Saturday, January 30, 2010

Projection Screen?

More than the subtleties of the law, the nuances of crafting a cogent legal brief, and the humiliations that often accompany the public exercise of the Socratic method, surely the most intimidating aspect of my law school experience—certainly in the first year—was the grading. In the vast majority of my classes, there were no papers, no mid-term, no pop quizzes; in fact, no tangible means of measuring progress vis-à-vis the expectations of the course. Indeed, in the vast majority of courses, it came down to a single final exam (and an essay exam at that).

Now, there were regular (and, as I recall, fairly prodigious) reading assignments—and there was the omnipresent “fear” of being called on to explain the legal intricacies of a particular case—but, for the very most part, lacking any specific interim evaluations, there were weeks when the press of external events intruded. It was, for some of my classmates, particularly in that critical first year, easy to postpone their preparation until a later day.

Procrastination, of course, is an all-too-common failing of human beings, particularly when it comes to complex financial matters. Indeed, IMHO, too many retirement savers (and certainly most retirement nonsavers) save based on what they think they can afford or on what their employer matches, rather than on the income that savings will generate when they are no longer drawing a paycheck.

While there are any number of innovative calculators and communication devices available at present, they still seem to work best for participants who are willing to take the time to use them. But late last year, lawmakers (specifically, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), and Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin)) introduced legislation that would require defined contribution plan sponsors to inform plan participants of the projected monthly income they could expect at retirement, based on their current account balance (see Bill Would Require Disclosure of Participants' Expected Retirement Income).

Now, as a general rule, I’m leery about government-mandated disclosures, which tend to cost more and inform less than their erstwhile sponsors surely intend (“of the lawyers, by the lawyers, for the lawyers” is how they usually seem to turn out, IMHO). But this could well be an exception.

The sponsors of the Lifetime Income Disclosure Act have directed the Department of Labor to issue tables that employers may use in calculating an annuity equivalent, as well as a model disclosure—and they have provided that employers and service providers who rely on those materials would be insulated from liability arising from those disclosures.

There will, of course, be some issues. The legislation outlines assumptions that include payment as a joint and survivor annuity, and that each participant has a spouse of their same age—assumptions that certainly won’t apply in every case. It may well be that the model disclosure—though the legislation directs that it be able to be “understood by the average plan participant”—will wind up being an unintelligible morass of caveats and conditions (yes, “of the lawyers, by the lawyers, for the lawyers”). It is possible that the costs of preparing and producing that communication will countermand their benefit. It is even conceivable that seeing that particular number in black and white will only serve to undermine, not inspire, a greater appreciation for these programs (projections in a similar vein years ago didn’t do much to inspire an appreciation for my pension benefits).

That said, decades of saving for retirement is for naught if it fails to provide income for retirement, and the challenge of getting to retirement on a limited budget surely pales in comparison to the challenges of trying to get through retirement with those strictures. Knowing how much your current savings level might actually produce in retirement income dollars may only be part of that equation, but, IMHO, it’s a critically important component. Like any meaningful long-term savings goal—a house, a car, a college education—you need to know the target if you are to have a chance of hitting it. And seeing a clear, consistent estimate of what your current savings will amount to post-retirement seems to be a positive step in that direction.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else. And for tomorrow’s retirees, that could be a failing grade.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

More information on the Lifetime Income Disclosure Act is available at

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Facts in Circumstances

One of the things I have always enjoyed most about this job is the access to information—not only from our own research, but from any number of academic and professional organizations. It’s a lot to keep up with, of course, but it’s a great tapestry from which to construct a sense of where things are going, and what things need to get going.

There are, of course, things to be wary of. For example, surveys conducted on behalf of organizations supportive of a particular view—that suggest that most people agree with that view—are an obvious eyebrow raiser. Studies based on samplings that are limited in size or scope aren’t inherently flawed, but should always be taken with a grain of salt (for example, a survey of large plans isn’t always illustrative or predictive of the behaviors of smaller programs). My personal favorite: “studies” by the purveyor of a particular good or service that indicate that what people really want is—more of that particular good or service.

But there’s another kind of survey that can sneak up on even the most discerning—the survey that confirms what you already believe.

There was an example of that just about a month ago when Urban Institute researchers Mauricio Soto and Barbara A. Butrica, who did the study for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, reported that employers with auto-enrollment had match rates about 7% below their non-auto-enrolling counterparts (see “Auto Enrollment Could Lead to Reduced Match”)--and from that finding, drew a not-unreasonable conclusion—that automatic enrollment could lead to situations where employers reduced their matching contributions.

And so it might. Generally speaking, automatic enrollment leads to more participants and, generally speaking, more participants leads to more matching dollars and, particularly for cash-strapped employers, more matching dollars can be a problem—a problem that could certainly result in a reduced (or suspended) match. Moreover, while matching contributions have often served as valuable participation incentives, in an era of automatic enrollment, those incentives might well play a different role, a role at a different level or, in the most extreme case, no role at all(1).

Now, it really doesn’t require a leap of faith to accept the premise of the study. And, if you’re like most people in our business, you probably saw the headline, skimmed over the results, and filed it under unintended plan-design consequences—or maybe even “bad things about auto-enrollment.” However, there’s a problem: Last week, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) put out a report that claimed exactly the opposite; that, in fact, automatic enrollment has led to a HIGHER rate of match, at least among large plan sponsors (see “Study Finds Auto-Enrollment/Higher Match Link Among Large Plans”) (2).

In ordinary circumstances, we might be left to draw our own conclusions about two studies from reputable sources that seemed to draw two such widely disparate conclusions. This time, however, the folks at EBRI not only acknowledged the disparity, they offered insights into those differences. According to EBRI, the CRR/Urban Institute data was based on match rates constructed by the researchers, not actual rates of match—and then, this inferred rate was matched (no pun intended) against a separate listing of plans to determine which had, at some point, adopted automatic enrollment—though when that had been adopted vis-à-vis the match changes (if any) was not identified.

The bottom line: The conclusion drawn in the CRR/Urban Institute report (3) wasn’t illogical, but it was apparently based on such an oddly concocted methodology that, IMHO, it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Consequently, when all is said and done, it doesn’t really add much to our insights about matching contributions and employer decisions—but it surely reminds us that we must always be careful not to jump to factual conclusions that, however reasonable, aren’t supported by the facts.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) See “Miss Match,” PLANSPONSOR Magazine
(2) The plans in the EBRI sampling weren’t exactly just increasing their 401(k) match, of course. They were also making changes to the defined benefit plans, and in some cases freezing their defined benefit plans while increasing their 401(k) match. More information is available HERE
(3) In their defense, the CRR/Urban Institute qualified their conclusion by saying that their study “suggested,” rather than established, a relationship between automatic enrollment and the matching level. That, however, is a nuance that is almost surely lost on most who read the report, including those who write about their conclusions for a broader audience.

Talking Points

A little different take this week - or at least different medium.

This talking points podcast is with me, where I talk about the results of our annual Defined Contribution Survey – and the things to keep an eye on for 2010.

You can listen to it HERE

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Goals 'Oriented'

As the New Year begins, we are often of a mind to think about making a fresh start. You may well have established new goals for your retirement plans this year—a new threshold for participation, perhaps—or maybe you’ve just rolled out a new fund menu for your participants.

But whether your programs have undergone change or not, this is a good time of year to help participants reexamine their savings goals—and perhaps even some of their “bad” retirement savings habits.

Here’s a short list of “resolutions” that you can share with your participants.

___ Resolve to participate in your workplace retirement savings plan.

If you are not already saving for your retirement in your workplace program, you are missing out on one of the most important—and easiest—ways of making sure that you are on track for a financially secure retirement. Unless, of course, you have a rich (old) uncle.

___ Resolve not to miss out on the company match.

Odds are your employer matches your contributions to your retirement savings account up to a certain level, say 5% of 6% of your pay. Whatever that level is, if you do not contribute up to that point, you are letting “free” money slip through your fingers.

___ Resolve to increase your savings rate in your workplace retirement savings plan by at least 1%.

If you are already saving, are you saving enough? Have you ever made an attempt—with some kind of planning tool or the assistance of a financial adviser—to figure out how much you will need? Even if you have, it is remarkably easy to increase your current rate of savings by as little 1%--and you might be surprised just how much difference that will make!

___ Resolve to consider rebalancing investments at least once this year.

Your retirement savings account is being rebalanced all the time—by the investment markets. You can start out the year with half of your account balance in stocks and the rest in bonds, and a month later find that 70% is now in stocks and just 30% in bonds, or the reverse. How much and how fast depends on how your balance is allocated, and what is happening in the market. The bottom line: Once you have taken the time to put together a thoughtful allocation, you need to keep an eye on things. Once a month is good, once a quarter is probably enough, and once a year—well, that’s a minimum. Try picking a day that you won’t forget—your birthday, an anniversary…. Or any three-day weekend.

___ Resolve to use target-date investments properly.

Target-date funds are a pre-mixed investment solution—and most are designed in such a way that they assume that you are investing all of your retirement savings in that one investment. If you mix and match that with other funds on your retirement savings menu—or split your savings between two (or more) target-date funds—you will probably wind up with a mess. Just pick one. It’s the basket you SHOULD put all your eggs into.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, January 02, 2010

'Hind" Sighted

A year ago, with the financial world feeling still very much on the precipice, and with the 2008 election results still ringing in our ears, I noted that “the impact on much-improved defined benefit plan funding levels—and on the confidence of retirement savings plan participants—has been severe, and potentially serious. We are all inclined to wonder (hope?) if, like 1987, the market will find its way back to solid footing before year-end—and worried that 1929 will be the better analogy.”

Well, as we head into 2010, it seems fair to say that this is not a repeat of 1987 and—not yet, anyway—a second Great Depression. Here’s a look at the trends that were on our mind this past year – and are just over the horizon.

Doctor Bill? Curing Health Care

Where we are: Aside from the financial crisis and unemployment, health care has been the great issue of the past year and remains so as we go to press. That the current system needs reform is scarcely an issue for debate anymore—but what constitutes “reform,” and whether or not it can (or should) be paid for, is another matter altogether.

What’s ahead: Even at this stage, it is nearly impossible to guess how this one turns out—and what it will mean for employers. It is still hard to believe that the Senate and House positions on any number of key issues can be reconciled—but then, there was a point in the summer of 2006 when many felt the same way about the Pension Protection Act. But if it does pass—or if it does not—it seems safe to say that the issue is not going away any time soon. What remains to be seen is if the “cure” is worse than what it aims to remedy.

Fee Fie? Revenue-Sharing Litigation

What we said: Deep pockets continue to be the apparent target of revenue-sharing litigation. The early signs have been promising for employers, with most jurisdictions holding that revenue-sharing, per se, was not a problem, and that disclosure of those arrangements to participants was not required.

Where we are: The courts have, by most measures, continued to be willing to give the employers the benefit of the doubt in nearly every case. A recent decision by Caterpillar to settle its litigation might be seen by some to be a crack in that otherwise unspoiled landscape, but that seems unlikely (Caterpillar was an unusual case in that an internal division actually managed money for the 401(k) for a number of years). Though a revenue-sharing case filed in June in a case involved a much smaller plan, the fact pattern seems unusual enough, and the contingent fees so limited, that it seems unlikely to portend a big shift in focus to smaller plans.

What’s ahead: Barring a smoking gun discovery among the cases already filed, it seems likely that the laws—and disclosures—will change before the litigation has any real impact. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the mere existence of that litigation—and the ever-present litigation threat—will serve to reform the system in a way, and on a schedule, that would not otherwise have been possible.

Auto-Premonition—Doing It for Participants

What we said: It is entirely possible that an Obama administration will, as mentioned during the campaign (see “Political Pairings,” PLANSPONSOR, June 2008), advocate workplace automatic enrollment IRAs. More significantly, there is a growing suggestion that the automatic design—having been successfully deployed for enrollment and investing—might work equally well at distribution, forestalling the tendency of participants to take—and spend—those lump sums. .

Where we are: This has been a tough year for participants and plan sponsors alike, and among some 6,000 plan sponsor respondents to PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey, the pace of automatic enrollment basically flatlined, with just under a third having embraced the design (more than half of the largest plans have, however). More significantly, just 16.2% of respondents had embraced it in the past year, roughly half the pace in 2008. Meanwhile, though the appeal of the concept of a more broad-based automatic enrollment retirement savings initiative has been touted, including by those in the Obama Administration, those efforts have taken a back seat to other matters.

What’s Ahead: Automatic enrollment may have taken something of a “holiday,” but it seems unlikely to be “over” as a trend. Look for it to pick up the pace again in 2010—and for the Obama Administration to turn its attention to the issue in the next year (or two).

Default Lines—Targeting Target-Dates

What we said: We ended 2008 with a growing awareness that all date-based solutions are not created equal. In a very real sense, we are in the first year of a new generation of participants who have not only been defaulted “in,” they have been defaulted into these funds—and just in time for the most tumultuous market in memory. It will be interesting to see how participants—and plan sponsors—respond.

Where we are: Congress has held hearings, and the Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission are not only on the case, they are on the case together. The market rebound has served to restore some of the damage, but the scars remain. However, the target-date manufacturers have become more explicit about their glide path designs, and the notion that a fund family is oriented to take you “to” or “through” retirement is now an open dialogue.

What’s ahead
: We don’t know yet what regulators may try to do to help ensure that investors—particularly near-retirees—are not misled by the simplicity of a fund title and marketing pitch. Plan sponsors are on notice that there are differences here, and with luck, will continue to ask pointed questions. Because, after all, when you’re selling “you don’t have to worry about it”, somebody has to.

Conflicts of Interests—Advice Regulations

Where we are: One of the last acts of the outgoing Bush Administration was the publishing of a set of final rules governing the provision of investment advice to participants—regulations for which the foundation was laid in the Pension Protection Act (PPA), but whose origins can be found in a series of legislative initiatives championed by Congressman John Boehner (R-Ohio) for more than a decade. Proponents had long said that participants clearly needed (and wanted) the advice, but that there needed to be a way in which advisers could be paid enough to want to take on the task. Opponents were just as concerned that the provision merely seemed to codify the provision of “conflicted” advice by setting out terms by which advisers could receive compensation that varied depending on the funds recommended.

Experts have long expressed amazement that the provisions survived the conference committee’s reconciliation of the PPA—but there they were. However, the controversy swirling around those regulations never subsided—and, thus, it was no huge surprise when the incoming Administration tabled, postponed, postponed again, and then officially withdrew the proposed final regulations, as it announced its intention to publish separately a proposed rule that it believes more closely conforms to the Pension Protection Act statutory exemption relating to investment advice.

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

Stop Gaps: Closing the Pension Funding Gap

What we said last year: The market’s tumult has taken its toll on pension portfolios and, in remarkably short order, managed to undo what had been a diligent, steady progress toward restoring the funding health of many programs. Of course, it also has served to favorably impact liability calculations, somewhat muting the damage. All in all, those workers covered by the promises represented by those programs must surely appreciate their position vis-à-vis those solely depending on defined contribution plans—but how will employers feel about those promises?

Where we are: Pension portfolios took their lumps from the investment markets last year, to put it mildly. That they were better diversified—and likely more insulated—from those travails than most defined contribution portfolios was surely a matter of some comfort, as has been their steady recovery in 2009. Still, there was a lot of damage to be undone, and for most it is still a work in progress—even as the press of more restrictive accounting and funding rules takes its toll. Fortunately, Congress has been receptive to calls for extensions that have provided some much-needed breathing room for these programs.

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

Tying Up “Loose” Ends—Full Disclosures

What we said: There’s little question that our industry would benefit from better disclosure about the fees paid for the services rendered to retirement plans and their beneficiaries. The proposal to expand/enhance reporting to plan fiduciaries, if imperfect, still seems to be headed in the right direction. Doubtless, some providers will adopt different business models to “duck” those disclosures just a little bit longer, but it seems clear that plan sponsors will want—and deserve—a full and fair accounting. It is less clear that participants will be as well served by an incomplete, and perhaps unbalanced, reporting of fees paid in their accounts—particularly if, as is currently proposed, the disclosures could add a dozen pages (and millions in expense across the industry) to their annual statements. It is also unclear just how much of this the current Administration will be able and willing to press into service in the short time remaining.

Where we are: In just a few short months, the 2009 Form 5500 will escort in a whole new level of plan sponsor fee disclosure, though the proposed participant disclosures are not yet on the radar screen.

What’s ahead: It is nearly impossible to argue against the critical importance of full fee disclosure, certainly to plan fiduciaries. Whether the current requirements truly constitute “full” disclosure remains a matter of some debate—but it is a start. On the participant side, the short-term implications are less clear; but then, we have some time—and a new Administration—to work through those issues.

— Nevin E. Adams, JD