Thursday, February 4, 2016

Benefits and Compensation After the Elections

Suppose there was a presidential election this year. Just suppose. And, further, suppose that election had a winner. Just suppose.

It is extremely likely that the winner will be someone nominated by either the Democratic Party or by the Republican Party. And, it is not at all unlikely that the party of the winner will keep or gain control of both houses of Congress.

From the standpoint of tax policy, and by extension, benefits and compensation policy, what will this mean for you, the employer or employee? Should you care?

I don't think we're far enough along to do a candidate-by-candidate analysis, but I do think that we are aided by the fact (at least I think it's a fact) that the remaining viable candidates fall generally into a few small buckets from these standpoints (yes, Carly Fiorina will give us a 3-page tax code (no idea what it might say) and Gary Johnson who has declared for the nomination of the Libertarian Party is a Fair Tax proponent). In fact, I think there are at most four such buckets remaining.

Let's identify them from left to right (that is how we usually read):

  • The Democratic Socialist (DS) Bucket whose main component, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT, but caucuses with the Democrats and running for the Democratic nomination) has recently told us, "Yes, your taxes will go up."
  • The Mainstream Democratic (MD) Bucket whose main component, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will, according to her website today (it did say something somewhat different on this topic at the end of last year), lower taxes for the middle class (and by extension the lower class) and raise taxes on the wealthy including big business.
  • The Traditional Republican (TD) Bucket that includes the likes of [alphabetically] Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey; John Kasich, governor of Ohio; Marco Rubio, junior Senator from Florida; and Donald Trump (yes he is mainstream for this purpose), businessman from New York, which generally would lower tax brackets and flatten, or make less progressive, the tax code.
  • The Conservative Republican (CR) Bucket that includes Ben Carson, retired physician from Maryland, and Ted Cruz, junior Senator from Texas which would replace the current income tax structure with a flat tax.
I'm going to make things a little tougher on you here Rather than reiterating these buckets, I'll comment on how different philosophies might affect things.

We all know the health care debate. Sanders wants to move to a single-payer system. Clinton likes the status quo under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Republicans with the exception of Kasich want to repeal the ACA and start over again. Kasich, on the other hand, thinks that this is an impractical solution and would keep some portions of the ACA and change others.

On the pension side, Republicans as a group are in favor of self-reliance. This would tend toward a world of nothing but 401(k) (and similar) plans. Their philosophy is that prudent Americans should be able to save enough for their own retirements, especially with the benefits of an employer match. Of course, many of them will be dismayed WHEN they read my blog to know that I disagree with that.

Clinton is much tougher to figure out on this. But, we can look to her stated tax policy and work our way back. When taxes on high earners and large corporations increase, so does the value of tax deductions. So, under a Clinton presidency, we might expect to see more high earners and profitable corporations accelerate contributions to benefit plans in order to accelerate tax deductions. Could this result in somewhat of a rebirth of defined benefit (DB) plans? Theoretically, it should, but in practice, I would expect that even if that rebirth occurs, it will be very limited.

Sanders would prefer to see a single government-run retirement system for everyone; that is, we would have expanded Social Security and Medicare with smaller benefits and less availability for those who have been the highest earners. In this scenario, although I personally don't see Congress going along with it, the prevalence of employer-provided retirement plans could decline significantly. On the other hand, it would not be antithetical to his philosophy to see a DB requirement in much the same way that the ACA leaves employers with a health care requirement. Could we see pay or play here?

With regard to executive compensation (nobody is saying much about broad-based compensation other than to say that under their Presidency, there will be more and better jobs and pay will increase rapidly), we have another large rift between the candidates. Here, one of the biggest elements is the view of what has probably been President Obama's second signature bill, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank). (Why couldn't they have given the law a short name like Fred so that I don't have to test my typing skills every time I cite the law?) 

Sanders is a huge fan of Dodd-Frank. That said, he doesn't think the law has gone far enough. He has said many times that the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall should have been part of Dodd-Frank. Sanders, much like Senator Warren (D-MA) as well as former Senator Dodd (D-CT) and former Representative Frank (D-MA) believes that one of the most important parts of Dodd-Frank is Title IX, the section on executive compensation. Sanders is a huge proponent of tieing levels of executive compensation to that of the rank and file and of their companies as well as generally limiting executive compensation. Under a Sanders presidency, do not be surprised to see a presidential proposal that would limit CEO compensation for example to a pay ratio as defined in Section 953(b) of Dodd-Frank to something like 10.

Clinton is also a Dodd-Frank fan. But, there is a big difference here. Secretary Clinton has long had both ties and obligations to the large Wall Street banks. She periodically invokes Glass-Steagall, but knows that its repeal allowed Goldman Sachs, for example, to grow into the financial giant that it has. At the same time, though, Clinton, who I believe is still far more likely than not to be the Democratic nominee, knows that the Democratic platform will be influenced by the likes of Sanders and Warren. Expect that the compromise will be in the form of promises to scale back executive compensation. As broad-based plans in which executives participate tend to be exempt from similar scrutiny, those higher-paid individuals may look to solutions that have been proposed over time in this blog.

On executive compensation, Republicans are fairly united. All, that I am aware, would push for the repeal of Dodd-Frank and for no more (or fewer) restrictions on executive compensation. As free market proponents, they would tell us to let the fair markets determine how top executives should be paid. All that said, proposals like that will be anathema to most (perhaps all) Democrats and unless the GOP were to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, such proposals are not likely to become law. However, as Republicans without exception are looking to lower the top marginal tax rates as well as corporate tax rates, look for more emphasis on current compensation and perhaps less emphasis on deferral opportunities.

As the 2016 election process matures and there are fewer candidates, we'll be able to dig deeper. In the meantime, you have my opinion. What's yours?

And, if you think my opinions have any merit, let me help you address what will be coming with the 2016 elections.

Monday, February 1, 2016

IRS Proposes Updated Pension Nondiscrimination Rules

wrote recently about some of the causes of the relative demise of defined benefit (DB) plans. Last Thursday, although it was dated Friday, the IRS released a new proposed nondiscrimination regulation. We had been told that this was coming down the pike. It was going to be all good. It was going to provide relief so that a DB plan that was compliant and was frozen to new entrants (sometimes called soft frozen) would not suddenly become non-compliant due to natural turnover and promotions of active employees in the plan. That the IRS addressed this nearly 23 years after the regulations were finalized was long overdue, but good news.

We didn't know that there were going to be other changes. One of the hallmarks of the suite of nondiscrimination regulations (nondiscrimination, coverage, minimum participation) is that they provided objective tests to determine whether a plan discriminated unfairly in favor of highly compensated employees (HCEs). In fact, the final regulations tell us that satisfying the various tests included in them are the sole method of demonstrating nondiscrimination. While this caused a significant burden for some companies and their plans, it gave plan sponsors comfort in knowing that passing those tests meant that there plans were, in fact, nondiscriminatory. Many design and redesign studies were done because of this knowledge.

Then came last week,

I now digress into some technical mumbo jumbo the likes of which this blog has not seen for a while. If you don't like or care about the technical stuff, please stick with me; I'll return to the more common language soon.

The rules for nondiscrimination in amount under 1.401(a)(4)-2 and -3 contain something known as the general test. Under the general test, there exists a concept known as the rate group. For each HCE, there is a rate group consisting of that HCE and all other nonexcludable employees whose normal and most valuable accrual rates are at least as big as those of that particular HCE (people with similar accrual rates can be grouped to be considered to have the same accrual rate as each other). Once we establish the rate groups, we must demonstrate that each rate group satisfy the head counting portion of the same coverage test under Code Section 410(b) that the plan uses to satisfy coverage. So, if the plan uses the Ratio Percentage Test to satisfy 410(b), then each rate group must have a ratio percentage of at least 70%. On the other hand, if the plan uses the more complex Average Benefit Test to satisfy 410(b), then each rate group must have a ratio percentage at least equal to the lesser of the actual ratio percentage for the testing population or the midpoint of the safe and unsafe harbors (this threshold is far less than 70% and is frequently in the neighborhood of 30%).

This has been the case since 1993. In fact, there are now people performing testing who were not alive when we started doing testing this way.

Under the proposed regulations, however, that lower threshold would not be available to plans that have separate formulas for which there is not a reasonable business criterion. The proposed regulation tells us that naming names (common in designs often known as QSERPs) does not constitute a reasonable criterion. The problem is that when the word reasonable is used, we, the practitioners never know what someone else thinks is reasonable.

So, will we be left doing tests that we think are correct only to learn that someone else with a higher authority thinks that we have misconstrued what is reasonable? Is this a calling to just stop providing retirement benefits? After all, we could design perfectly good retirement plans for our clients today that we learn tomorrow have suddenly failed to still be nondiscriminatory.

From a personal standpoint, the good news is that even most of the aggressive designs that my colleagues work with would seem to satisfy the reasonable business criterion test. There are lots of plans out there, however, that do not, and these plans may be in trouble if and when the proposed regulations are finalized.

Would you like to know if your plans seem safe or potentially in trouble? I'll be happy to help you figure that out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Preparing the Higher Paid for Retirement

Retirement readiness is getting lots of press these days. With the decrease in the number of ongoing defined benefit (DB) retirement plan, many people are finding that they are not on a path to perhaps ever be ready to retire. While most of the focus has been on lower paid, nonhighly compensated (NHCE) workers, the discussion may be more relevant for the higher paid (HCEs) workers, especially those who are not among the very highest paid. When I was growing up, these people were often referred to as the upper middle class. Today, I don't hear that term as often.

Yesterday, I read an article that on its surface would seem to address this issue. It focused on the small employer, small plan world. It laid out a multi-step additive solution:

  • Safe harbor 401(k)
  • Cross-tested profit sharing
  • Cash balance plan
  • Nonqualified plan
There is nothing wrong with this solution. In fact, at companies that take this approach, it is likely that full career employees whether they are NHCEs or HCEs will have sufficient retirement benefits to be able to retire with a style of living similar to what they had when they were working. 

That's not bad.

But, as I said, the focus here is on small employers in which the management team (often one or two owners) are earning really substantial amounts of money. While the approach outlined above and in the article may be somewhat optimal, it's not unlikely that with a less optimal approach that these HCEs could retire comfortably.

Before we go on, however, why should we care about the rest of the HCEs -- those people who for the most part have annual incomes in the range of, say, $125,000 to $200,000. They are pretty well paid. What could possibly make it difficult for them?

They do pay more in taxes. It's not unlikely that they will have to fund college educations for their child(ren) as they may make a little too much for significant financial aid to be available. And, as most people aspire to a style of living in retirement at least similar to what they had when they were working, it's going to take a lot more savings for these people to make it to that retirement target. Further, in today's world, with so many employees having a 401(k) plan as their only retirement vehicle, those HCEs who would like to save as much as the financial gurus recommend are just not able to do that in a qualified plan.

Many of these same HCEs have jobs that are not physically stressful. As a result, if they choose to, and if an employer will have them, these people can work well past traditional retirement ages. One might question whether that is good for society. Is it a desirable result? (I'll leave the thinking on that to the reader.)

What can we do? 

Since most people reading this (likely all) will not be legislators, we can't change the law even if that might be a desirable result. As I have said many times, using the 401(k) as a core retirement plan prepares almost no one for retirement. To the extent that companies feel any obligation to their employees, they must do something different.

That different plan should have some particular characteristics:

  • It should be affordable to the employer
  • The cost of that plan should be relatively stable; that is, volatility should be limited
  • The plan should offer annuity and lump sum options to participants when they reach retirement age
  • The plan should be easy to understand
  • The plan should be easy to administer
  • The benefit should be portable since in today's modern workforce, an employee who stays with you for more than five years is the exception, not the norm
  • It should benefit the rank and file well
  • It should benefit the upper middle class well
  • It should benefit the executive group well
Most of the retirement world doesn't seem to want you to know about it, but this plan exists today and it is specifically sanctioned by the Internal Revenue Code.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Expect Reported CEO Compensation to be Down for 2015

Last year, there was an uproar. CEO compensation had gone through the roof. Or, so people thought. I predicted it would happen and I was correct. We heard the cries from all directions. Politicians including presidential hopefuls talked about the millionaires and billionaires and oftentimes, they pointed to executive compensation.

As the 2016 proxy season evolves, perhaps some will tell you that their cries were heard. But, were they?

I predict that reported (in proxies) CEO compensation for 2015 generally will be down from 2014. There are several reasons that you don't hear in the campaign ads, notably:

  • Pension discount rates have risen
  • Equity markets generally did not perform well
What does all that have to do with CEO compensation?

People who recall my tirade last year know that many CEOs, especially those who run large companies and do have very high compensation have a defined benefit (DB) SERP as part of their compensation package. And, when discount rates fall as they did during 2014, SERP liability generally increases and that increase is considered by the SEC to be part of executive compensation. Similarly, when discount rates rise, SERP liability generally decreases meaning that the contribution of many SERPs to reported DB compensation for 2015 will be 0 (you're not permitted to report a negative number). When pay ratio reporting finally kicks in, this may be a really big deal.

What does the performance of equity markets have to do with CEO compensation? Again, most large public company CEOs receive sizable chunks of their compensation in stock whether that be in options, restricted stock, or some other form of stock compensation. When the value of that stock decreases, so does the value of that piece of their compensation.

This leads to an interesting question with an obvious answer. Did the economic conditions in 2014 that resulted in extremely large reported CEO compensation meant that CEOs were overpaid in 2014 compared to other years. And, similarly, were those same CEOs underpaid in 2015 compared to 2014? 

The answer to both questions is of course not. For most of these people, their pay packages were extremely similar in 2015 to what they were in 2014 and similarly in 2013. It's not that often that we see radical changes in the way that a particular CEO is paid. 

But, these external factors drive the numbers and those numbers often drive the conversation.

The final pay ratio rules won't be effective for about 2 years. Of course, companies are being encouraged to disclose earlier and some will. Perhaps this is the proxy season to start. Perhaps this is just the proxy season to understand how volatile it will be.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Fallacy of the Participant Outcomes Mantra

I read about them virtually every day. One fund manager/defined contribution recordkeeper (vendor for purposes of the rest of this post) or another is concerned about participant outcomes. In other words, the reason that a plan sponsor should choose that particular company is because if they do, employees of that company will be prepared to retire someday.

Balderdash! Fiddlesticks!

Almost all of those vendors are preaching the same things:

  • Automatic enrollment
  • Automatic escalation
  • Target date funds
  • Retirement education
These are all great concepts, but they are not actually preparing people for retirement. Let's consider Abigail Assistant who works for Zipper Zoomers. Abby just recently started with ZZ. ZZ has hired Abby with cash compensation of $30,000 per year, based on an hourly rate of about $14.50 per hour. When she interviewed, she asked ZZ if they had medical benefits and a 401 plan (yes, she left off the "k" part). When she learned that they do, she didn't ask about details.

It turns out that ZZ does provide health benefits, but they don't pay as large a percentage of the cost as many other companies do, and their plan is a high-deductible plan. Abby and her husband Anson had already decided that 2016 would be a good year for the Assistant family to have their first child and a quick scan of her Facebook page shows that she will, in fact, be delivering Archibald Assistant later on this year. We also learn from her Facebook page that she plans to take 6 weeks off and then put dear little Archie in daycare.

Abby and Anson are going to have really high health care costs in 2016. But, when she started with ZZ, she got all this paperwork and didn't know what to do with it. She accepted her auto-enrollment at 3% of pay ($900 if she didn't take maternity leave). She also accepted her auto-escalation that will kick her up to a 4%  deferral next year. With ZZ's 2% budget for pay raises, her 2017 pay is expected to be $30,600 resulting a deferral of $1224. So her take home pay reflecting only the deductions for the 401(k) plan has only increased by $276 (600 minus 324) or less than 1%. But Abby and Anson's expenses have gone up far more than that. How will they cope?

Always resourceful, Abby and Anson have the answers. They have credit cards with hefty credit limits. That's a source of funds to pay the bills with. And, they learned that they can borrow against Abby's 401(k) account.

Okay, you all know where this is headed. The Assistants are not on the right track and unless they can get off of it, they will never be prepared for retirement. But, how does this make their vendor wrong?

Auto-enrollment and auto-escalation work for those who can afford it. It doesn't work for those who are living day to day, and sadly today, that seems to be the majority of American families.

In the Pension Protection Act of 2006, Congress claims to have intended to protected pensions. They did take some very positive steps while they were at it though by statutorily legalizing what are known as hybrid plans (cash balance, pension equity, variable annuity, etc.) and while they were at it, statutorily legalizing market return hybrid plans.

If you really want to help to prepare your employees for retirement, these are better vehicles. With modern designs and investment strategies, you can control costs. In fact, you can budget your costs better than you can in a 401(k) plan where the amount of matching contributions that you have to make is dependent on the amount that employees choose to defer.

I've seen all the illustrations and projections. Yes, Polly and Peter Professional who both came out of college and got higher paying jobs and who don't plan to have kids until they have been in the workforce for 10 or more years, bought a house and saved both inside and outside their 401(k) plans will be well-prepared, but for all the Abby and Anson's of the world, the participant outcomes will defy what the vendors are saying.

It's not pretty.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Are You Getting the Best Ideas For Your Money?

How about it? Is your [fill in the blank with attorney, accountant, actuary, adviser, consultant] bringing you their best ideas? I had  a few conversations yesterday with people who might be in a position to know. What they told me in a nutshell is that if you are not a key client for whoever it is that you filled in the blank with, the answer is probably not.

One person related to me that when she was in the corporate world, the people sent to audit their 401(k) plan were first-years who asked exactly what a 401(k) plan is. The bill for those services was large. Another told me that he went to a client conference sponsored by a large actuarial firm (conference was his term, but I'm not convinced it was the term I would have used). He found that the larger clients that were there had been getting different and more proactive advice from the firm's national experts, but all he got were answers to the questions that he specifically asked. But he did note to me that the billing rates of the team that services him had gone up by about 1/3 in the last 2 years.A third person said that her adviser (defined benefit investment) seemed to be pawning off the investments that he couldn't dump elsewhere on her. Each of these three people said that they were paying top dollar for substandard services.

Why?

In the late 80s (that's last century for people who don't recall), I was with one of those large firms. I recall a discussion with an internal IT person who was lamenting the high cost of putting IBM personal computers on every one's desk. He said that he thought Compaqs that were less expensive were better. Naive me asked me why then was he buying IBMs. The answer that he gave me struck me as odd then, but wouldn't now. He said something to the effect of "They're IBMs. If I buy Compaqs and something goes wrong, I lose my job; if I buy IBMs and everything goes wrong, I can say I bought IBMs."

The world has changed, but has that part of it? Is it okay to take a risk on getting great advice from people who want your business and want to give you their best advice, but don't have the big name? I don't know what the answer is at your company, but it should be a resounding yes.

The business world has gotten too complex. There are great advisers of all sorts out there who are not charging top dollar. If you're using one of the big firms in whichever field you're thinking about and you're getting their best people -- their national experts -- then you probably are getting their best thinking. If that's the case, then they likely view that you have the money to spend that justifies bringing those people in. But, suppose you're not in New York (this is not intended to imply that all the best people are in New York, but that experts will travel to New York, for example, but perhaps not to Wichita, Kansas). Suppose you're not a Fortune 100 company. Then, you might not be getting the best ideas that your adviser's firm has to offer.

What should you do differently?

Find out who are the strong players that may be less well known, but really want your business. Trust me -- if they think that you are interested in hearing what they have to say, they'll bring you their best ideas. And, they might charge less for them than the bigger companies will.

On that note, if your company sponsors retirement plans and most do, I'd like to talk to you about some of our ideas. You may not hear anything like them from anyone else.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fees and Higher Cost Asset Classes in Retirement Plans

Earlier this week, I wrote about Bell v Anthem and the rampant litigation over fees in defined contribution plans. I thought I'd take this one step farther today and discuss a few related topics.

Since this post in particular is highly legal in nature and deals with a number of investment topics, I am going to reiterate that I am not an attorney and do not provide legal advice nor am I a CFA, CFP, or RIA, and I do not provide investment advice. Any of either that you glean from this piece is at your own risk and is not intended.

For the most part, the fee-related class action suits have been about failure of the plan sponsor and its committee to properly follow its own Investment Policy and to fail to use the least expensive funds available when it does. Suppose the retirement plan in question along with its committee believe that it's in the best interest of plan participants to have a truly diversified set of investment options available to them in the plan. And, by truly diversified, they have included a set of alternative investments and hedge funds. Many plans do not.

Alternative investments as a group tend to be expensive. One might argue that it takes a more unique skill set to manage them and that simple supply and demand justifies the higher fee structure. Whether that argument holds water or not is not the purpose here, but in any event, you just don't see inexpensive alternative investment funds. Hedge funds tend to be among the most expensive of all. Seen as the ultimate in risk and reward, fees are usually extraordinarily high when compared to other asset classes.

Now, we return to the ERISA requirements that a fiduciary act in the best interests of plan participants and that expenses not be more than reasonable (as an aside, I don't think the word reasonable should ever be in the statute because your idea of reasonable may incorrectly differ with my correct idea of reasonable ... just kidding).

What makes an expense reasonable? In the case of an S&P 500 index fund, we would expect the returns before subtracting out expenses to be virtually identical for two funds, and therefore would hope that the funds with expenses toward the lower end of the spectrum available for the plan would be considered reasonable. Two international real property funds, on the other hand, will not have the same returns. And, each probably only has one share class (in other words, there is not a retail and wholesale or institutional). If Fund A has been returning (over the last 10 years) 14% per year before subtracting expenses and Fund B only 11% per year before subtracting expenses, does Fund A justify a higher level of expenses?

I don't know.

Could you get sued if you offer Fund A in your plan with expenses at 3.5% rather than Fund B with expenses at 2%? Yes, you could. Would you win that suit? I don't know.

The whole concept raises an interesting question that I touched on the other day. With all of these 401(k) lawsuits, is it prudent to offer a 401(k) plan? Is it prudent to be on the Investment Committee of a 401(k) plan? Is it prudent to offer a fund lineup in a 401(k) plan over which you could get sued, but on which you have absolutely no idea on which merits or lack thereof the case would be judged?

I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but I think they are food for thought.

Three decades ago, the defined benefit plan was king and defined contribution plans were far more often thought as a supplemental means of saving. This concept makes more sense to me.

Is it time for a return? Is it time for a return if you have all of the characteristics of that 401(k) plan without the attendant litigation risk? I think maybe it is.