Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Importance of Having a Plan

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in any number of “projects,” and to manage more than a few.

Some were explicitly tagged as such at the start, while others simply expanded to fit that name. Most of those projects turned out well; others faded into the woodwork after a time; some drew to a close after “redefining success;” and a couple actually “crashed and burned.” A lot of variables determine whether a project will be a success or failure, but in my experience, projects that lack either a limited budget and/or a specific timeframe are doomed from the outset.

I was therefore interested in some of the findings from the 8th annual America Saves Week survey this week. The survey, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC), found that more than half (57%) of those with a savings plan with specific goals said they were making good or excellent progress meeting their savings needs — nearly three times the number without a plan.

Moreover, nine-in-ten of those with a plan were spending less than their income and saving the difference (compared with only half of those without a plan), and more than twice as many (65%) of those with a plan said they were saving enough for retirement as among those without that specific savings plan (31%).

While those gaps were found between those who had a specific, individual, savings plan with specific
goals, it’s long been established that having access to a retirement plan at work makes a big difference in terms of whether people save for retirement or not — and the impact transcends income, gender and age. In fact, data prepared by the nonpartisan EBRI shows that more than 70% of workers earning from $30,000 to $50,000 participated in employer-sponsored retirement plans when a plan was available, whereas less than 5% of those middle income earners without access to an employer-sponsored plan contributed to an IRA. In other words, middle class workers are 15 times more like to save for their families’ retirement at work than on their own.

During this America Saves Week, it’s important to reinforce the importance of saving. However, it may be even more important to remember the positive impact of having a specific plan.

Not to mention the positive impact of having access to a retirement plan at work.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also: “4 Things You Need to Know if You are Not Saving for Retirement.” 

For an idea as to the impact that eligibility for participation in a workplace retirement plan can make, see “Retirement Savings Shortfalls: Evidence from EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model.” 

Friday, February 20, 2015

3 Things Every Plan Committee Member Should Know

Plan investment committee members come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes drawn exclusively from staff of the employer sponsoring the plan, sometimes not. More importantly, they are frequently tapped for this important role for reasons that may have little to do with their background or expertise in the matters that will come before the committee.

Now, with luck they’ll learn early on about 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.

But as important as those considerations are, there are some important things that every plan committee member should know before they sit down at their first committee meeting.

You are an ERISA fiduciary. Even as a small and relatively silent member of the committee, you’ll direct and influence retirement plan money — and it’s that influence over the plan’s assets that makes you an ERISA fiduciary.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal. How personal? Well, you may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. 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.

Having established those basics, 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 diversify 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 additional points on fulfilling those duties; it’s going to be hard to follow the terms of the plan documents if you haven’t read them, and it’s likely to be difficult to ensure that the plan pays only reasonable expenses if you don’t know what the plan is paying, or for what.

And finally, should you, as a plan fiduciary lack the expertise to carry out those duties, you will, of course, want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.

Additional information on fiduciary responsibilities can be found here.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Impact of Assumptions on the Impact of Leakage

It has become something of an article of faith in our industry that “leakage,” the distribution of money from retirement accounts prior to retirement, is bad.

Bad, of course, in the sense that those “premature” withdrawals, via hardship withdrawals, loans or the so-called “deemed distributions” that result when a termination occurs when a loan is outstanding, reduce individual retirement savings.

So when the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College published a paper last week entitled “The Impact of Leakages on 401(k)/IRA Assets,” it really wasn’t a question of “if” there was an impact, it was a question of how much. The answer, according to the paper: a reduction in wealth at retirement of a jaw-dropping 25%.

Now by any measure, a 25% reduction in retirement wealth is a massive problem — and one that would, if valid, call for the kind of countermeasures touted by the Boston College researchers.

But consider the findings published recently by the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) based on its massive participant database of actual participant balances and activity. Among participants with outstanding 401(k) loans at the end of 2013, the average unpaid balance was a mere $7,421, and the median loan balance outstanding was $3,973.

Moreover, the report notes — as it has for a number of years examining trend analysis in that database — that overall, loans from 401(k) plans tended to be small, with a sizable majority of 401(k) participants in all age groups having no loan outstanding at all: 88% of participants in their 20s, 73% of participants in their 40s, and 86% of participants in their 60s had no loans outstanding at year-end 2013.

So, how did the Boston College researchers manage to come up with a 25% reduction in retirement wealth? Quite simply, they started by deriving an estimate based on a “host of simplifying assumptions” — their words, not mine.

What are those simplifying assumptions? It starts with a hypothetical participant who initially makes $40,000/year, gets a 1.1% annual pay increase in real terms, assumes that he/she defers 6% of pay, is matched at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar, and whose investments gain a 4.5% real annual return. But the key assumption — and the one that arguably creates the conclusion of the paper — is their further assumption that 1.5% of assets leak out each year!

Under these assumptions, the leakages result in accumulated 401(k) wealth of $203,000 at age 60 compared with $272,000 with no leakage. So their math (and assumptions) lead to a conclusion that these leakages reduce 401(k) wealth by 25%. To “prove” the point, they provide a simple chart of the numbers they just produced, and direct the reader to it as though it provides some sort of independent corroboration.

They go on to clarify: “This estimate represents the overall impact for the whole population, averaged across both those who tap their savings before retirement and those who do not.” That’s right — averaged across everyone, not just those who actually dip into those savings prior to retirement.

Now at that point, it’s arguably just math, not so much a quantification of the impact of leakages as the mathematical impact of a series of simplifying assumptions. As for the so-called impact of leakages? It might more accurately be described as the impact of assumptions.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

That’s not to say that leakages don’t have an impact on retirement accumulations, and doubtless for some, that impact is significant. EBRI’s analysis found that among loan defaults, hardships and cashouts at job change, cashouts were found to have a much more serious impact on 401(k) accumulation than either plan loan defaults or hardship withdrawals (even with the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions included). The leakages from cashouts resulted in a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80% real replacement rate of 5.9 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 4.5 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. In fact, the effect from cashouts (by themselves) — not loans or hardship withdrawals — turns out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.  

It’s also worth noting that it’s one thing to quantify the impact of not allowing early access to these funds — and something else altogether to assume that participants and plan sponsors would not respond in any way to those changes, perhaps by reducing their contribution levels, or by either deciding to continue to participate or to participate in the first place.

Friday, February 06, 2015

A Deja View on Retirement Policy?

One of my favorite movies — and perhaps my favorite “holiday” move — is Groundhog Day, the 1993 film starring Bill Murray as an arrogant weatherman who finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney, Penn. by a blizzard, who then discovers that he is also “stuck” reliving February 2 — over and over and over. A feeling, quite literally, of “déjà vu all over again.”

Murray’s character goes through some semblance of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as he comes to terms with his predicament, but even as he tries to break out of this cycle, he learns from his past experience(s) and modifies his behaviors accordingly; avoiding stepping in a deep puddle of slush, ducking an insurance salesman, and even carrying his own jack to help change a tire. Eventually, of course, all that “learning” pays off, though not without a lot of pain and frustration.

There was, in fact, something of a feeling of déjà vu in President Obama’s budget proposal yesterday, certainly with regard to workplace retirement plans. In addition to some new incentives around encouraging automatic enrollment and expanding access to part-time workers, making a return appearance was giving the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) the authority to set risk-based premium rates for pension plans and the administration’s proposal to mandate employer offering of “automatic” IRAs who do not already offer a workplace retirement plan, this time channeled to the myRA structure outlined a year ago.

The 2016 budget proposal also resurrects the notion of imposing a reduction on the value of itemized deductions to 28% — including retirement contributions, and the imposition of a retirement savings cap.

Arguably, these proposals stand little chance of making their way into reality. That said, the latter two proposals in particular are blunt policy instruments, and seem likely to reduce, not enhance, the nation’s retirement security prospects.

Consider that a year ago when the savings cap was introduced in the 2015 budget, projections by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) show that more than 1 in 10 current 401(k) participants are likely to hit the proposed cap sometime prior to age 65, even at the current, albeit historically low, discount rate of 4%. When you apply the higher discount rate assumptions closer to historical averages, the percentage of 401(k) participants likely to be affected by these proposed limits increases “substantially,” according to EBRI.

As for the itemized deduction cap, it would mean that those affected — likely those making the decisions on matching contributions of offering a plan in the first place — would pay taxes on contributions in the year the contributions are made, and then again at the full rate when contributions are distributed at retirement. How’s that for dis-incentivizing workplace retirement savings?

Indeed, perhaps the thing most troubling about the latter two proposals in particular is that they reveal a basic misunderstanding about the interrelationship between the incentives to employers to offer these programs, and the existence and expansion of these plans.

In sum, they don’t appear to understand that if you diminish the incentives to employers of participating in workplace retirement plans, you’ll likely see fewer retirement plans in the workplace.

So, while we’d like to think that those guiding retirement policy would learn from their mistakes, it looks like instead it’s déjà vu all over again.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD