Category Archives: defined-contribution plans

More Bad News on 401(k) Front

Seems the 401(k) red flags just keep waving. This latest report from Ben Steverman on the Bloomberg.com site — based on U.S. Census Bureau research — shows a whopping two-thirds of Americans aren’t putting money into any defined-contribution plans.

That’s right. Based on this research, which relies on tax data instead of surveys (as in the past), only about a third of workers are saving in a 401(k) or similar tax-deferred retirement plan.

What’s more, it now appears — using this new research methodology — that only about 14 percent of employers offer retirement plans at all! How can that be? As the report explains:

“Census researchers Michael Gideon and Joshua Mitchell analyzed W-2 tax records from 2012 to identify 6.2 million unique employers and 155 million individual workers, who held 219 million distinct jobs. This data produced estimates starkly different from previous surveys.

“For example, previous estimates suggested more than 40 percent of private-sector employers sponsored a retirement plan. Tax records uncovered a much bigger pool of small businesses, showing that, overall, just 14 percent of all employers offer a 401(k) or other defined-contribution plan to their workers.”

Bigger companies, the researchers say, are the most likely to offer 401(k) plans, and since they employ more people than small firms, they skew the overall number of U.S. workers who have the option. Gideon and Mitchell estimate that 79 percent of Americans work at organizations that sponsor a 401(k)-style plan. In the words of the report:

“The good news is that’s more than 20 points higher than previous estimates. The bad news is that just 41 percent of workers at those employers are making contributions to such a plan — more than 20 points lower than previous estimates.”

But should we all be trying to shepherd employees into 401(k)s? Earlier posts by me on this site suggest that’s a very good question. This one from January finds the creators and supporters of the retirement-savings vehicle now lamenting their creation. None of them imagined the vehicle would replace pensions, leaving workers struggling to ever contribute enough to their 401(k)s to retire comfortably.

As Herbert Whitehouse, a former human resource executive for Johnson & Johnson and one of the earliest proponents of the 401(k) for employees, tells the WSJ in that post, he and others were hoping and assuming back in 1981 — when the 401(k) was in its infancy — that the savings approach would be a kind of supplement to company pensions.

They did not imagine the idea would actually replace pensions as employers looked to cut costs and survive during subsequent downturns. As Whitehouse puts it in the WSJ story:

“We weren’t social visionaries.”

Then there’s this post a little later in January presenting the opinion of benefits expert Larry Sher, who thinks there’s even more corrupt and wrong with the savings vehicle than its merely replacing pensions. He blames the people who’ve had skin in the 401(k) game all along, who’ve been reluctant to give up their own benefits of the system — a system that forces employees to shoulder more responsibility and stress.

The chief concern of policymakers, employees and even some of the employers that have embraced the 401(k) concept, Sher says, “can be summed up as the total shifting of risks to employees — the risks that they won’t save enough, the risk that they will use the savings for non-retirement purposes, the risk of unfavorable investment results — culminating in inadequate retirement savings and the prospect of outliving such savings.”

Meanwhile, some states and cities have introduced local individual retirement accounts designed to encourage workers to save by requiring employers to either offer a retirement plan or automatically enroll their workers in the state- or city-sponsored IRAs.

The U.S. House of Representatives, however, voted to rescind those rules on Feb. 15, citing the IRA plans’ unfair competition to the financial industry. If the GOP-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump sign off on the move, all such auto-IRA plans would be placed in jeopardy, leaving people in the lurch once again. As Steverman writes:

“Whatever the outcome, any effort to get workers to save for retirement faces a daunting challenge: Can Americans spare the money? Student debt and auto loans are at record levels, according to Federal Reserve data released Feb. 16, and overall consumer debt is rising at the fastest pace in three years.

“Retirement is an important goal, but many Americans seem to have more pressing financial concerns.”

More 401(k) Bashing, and a Fix

I posted here earlier this month about a provocative Wall Street Journal piece in which the creators and early adopters of the 401(k) retirement-savings vehicle lament the revolution they started.

Their point: They had no intention of watching the concept turn into the sole — and highly inadequate — savings receptacle for employees.

Now, on the heels of that, comes this piece on the October Three site by benefits expert Larry Sher taking that discussion even further, to a whole lot more wrong with the defined-contribution approach and the people who support it — i.e., the people with skin in its game. As Sher writes:

“For instance, the government tried, unsuccessfully so far, to nudge DC plan sponsors to give participants some sense of how much life annuity their account balances might be able to provide. The push-back was immediate and severe from stakeholders in the DC system.

“Some objected on technical grounds —  the annuity estimate could vary widely depending on a number of assumptions including life expectancies, market interest rates and inflation. Others viewed this initiative cynically, believing that it was just a first step toward mandating annuity availability in DC plans, thus leading to the prospect of huge sums of assets shifting from mutual funds and other asset managers to insurers.”

The chief concern of policymakers, employees and even some of the employers that have embraced the 401(k) concept, Sher says, “can be summed up as the total shifting of risks to employees — the risks that they won’t save enough, the risk that they will use the savings for non-retirement purposes, the risk of unfavorable investment results — culminating in inadequate retirement savings and the prospect of outliving such savings.”

To mitigate the problem of employees dipping into their funds for non-retirement purposes, he suggests employers impose greater restrictions on such withdrawals. Of course, he also writes,

“The best way to close this loop would be to provide a core company contribution for everyone — not just for those who are willing or able to save.”

Here’s one of my favorites of Sher’s points:

“And perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of a DC-only retirement system is the fruitless attempt to make employees into competent investors. Even if investment education works to an extent, the idea of employees spending time, probably mostly work time, to figure out how to best navigate the investment markets is an exercise in futility.

“When someone is sick they go to a doctor, not to medical school. Investment professionals have gone to investment school — a crash course in investments does little, or no more, than give employees a false sense that they know what they are doing. It’s like self-diagnosing a medical issue based on information on WebMD.

“The response from the DC world is default investments, such as target date funds. That helps but it still leaves employees vulnerable to temptations to time the market and apply their [inadequate]knowledge to making investment choices. Inevitably, the result is wide disparity in outcomes among plan participants — those with better outcomes being the better, or more likely luckier, investors.”

Sher’s solution to this DC mess is to establish a combination of a type of cash balance plan with a “market-return,”  so interest is credited based on real-market investment returns rather than high-quality bond yields. He calls this the MRCB. Here’s how it would work, according to him:

“The MRCB will provide much better cost control than a typical CB design — because account balances will tend to move in tandem with the plan’s assets, and regardless of changes in market interest rates. The employer can tune the degree of investment risk it is willing to share with employees by providing more downside protections, possibly in exchange for retaining a portion of the upside investment returns.

“By providing some of the employer benefits through an MRCB, the employer is accomplishing all of the goals that the government and some employers are trying to achieve by changing DC plans to be something they are not meant to be. Employer pay credits would automatically be provided to all participants — no dependency on employee contributions. There would be no diversion of the benefits during employment — no loans or withdrawals. Annuities would be provided directly by the plan — thus avoiding the extra cost of retail-insured annuities.

“Yes, that means the employer retaining some long-term longevity risk — but even that is controllable by how the factors are set and managed over time to convert accounts to annuities. The MRCB typically would allow employees to elect lump-sum distributions upon termination or retirement [equal to account balances, with spousal consent], although the ability to elect lump sums can be restricted by plan design to the extent the employer considers that to be desirable.”

And where would such an approach leave the 401(k)-DC plan? In Sher’s words:

“Just where it should be –as a short-term and supplemental long-term savings vehicle … “

not the only show in town.

401(k) Creators Lament Creation

A most interesting regret highlighted in the Wall Street Journal on Monday! (Subscription required.) Seems the handful of champions of the 401(k) retirement-savings vehicle now see the errors of their ways. Or the vehicle’s ways, anyway.

None of those mentioned and quoted in the compelling piece foresaw that the 401(k) would essentially replace pensions. And they see this as quintessential to the demise of the overall retirement picture in this country, and employees’ inabilities to save what they need.

We’ve certainly written our fair share of stories raising major red flags about the state of retirement and workers’ diminishing abilities to retire at all — both here on this HRE Daily site and in our magazine and on its website, HREOnline.com. But this is the first time any of us have heard from the horses’ mouths — the authors and early promoters of the savings vehicle — that they had no intention to launch and herald it as the nation’s sole retirement receptacle, if you will.

Ted Benna, a benefits consultant with the Johnson Cos. and one of the first to propose the vehicle back in 1980 — ergo his nickname, the father of the 401(k) — puts it this way in the piece:

“I helped open the door for Wall Street to make even more money than they were already making. That is one thing I do regret.”

Herbert Whitehouse, a former human resource executive for Johnson & Johnson and one of the earliest proponents of the 401(k) for employees, tells the WSJ that he and others were hoping and assuming back in 1981 that the savings approach would be a kind of supplement to company pensions.

What he and his co-horts didn’t imagine, he says, is that the idea would actually replace pensions as employers looked to cut costs and survive during subsequent downturns. As he puts it in the story:

“We weren’t social visionaries.”

The story is also rife with recommendations from today’s experts on how best to fix the problem and help employees save for retirement according to what they will actually need.

But as Benna tells WSJ,  he doubts “any system currently in existence” will be effectual for the majority of Americans.

A sad treatise, and no sadder than for those millions of Americans still in the workforce who can’t retire.

Is the Tide Turning on Retirement-Readiness?

There appears to be a shift away from what, heretofore, have been dismal findings on Americans’ retirement preparations. You’ve heard them. You’ve read them. And we’ve certainly written about 505511380 -- retirementthem, all the stories positing the harsh reality that many people nearing retirement in today’s workforce can’t see themselves ever affording it.

Enter a recent piece in USA Today suggesting “Americans are finally doing something right when it comes to saving for retirement.” It cites a report from Fidelity, based on a poll of 4,650 people, showing more households are on track to cover essential expenses in retirement today than in 2013.

To conduct its research, Fidelity issued each household a score based on how well they’ll be able to cover basic expenses — food, shelter, healthcare — in retirement. The number of households that scored an 81 or above, meaning they can cover at least the basics, increased to 45 percent, up from 38 percent in 2013, the last year Fidelity conducted the study.

At the same time, the number of households that need to make adjustments to retirement plans in order to have enough money saved decreased to 32 percent from 43 percent in 2013.

As John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investment strategies at Fidelity, says in the story, “[p]eople are becoming more aware of the fact that they need to take control of their own retirement, and they need to save more.”

Bert Doerhoff, CPA and founder of Jefferson City, MO-based Aura Wealth Advisors, cautions in this more recent piece about the study that we shouldn’t overlook the fact that one-third of Americans are still failing to prepare for retirement. So don’t start throwing confetti just yet.

As that piece states:

“Many factors contribute to the increased savings rates for retirement, including an improved economy and Americans becoming more aware of the importance of saving for retirement. Many investors are becoming increasingly educated about the individual nature of saving; it is up to each individual to secure their future.

“Doerhoff notes that getting started early is one of the keys of careful retirement planning: ‘Starting too late in life means you have to do most of the saving rather than letting your money have time to work for you and grow while you work.’ Doerhoff also mentions another reason why it is critical to save money early in a career: [A]n unexpected health problem could move an investor into retirement long before planned.

“Doerhoff adds that even during times of market fluctuations, [investors should be encouraged] to observe the basic tenets of successful retirement planning, such as starting early and investing for the long term. ‘A market downturn, like the one in early January 2016, can spook investors and cause them to move money that really should be left alone to recover from the volatility,’ he says.”

Different Views of Retirement

88366557 -- retirement optionsTwo somewhat divergent reports on retirement vehicles crossed my desk this past week — underscoring the differences in demographics and philosophies that seem to be a part of the overall retirement picture.

One, a release from Towers Watson, shows sharp improvement in the financial health of America’s 100 largest pension plans and even possible pension de-risking ahead should this improved financial picture continue.

This is great news for pension plans, probably the best we’ve seen since the Great Recession. As Dave Suchsland, senior consultant at Towers Watson, says:

The rising stock market, combined with higher interest rates for the first time in five years, pushed funding levels significantly higher. This is good news for employers, as stronger pension fund balance sheets will reduce required cash contributions in the near term while lower pension costs will improve corporate earnings.”

More specifically, the analysis of year-end corporate disclosures found the pension deficits for these largest pension sponsors among U.S. publicly traded organizations fell 57 percent, from $295.5 billion at year-end 2012 to $125.9 billion at year-end 2013, a decrease of $169.6 billion. As the release puts it:

The pension deficit for these companies hasn’t been this small since 2007, when plans had a surplus of $82.3 billion. Meantime, the overall average funded status jumped 13 percentage points, from 78 percent at the end of 2012 to 91 percent at the end of 2013. That is the best funding level since the end of 2007, when the average stood at 103 percent. Additionally, the number of plan sponsors with fully funded plans surged from five at the end of 2012 to 22 at the end of 2013. At the end of 2007, half of these 100 plans were fully funded.”

In the words of Alan Glickstein, senior retirement consultant at Towers Watson, these improved funding levels — combined with recent increases in Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. premiums and a newly released Society of Actuaries mortality study — “will make de-risking actions very attractive in 2014.”

Then there’s this, a white paper from Buck Consultants showing younger workers — specifically millennials — prefer defined-contribution plans — specifically 401(k) and 403(b) plans — given their predisposition for mobility.

Here are some of the things Buck says employers should consider as they design the kinds of retirement plans that will attract and retain millennials (born early 1980s to early 2000s):

  • Attractive web portal that is easy to use and navigate. Millennials pride themselves on being tech-savvy and are used to state-of-the art retail websites, so websites should have links to frequently asked questions or pop-up windows with additional information.
  • Automatic enrollment with an escalating contribution feature. This is an important feature for millennials who tend to act later rather than sooner, and may not take the time for the thoughtful analysis needed for retirement planning.
  • Make it an outcome-based plan. Millennials will appreciate a DC plan that comes “fully loaded” with pre- and post-retirement features, helping individuals better prepare for retirement.
  • ROTH savings option. Millennials will likely be in a higher tax bracket as they approach retirement age. Showing the benefits of ROTH savings should improve overall satisfaction with the plan.

While pension plans are clearly not on the fast track to extinction we anticipated not that long ago, clearly worth noting in Buck’s piece is the importance of recognizing who you’re serving with what retirement vehicle.

Just my humble — hopefully not-too-convoluted — observation.

Diversity and Retirement Savings

A new report from Vanguard shows that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to take loans and hardship withdrawals from their 401(k)s than whites and Asians — but all of those groups borrow roughly the same amount. 

The report — Diversity and Defined Contribution Plans: Loans and hardship Withdrawals — states “there was no meaningful difference in 12-month loan default rates among groups. This higher incidence of loans among blacks and Hispanics occurs after controlling for income, account balance, and other demographic differences.”

The implications of such activity, according to Vanguard, is:

Loans and hardship withdrawals offer participants pre-retirement liquidity from DC plan savings, and are thought to increase plan participation and contribution rates. Our findings suggest that blacks and Hispanics disproportionately make use of these features, although the fraction of account wealth “at risk” among individual black and Hispanic participants is not meaningfully higher.

These findings may also reflect other unobservable characteristics, such as differences in financial literacy, trust in financial institutions, or constrained access to credit outside the plan.

For sponsors concerned about participants borrowing from retirement savings, one plan design strategy is to consider limiting participants to one loan outstanding and/or other modest borrowing restrictions. This strategy appears to reduce borrowing levels across all participants and all racial and ethnic groups.

Personally, while I understand employers are concerned about workers saving enough for retirement — and it certainly is a totally valid concern — I think it oversteps the boundaries for any employer to limit the availability of an individual’s own money when he or she may be in dire straits pre-retirement.

And if the worker is raiding their retirement savings to foolishly waste his or money now, that’s the individual’s choice. It’s a choice with consequences — and employers should attempt to increase financial literacy efforts — but I don’t believe most workers will be willing to cede control over their own funds.

And I wonder what the impact would be on participation in defined-contribution plans should that occur. That’s another choice with potential consequences.

The study looked at 2010 data for nearly 250,000 participants in seven large defined-contribution plans.

 

 

 

More Confirmation of a Benefits-Bottom Line Connection

Came across this recent news piece from Prudential (courtesy of WorldatWork) that confirms what we’ve been hearing: Senior managers, boards of directors and finance/treasury professionals are all getting much more involved in their companies’ benefits decisions.

The Prudential study finds 40 percent of plan sponsors say the employee-benefit decision-making process in their company has changed over the past five years, demonstrating increased attention to the bottom-line impact of benefits.

The study, which surveyed plan sponsors, plan participants and broker/consultants, finds the influence of senior management has increased the most (45 percent say they’re more involved). More than 20 percent of plan sponsors also say boards, finance/treasury and employees themselves are all playing more important roles in deciding what benefits are offered and how much money should be allocated to them.

The most dramatic perception of change came from benefits brokers and consultants, with more than two-thirds of those surveyed (69 percent) seeing changes in the areas and seniority of people involved in the benefits decision-making process.

This certainly underscores Dave Shadovitz’s Leader Board post yesterday from this week’s IBI/NBCH Health and Productivity Conference at the Fairmont San Francisco. Findings from a study presented there — looking at chief financial officers’ perspectives on the role health plays on financial performance — shows most CFOs now consider health an organizational imperative.

Inerestingly, both studies also indicate this interest by top leaders in their organizational health goes beyond finances alone. In the study of CFOs, their newfound interest isn’t confined to healthcare costs, but extends into the cultural and overall performance impact — including sick days, absences, turnover and opportunities lost.

Likewise, the Prudential study looks at the growing importance this new focus has on employees’ overall satisfaction with their benefits; which, of course, enhances overall performance.

“Our research suggests that greater involvement throughout the employer organization may enhance the decision-making process and lead to more relevant benefits offerings,” says John DeLorenzo, senior vice president of sales and account management for Prudential Group Insurance. “Companies that are more focused on benefits tend to pay more attention to communications, which in turn leads to higher levels of employee satisfaction.”

 

Workers’ Finances Looking Up … Sort of

Workers’ finances seem to be improving, albeit not by much. The latest survey by CareerBuilder of more than 5,200 American workers shows the number of workers living paycheck to paycheck has finally hit pre-recession levels, according to this release on the company’s website.

Consider this incremental climb: 42 percent of workers say they usually or always live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, over 43 percent in 2010 and in line with levels seen back in 2007; one in five (20 percent) say they have missed payments on bills in the last year, up from 22 percent this time last year; 14 percent of workers making six figures say they live paycheck to paycheck, down from 17 percent last year; and less than one in 10 (6 percent) say they can’t make ends meet every month, an improvement from 8 percent last year.

“A better employment picture in the United States has brought more steady incomes into households and workers are paying much closer attention to spending decisions and savings, says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “The majority of U.S. workers — 72 percent — reported they are more fiscally responsible since the recession and have made a variety of changes to their living and spending limits.”

Still, you have to wonder how much better is “better” when improvements are so fractional and when more than one in five (21 percent) say they have reduced their 401(k) contributions and/or personal savings in the last year just to get by. Or when nearly one-fourth (24 percent) of female workers and 17 percent of male workers say they’ve have missed a bill payment over the last year.

Don’t start letting up just yet on your efforts to make sure all workers know where they can get help and what benefits are offered, including voluntary financial-aid services. And keep keen eyes on the red flags, like workers in hushed phone conversations with creditors or news accounts suggesting we’re headed for the big Double D.

By no means are we out of the woods yet.

 

Maybe Auto-Enrollment Isn’t So Perilous, After All

EBRI released a clarification, essentially disputing the Wall Street Journal’s angle on its story about auto-enrollment and retirement savings, which Andy wrote about earlier today.

In its statement, Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director, said the WSJ “reported only the most pessimistic set of assumptions from EBRI research and did not cite any of the other 15 combinations of assumptions in the study.”

“The WSJ also chose not to report any of the positive impacts of auto-enrollment 401(k)-type plans in the simulations that were done by EBRI,” according to the statement.

“The headline of the article reports that auto-enrollment is reducing savings for some people. What it failed to mention is that it’s increasing savings for many more — especially the lowest-income 401(k) participants,” VanDerhei said.

The entire text of EBRI’s statement, “What Do You Call a Glass That Is 60−85% Full?” is on EBRI’s blog site.

 

Switching from a Defined-Benefit to Defined-Contribution Plan

Siemens Corp. swapped a future $5 billion pension liability for a $259 million one-time P&L impact when it froze its pension plan and offered employees increased company-matching contributions as well as a new service-based company contribution to the 401(k) plan — the combination of which equaled the company’s contribution under the pension plan.

It didn’t reduce the company’s current-day costs — in fact, it cost more money, said Steven Seltz, vice president of compensation and benefits for US/Americas for Siemens Corp. — but it did eliminate potential liability down the road.

And it was a long road to see the plan from conception to fruition — take two years to conceive and get approvals and another year to communicate and implement the change, Seltz said.

“There was no way we could overcommunicate” the changes, he said, noting that employees received at least six written brochures, notifications or requests for action during the transition. Siemens also offered in-person and web financial-planning seminars and offered financial counseling.

They “anticipated the worst” from workers and were surprised that there was “virtually no criticism whatsoever” from employees, both union and non-union — crediting not just the equitable plan but also the communications effort that was part of the transition.

Key takeaways from the process, said Seltz and Nicholas Vollrath, manager of retirement plans and M&A, were:

* Don’t underestimate the time required to craft an effective design or to get necessary stakeholder approval.

* Don’t underestimate the time needed to define the requirements and adjust recordkeeping systems.

* Consider timing the freeze with other benefit changes or other initiatives.

* Involve a broad team to address various topics (including legal, accounting, finance, etc.)

* Make sure participants know the difference between a pension freeze and a pension termination.

* Consider whether changes impact union workers, if any.

* In communications, make sure to include the rationale for the change and be straightforward about it. Also balance the need to provide advance notice of the change with sufficient details of the change.

* Don’t avoid addressing uncomfortable topics (such as benefit reductions).

* Include non-experts on the communications team so they can help frame the message to workers who are not as knowledgeable about financial issues.