Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Retirement Ready" Resolutions

As the New Year begins, we are often of a mind to think about making a fresh start. If you are an individual, you may (finally) be ready to be serious about saving for retirement - or you may have mailed in that last tuition check - or crossed that age 50 threshold where you can start "catching up" on retirement savings. If you're an employer, 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 plans - or 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 can help you get started.

___ 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.

What would YOU add to this list?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Naughty" or Nice?

A few years back — well, now it’s quite a few years back — when my kids still believed in the reality of Santa Claus, we discovered an ingenious website 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 we said ever had the impact of that website — if not on their behaviors (they were 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 that year) was on the verge of tears, worried that he'd find nothing under the Christmas tree but the coal and bundle of switches he so surely deserved.

One could argue that many participants act as though at retirement 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 snowsuit. Not that they actually believe in a retirement version of St. Nick, but that's essentially how they behave, though a significant number will, when asked to assess their retirement confidence, express varying degrees of doubt and concern about the consequences of their "naughty" behaviors. Like my son in that week before Christmas, they tend to worry about it too late to influence the outcome.

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 we believed that 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 — 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 your workplace retirement plan, the employer match, and your retirement plan advisor.

Happy Holidays!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

P.S.: The Naughty or Nice website is still online, here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Choice" Architecture - for Plan Sponsors

In recent years, the notion that the ways in which choices are presented to individuals — known as “choice architecture” — can influence their decisions, has been widely embraced.

Well before the advent of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the retirement plan industry had acknowledged the positive influences of those behavioral finance techniques on overcoming, or at least countering, certain human behaviors.

Based on the evidence of several decades of adoption, we know that automatic enrollment — even with the ability to opt out — transforms voluntary participation rates of roughly 70% to near-unanimous participation. And yet, even with the structure and sanction of the PPA, today fewer than half of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents to the 2013 PLANSPONSOR DC Survey have implemented that design (large plans being significantly more likely to do so than smaller programs).

Even plan sponsors that have adopted automatic enrollment tend to do so with a default deferral rate that is almost assuredly too low to assure success for anyone (typically 3%, the rate specified in the PPA safe harbor) — which might not be so bad, but for the lagging implementation of contribution rate acceleration. The PLANSPONSOR survey found that only about a quarter (26.9%) did so. Even among the largest plans (more than $1 billion in assets), only about half (54.2%) “auto accelerate.”

And then there’s the inclination to automatically enroll only new hires. Industry surveys suggest that only about a third of auto-enrolling plans extend that to current workers.

Setting aside for a minute the reality that not every workforce is suited for the administrative rigor of automatic enrollment — and that many smaller employers have in place safe harbor plans that serve to automatically “enroll” workers via that safe harbor contribution — there are real, tangible, and often unacknowledged employer costs to undertaking automatic enrollment.  

Specifically, the transformative participation effects cited earlier frequently carry significant additional costs in terms of the employer match. The math of switching to a so-called “stretch match” — which seeks to ameliorate the cost issue by altering the rate of match (say by matching 25 cents on the dollar up to 12% of pay, rather than 50 cents on the dollar up to 6%) — may work, but workforces that have been accustomed to the latter formula will almost certainly see the former as a reduction in benefits.

Similarly, while PLANSPONSOR’s 2013 DC Survey found that three-quarters of the roughly 7,000 plan sponsor respondents said that it was either very important (41.1%) or important (36.8%) that their plan provide retirement income solutions to participants. Yet most do not offer any income-oriented products/services in their plan. That’s a disconnect, to be sure. But in view of expanding fiduciary concerns in selecting and monitoring those offerings, is it irrational?

Over the years, a lot of thought has gone into plan design features — choice architecture — that can help participants make better decisions (or, in some cases to make better decisions on their behalf). But policymakers and regulators, and the academics who sometimes advise them, tend to forget that the employer’s decision to keep, and to offer these programs in the first place, is also a choice.

A choice that the rules, regulations and limits bounding these programs don’t always encourage.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Second Opinion on Self-Medicating Your 401(k)

At a recent event, one of the speakers was taking our industry to task for expecting too much from participants. “We don’t expect individuals to diagnose and treat their own illness,” he said, going on to note that with 401(k)s we expect people who don’t have any knowledge or training in investments to decide how to invest those balances.

Admittedly, those 401(k) investment decisions can be complicated for some — and, since it (mostly) is their money, after all, most do give individual participants the ability to decide how it will be invested. As nice as it would be if individuals were exposed to the basics of finance — saving, budgeting, investments — sometime in their lives ahead of that workplace plan enrollment meeting, or the pages of that 401(k) enrollment kit, that’s not the current system’s fault.

In reality, individuals are routinely asked to make decisions on things in which they have no real knowledge or training. On numerous occasions, I’ve had plumbers and mechanics ask me to make decisions to either replace or repair enormously expensive systems with no ready information other than the explanation of the alternatives from the professional who is asking me to make that decision. A professional who, in some cases, has a relationship dating back only to the point in time at which his or her name was gleaned from the Internet (or Yellow Pages). Fortunately, most of those decisions aren’t matters of life and death, even if there is all-too-frequently a certain urgency to them.

However, the event speaker’s assertions notwithstanding, while we may not expect individuals to accurately diagnose their illnesses, we do ask them to make decisions on complicated matters in which they lack expertise. For example, several years back, a friend of mine received a troubling diagnosis from his regular physician. Now the area of concern was beyond the particular expertise of that doctor, so he suggested that my friend seek the opinion of a specialist. He did, only to find that the specialist’s opinion directly contradicted that of the doctor he knew and trusted.

Now my friend had to make a decision — and one in which he had a vital interest — even though he lacked the personal expertise to fully evaluate and appreciate the options.

Keeping up with a 401(k) isn’t like when the plumbing starts to leak, or the “check engine” light comes on — clear signals that there is a problem that requires prompt attention. For the most part, retirement investment and planning issues are less obvious, though even that hardly makes them unique. My friend’s serious medical situation was diagnosed only because he had gone in for a checkup because he was of an age where you schedule them whether you think you need one or not.

Similarly, you don’t need to be a financial expert to manage your retirement savings — you just need to have the common sense and discipline to schedule regular financial checkups with someone who does.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, December 06, 2014

First Things First

This may be the time of year when thoughts turn to stockings hung by the chimney with care, but it’s also the time of year when parents have to deal with assembling some of the things in those packages. And while Santa may have elves on staff to undertake the construction of a tricycle, dollhouse or Little Tykes airplane seesaw, in our house, that "elf" was named “Dad.”

A painful lesson learned over those years was the importance of following the instructions. No matter how self-evident the process appeared at the outset, or how much I thought I remembered assembling something similar in the not-too-distant past, lurching ahead and tackling things in the order I thought made most sense was inevitably a formula for disaster. And then there was the year some miscreant had apparently “liberated” the assembly instructions from the package. Since it was Christmas Eve by the time I discovered this, all I had to go by was common sense and the picture of the finished product on the package.

Debates about the best way to achieve retirement security often seem to resemble an assembly without a set of directions — frequently without even the benefit of an agreed-upon “picture” of what the finished product is supposed to look like.

A recent hearing held by the Bipartisan Policy Commission focused on three key threats to retirement security: longevity (the risk of outliving your resources), leakage (the distribution of retirement funds prior to retirement) and the costs associated with long-term care (LTC).

Jack VanDerhei, research director for the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), demonstrated the impact that each of these three events can have on retirement security. With regard to leakage, he explained that more than one in five of the middle 50% who are simulated to run short of money in retirement with leakages present would have sufficient funds if leakages were completely prevented. Unlike many who tout this as a solution, however, he took pains to acknowledge that that assumed no response from participants (such as individuals deciding to contribute less (or not at all) if they knew that they wouldn’t have access to those funds prior to retirement.

Of course, once you have attained retirement, longevity risk — the risk of outliving your resources — becomes a factor. VanDerhei noted that while nearly two-thirds (62%) of the middle 50% are simulated to have sufficient retirement income, those in the longest relative longevity quartile — who would live the longest — only had a 33% chance.

One potential solution —a qualifying longevity annuity contract, or QLAC — didn’t help much. Modeling the impact of a 25% QLAC on retirement readiness, and even among those projected to live longest, VanDerhei found increases in retirement readiness of only 6.6% for early Boomers and 9.6% for Gen-Xers. Overall — that is, with no filter for longevity — this option actually reduced retirement readiness, due to the expense of these arrangements.

As for LTC expenses, while this won’t be an issue for everyone, it can have an enormous impact on the retirement security of those who are affected. VanDerhei explained that only 17% of the middle 50% of those in the top LTC quartile (those most likely to incur those expenses) will have sufficient retirement income.

Ultimately, while each of the three highlighted elements (leakage, longevity and LTC) had an impact on retirement readiness, EBRI’s numbers indicate that a bigger threat is simply not being eligible for a workplace retirement plan. How big a difference? Well, looking at the second and third income quartiles (the “middle 50%”) of Gen-Xers, the probability of not running short of money in retirement soars from 51% to 80% when you compare those with no future years of eligibility in a DC plan to those with 20 or more years.

Put another way, regardless of which solutions are put forth to deal with issues like leakage, longevity and long-term care, they’ll be of little value to those who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.

It’s not just a matter of priority — it’s all about putting the “first thing” first.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD