Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Lead" Times

There’s an old saying that you can “lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” It’s a sentiment expressed by many a benefits manager who has devoted significant time and effort to plan design, only to find the adoption rate by individual workers to be “disappointing.” And yet, in the retirement savings context, there’s ample evidence that individuals who have access to a savings plan at work do, in large part, take advantage of that opportunity.

Consider that average participation rates in excess of 70 percent are commonly reported in industry surveys, and that’s for plans that don’t take advantage of automatic enrollment. Moreover, previous EBRI research has pointed out that merely having access to a defined contribution plan at work can have a significant positive impact on one’s retirement readiness rating, simply because it greatly enhances the likelihood that those individuals WILL participate (1).

Those who say that you can only “lead a horse to water” might well expect that a horse will drink when it’s thirsty, or when it needs water—but equine experts will tell you that many horses refuse to drink when they need to most, especially in times of competition, illness, travelling or stress. So, while you may not be able to make them drink, it’s generally important for their health and well-being to find ways to encourage them to do so—adding a little salt in their diet, for instance, or putting an apple in their water bucket.

Similarly, all workers don’t have access to retirement plans at work, and those who do don’t always take full advantage of it—with some saving below the employer match levels of their plan, many older workers failing to take advantage of catch-up contributions, and a number of automatically enrolled workers leaving those relatively low initial default contribution rates in place.

There are, however, steps employers can take to help: Prior EBRI research has documented the profound influence of plan design variables, as well as employee behavior in auto-enrollment 401(k) plans (2). Not only the impact that automatic enrollment can have on retirement readiness, but what setting that initial default rate at 6 percent, rather than the “traditional” 3 percent (now codified in the Pension Protection Act of 2006) could mean in terms of improving retirement readiness “success.(3)

For example, using actual plan-specific default contribution rates, and assuming an automatic annual deferral escalation of 1 percent of compensation; that employees opted out of auto-escalation at the self-reported rates from the 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey; and that they “started over” at the plan’s default rate when they changed jobs and began participation in a new plan; along with the assumption that the plan imposed a 15 percent cap on employee contributions, the EBRI analysis found that more than a quarter (25.6 percent) of those in the lowest-income quartile who had previously NOT been successful (under the actual default contribution rates) would then be successful (4) as a result of the change in deferral percentage.

As benefit plan professionals know, and as EBRI research has quantified, plan design can be effective at doing more than just leading workers to the opportunity to save for retirement—it can help them make decisions that improve their chances of success.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] See “’Retirement Income Adequacy for Today’s Workers: How Certain, How Much Will It Cost, and How Does Eligibility for Participation in a Defined Contribution Plan Help?” online here.  

[2] See “The Impact of Automatic Enrollment in 401(k) Plans on Future Retirement Accumulations: A Simulation Study Based on Plan Design Modifications of Large Plan Sponsors,” online here.  

[3] See “Increasing Default Deferral Rates in Automatic Enrollment 401(k) Plans: The Impact on Retirement Savings Success in Plans With Automatic Escalation,” online here.  

[4] In this case, success equals a real replacement rate of 80 percent or more when combined with Social Security.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Long Haul

A recent long-distance family member move required that I rent a vehicle larger than the passenger cars that we generally rely on for transportation.  There were a number of considerations: cost, availability, the opportunity to drop off the vehicle on the other end, and the actual size of the vehicle. 

I don’t really have much experience with such determinations; honestly, the carrying dimensions of the vehicle were posted, but I had no real idea how to equate what I needed to transport with those criteria.  I knew the individual pieces (certainly the large ones), but as you might imagine, they were of various shapes, sizes and weights, and worse, what needed to be carried was in multiple locations, which made it even more difficult to make a proper estimation.

That said, I made my best guess – chose one that seemed big enough to handle the load but that was still small enough for me to handle comfortably – reserved the vehicle and waited for the pickup day to arrive.

The day before I was due to pick up the vehicle, I got an email from the rental company telling me that they had decided to upgrade my rental to a larger vehicle, at no additional cost to me.  Now, I’m sure they felt they had done me a big favor.  But what they had actually done, despite my very careful planning – and just 24 hours prior to the move – was to give me a vehicle that was not only larger than I needed, but one that was very likely beyond my driving capabilities, certainly over the distances I had to travel.

Planning for retirement is often compared to preparing for a big trip – trying to figure out what you’ll need for the journey, estimating the fuel you’ll need – but ultimately not being precisely sure at the outset how long the trip will last.  Those who sit down to make the calculation – and, according to the Retirement Confidence Survey1, many still haven’t – may find it hard to match the components of their retirement income with the needs of their retirement journey, certainly without the assistance of a retirement planning calculator (such as the Ballpark E$timate®2) or a professional advisor’s expertise.  Indeed, recent EBRI research indicates that individuals who take advantage of either resource set more adequate savings goals3.

Still, things change, and life has a way of throwing unexpected things in our path; even the well-laid plans of a few years ago are well-served by revisiting both the underlying assumptions and the projected needs.  Because, after all, you never know what you’ll have to deal with over the long haul.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 Workers often guess how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic, retirement needs calculation, according to the RCS, while 18 percent indicated they did their own estimate, another 18 percent asked a financial advisor, 8 percent used an on-line calculator, and another 8 percent read or heard how much was needed.

2 A great place to start figuring out what you’ll need is the Ballpark E$timate®, available online at  Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find a variety of free resources there, courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC).  Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

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

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Bigger Picture

Over the weekend, my daughter shared with us an insurance quote she’d received.  It had been a while since I had focused on such things, but I was struck first by how much it was.  It was for insurance in a different state, so we worked through the particulars, trying to be certain that we understood what was covered, matched that against her needs.  Ultimately, while much of the quote made sense, there were a couple of items that seemed too high.

As we probed those items, my daughter explained that the agent had made an effort to match those levels against her current coverage.  A logical enough inquiry and starting point, but one that (apparently) failed to take into account that her current coverage – as part of our family policy – would be quite different from what she needed on her own.  The agent got an accurate response to the question he asked – but it wasn’t the right question.

Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs, hold more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the United States, which makes them a vital component of the nation’s retirement savings.  In fact, as an account type, IRAs currently hold the largest single share of U.S. retirement plan assets.  There are, however, different types of IRAs, and, according to a recent EBRI analysis[i], they differ in a number of ways.

For example, in the EBRI IRA Database[ii], which contains data collected from various IRA plan administrators on 20.5 million accounts, with total assets of $1.456 trillion, most of the new IRA contributions go into Roth IRAs, but most of the assets are held in traditional IRAs, where, as noted above, the money frequently originated from a rollover from other tax-qualified retirement plans (such as 401(k) plans).  In fact, the latest report from the EBRI IRA Database finds that 26 percent of Roth IRA owners contributed to their accounts in 2011, compared with just 6 percent of traditional IRA owners.

On the other hand, individuals with a traditional IRA originating from rollovers had the highest average and median (mid-point) balances ($110,918 and $31,944, respectively, compared with Roth average and median balances at $25,228 and $11,344) – and in the 2011 EBRI IRA Database, almost 13 times the amount of dollars were added to IRAs through rollovers as from new contributions.

Roth IRAs had a higher percentage of younger individuals contribute to them: 23.8 percent of the Roth accounts receiving contributions were owned by individuals ages 25–34, compared with 8.9 percent for traditional IRAs.  Moreover, Roth IRA owners were both more likely to contribute to their IRA and more likely to contribute in subsequent years – and those who are younger and own a Roth IRA were more likely to contribute to it than older Roth IRA owners.

While they account for nearly one in five of the accounts in the EBRI IRA Database, Roth IRAs represented only 7 percent of the $1.456 trillion in assets at year-end 2011.  Still, it’s easy to imagine how the trend differences highlighted above could, over time, impact key trends in terms of contributions, asset allocation, and withdrawal patterns[iii].

Research sometimes suffers from a tendency to extrapolate big conclusions from remarkably small samples.

On the other hand, the EBRI IRA database, with millions of individual account records drawn from multiple account providers, allows us to see the big picture, as well as the details that underlie, and perhaps shape, the longer-term trends.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[ii] The EBRI IRA Database contains data collected from various IRA plan administrators on 20.5 million accounts owned by 16.6 million unique individuals with total assets of $1.456 trillion. EBRI is building a database that will allow it to track the flow of retirement assets saved in 401(k) plans and other tax-qualified plans and transferred to IRAs and spent in retirement as people leave the work force.

[iii] The EBRI IRA Database is also unique in its ability to track people who own multiple IRAs, providing a measure of individuals’ consolidated IRA holdings. For instance, it shows that the overall cumulative IRA average balance was 24 percent larger than the unique account balance, providing a far more accurate picture of the assets held in these accounts by individuals.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

"Upside" Potential

I once spent a very uncomfortable period of time stuck in one of those carnival rides that, for brief periods of time, spins riders in a circle as the cab you are in also twirls. As uncomfortable as the ride was, the “stuck” part came while my cab was high in the air—and turned upside down. In no time at all, it was obvious that this extended “upside down” state wasn’t contemplated by those who designed the seating compartment (nor, apparently, had they considered that my compartment “mate” would find it exciting to rock our stuck cab during our brief “internment”).

One of the comments you hear from time to time is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down,” that they go primarily to those at higher income levels, those who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. And from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes.
Indeed, if those “upside-down incentives” were the only forces at work, one might reasonably expect to find that the higher the individual’s salary, the higher the overall account balance would be, as a multiple of salary. However, drawing on the actual administrative data from the massive EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), those ratios hold relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000.

In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes—and not “upside down.”
(click to enlarge)

As those who work with these programs know, what keeps these potential disparities in check is the series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Internal Revenue Code Secs. 402(g) and 415(c), combined with ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time to do just that—to maintain a certain parity between highly compensated and non-highly compensated workers in the benefits available from these programs. The data suggest they are having exactly that impact.

And that’s why focusing only on the incentives—and not also on the limits—can leave you “stuck” with only part of the answer.

Nevin E. Adams, JD