matters” is the sticking point for those who might otherwise be inclined to simply adopt a “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” approach. Similarly, those who might be naturally predisposed toward a kind of Hippocratic “first, do no harm” stance are afforded no such discretion under ERISA’s strictures.

Simply stated, if you lack the, skill, prudence, and diligence of an expert in such matters—you are expected to get help.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

Last year’s list of “10 Things You’re (Probably) Doing Wrong” is HERE

The list of Common Plan Mistakes from the IRS is available HERE

As for correcting those mistakes, see the IRS’ 401(k) Fix-It Guide

You can find more information on fulfilling your fiduciary responsibilities at the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s (EBSA) Web site

Sunday, August 01, 2010

'Wrong' Headed?

In this as, perhaps, many professional endeavors, it seems that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Moreover, the standards imposed on plan fiduciaries by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) are not only demanding, they may be the highest found in law—and with personal liability imposed, to boot.

About a year ago, I compiled a list of “10 things you're (probably) doing wrong as a plan fiduciary.” By all accounts, it was well-read, much forwarded, and useful in terms of helping plan sponsors and retirement plan advisers highlight areas of possible improvement with your plan sponsor clients.

The list that follows – think of it as “10 things you’re probably STILL doing wrong as a plan fiduciary” - is a compilation based on my experience, the experiences of a group of experts who conducted a panel by the same title at the PLANSPONSOR National Conference in June, and a list of “Common Plan Mistakes” from none other than the Internal Revenue Service itself. Once again, I hope you find this list informative—and that you draw insight and comfort from its contents.

1. Not following the terms of your plan document regarding the administration of loan provisions (maximum amounts, repayment schedules, etc.) or hardship withdrawals.
Plan documents routinely provide that hardship distributions can only be obtained for certain very specific reasons, and that participants first avail themselves of all other sources of financing before applying for hardship distributions (these conditions often are incorporated directly from the requirements of the law). Similarly, loans are permissible from these programs only when they comply with certain standards regarding the amount, purpose, and repayment terms.
Failure to ensure that these legal requirements are met can, of course, most obviously result in a distribution not authorized under the terms of the plan document—and, since these types of distributions are frequently quickly spent by participants (and thus not readily recoverable), it can be complicated and time-consuming to set the situation right.

2. Failure to follow plan document eligibility and vesting provisions
An employee’s rights to retirement benefits are determined by the correct application of service and/or age requirements of the plan regarding eligibility for participation, and also may be influenced by the proper application of the plan’s vesting schedule.

To properly comply with those requirements, you need to maintain accurate service records for all employees. If these records are incorrect, the benefits provided may be incorrect—either in excess of what is permissible or less than what was due to the participant. Note that the failure to properly follow the plan’s provisions can cause the plan to lose its qualified status.

The plan document serves as the foundation for plan operations; it is, quite simply, the operating manual for your program. Sometimes, particularly if you are relying on a document that has been prepared by a third-party service provider, certain “gaps” can emerge between what the document allows and how the plan is actually administered. As a result, it is a good idea to conduct a document/process “audit” every couple of years—don’t assume that “the way we’ve always done things” is supported by the legal document governing your plan.

3. Improperly managing forfeiture accounts
Many defined contribution plans require participants to complete a period of service before becoming fully vested in matching or non-elective employer contributions, and when a participant leaves the play before they are fully vested, their unvested account balance may be forfeited. Some plan administrators place these forfeited amounts into a plan suspense account, allowing them to accumulate over several years. However, the Internal Revenue Code does not allow this practice. Forfeitures must be used or allocated in the plan year incurred.

Revenue Ruling 80-155 states that a defined contribution plan will not be qualified unless all funds are allocated to participants’ accounts in accordance with a definite formula defined in the plan, and the IRS notes that this would preclude a plan from carrying over plan forfeitures to subsequent plan years, as doing so would defy the rule requiring all monies in a defined contribution plan to be allocated annually to plan participants. The plan document’s terms should have provisions detailing how and when a plan will exhaust plan forfeitures.

4. Not starting required minimum distributions (RMD) on time
A minimum payment must be made to the participant by the required beginning date (RBD) and for each following year. Normally, the RBD for a participant who is not a 5% owner is April 1 following the end of the calendar year in which the latter of two events occurs: either the participant reaches age 70½ or the participant retires (for 5% owners, the RBD is April 1 following the end of the calendar year in which they attain age 70½ regardless of their retirement date).

Plan sponsors often discover that required minimum payments either have not been paid timely or at all, especially when a non-5% owner continues working after reaching age 70½. Failure to follow the minimum payment rules as written in the plan document can lead to the loss of the plan’s tax-qualified status. If participants or beneficiaries do not receive their minimum distribution on time, they (not the plan) are subject to a 50% additional tax on the underpayment.

5. Not depositing contributions on a timely basis
The legal requirements for depositing contributions to the plan are perhaps the most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. A delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common flags that an employer is in financial trouble—and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst-case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

Editor’s Note: the other five things will appear in next week’s column.