Thursday, July 23, 2015

Derisking Your Defined Benefit Plan or Not

Every couple of years, there is a new trend in the remaining corporate defined benefit plans. Lately, it has been derisking in one sense or another. In fact, the Mercer/CFO Research 2015 Pension Risk Survey says that plan sponsors have been spurred by a perfect storm of events.

I'm not going to argue with there having been a perfect storm of events, but I think that everyone else's idea of what constituted the perfect storm is a bit specific and technical. They focus on falling interest rates, a volatile equity market, and a newly (last year) released mortality table. Instead, I would tend to focus on constantly changing pension rules both in the law and in financial accounting requirements that give plan sponsors a constantly moving target.

But, all that said, the study tells us that 80%-90% of plan sponsors are pleased with the risk management actions they have taken to date. What makes them pleased? Is it that they have cleaned up their balance sheets? Is it that their funding requirements have decreased? Has the derisking decision helped them to better focus on or run their businesses?

Isn't that last one what should be at the crux of the matter? The fact is that 2014 was not a good year to offer lump sum payments to individuals with vested benefits if what you were looking to do was to pay out those lump sums when the amounts would be low. Underlying discount rates were very low meaning that lump sums would be larger. Similarly, the cost of annuities was high, but many chose to purchase annuities for substantial parts of their terminated and retired participants.

What all of these plan sponsors did was to decrease future volatility in pension costs (however they choose to think of cost). For many, that truly was a good thing. But, at what cost?

For some, that cost was significant. For others, it was not.

Defined benefit pension plans used to be viewed as having a degree of permanence. That is, when funding them, calculations assumed that the plan would go on forever. While we know that forever is a very long time, we also know that plans with benefits that are based on participants' pay in the last years of their careers are wise to consider the amounts that they are likely to have to pay out in the future as compared to the amounts that would be paid out if everybody quit today. That is not reality. There used to be what are known as actuarial cost methods that allowed sponsors to do that and frankly, they resulted in larger current required contributions. But, those larger current contributions tended to be very steady as a percentage of payroll and that was something that CFOs were comfortable with.

But, the wise minds in Congress with the advice of some key government workers determined that this was not the right way to fund pension plans. Actually, their real reasons for doing so were to reduce tax deductions for pension plan funding thereby helping to balance the budget.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? It is stupid if what you are doing is making sponsorship of a pension plan untenable for most corporations.

Risk truly became a 4-letter word for pension plan sponsors. As time went by, it became important for sponsors to find new ways to mitigate that risk.

Unfortunately, many of them have been so eager to do that over the last few years that they likely overspent in their derisking efforts. For others, it was clearly the prudent thing to do.

My advice is this if you are considering your first or some further tranche of derisking. Consider the costs. Consider how much risk you mitigate. Make the prudent business decision. What would your shareholders want you to do?

Then decide whether you should derisk.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Get Your 401(k) Design Right

I happened to read a few things today about 401(k) matching contributions. One in particular talked about stretching the match. Apparently that means that if you are willing to spend 3% of pay on your workforce, consider making your match 50 cents on the dollar on the first 6% of pay deferred instead of dollar for dollar on the first 3% of pay deferred. This will encourage employees to save more.

That might be a really good idea ... for some companies. For other companies, it might not be.

First and foremost a 401(k) plan is, and should be, an employee benefit plan. Taken quite literally, that means that it should be for the benefit of employees.

Plan sponsors may look at the plan and say that they get a tax deduction. That's true, but they also get a tax deduction for reasonable compensation. And, there is probably less of a compliance burden with paying cash than there is with maintaining a 401(k) plan.

Where does the typical 401(k) design come from? Usually, it's the brainchild, or lack thereof, of someone internal to the plan sponsor or of an external adviser. Either way, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Most plan sponsors have plenty of smart and thoughtful employees and many external advisers are really good.

On the other hand, when it comes to designing a 401(k) plan, some people just don't ask the right questions. And, just as important, they don't answer the right questions. We often see this in marketing pieces or other similar propaganda that talk about designing the best plan. We might see that the best plan has all of these features:

  • Safe harbor design (to avoid ADP and ACP testing)
  • Auto-enrollment (to get higher participation rates)
  • Auto-escalation (so that people will save more)
  • Target date fund as a QDIA (because virtually every recordkeeper wants you in their target date funds)
All of these could be great features for your 401(k) plan, but on the other hand, they might not be. Let's consider why.

Safe harbor designs are really nice. They eliminate the need for ADP and ACP nondiscrimination testing. They also provide for immediate vesting of matching contributions. Suppose your goal, as plan sponsor, is to use your 401(k) plan at least in part as a retention device. Suppose further that every year, you pass your ADP and ACP tests with ease. Then, one would wonder why you are adopting a plan with immediate vesting whose sole benefit is the elimination of ADP and ACP testing. Perhaps someone told you that safe harbor plans were the best and you listened. Perhaps nobody bothered to find out why you were sponsoring a 401(k) plan and what you expected to gain from having that plan.

Auto-enrollment is another feature that is considered a best practice. (Oh I despise that term and would prefer to call it something other than best, but best practice is a consulting buzzword.) Most surveys that I have read indicate that where auto-enrollment is in place, the most common auto-enrollment level is 3% of pay. Your adviser who just knows that he has to tell you about auto-enrollment tells you that it is a best practice. Perhaps he didn't consider that prior to auto-enrollment, you had 93% participation and that 87% of those 93% already deferred more than 3% of pay. Since he heard it was the thing to do, he advised you to re-enroll everyone and now, you are up to 95% participation, but only 45% of them defer more than 3% of pay. Perhaps nobody bothered to ask you how your current plan was doing.

In the words of a generation younger than me, this is an epic fail.

I could go on and on about other highly recommended features, but the moral of the story is largely the same. Your plan design should fit with your company, your employees, your recruiting and retention needs, and your budget. That your largest competitor has a safe harbor plan doesn't make it right for you. It may not even be right for them. That the company whose headquarters are across the hall from yours has auto-escalation doesn't make it right for you. It may not be right for them either.

If you are designing or redesigning a plan for your company, ask some basic questions before you go there.
  • What do you want to accomplish with the plan?
    • Enough wealth accumulation so that your employees can retire based solely on that plan?
    • Enough so that the plan is competitive?
    • Something else?
  • Will eliminating nondiscrimination testing be important?
  • What is your budget? Will it change from year to year? As a dollar amount? As a percentage of payroll?
  • What do you want your employees to think of the plan?
    • It's a primary retirement vehicle.
    • My employer has a 401(k) plan; that's all I need to know.
    • My employer has a great 401(k) plan.
    • My 401(k) is a great place to save, but I need additional savings as well.
  • Will any complexity that I add to the plan help my company to meet its goals or my employees to meet their goals? If not, why did I add that complexity?
These are the types of questions that your adviser asked you when you designed or last redesigned your plan, aren't they?

They're not?

Perhaps it's time to rethink your plan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

You Run a Business -- Why Do You Choose to be in the Benefit Plan Business, Too?

You've been successful in the business world. You've made your way up through the ranks. Suddenly, because your title starts with the word "chief", you find yourself on the company's Benefits (or some other similar name) Committee.

You're an accidental fiduciary. You have no benefits training. You've never studied ERISA. In some cases, you've never heard of ERISA. What are you doing in this role and why?

Perhaps there is not a single person on your committee with a strong grounding in ERISA issues. But, you know that in order to compete for employees, you have to provide your employees with some benefits. It's likely that some or all of those benefit plans are covered by ERISA. And, ERISA coverage brings with it a myriad of rules and requirements.

Oh no, now I have you panicking. What should you do?

Let's consider one of the most common benefit plan offerings in 2015, the 401(k) plan. What is your committee responsible for? Do you know?

While one could argue that the list might be slightly different, here is a pretty decent summary:

  • Plan design
  • Selection of plan investment options
  • Compliance (with laws, regulations, and other requirements)
  • Plan administration
  • Communication to participants and education of those participants
That's a lot to swallow. Look around your committee. Presumably, since the committee has responsibility for all of those elements, at the very least, you can find people in the room who, between them, have expertise in all of those areas,

You can't? 

Do you really want the responsibility that comes with being a member of that committee when you have just realized that the expertise to handle the committee's roles doesn't reside on the committee?

You have choices, or at least you might. You could resign from the committee. Frankly, that usually doesn't go over well.

You could engage an expert. Suppose you could find an individual who could function in the role that a committee Chair would play in a perfect world. We're likely talking about someone who doesn't work for your company. This person will bring you peace of mind and essentially serve as the quarterback for the committee. He or she won't have a vote, but will guide you through the processes so that 

  • Your plan is well-designed for your population and budgets, 
  • It has investment options for plan participants that are prudently chosen and monitored according to an Investment Policy Statement (sometimes called an IPS), 
  • It gets and stays in compliance with applicable rules, 
  • Is administered properly and the firm that administers it is well-monitored, and
  • Is communicated to participants in a clear fashion that properly educates those participants as to the benefits of plan participation.
That sounds great, doesn't it?

If you don't currently have such a quarterback for your committee, perhaps you should. I can help you find one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

DOL Weighs in Again on Top-Hat Plans

ERISA contemplated so-called top-hat plans. In fact, it spelled out exactly what was contemplated in providing this opportunity for nonqualified deferred compensation so clearly that the legislative intent could never be misconstrued.

No, it didn't.

As is often the case when bills go from staffer to staffer and then to the floors of the houses of Congress, the bills tend to emerge with run-on sentences often punctuated by a myriad of commas making Congressional intent something upon which otherwise knowing people cannot agree.

Perhaps, some day they will learn.

No they won't, not in my lifetime anyway.

In any event, in a case (Bond v Marriott) concerning top-hat plans in front of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Department of Labor (DOL) wrote an amicus brief providing its opinion on the statutory wording around top-hat plans.

So, I know that those not familiar are just itching to find out. What does the statute say?

Congress gave us an exception to certain provisions of ERISA for a "[p]lan which is unfunded and is maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees."

What is the primary purpose of a top-hat plan? Is it to be primarily for providing deferred compensation to a select group that is composed of management or highly compensated employees? Or, is it to be for providing deferred compensation to select group that is composed primarily of management or highly compensated employees?

It's one of those great questions that has confounded us through the ages. No, actually, it's a question that has confounded a select group of us since the passage of ERISA in 1974. To add to that confounding just a bit, everyone who practices in this field knows what a highly compensated employee is. The term is well defined in Code Section 414(q). But wait, Section 414(q), as written, has only been around since 1986 (added by Tax Reform) meaning that perhaps for these purposes, we don't even know what a highly compensated employee really is.

In its amicus brief, the DOL gives us its opinion, one that it claims to have held at least since 1985 and perhaps longer. The DOL tells the court that the primary purpose should be the provision of deferred compensation [for this select group] and that other purposes might include retaining top talent, allowing highly compensated individuals to defer taxation to years with lower marginal tax rates, or avoiding certain limitations applicable to qualified plans in the Internal Revenue Code. DOL further tells us that it does not mean that the select group may be composed primarily [emphasis added] of management or highly compensated employees or that the plan may have some other secondary purpose which is not consistent with its primary purpose.

The brief goes on to give us the judicial history around the provision and of course informs us which case law got it right and which did not. But, the DOL is clear in its claims and steadfastly denies that exceptions should be allowed.

I may be missing something here regarding the DOL. I think that the DOL has regulatory purview over ERISA. While the DOL has ceded that purview most of the time to the IRS where the Internal Revenue Code has a conforming section, that does not seem to be the case here. Could the DOL not have written regulations in 1975 or 1985 or 1995, or 2005 clarifying who, in fact, is eligible for participation in a top-hat plan? Or did they think it so clear that it was not worth their effort, despite being befuddled by decision after decision handed down by federal courts?

I know that when I got into this business, coincidentally in 1985, the more experienced people who taught me instructed that top-hat plans were to be for a group that was primarily management or highly compensated. In fact, it is difficult, in my experience to find practitioners who learned otherwise.

Perhaps that's wishful thinking. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's wishful thinking on the DOL's part. Perhaps the case will go to the US Supreme Court eventually so that nine wise jurists can put their own spin on it and settle this argument once and for all.

Until then, ...


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Successful RFPs and Circuit Breakers

This morning, I read an article that appears in the June issue of Plan Sponsor magazine. What attracted me to it was a blurb in the email blast "NewsDash" that magically appears in my inbox every weekday morning (actually, I highly recommend NewsDash for benefits professionals).

What I found strange about the article is that it is largely a compendium of quotes from a few defined contribution recordkeeper search consultants. But, it never quite brings them together to inform the plan sponsor on what makes for a successful RFP. Instead, it is somewhat akin to listening to a roundtable discussion, but only hearing about 1 comment in 20 and that without any context.

Since this article left me somewhat cold (and that on a day when our heat index is supposed to exceed 105), I decided to think about this myself. I've been involved in RFPs (not necessarily defined contribution or even benefits) in what I view are all of the possible contexts:

  • A bidder
  • A search consultant
  • A proposal evaluator
  • An end user (the client)
Ultimately, in my opinion, the client is looking for the best value, however they define value. Some place a very high value on the relationship with the provider. Some consider it most important for participants to have a great user experience. Others focus on employee education. Still others think that price is the winner.

Each of those may be a reasonable position to take. But, it is also important to understand that there are more than just the issues of value. 

A typical proposal scoring process assigns a weighting or point value to a number of categories. Finally, the bidder with the highest weighted score is usually the winner. 

I'd like to make some changes to this. In doing so, I am going to steal some terminology from other areas.

We all know that having a relationship manager who doesn't care about you makes the relationship untenable. It's a turn-off and it should kill the deal with that particular provider. Similarly, if you are going to be the point person (on the client side) for the relationship and you just really dislike the relationship manager, that relationship won't work either.

I refer to this and other similar deal killers as circuit breakers. That is, if the breaker is turned off, the circuit doesn't connect and the deal cannot happen.

The client should establish circuit breakers. You might also think of them as minimum standards. Here are a few to consider (with a DC recordkeeping bias):
  • Unacceptable relationship manager (if you really like the potential vendor other than that, you might be able to force a relationship manager of your choosing)
  • Fees above a certain pre-set level
  • Poor participant experience
  • No projection tool on the vendor website
  • Requirement to use a particular percentage of proprietary funds
I think this is fairly clear, but suppose it's not. Consider that Vendor A has the best scoring proposal. That is, Vendor A, using the pre-determined scoring mechanism gets a score of 185 out of a possible 200. Neither of the other two potential vendors scores above 160. But, you have heard from a friend at another company that the assigned relationship manager does not usually return phone calls in the same week that they are received. You view this as unacceptable. If Vendor A will not give you a different relationship manager, then they have triggered a circuit breaker and they are out of the running.

Triggering a circuit breaker outweighs a great score. Think about it. It makes sense.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is IRS Stepping Up Nonqualified Audits?

Two weeks ago, the IRS released nonqualified deferred compensation audit techniques guide. While no one can be certain, this would seem to signal that the Service is showing more interest in auditing these plans, available almost exclusively to the highest paid of employees.

For years, many have thought that nonqualified (NQDC or NQ) plans to be a significant area of tax abuse and a potential source of tax revenue for the federal government. And, whether this is simply a much needed update or the beginning of a push, the language in the guide would seem to suggest where the IRS thinks there are problems.

Let's look at the paragraph headers in the guide as a means of determining where the focus is likely to be:

  1. Examining Constructive Receipt and Economic Benefit Issues
  2. Audit Techniques
  3. Examining the Employer's Deduction
  4. Employment Taxes
  5. Important Note [related to 401(k) plans]
  6. The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 [the law that brought us Code Section 409A]
Constructive Receipt and Economic Benefit Issues

Here, the guide instructs auditors to look for assets set aside free from creditors for the benefit of employees. It also instructs these auditors to look to see how executives can use the benefits in these nonqualified plans. For example, if a SERP might be pledged as collateral, then the employee has enough control to have constructively received the benefit and is subject to current taxation, or was when the benefit was first constructively received. 

For employers with any knowledge of NQDC plans or those who use counsel who work at all in this area, getting this right falls under the heading of basic blocking and tackling. So, while the IRS might be able to find some defects here, it would not seem to be a source of significant revenue.

Audit Techniques

In this section, frankly, I think that the IRS is grasping at straws. It asks auditors to interview personnel most knowledgeable about the plans. Further, the auditors are encouraged to review Forms 10-K and to learn whether the company uses a consulting firm to assist with its NQDC plans. 

There seems to be little glue holding this section together. Instead, what I am seeing is that their may be a needle in a haystack and a fortunate auditor might find that needle. Other sections of the guide may prove more fruitful.

Examining the Employer's Deduction

Generally, the amount and timing of the employer's deduction must match the amount and timing of the executive's inclusion in income. Looking from the outside in, this would seem to be simple. But, corporate tax returns, especially for large corporations are quite complex. Similarly, a corporate executive is fairly likely to have a complex tax return. It's not unlikely that treatment of income from NQDC plans is nowhere near the top of the priority list for either the corporate tax department or for the executive's accountant. 

In fact, in my experience, some corporate tax departments do not have significant familiarity with this type of plan (some have exceptional knowledge). Similarly, and perhaps more glaring, many personal accountants, again in my experience, just don't know much about nonqualified plans. 

The Internal Revenue Code is a complex instrument. The instructions to government forms, especially if you include the various Publications that they reference, are quite confusing. If an accountant deals with particularly few NQDC plans, it would not be shocking to find that accountant confused by their tax treatment. Certainly, I would not expect them to confirm that the amount and timing of inclusion in income coincides with the corporate tax deduction.

Employment Taxes

This is the section that deals with FICA and FUTA taxes. Until the cap was removed from Medicare wages, this section would have been ignored. The reason is that although nonqualified deferred compensation is subject to these taxes when it is both vested and reasonably ascertainable (a technical term meaning that a knowledgeable person can figure out about how much it is worth), virtually all NQDC participants earned far more than the Social Security Wage Base each year. But, when the cap at the Wage Base was removed for Medicare taxes, new NQDC was necessarily subject to that tax. 

The regulations on this topic are, in a word, confusing. Specifically for what are known as non-account balance plans (generally defined benefit SERPs), the guidance on how to perform calculations was likely written by someone who did not know what they were prescribing and the guidance on the actuarial assumptions to be used in those calculations is virtually nonexistent.

However, in my experience with this topic, the IRS does have strong opinion on what the Treasury Regulations mean and intend. That said, when the regulations under Section 3121(v) were issued, I co-authored a research memo on the calculation of the amount of FICA wages from NQDC plans (the focus was on non-account balance plans). To say that the authors went back and forth many times before agreeing on the intended methodology is an understatement. To think that similar authors at other actuarial consulting firms would reach exactly the same conclusion is no plausible. Add to that the various accounting and tax firms who might have their own opinions and you would certainly have a lack of consistency. About 15 years ago, however, one IRS examiner that I spoke with off the record said that there was just one consistent method available under the regulations.

Said differently, while I don't know how much revenue is potentially available, the calculation of employment taxes with respect to NQDC plans, and specifically non-account balance plans would not all meet with the approval of that particular examiner.

Important Note [related to 401(k) plans]

The coordination of qualified 401(k) plans and NQDC plans that provide for deferrals in excess of those allowed in the qualified plan seems like it should be simple. It's not. In particular, it's not if the two plans (qualified and nonqualified) are administered by different providers (or if one is administered externally and the other internally). Generally, these plans allow participants to defer amounts where IRS limits would otherwise preclude such deferrals. In the simple situations where the 401(k) plan passes nondiscrimination testing, this is pretty easy. But, when the plan is forced to refund deferrals due to test failure or when deferrals are restricted in hopes of making the testing work, things can go horribly wrong. Do the two separate administrators communicate with each other? It's doubtful.

There is likely not a lot of revenue for the government to find here, but there are probably a large number of very small problems.

The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 [the law that added Section 409A to the Internal Revenue Code]

I've written about 409A here many times. If you are interested, go the little search box at the top of the page and type 409A. I'd be surprised if you get fewer than 25 hits in this blog, but I've not counted. 

As is often said about relationships, it's complicated. 

The regulations are long and were written in a fashion similar to the regulations under Section 3121(v). Frankly, I don't think the people who worked on the project did a bad job writing the regulations. They're not perfect, but they wouldn't have been perfect if you or I had written them either, so we must be careful with our criticism.

But, certain parts of the regulations that have lots of calculational elements where the calculations almost necessarily must be performed by actuaries were written by attorneys. I know some of those attorneys. They're smart people. And, they spent lots of time understanding the statute and developing regulations to enforce that statute. They could have done far worse.

The people that I know, however, who worked on the project are not actuaries. While they have some familiarity with actuarial calculations, they don't actually do them and I think they would tell you if you asked candidly that they have only a minimal understanding of them. Yet, for certain types of plans (mostly non-account balance plans), there is much in the way of actuarial calculations that determines potential tax liabilities. 

Frankly, we don't know what was intended. We tend to reference the FICA regulations, but even there as I noted above, the regulations are not prescriptive.

Section 409A is a mess. I don't think anyone intends to violate it, but there are lots of people who don't get it right. Finding the violations is difficult, but if examiners do find violations, with those violations will come some fairly meaningful tax revenue.

*           *          *          *          *           *             *              *             *            *            *           *          *

So, that's my take on where the IRS is headed and what value it has to them. Time will tell if I got it right for a change or not.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Problems with Disclosures Mandated by the Government

In Congress, we are blessed with two committees among whose designated functions are to deal with employee benefits issues. In the Senate, it's the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, also known as the HELP Committee, a misnomer if I have ever heard one. In the House of Representatives, it's the Committee on Education and the Workforce (Ways and Means takes over when taxes enter the picture).

For as long as I can remember, these committees have had a pretty significant focus on helping employees to better understand their benefits and benefit programs. On the retirement plan side, much of this is done through mandated disclosures. In fact, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) was crammed full of disclosure requirements.

You know, it's not easy to prepare informative disclosures. The best of them would give an employee or participant all of the information that they truly value in a nice, concise, easy-to-read format without any information that is of no value to them. Every time that a disclosure includes information that a reader doesn't care about, he or she is much more likely to put that disclosure down or file it in the proverbial circular file. In fact, while I can't cite any, I feel sure that some scholarly research has been done on the topic.

There are some serious difficulties with this whole concept. What's important to you may be worthless to me and conversely. Our levels of understanding our different. Our situations are different. Our needs are different. So, mandating what goes into disclosures is by no means an easy task.

To the credit of the various government agencies with purview over such disclosures (usually the Department of Labor (DOL)), they have endeavored for the most part to provide model, fill-in-the-blank disclosures for employers and plan sponsors to use. To their discredit, those model disclosures have plenty of language in them that is one or more of confusing (to the average reader), meaningless (to the average user), and of very little value to anyone unless they can both understand it and find that it applies to them.

On the topic of employee benefits, generally, I don't think it would be unfair to say that I have more understanding and interest than the typical reader. But, there is plenty in those disclosures that is of no value to me. I'll be honest; I rarely read them anymore. When I do, I usually look for one or two specifics that I know are in there and then put the disclosure down.

The DOL has done a much better job than the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), however. Have you ever read a stock prospectus? Did you stay awake? Did you understand it? It may be 50 pages of fine print. How can anyone be expected to digest and comprehend what is in there? Isn't it really just a CYA for the issuer?

By the same token, many plan sponsors use their required disclosures as CYAs for themselves. While they could often use the disclosures as a means to communicate information useful to their participants by adding in valuable information, that's an expensive and time-consuming process with attendant risks in our ever more litigious society.

So, here is a cry to reduce the number of required disclosures. Suggest instead that those who are currently required to issue the disclosures take the time and money saved and actually communicate to their intended audiences. Survey after survey shows that employees would much rather hear what they have than attempt to read boilerplate materials. Employees who appreciate what they have are happier. Happier employees are more productive. Productive employees make their companies more money.

Listen up government; I'm talking to you.