Monday, July 30, 2012

Senator Harkin Proposes Changes to Retirement System

As Congress approached its August recess, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released a position paper entitled “The Retirement Crisis and a Plan to Solve It.” The release of the paper is notable because as the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, Harkin is perhaps the most influential legislator in the entire Congress with respect to qualified retirement plans. Here, I will give you an overview of Senator Harkin’s paper with some commentary. Given his position, should the Democrats retain control of the Senate and the White House, this paper likely signals a directional shift for the retirement industry.

Senator Harkin proposes two very significant changes:
  • Development of Universal, Secure, and Adaptable (USA) Retirement Funds 
  • Changes to the Social Security structure designed to better finance the program while providing better benefits for the lowest earners and inflation protection better geared to inflation as it affects senior citizens
USA Retirement Funds

Senator Harkin is concerned that so many Americans have essentially no retirement savings including any employer-sponsored retirement plans. The solution, as he sees it, is to give employers a choice of sponsoring their own retirement plans or putting their employees into a USA plan. Plans that are entirely voluntary for employees (401(k) without auto-enrollment or without a sufficient employer match) would not suffice as employer-sponsored. To the extent that they were to go the route of the USA plan, here are the key features as I read Harkin’s paper:
  • ·         Auto-enrollment through payroll deduction
  • ·         USA Retirement Funds would be professionally managed
  • ·         Regions, industries, or collective bargaining agreements might have default funds
  • ·         Benefits would be 100% portable
  • ·         Retirement benefits would be payable as annuity with survivorship rights for beneficiaries

Senator Harkin notes in his paper that USA Retirement Funds will compete with each other keeping costs low. They will be subject to significant disclosure requirements to ensure transparency.

Social Security Changes

As we all know, the Social Security system is projected to run into a shortfall situation at some point between 20 and 40 years out depending upon which forecast we look at. Senator Harkin’s proposal is designed to address this while improving benefits for certain retirees at the same time. Here are the three key points of his proposal with respect to Social Security:

  • ·         Eliminate the Social Security Wage Base (currently $110,100) so that higher earners and their employers would no longer have the phase-out of OASDI taxes. Currently, employees and their employers pay 6.2% of pay up to the Wage Base into Social Security and 1.45% of all pay into the Medicare (HI) part of the system.
  • ·         The existing methods for calculating Social Security benefits use a progressive three-tier approach. Currently, 90% of a person’s Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (essentially, their average inflation-adjusted compensation over their career) up to $767 is added to two other components in calculating the benefit. Under Senator Harkin’s plan, that 90% would phase up to 105% over a 10-year period. What this would mean is that low wage earners would receive a larger benefit from the Social Security in retirement than the pay they had been receiving from their employer.

·         Today, the annual inflationary adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries is based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index for all Urban Wage Earners (CPI-W). This index would be replaced by the CPI-E, the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly which places significant emphasis on the rising costs of health care.

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