Sunday, November 24, 2013

Take It or Leave It?

While each situation is different, in my experience leaving a job brings with it nearly as much paperwork as joining a new employer. Granted, you’re not asked to wade through a kit of enrollment materials, and the number of options are generally fewer, but you do have to make certain benefits-related decisions, including the determination of what to do with your retirement plan distribution(s).

Unfortunately, even in the most amicable of partings, workers have traditionally lacked the particulars to facilitate a rollover to either an individual retirement account (IRA) or a subsequent employer’s retirement plan—and thus, the easiest thing to do was simply to request that distribution be paid to him or her in cash.

Over the years, a number of changes have been made to discourage the “leakage” of retirement savings at job change: Legal thresholds for mandatory distributions have been set; a requirement established that distributions between $1,000 and $5,000 on which instructions are not received either be rolled over into an IRA or left in the plan; and even the requirement that a 20 percent tax withholding would be applied to an eligible rollover distribution—unless the recipient elected to have the distribution paid in a direct rollover to an eligible retirement plan, including an IRA. All these have doubtless served to at least give pause to that individual distribution “calculus” at job change.

Indeed, a recent EBRI analysis¹ indicates that workers now taking a retirement plan distribution are doing a better job at holding on to those retirement savings than had those in the past. Among those who reported in 2012 ever having received a distribution, 48.1 percent reported rolling over at least some of their most recent distribution into another tax-qualified savings vehicle, and among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, the percentage who used any portion of it for consumption was also lower, at 15.7 percent (compared with 25.2 percent of those whose most recent distribution was received through 2003, and 38.3 percent through 1993).

As you might expect with the struggling economy, there was an uptick in the percentage of recipients through 2012 who used their lump sum for debts, business, and home expenses, and a decrease in the percentage saving in nontax-qualified vehicles relative to distributions through 2006. However, the EBRI analysis found that the percentage of lump-sum recipients who used the entire amount of their most recent distribution for tax-qualified savings has increased sharply since 1993: Well over 4 in 10 (45.2 percent) of those who received their most recent distribution through 2012 did so, compared with 19.3 percent of those who received their most recent distribution through 1993.

The EBRI report also notes that an important factor in the change in the relative percentages between the 1993 and 2012 data is the percentage of lump sums that were used for a single purpose. Consider that among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, nearly all (94.0 percent) of those who rolled over at least some² of their most recent distribution did so for the entire amount.

There is both encouraging and disappointing news in the EBRI report findings: The data show that improvement has been made in the percentage of employment-based retirement plan participants rolling over all of their LSDs on job change, along with less frequent pure-consumption use of any of the distributions. However, the data also show that approximately 55 percent of those who took a lump-sum payment did not roll all of it into tax-qualified savings.

In common parlance, “Take it or leave it” is an ultimatum—an “either/or” proposition that frequently comes at the end, not the beginning, of a decision process. However, as the EBRI analysis indicates, for retirement plan participants it is a decision that can (certainly for younger workers, or those with significant balances) have a dramatic impact on their financial futures.
Nevin E. Adams, JD
¹ The November 2013 EBRI Notes article, “Lump-Sum Distributions at Job Change, Distributions Through 2012,” is online here. 
² Two important factors in whether a lump-sum distribution is used exclusively for tax-qualified savings appear to be the age of the recipient and the size of the distribution. The likelihood of the distribution being rolled over entirely to tax-qualified savings increased with the age of the recipient at the time of receipt until age 64. Similarly, the larger the distribution, the more likely it was kept entirely in tax-qualified savings.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Use It or “Lose” It

At the time that EBRI was founded 35 years ago, I was about six months into a job doing pension accountings for a large Midwestern bank. At the time, I didn’t realize I’d still be working with those kinds of issues in 2013—in fairness, like most recent college graduates, I wasn’t really thinking about anything that was 35 years in the future. I had a job, a car that ran, and a reasonably nice stereo in an apartment in the Chicago suburbs that didn’t have much else.

My employer had a nice defined benefit (DB) pension, and an extraordinarily generous thrift-savings plan, but those weren’t big considerations at the time. I had to wait a year to participate in the latter (pretty much standard at the time), and as for the former—well, you know how exciting pension accruals are to 22-year-olds (even those who get paid to do pension accountings). Turns out, I worked there for nearly a decade, and walked away with a pretty nice nest egg in that thrift savings plan (that by then had become a 401(k)), and a pension accrual of…$0.00.

At the time, I didn’t think much about that.  Like many private-sector workers, I hadn’t contributed anything to that pension, and thus getting “nothing” in return didn’t feel like a loss.

By the time I left my second employer (this time after 13 years), the mandated vesting schedules had been shortened by legislation—but even then, the benefit I hope to collect one day won’t amount to much on an annual basis, and won’t be anything like the benefit that plan might have provided if only I had remained employed there – for the past 20 years. Instead, like my service with that prior employer, that DB benefit is frozen in time. That result stands in sharp contrast with the 401(k) balances I have accumulated and that continue to grow, despite having changed employers twice since then.

Of course, national tenure data suggest that my job experience was something of an anomaly.  When you consider that median job tenure in the United States  has hovered in the five-to-seven-year range going back to the early 1950s[i], there have doubtless been many private-sector workers who were, for a time, like me, participants in a traditional defined benefit pension plan, only to see little or nothing come of that participation[ii].

I often hear people say that 401(k)s were “never designed to replace pensions,” a reference to the notion that the benefit defined by most traditional pension plans stood to replace a significant amount of pre-retirement income at retirement.  Now, there’s no question that the voluntary nature of the 401(k) programs, as well as their traditional reliance on the investment direction and maintenance by participants, can undermine the relative contribution of the employer-sponsored plan “leg” to a goal of retirement income adequacy.

However, what often gets overlooked in the comparison with 401(k)s is that when you consider the realities of how most Americans work, traditional defined benefit realities frequently fell short of that standard as well. Indeed, in many cases, based on the kinds of job changes that occur all the time, and have for a generation and more, they could provide far less[iii].

In both cases, it’s not the design that’s at fault—it’s how they are used, both by those who sponsor these programs, as well as those who are covered by them.

Nevin E. Adams, JD 

[i] See “Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012” available here.  

[ii] And a great number of private-sector workers never participated in a defined benefit plan.  See “Pension Plan Participation” available here.  

[iii] A recent EBRI Issue Brief provides a direct comparison of the likely benefits under specific types of defined contribution (DC) and DB retirement plans. See “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans”.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Connecting the Dots

One of my favorite works of art is “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” by Georges-Pierre Seurat. I was introduced to this painting in college via an art appreciation class at the Art Institute in Chicago (it even makes a brief appearance in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

The subject matter isn’t really extraordinary―just a group of individuals scattered about a park taking in the scenery. But what amazed me the first time I got close to the painting―and does to this day―is that Seurat created these images, and the marvelous color shadings in these images, through the use of thousands (perhaps millions: the painting itself measures 7 by 10 ft.) of individual dots.

Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are a vital component of U.S. retirement savings, representing more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the nation, with a substantial portion of these IRA assets originating in employment-based retirement plans, including defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans. Little wonder that those accounts have been a focus of the pending fiduciary regulation re-proposal.

Despite IRAs’ importance in the U.S. retirement system, there is a limited amount of knowledge about the behavior of individuals who own IRAs, alone or in combination with employment-based defined contribution (DC) plans.

Consequently, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) created the EBRI IRA Database, which for 2011 contained information on 20.5 million accounts with total assets of $1.456 trillion. When looking across the entire EBRI IRA Database, as of year-end 2011, 44.4 percent of the assets were in equities, 10.7 percent in balanced funds, 18.0 percent in bonds, 13.0 percent in money, and 13.8 percent in other assets―an allocation spread roughly comparable to that found for 401(ks) in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database at a comparable point in time.

But when you look inside the IRA database, certain interesting aspects emerge. For example, the asset allocation differences between genders were minimal: bond, equity, and money allocations were virtually identical. Moreover, in looking across IRA types, the average equity allocation at each age group was higher for owners of Roth IRAs than for owners of other IRA types―this is perhaps not surprising when you consider that a separate EBRI analysis also revealed that individuals contributing to Roth IRAs tended to be younger. Additionally, as the most recent report reveals, balanced funds have by far the largest asset allocations among young (under age 45) Roth IRA owners.

One might not be surprised to discover that both genders’ average allocations to bonds increased with age (starting at age 25), although the average amount allocated to balanced funds decreased as the age of both genders increased after age 25―with the exception of men ages 75–84. And while equity allocations for genders peaked and then plateaued for those ages 45−54, it then proceeded to INCREASE for male owners age 85 or older.

Of course, an IRA could be only part of an individual’s portfolio of retirement assets: That’s why the goal of the integration of the EBRI databases is to be able to look at the two largest sources of retirement assets (IRAs and DC plans) to examine owner behavior across (as well as within) the accounts to provide a better understanding of the decisions Americans make with their retirement savings.

Because sometimes you need to see the big picture―and sometimes the better understanding of the big picture comes from connecting the dots.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

The October EBRI Notes article, “IRA Asset Allocation, 2011” is online here. 

Also see “The Generation in Roth IRA Contributions,” online here. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Reserve Cause

When I was still a child, my parents owned a 1958 VW Beetle. I was pretty young, so I don’t remember much about that car, other than the color, and what struck me, even as a child, as the “odd” reversal of the trunk and engine. One thing I do remember is that it didn’t have a gas gauge. Instead, there was a reserve tank switch, and when the engine started sputtering, you opened the valve, and got enough “extra” gas to get to a gas station.

The trick was that you had to remember to leave that reserve open when you filled up―if you didn’t, well then, you had no reserve. As you might expect, the reason I remember that relatively obscure feature to this day is a trip that was “interrupted” when my family discovered the hard way that my father had forgotten to reset the reserve switch.

Retirement planning typically focuses on looking to ensure that your post-retirement income sources are adequate to replicate some percentage of your preretirement income level. Underlying that approach is the assumption that individuals incur roughly the same kinds of expenses in retirement, although the amount, and proportionate share, of those expenses can certainly shift, particularly in areas such as health care. Indeed, while EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model®  (RSPM) and Retirement Readiness Rating have long incorporated the uninsured costs of post-retirement health care and long-term care, a few other  retirement projection models only recently acknowledge post-retirement health care costs as a discrete retirement savings need.

As a recent EBRI Notes article[1] explains, individuals should be concerned about saving for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses in retirement for a number of reasons. Medicare generally covers only about 60 percent of the cost of health care services for Medicare beneficiaries ages 65 and older, while out-of-pocket spending accounts for 12 percent.[2] The percentage of private-sector establishments offering retiree health benefits has been falling, and where benefits are offered, they are becoming less generous, even in the public sector.

While EBRI’s analysis indicates that savings targets for post-retirement health expenses (other than nursing home and home health care costs) declined between 6 percent and 11 percent between 2012 and 2013 for a person or couple age 65, there are a wide variety of possible outcomes, depending not only on the age at which an individual retires, but also the length of life after retirement, the availability and source of health insurance coverage after retirement to supplement Medicare, their health status and out-of-pocket expenses, the rate at which health care costs increase, the impact of interest rates and other rates of return on investments, as well as possible changes in public policy―not to mention the targeted probability of success of those targets.

Remember that while it is possible to come up with a single number that individuals can use to set retirement savings goals, a single number based on averages will be wrong for the vast majority of the population.

But, as with that old VW Beetle, those who set savings targets that fail to set aside any reserve for the eventuality might well wind up short of their destination.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[1] The EBRI Notes article, “Amount of Savings Needed for Health Expenses for People Eligible for Medicare: More Rare Good News” is online here.
[2] Note that many individuals will need more than the amounts cited in this report because this particular analysis does not factor in the savings needed to cover long-term care expenses, nor does it take into account the fact that many individuals retire prior to becoming eligible for Medicare. However, some workers will need to save less than what is reported if they choose to work during retirement, thereby postponing enrollment in Medicare Parts B and D if they receive health benefits as active workers.