Thursday, December 18, 2014

Federal Spending Bill Brings Multiemployer Pension Changes in Through the Back Door

It never seems to fail -- Congress needs a way to spend money or make a bill budget-neutral and pensions are the ugly stepsister. I expressed my opinion on this just last month. So, what did they do this time? Our legislators appear to have found a different stepsister this time in multiemployer pensions. I'll talk more about what happened later, but first I'll provide some background for people who aren't as familiar with multiemployer plans. For those who like names, the new law is known as the Multiemployer Pension Plan Reform Act of 2014 (MEPPRA, until someone gives me a better name).

Multiemployer pension plans were authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act. In such an arrangement often found in industries where individuals may perform jobs for a variety of different employers (construction, trucking, mining, etc), employers contribute a negotiated amount of money per unit (hour worked, mile driven, etc) of work. Unlike single-employer plans, multiemployer plans are run by a group of trustees evenly balanced among collective bargaining units or unions and management. Benefit levels are theoretically set when the trustees determine that the plan's assets are sufficient to support an increase. And, once employers choose to participate in a multiemployer plan through the collective bargaining process, it may be difficult to exit as withdrawing sponsors are subject to significant payments known as withdrawal liability.

The first really significant changes to multiemployer rules came into being with the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act in 1980. The rules were largely unchanged until our legislators saw fit to treat well funded multiemployer plans differently from more poorly funded plans in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA). PPA introduced the colored zones dependent theoretically on a plan's level of danger of not being able to support its own benefit promises.

So, what does MEPPRA do and what level of concern should participating employers have? As is often the case these days, one of the primary purposes of MEPPRA is to protect the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the governmental agency that protects private pension benefits.

One of the most important tenets of ERISA-covered pension plans has been that benefits accrued by a participant cannot be reduced by plan amendment. This has long been one of the sacred cows of defined benefit plans (DB). Under MEPPRA, certain very poorly funded plans may be able to reduce accrued benefits of participants including those who are already retired and are receiving benefits. Such reductions are subject to a "rejection vote" by plan participants (active and no longer active), but in the case of "systemically important plans" (those where the PBGC projects it will be on the hook for at least $1 billion), the Treasury Department can override the vote of plan participants.

At the same time, premiums paid to the PBGC on behalf of each plan participant will double next year from $13 per participant to $26, further demonstrating PBGC's influence on our legislators. And, in a move that I think could bring further controversy when the rule is applied, the PBGC will have the ability to "facilitate" mergers of two multiemployer plans in order to improve their aggregate funded status.

Consider that last provision. As an example, let's say that there are two widgetmakes multiemployer pension plans and that the one for workers in states with at least four vowels in the names of those states is poorly funded while the one for workers in more vowel-challenged states is pretty well funded. In an effort to improve the aggregate funding, the PBGC comes in and facilitates a merger of the two plans. As a worker, how would you feel if you were suddenly in a poorly funded plan when you had not been previously. Perhaps the reason is that the people in the other plan have much better benefits than you do. So, the previously responsible management of your plan will be bailing out the less responsible management of the other plan. That might just make you want to say "Hmm" or perhaps something worse.

There are a number of other changes that are highly technical related to funding and to withdrawal liability (the amounts that an employer who chooses to cease participating in the plan must pay in order to get out) calculations, but these are quite complex and far beyond the scope of most readers. And, in case you were wondering, reading about those calculations will not bring chills of excitement.

All that said, what should an employer do to react to the passage of MEPPRA? There is no perfect strategy, but for employers participating in reasonably well funded plans (green zone), there should not be much that is needed. For the remainder (red zone or yellow zone) of plans, however, employers may need to weigh their options. They might consider doing some or all of the following:

  • Review all of their collective bargaining agreements that cause them to be participating sponsors of multiemployer plans. Pay particular attention to the size of the plan and the plan's current zone status.
  • If withdrawal from the plan is an option, request a withdrawal liability calculation to see how painful that strategy might be.
  • Consider the pros and cons of remaining in the plan as part of the company's overall risk management strategy.
  • Consider engaging an independent actuary (not affiliated with the plan's actuary) to assist with any strategy decisions. To the extent that the company is contemplating a strategy that could potentially inflame relations with one or more unions, it could make sense to engage this actuary through counsel.
Stay tuned. I'm sure it won't be long before pensions get to be an ugly stepsister once again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Frightening Data on DC Plan Ownership

According to an article in this morning's News Dash from Plan Sponsor, fewer families had an individual account retirement plan (defined contribution or IRA) in 2013 than in 2010. However, on the bright side, average account balances have increased over the same period.

What do we learn from this? It's difficult to know for sure, but as is my wont on my blog, I'm going to take a shot at working it out.

Why are average account balances up? Well, the equity markets have performed pretty well over the last few years. Combine that with the fact that there has been time for additional contributions to those accounts and this makes sense. When we combine this, however, with my rationale for the prevalence of accounts decreasing, it may look troubling.

That the number of families with individual account retirement plans is decreasing suggests underlying issues with the economy. What I suspect is that many long-term unemployed or under-employed have had to liquidate accounts that they had a few years ago in order to survive. People laid off from jobs have taken distributions rather than rollovers to live on. I suspect that more often than not, these have been total distributions from smaller accounts. By eliminating some of the smaller account balances, the average and median accounts have grown in size.

That only about 50% of families have individual retirement accounts and only about 65% have any retirement plan at all is not good news for our future economy. How will the remaining 35% live? Moreover, among those 65%, will they have enough to survive in retirement?

The way it looks to me is that for people who are able to fully utilize their 401(k) or other retirement program for their entire working lifetimes, retirement may be comfortable. But this data suggests that this will be a substantial minority. For the rest, the retirement system is failing us.

30 years ago, defined benefit (DB) plans were the bulwark of the corporate retirement system. After years of Congressional meddling, many employers consider DB plans to be impractical. At the same time with further emphasis on individual responsibility, the burden of providing a retirement benefit has been shifted largely to employees.

If you are good at Googling or Binging, you can easily find projections from lots of smart people showing that a good 401(k) plan will be sufficient for responsible employees to retire on. In my opinion, most of these projections are deficient. You just don't see projections that consider leakage including:

  • Unemployment for a meaningful period of time
  • The necessity to take a job for a short or long time that does not have a savings plan
  • Increased cost-shifting of all benefits to the employee which may reduce an employee's ability to save
  • High-deductible health plans which force employees in many cases to pay significant amounts out-of-pocket for health care
This data is frightening. The retirement system is severely broken. Too many times, the public policy behind the retirement system has been abused by tax policy. We are left with retirement plans being a toy for Congress to make bills seemingly budget neutral

The ability to retire is part of the 21st century American Dream. This data suggests that the retirement part of the dream may be just that -- a dream.

Not pretty ...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Possible Delay of Pay Ratio Regulations -- Practical or Political?

Right before Thanksgiving, the House Committee on Financial Services sent a letter to the Chair of the SEC asking that guidance on the so-called Dodd-Frank Pay Ratio rule (Section 953(b)), and therefore implementation as well be delayed. The letter called this implementation a low priority. No similar correspondence has come from the Senate or any of its committees.

Gee, what a surprise that is. House committees are controlled by Republicans currently while Senate committees are in the hands of Democrats for few more weeks. Dodd-Frank was another bill and then law praised by Democrats and loathed by Republicans. The letter points out that the law does not specify a time by which the SEC must promulgate a rule on this issue. Additionally, the letter tells the SEC that the pay ratio disclosure has little value and that knowing the pay ratio for publicly traded companies back in the 2006-2008 timeframe would have done nothing to avert the financial crisis.

Let's regroup for a moment. For those who don't know, Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank law requires that registrants disclose a single number -- the ratio of the pay of the median-paid employee in the company to that of the CEO. Pay for this purpose is pay as defined in the executive compensation section of the proxy. I have argued that while such relative information may be useful to some that this calculation is the wrong one and needlessly burdensome. Last year, the SEC issued a proposed rule on the pay ratio calculation. While it provides a means of simplification for many companies, companies that do take advantage of the sampling techniques proposed will not find them simple by any means.

So, is the single number valuable? I don't think so. If one insists that such a comparison is valuable, then to me, it would be far more instructive to show CEO compensation and a chart of commonly held jobs within the company showing a compensation range for actual or hypothetical full-time employees(if no full-time actual employees exist for such job classifications) for each of those jobs alongside the CEO compensation.

Advocates of the pay ratio point out companies in the fast food industry. They note that CEOs make many millions of dollars while most fast food workers earn minimum wage or only slightly more. In this case, is the pay ratio valuable? To me, it's not. Running a multi-billion dollar business and defining its strategy to compete and grow has no similarities to monitoring a drive-thru window. Comparing the compensation of two such individuals makes no sense to me.

Currently, the SEC has three Democrats and two Republicans. The Chair is a Democrat. The commissioners still have meaningful Dodd-Frank work to do whether they make 953(b) a priority or not.

I don't know what they will do, but thus far, they have not shown a predisposition to act quickly on ensuring that the pay ratio is disclosed for registrants.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Multiemployer Pension Plan Crisis ... Or Not

Late last week, the New York Times published an article by Floyd Norris, its chief financial correspondent and an economist, on the crisis in multiemployer pension plans. I decided to write about it for a few reasons: 1) it's an interesting topic to me, 2) my strong impression is that the crisis is is not quite as the picture painted in the article, and 3) to go with the article, I think it's important to give some background and education.

I preface by saying that I do not generally work in the area of multiemployer plans, but then neither does Mr. Norris nor most of the people cited in his article.

Multiemployer (ME) pension plans are defined benefit (DB) plans. They meet the general tenet of DB plans in that they promise a benefit to plan participants at retirement rather than simply a pool of money segregated for that participant. But, there are lots of differences between ME plans and what most of us would think of as traditional (single employer) DB plans. Here are some of them.

  • ME plans are collectively bargained.
  • As the name suggests, these plans are generally maintained by more than one employer, usually in the same or related industries. The rationale is that a worker can be used by multiple businesses while all the time accruing a single pension.
  • What is negotiated at the most basic level is the level of contributions that each employer will make. For example, a negotiated contribution might be 20 cents per hour worked or 25 cents per 1,000 miles driven.
  • ME plans are managed, so to speak, by their trustees, joint committees having equal representation from labor unions and from management.
The article notes that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the governmental agency that insures pension benefits, believes that it will run out of money in its ME fund in the very foreseeable future. This could be the case (I have no reason to doubt the PBGC's forecasts) as two of the largest plans (those of the United Mine Workers and Central States Teamsters) are nearing the point where they will have insufficient assets to pay benefits to retirees.

What the article does not point out, however, is that the large majority of ME plans are really pretty well funded. Generally, ME plans have been managed responsibly and as a result, most of those plans do not face similar dangers.

When the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was signed into law in 1974, ME plans were not even covered by the PBGC. It wasn't until 1980 when the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act (MEPPAA) became law that such a fund was established for ME plans. And, even then, it was thought (I don't know any of the logic which may have been very good at the time for these thoughts) that the likelihood of ME plans needing PBGC coverage was small. So, as PBGC premiums for single-employer plans continued to increase, premiums for ME plans stayed low.

From my viewpoint, the reason for this might have been that it is up to the plan trustees to assure that the level of benefits provided to ME plan participants not be such that plan assets would be insufficient to pay such benefits. However, I have heard it said by people working in the ME arena, that in some of the larger, less funded plans that the strategy used amounted to a death spiral which is now approaching that death.

What happened?

As we know, plan assets have some years where their underlying investments perform well and some where they don't. So, when assets did perform well, and this is oversimplified a bit, the plans appeared to be better funded than they had been and therefore able to support higher levels of benefits for plan participants. In some plans, the trustees granted such increases. But, we all know that not all years provide excellent investment returns. When the plans were suddenly less well funded, benefit levels did not decrease. Further, and the United Mine Workers represent a good case study for this, when the ratio of active workers to retired participants decreases (similar to the US Social Security system), sources of assets may no longer be sufficient to support benefits. [This is a great reason to fully fund benefits for an individual participant on a reasonable actuarial basis by the time that participant leaves employment, but that's for another rant.]

What Mr. Norris does not point out in his article is that most ME plans are not in danger of needing PBGC protection. And, for the two plans in question, one might posit that they dug their own graves, so to speak. That is, they offered levels of benefits that the plans were not able to sustain over the long haul. Some ME actuaries have told me that the trustees who engage them for valuation services and for consulting advice have not necessarily followed that advice. 

The losers in this story are likely the people who have done nothing wrong. Plan participants, as a group, tend to do their jobs and assume that that their pensions will be paid. It is not the fault of a coal miner in the UMW plan that the industry fell on hard times. And, that long haul trucker in the Central States plan probably has no idea how his pension plan works, but he does expect that when he retires that he will get the benefits that he has been guaranteed. 

A joint business and labor group developed a plan designed to rescue the ME system without bailouts and without saving the PBGC. It was controversial in that it violated one of the most sacred tenets of ERISA -- thou shalt not reduce benefits that have already been earned. However, for any plans that go under, benefits in excess of the PBGC maximum guaranteed benefit may be reduced. And, if the PBGC runs out of money, even benefits less than that limit will likely be reduced. 

The situation is more complex than I describe. ME rules are quite complicated. But, I reiterate that the crisis appears to be limited to a relatively small percentage of plans, and according to the joint business and labor group could be solved by reducing benefits only in those plans that promised benefits that it could never have expected to support for the long term. Anything like that, however, would require Congress to pass a bill and the President to sign it.

Oh well ...

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Surveys, Data, and Other Common Misconceptions

Every so often, I feel the need to talk about things that are wrong. Well, perhaps I do that more than every so often, but I do it to varying degrees. Here I am going to focus mostly on surveys and their data. I'm not going to cite anything in particular, though, so you'll just have to trust me that  I am not making it up.

I have seen the data from lots of surveys that purport to tell us what are the most important elements to making a job desirable. I have read all sorts of things about mentoring, how green the workplace is, whether the health benefits are good, and the amount of focus put on learning and development among other things. These are all very important, but ...

When someone leaves a job voluntarily, ask them why they left. I have very rarely heard someone say they are leaving to go elsewhere because the new company has a great mentoring program, they are a green company, the health benefits are better, or the focus is on learning and development. Far more often, I have heard one of these:

  • I got a big pay raise
  • I hated my boss and I had to get away
  • I hated my job and or the company I was working for
  • I was in a dead end job
  • I don't have to travel as much
  • I get to travel more
What this tells me is that something about the surveys is just wrong. And, I don't think it is the inability of the people who report the results to accurately compile or report the data. I think it falls under GIGO.

GIGO, you say? What is that?

Garbage in, garbage out!

Surveys as a group, are horribly constructed. Correction, it would be an improvement on most surveys if they were horribly constructed. Most are worse than that.

If we consider job/pay/benefits related surveys, what would you think of a question like this: "How important to you are your health benefits?" Well, of course, they are very important.

So, since everyone says they are important, this gets construed as being one of the keys to hiring and keeping good employees. But, you rarely hear about employees choosing a particular employer or failing to because of the particular health benefits. The question has always been whether they offer health benefits. Very few people ask specifically what they are, how much they will pay for them, or what is included or excluded.

We could say similar things about retirement benefits. You need to have a 401(k) plan to compete. But, if it's a bad plan, nobody ever leaves specifically because of that. Yet, if you were to read survey data and reports, you would think that the quality of a 401(k) plan was a top 3 attraction and retention tool. I will say, however, that employees will think twice before leaving a company with a great retirement program, especially if they have a defined benefit pension plan. It is a retention tool and it is a differentiator.

Okay, rant over for the day. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

PCAOB Expands Purview of Accounting Profession to Review Compensation Arrangements

Unless you are in a field related to accounting or review of public companies, you may never have heard of the PCAOB, or more formally, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. It is actually a private-sector, non-profit company that was created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SarbOx or SOx) in 2002. According to SOx, the PCAOB is to, among other things, oversee the audits of public companies. In part, to do so, the PCAOB creates a set of auditing standards that must be approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Got that?

So, why am I writing about this? Earlier this year, the PCAOB issued Auditing Standard 18. In late October, the SEC approved it. And, so it is.

Auditing Standard 18 (AS18) is a lovely document. It's 223 pages of, and I can't think of a better word for it, stuff carrying the clearly far too brief title, "Related Parties and Amendments on Significant Unusual Transactions and a Company's Financial Relationships and Transactions with its Executive Officers."

Got that as well?

Among other things, AS18 asks that auditors, among other things:

  1. Read the employment and compensation contracts between the company and its executive officers
  2. Read the proxy statements and other relevant company filings with the SEC and other relevant regulatory agencies that relate to the company's financial relationships and transactions with its executive officers
  3. Obtain an understanding of compensation arrangements with senior management other than executive officers including incentive compensation arrangements, changes or adjustments to those arrangements, and special bonuses
  4. Inquire of the Chair of the Compensation Committee as well as outside compensation consultants
  5. Obtain an understanding of expense reimbursement policies with respect to executive officers
All of this is to be done to identify risks of material misstatement.

I understand why all of this is being done. Early in this century, there were a number of corporate scandals resulting from apparently fraudulent misstatement of financials. Many of you remember Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco. This is intended to be one more step to lessen the likelihood of such abuses and to restore faith that corporate America, as a whole, are being good citizens.

We place lots of faith in auditors in this regard. Now, I have friends and acquaintances who are auditors. Some of them are very good and knowledgable. And, this is not intended to say that the rest (the complement of some of them) are not good, but in any profession, some practitioners will always be better than others.

Here, however, the PCAOB and the SEC are either assuming that auditors have sufficient expertise in compensation arrangements to handle this undertaking or that the firms of which they are a part have this expertise internally to which the auditors may refer. At the Big 4, this is probably the case. They have massive staffs and are able to engage specialists to handle such complex questions. How about the next tier of auditing firms? Do they have this expertise? I don't know, but I suspect the answer is sometimes. Let's take it down one more tier. Do those firms have that expertise? Again, I'm guessing, but I suspect that the answer is not very often. And, if we move to the smallest of the auditing firms, I would be inclined to move the needle to rarely, if at all.

Most auditors that I know are nice people. Most auditors that I know are pretty smart. Most auditors that I know are pretty honest. That said, most auditors that I know are being asked here to weigh in on matters in which they have no training and are frankly not likely to have it anytime soon.

What is the answer? I'm not sure. I'm not a fan of more regulation or more government control generally, but perhaps people who engage in review of compensation arrangements of public companies need some sort of licensure. Actuaries need it for many functions that we perform and we are also, as a group, pretty nice, smart, and honest.

I think that the PCAOB and SEC have used their unencumbered power to stretch too far. Perhaps, it's time to rein them in?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black Friday Sales Down -- It Goes Back to Benefits and Compensation?

I heard it this morning. Black Friday sales were down. Not only were they off last year's huge numbers, they were well below forecast. Many economists and other prognosticators were shocked. Of course, people were going to spend more as they are paying far less for gasoline.

That connection doesn't hold; it never will. People, by and large, make larger purchases, the kind that fuel the Christmas economy, when they feel good about their futures. They do it when their long-term view of their personal economy is optimistic. Today, it's not.

Why not? Yes, fuel prices are down and down significantly. But, take-home pay is not increasing for most people. I think that most people view that fuel prices down are a temporary phenomenon -- a good one, but not one that will last for the long haul. But, take-home pay has been eroded for years now. Across the board pay goes up nearly every year, but not by much. In a good year, it might be a 3% to 4% increase. In a bad year, it's below 2%. At the same time, the employee's portion of the cost of their own benefits is increasing. Have you noticed your health plan? Your deductibles have gone up, your out-of-pocket maximums have gone up and your premiums have gone up by a bigger percentage -- likely significantly bigger -- than your pay. The same can be said about other employee benefits. Either you are paying more or getting less or both.

Does this mean that your employer is evil? They might be, but not because of the scenario described here. Companies have to be competitive in the marketplace. If their cost of goods sold or cost of providing services increases by too much, then their margins will be down. And, if that happens, then those pesky owners, be they the people who started the company or the broad group of shareholders will make less money. They don't like that. In fact, they are in business to make money.

I know; that's not a nice way of thinking about it. But, suppose you started a business. Wouldn't you want to turn a profit? After all, the person starting the business takes a risk. There is point in taking a risk if the reward is not at least commensurate with that risk. If you invest in a company, you expect that company to have increased, not decreased profits. So, the people who run the business cannot afford increases in labor costs that cut into those profits by too much.

Going full circle, employees notice what's in their paychecks. If your employee receives less money in the first paycheck of 2015 than she did in her last paycheck of 2014, it just doesn't matter how big you told her that her raise was. To her, it looks like a pay cut. When she sees a pay cut, she spends less, not more. And, because she is expecting that, Black Friday was not as busy as the stores wanted.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Working With Actuaries is Desirable, In My Humble Opinion

Actuaries often get a bad rap. In my thirtieth year in the profession, I feel like I have heard it all. We are nerds. We are numbers geeks. We can't think outside the proverbial box. We are literal. outgoing actuaries look at YOUR shoes when they talk to you.

Despite all that, there is much to be said that is positive about the profession. An employee (not an actuary) of the US Department of the Treasury once said to me that actuaries were the single most honest and ethical profession that he has dealt with.

Many of us majored in college in something like actuarial science, risk management, math, or economics. Probably, a large number of us thought about a career in academia. I have a number of friends who have remained in academia and that I can think of, every one of them to my knowledge is an honest and ethical person. But, generally, that is because of who they are, not what their professions require them to be. For much of academia, codes of conduct tend to relate to embarrassing the college or university that employs them. In my personal experience, those codes of conduct are not overly stringent, at least not if we compare to the actuarial Professional Code of Conduct.

Recently, much has been in the news, or at the very least, the conservative news of a particular Professor of Economics at MIT, Jonathan Gruber. Dr. Gruber is highly regarded by his peers as one of the preeminent health care economists that we could find. Dr. Gruber also developed many of the econometric models put forth with the Affordable Care Act (ACA, PPACA, ObamaCare). He has been engaged by either or both of the United States Congress or the current presidential administration for his expertise as well as by a number of the states to consult on the economics of the ACA. By his own admission, he helped to deceive the public about the ACA and its costs and sources of revenues. Paraphrasing Dr. Gruber, he justifies this as being for the greater good. That is, he has proclaimed that the ACA was a good and necessary law to pass and that the goodness of the law justifies any deception.

Dr. Gruber may be right about that. Or, he may not be. You may have an opinion on whether he is right. I'm not here to express mine on that particular issue.

There are many actuaries who are qualified, given the appropriate data and choices of assumptions and methods, to project health care costs or the costs of a health care plan or plans. Those who fit that bill have attained initial qualification through examination and maintained it through continuing education. While this process has a different rigor than does the process of attaining a Ph.D., it has created a relatively small community of individuals who work in the field.

Actuaries tend not to be political animals. Part of the reason for that may lie in our Code of Conduct. Quoting directly,
An actuary shall act honestly, with integrity and competence, and in a manner to fulfill the profession's responsibility to the public and to uphold the reputation of the actuarial profession. [Precept 1] 
An actuary shall not engage in any professional conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation or commit any act that reflects adversely on the actuarial profession. [Annotation 1-4]
Those are two strong statements. Actuaries who have failed to abide by the Code of Conduct have been counseled, censured, suspended, or even expelled from the profession. Many of those cases have been for violation of Precept 1 (and its annotations) among others.

So, while jokes have been told about actuaries regarding the variety of answers that we might provide, I suggest it is because ours is not an exact science. We use our experience to make sound professional judgments. But, we have a duty of honesty and of integrity. We have a duty to not misrepresent or deceive.

To me, this is laudable. It makes me proud to be a part of the profession. It's why there would not have been an attempt by actuaries to deceive the public had actuaries been used by the government to model the costs under the Affordable Care Act. It makes it desirable to work with actuaries.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why 401(k) Plans May Not Be the Answer

Get a job. Find a new employer. Typical questions that get asked include compensation, health benefits, vacation, and do you have a 401(k) (or all too frequently, do you have a 401?)? Prospective employees usually don't ask about the 401(k) plan or about any other retirement plan, but simply want to know if there is a 401(k). Does it have a matching contribution? People don't ask.

According to a study from Aon Hewitt, 73% of those eligible are participating in 401(k) plans, but 40% of them are saving at a level below the full match level. Many of those plans have auto-enrollment, but that level of deferral is below the level required for a full matching contribution. Once people are enrolled at the automatic level, many tend not to defer enough to get a full match.

The Aon Hewitt study does not, as far as I could tell, explore why this may be. Is it a lack of employee education? Is it an inability to budget for a higher amount, especially in a time where costs of raising a family are increasing, but pay often is not? Is it a fear of the plan?

We can do the math. If a young worker (someone recently out of college, for example) participates in a 401(k) at a meaningful level throughout their career, and especially if there is a good matching contribution to go with it, those workers can eventually retire with a very good retirement income.

But, what about the ones who participate at a lower level, so that they get less than the full match? What about the ones who face temporary unemployment as so many of us do these days and may have to withdraw their 401(k) for funds to live on?

As Roth 401(k) plans have become the rage, this has become even more of a problem. While in a traditional 401(k), access to funds is essentially limited (large tax penalties) prior to age 59 1/2, in a Roth, that inaccessibility largely disappears after the employee money has been in the plan for 5 years. This means that practically speaking, Roths, for all their benefits, may be less retirement plans than their better known predecessors.

If these trends continue, 401(k)s in any form will not be the answer. In fact, for those people who are not using their plans to the fullest extent that they were intended, retirement may be nothing more than a pipe dream.

35 years ago, the answer was defined benefit plans. They provided retirement income pure and simple. But, do to Congress' ongoing efforts to protect pension plans, or so they would have you believe, that dinosaur is nearly extinct. But, 401(k)s will do the trick for only a small percentage of the workforce. For the rest, retirement planning is imperative. And, when they do the modeling, they may not like the future that they see.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pensions: Are They Just a Toy For Congress to Play With?

In 1963, Studebaker, once a large and proud American auto maker closed its doors in the US for the last time. With that door closing, as legend has it, New York Senator Jacob Javitz had the idea that the retirement income promised to employees needed more security. So was born in his mind the law that in 1974 became the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). While it did far more than take steps to make pensions more secure, that was purportedly its primary purpose.

ERISA provided a framework for corporate retirement plans. And, in 1974, before paragraph (k) had been added to Section 401 of the Internal Revenue Code, the predominant employer-provided retirement income came from defined benefit (DB) plans. Unions bargained for them, and what the unions got, management wanted. Also, back in 1974, it was not unusual that if there was a company that an employee worked for in their mid-to-late 20s that that employee would eventually retire from that company. If you, as an employer, promised that employee a pension, you could expect 30 or more years of loyalty from that employee.

So, ERISA set up a minimum funding regime regime for DB plans. If you were using what is known as an immediate gain (or loss) actuarial cost method (if you know what that means, you don't need an explanation and if you don't know what it means, you don't want an explanation), then your minimum funding requirement for the year was the sum of these elements:

  • The normal cost or the actuarial present value of benefits accruing during the year
  • Amortization over 30 (or 40) years of the unfunded liability remaining from inception of the plan or transition to ERISA
  • Amortization over 30 years of the actuarial liability emerging due to changes in plan provisions, the thought likely being that you got 30 years of value from the amendment
  • Amortization over 30 years of the actuarial liability emerging due to changes in actuarial assumptions
  • Amortization over 15 years of the actuarial liability emerging due to actuarial gains and losses (deviations from the expected)
  • A few other elements that rarely came up
By the mid-1980s, DB plans were generally pretty well funded, and most of those that were not yet fully funded were getting much closer than they had been. The exceptions, for the most part, were plans sponsored by companies in dire financial straits that often convinced their actuaries to use fairly aggressive actuarial assumptions, or companies that frequently provided large benefit increases that had not yet been funded.

In 1986, we were graced with the Tax Reform Act (TRA86), a massive and sweeping change to the entire Internal Revenue Code -- so massive, in fact, that the Code was renamed from the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, a moniker it keeps to this day. A not insignificant portion of TRA86 included changes to pension funding rules. Amortization periods were shortened. For the most part, this increased required contributions for underfunded plans, which in turn increased corporate tax deductions.

Those new rules were revamped quickly. Just a year later, embedded in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987 (OBRA87) was the Pension Protection Act of 1987. OBRA87 was the annual budget bill. And, has become the trend, each powerful legislator had his own pet spending project. To pay for all that pork, either a revenue generator or a decrease in tax expenditures (a fancy name for deductions) was needed. OBRA87 found a useful tool in DB pension plans. How is that? Just change the funding rules to decrease required contributions and tax deductions will go down which in a backhanded sort of way increases revenue for the government. of course, this was thinly veiled in a complex set of new requirements that applied only to underfunded plans.

A star was born!

Congress needs a revenue raiser? Change the funding rules. Cut the maximum benefit limitations. Change required interest rates. 

With this new toy, Congress looked at changes in pension rules at least every other year. It created uncertainty for employers. Yes, they could plan and budget based on current rules, but they lived in fear that the rules would change. That's a tough way to run a business. Many of those plan sponsors froze their pension plans. Many of them wanted to terminate their plans, but interest rates were so low that the cost of terminating those plans was too high. 

Fast forward to 2006. Coming out of the economic malaise and stock market tumble at the beginning of the decade, many plans were underfunded on an accrued benefit basis using market-based discount rates. It was time to protect pensions yet again. Thus was born the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA), the most sweeping change to corporate pensions since ERISA. It provided a regime that essentially ensured that underfunded plans would be fully funded within 7 years. Employees would get their pensions. 

But, those extra contributions from employers are tax deductible. That's an extra burden on the government. And, it was just one year later (falling from its October 11, 2007 peak) that the markets crashed yet again. Employers couldn't afford these new levels of required contributions. But. Congress had an agenda to help those employers and help themselves. 

Welcome pension smoothing in the form of several laws since then. PPA brought us 7-year funding based on "fair market" conditions and assumptions. Pension smoothing undid that and then undid it again and undid it again as Congress invoked its favorite toy at least 3 times in the period following the signing of PPA. Employers had funding relief. Congress had its decrease in tax expenditures. Employees in pension plans had less funded benefits and the rules got so complex that almost nobody wanted to sponsor a pension plan anymore.

And, the places that pension funding relief gets buried are just amusing. I think the 2014 relief is my favorite -- the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 (HATFA). That's right. Congress decided it was time to improve our roadway system, but new roads don't come for free. So, to help pay for this, Congress invoked its favorite tax toy, pension funding relief.

Shame on them!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Executives Need Retirement Education, Too

It's been a long time since I blogged. I needed a break. I needed some fresh ideas. I didn't feel like writing on anything technical. I didn't feel like offering my opinions. I just needed to stop writing for a little while.

This morning, however, I saw an article in the News Dash put out by Plan Sponsor. It stressed that plan sponsors feel that perhaps the biggest issue in nonqualified plans is participant education. Citing from the article, one in five said that education was a top challenge while 18% cited participation and appreciation. I think that they are essentially the same thing, so that makes 40% (rounded) and that's enough for me to conclude that this is a major issue.

Why is this? Executives generally make a lot of money (whatever a lot is). They are generally used to dealing with financial matters. They already have their qualified plans. What makes these plans so different?

There's a lot. Taxation is different. They usually don't have a real pool of assets that they can play with. They don't get the same level of disclosures. They don't understand Code Section 409A. And, they generally don't know if what they are getting is good compared to what their peers at other companies are getting or not.

What's the answer?

I suggest rewards education for executives. In my experience, it is rare that this can be done internally. Internal people are often considered to have a bias or an agenda. It comes better from the outside.

Who or what should that outsider be? It should be an independent person, one who has no horse in the race, so to speak. It should be a person who can speak to all facets of executive rewards -- cash compensation, deferred compensation, equity compensation, retirement compensation, change-in-control agreements, and the like. Unfortunately, there are not too many of them around.

Oh, wait, I can do all that!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Statins Linked to Diabetes

In an article in the British Medical Journal, researchers document that they have found a link between higher potency statins and new onset of Type II (adult onset) diabetes. This is stunning, at least to me.

The three drugs that were defined for the study as higher potency were these:

  • 10 or more mg rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • 20 or more mg atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • 40 or more mg simvastatin (Zocor)
In the US, these are all among the 50 most prescribed drugs. In fact, depending on which list you use, they might all be among the 10 most prescribed drugs. And, according to this study, they increase the likelihood of a patient developing diabetes.

That's not good news.

Often, I read data similar to this and really wonder about its credibility. The data is reported by people with no background in statistics and is published in a non-refereed journal. That is not the case here. The researchers working on behalf of the Canadian Network for Observational Drug Effect Studies include a variety of academics including some with measurement and statistical training. The descriptions of their methods and data sources are sound.

So, what did they find?

The study looked at patients who were prescribed higher potency versus lower potency statins for secondary prevention. In other words, these were patients (at least age 40) who had been hospitalized for a major cardiovascular event (heart attack, stroke, bypass, etc.) who had never previously been diagnosed with diabetes and who were newly prescribed a statin. The key metric that the researchers used is a rate ratio, a common term in epidemiology.

Simply stated, the rate ratio is the ratio of incidences. A rate ratio of 1.20, for example, would indicate that the incidence rate for the studied group is 20 percent higher than that for the control group. They reported data at the 95th confidence interval.

In the first two years post-statin intervention, the researchers found a rate ratio of 1.15 (95% confidence interval of  1.05 to 1.26). In the first four months of use, however, the rate ratio was 1.26 (95% CI of 1.07 to 1.47).

I repeat. This is stunning. the increase in the likelihood of a new diabetes diagnosis for higher potency statin users in the first four months post-intervention was 26%. Increases between four months and two years were much lower, but there were still more newly diagnosed or treated diabetics among higher potency statin users than lower potency users. And, both levels of statin users showed increases in diagnoses of diabetics.

From a practical standpoint, what does this mean?

It's a little bit difficult to tell. From a purely lay standpoint (I have no medical training), the researchers present no data that suggests if there is a similar effect for patients who have not had a major cardiovascular event. However, it is clear that the use of high potency statins is linked to the onset of diabetes. The data set is large and the confidence interval sufficiently high.

What I suspect (and I repeat that I have no medical training) is that people who have a predisposition toward diabetes are significantly more likely to become diabetic after taking statins, especially high potency statins. The researchers note that higher potency statins have not shown statistically significant better results for secondary intervention than lower potency statins.

Looking at this from a statistical and financial standpoint, I would note the following:
  • The three drugs considered higher potency seem to result a statistically significantly higher rate of diabetes onset.
  • Diabetes is one of the highest cost and most dangerous chronic medical conditions, at least in the US.
  • Diabetes, when found in a comorbid state (other chronic conditions exist), increases medical risk very meaningfully.
  • Patients with a predisposition to diabetes along with their physicians should very carefully weigh the risk and benefits of various statins and their dosages as compared to other forms of treatment.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why Doctors Must Give in and Use EMRs

Admit it; you have a real interest in health care. Oh, you may be like most of the rest of Americans and not really care about the field or science of health care, but you probably do have a real interest in caring for your own health. Most of us do. Most of us, even if we don't show it by our actions and behaviors would like to be really healthy.

When we choose our physicians, most of us make that selection because of several factors. Among them might be these:

  • Whether the physician is "in network"
  • Whether we have a level of comfort with the physician
  • Whether we think the quality of care will be excellent
How do we know if the quality of care will be excellent? We generally don't, but we have our ways of thinking that we might know. We ask our friends and relatives. We might go to a site like Angie's List or to see what they say. 

Do you know what else is really important? According to a survey done jointly by Aeffect and 88 Brand Partners, 82% of patients believe that physicians who use electronic medical records (EMRs) provide better quality of care. (While I cannot find the actual complete survey results, you can see snippets here.)

To me, that is astounding. Many physicians that I know like EMRs, but perhaps just as many dislike them. They say that the EMRs cause physicians like them to have to spend extra time inputting a bunch of data. They say that they have to hire additional staff that increases their cost of providing care, but that insurers often provide them with nothing to compensate for this cost. But, according to the same survey, 44% of patients have a more positive impression of physicians that use EMRs (while I don't have the data, I am guessing that the number who say they have negative impressions is very small). 

While we are moving more to a value-based system, physicians still receive most of their compensation from seeing more patients. Other than scheduling on a much tighter basis and hoping that their schedules fill up, physicians can increase demand for their services. When they do that, their schedules will fill up and that will probably allow them to earn more income which most of them will view as a positive. 

So, the connection (perhaps pun intended) is that even for physicians who don't like them, EMRs are becoming a necessary part of a practice. Physicians must give in and use EMRs. Soon, they will really have no practical choice.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If We Only Knew What 401(k) Participants Really Want

I read an article this morning called "What Participants Really Want From Their Bond Fund." It was written by a gentleman named Chip Castille. Mr. Castille is the head of the BlackRock US Retirement Group. As such, Mr. Castille is likely a participant in a 401(k) plan, although to be truthful, I don't even know if BlackRock offers a 401(k) plan to its employees.

More to the point, the article tells us what participants really want in a 401(k) plan and specifically in a bond fund in such a plan. While I could not find where the author cited any survey data, either he has some on which he is basing his conclusions or he is divining the answers because he seems to really know better from my read of the article (more on that later).

The author implies that participants are looking for safety, return or retirement income. That is a pretty broad spectrum. But, he doesn't dig into it enough for us to know how a plan sponsor or an investment professional would decide. What he does do is point out that an investment manager in a bond fund looks at how closely his fund is tracking a benchmark while participants look at whether the fund has gained or lost money or it will produce sufficient income.

I don't mean to demean what any professional says. But, here I beg to differ with the author. Participants get a lot of junk in the mail these days (not that these days are really any different from any other days in that regard). If the participants to whom he is referring are anything like the ones that I know, they don't look at individual fund performance very often. In fact, in the case of most that I know, "not very often" is spelled N-E-V-E-R. That's right; they don't look at individual fund performance. They look to see how their total account is doing. They judge (that's spelled G-U-E-S-S) whether it's a good day to be in equities or a good day to be in fixed income and periodically move their money around because they think they know.

Typically, participants don't like losses in their accounts. In fact, I would say that if you were to rank account balance events in order of importance, my guess would be that far more participants would say that they would like to avoid meaningful losses perhaps at the expense of a few big gains than the number who would say they would like to go for big gains at the potential expense of taking some very large losses.

But, I'm just guessing. I don't really know. And, frankly, the author of the article doesn't know any of this either. Face it, he hangs around with investment professionals. Investment professionals are not representative of your average garden variety 401(k) participants.

I happen to be an equal opportunity dumper, however. While I cannot find data that the author is using to draw his conclusions from, I will also take this opportunity to dump on many authors who do use data, usually from surveys.

Let me show you why with an example. Suppose a survey question is worded like this:

What do you want from your 401(k) bond fund?

  1. Safety
  2. Return
  3. Retirement income
  4. Guacamole
  5. Health care
I've never posed this question this way, so I get to guess at hypothetical results. Some number of people will answer with 4 or 5. Among those who don't, that is, they answer with 1, 2, or 3, or they just skip the question entirely, do they know what I mean by each of 1, 2, and 3? My guess is that they don't. Safety has lots of meanings in life. To an investment professional, it means one thing. To a plan participant, it might mean NEVER losing money. You and I know that is essentially impossible in a bond fund, but the average participant may not.

Some firm out there that wants to prove their own point will have a survey question like this one. They will ask about 1,000 random selected people to answer the questions and some smart people in the proverbial back room will analyze the answers so that the author of the next great white paper will have the definitive solution. 

Suppose the potential answers were flip-flopped (that is, health care was at the top followed by guacamole with safety last), would that change the results? What does a participant do if they wanted to answer none of the above? Or, suppose they don't understand one of the answers. Or, perhaps, in their mind, it's a tie between two answers. Or, maybe last week they would have answered return, but after they got their most recent statement and saw a 10% decline in their account balance, they suddenly place significant value on safety.

Let's face it, none of us know what the average participant wants in a 401(k) bond fund. We don't even know what an average participant is. 

Remember the two words that I capitalized -- NEVER and GUESS. That should tell you something.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

President Seeks to Change Rules For Paying Overtime

It greeted me in my inbox this morning: "Obama Will Seek Broad Expansion of Overtime Pay." In a nutshell, the President says that corporations are making too much money, often at the expense of salaried workers who should be classified as non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

What do you think?

For background, as I am certain that most readers know, non-exempt workers generally must receive overtime pay (usually time and a half) for hours worked in a week beyond 40. The law gives the President/Administration fairly broad powers in classifying as non-exempt versus exempt. Currently, the regulations provide that workers typically earning $455 per week or more generally may be classified as exempt. The threshold was increased to that level by President Bush (43) in 2004 and has not been increased since.

Also classified currently as exempt under the label of professional or executive workers are groups including fast-food managers, computer technicians, loan officers, and other similar jobs that the President views should be paid overtime when they work beyond 40 hours in a week. The US Chamber of Commerce, of course, disagrees.

While I am usually pretty fiscally conservative, if I think about this, $455 per week isn't much. It's barely above the proposal from the Administration for an increase in the minimum wage ($404 for a 40-hour work week). On the other side of my brain, I consider that since I entered the professional workplace during the Reagan Administration, it has seemed fairly normal that people who want to get ahead in business will work at least 50 hours per week or more and in many cases, far more than that. It just became a way of life.

I recall that fairly late in the Clinton Administration when his Labor Department revised guidance on this issue that the firm that I was working for at the time reclassified who was exempt. That firm then turned around and said that non-exempt employees could only work overtime with approval from pretty high up managers. So, who won? Nobody, really. The company passed that work on to exempt employees and the newly non-exempt group who had seen pay raises cut in response to this regulation were stuck at 40 hours per week.

Lose lose.

Part of me wants to say that giving aspiring professional non-exempt workers the right to forgo overtime when they work more than 40 hours per week would enable those that want to get ahead to do so, but that would just take us back to the mentality in which I grew up in the workplace where we all worked insane hours to be the one person who stood out (of course we didn't because we were all that way) from the crowd and got ahead.

Ultimately, it feels like it is just part of macroeconomics. You can't just look at one individual and one company in a vacuum and see how they will react. There is a larger dynamic. If companies have to pay an individual overtime, they will seek to find ways around the rules to ensure that they can find exempt workers to do that job and still not have to pay. The newly non-exempt worker will lose and ultimately the company will lose as well. On the other hand, the Bush Administration limits probably exempt far too many workers from the rules. Nobody wins there either.

It's part of a broader give and take. In an ideal world, companies would allow workers to do their jobs and would pay overtime to those who should be non-exempt under the spirit of the FLSA. Also, in an ideal world, workers would not be working overtime unless it was truly necessary.

I wonder when we will be in an ideal world? Anyone? Buehler?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Can Anybody Win the ACO Game?

Suppose you invented a game that ultimately, nobody could win. Do you think it would be popular? I don't. Game players get frustrated at losing. Either they give up or they try to get better, but eventually, if their improvement doesn't lead to some more wins, they stop playing the game.

I know that accountable care organizations (ACOs) are not a game. For the uninitiated, they are healthcare organizations that choose to operate under a model in which they are rewarded for meeting metrics related to quality of care and total cost of care (TCC). Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), those reimbursements are tied significantly to an ACO's trend in TCC being meaningfully less than the norm.

That sounds like a really good idea, in theory. The system is providing an incentive (no, I will not say it is incentivizing) to ACOs to reduce medical inflation. For an ACO to do that, however, costs money. The ACO will likely have to add to its infrastructure both from the standpoints of technology and people. Each has a cost.

Simply put then, the game is won when reimbursements (incentive payments) exceed the essentially required investment in the business. The game is lost when the converse is true.

I think we can establish that each of these points is almost necessarily true:

  1. Each ACO will try to reduce its own contribution to medical inflation.
  2. There are practical limits to how much that medical inflation can be reduced.
  3. When many organizations are simultaneously working to control TCC, the average increase in TCC will come down.
  4. If 2. and 3. above are true, then it will become virtually impossible to achieve the financial goals necessary to have reimbursements large enough that an ACO gets a positive return on their investment (ROI).
You don't agree with the fourth point:? Think about it. If the target TCC increase gets low enough (because the average does) and a particular ACO has already gotten to the asymptotic point of its efficiency, then they have likely reached the point where they cannot win anymore. Because the competition had enough room to improve and that one ACO had reached the point where it didn't have enough room for improvement, it will have lost its chance to win (at least for a while).

There are presumably good things that will happen out of this model. Notice that the game breaks down because each organization is striving to reduce TCC. That's a good thing. But, at some point, ACOs that can no longer win may just stop playing the game. When they do that, what will happen to their TCC?

Can anybody win the game?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Treasury Modifies Section 83 Regulations

The Treasury Department recently issued revised final regulations under Code Section 83. While Section 83 regulations are longer and more complex, this was a short document that focuses specifically on "substantial risk of forfeiture."

So, what do these new regulations do? They add a paragraph that explains that you cannot create substantial risk by putting something in a plan document that is not going to happen and say that it creates substantial risk. In fact, they specifically say that a forfeiture provision that is not likely to be enforced (based on all the underlying facts and circumstances) does not create substantial risk.

Generally, the litmus test that is being applied is whether receipt of the property is conditioned upon performance of future services. So, for example, if nonstatutory stock options vest only if the executive works for the company for 5 years after the grant date, then there would (my read, but not a legal opinion by any means) be substantial risk of forfeiture until the options vest.

Interestingly, this regulation has retroactive applicability relating to property transferred after January 1, 2013.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tax Reform on the Horizon ? Probably Not

Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) has just introduced into the House Ways and Means Committee which he happens to chair the Tax Reform Act of 2014. You can read it here. Given that the Republicans only control one house of Congress and do not control the White House, the bill has little likelihood of passing. However, it gives notice as to where the party leadership may want to take tax policy.

After I've done my skim-through of the roughly 1000 pages, I'll try to comment here if it's worthy of any such comment.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It May Not be Politically Correct, but There are Gender Differences

It shouldn't come as a surprise to us that men and women are physiologically different. Come on now, I know my readers are smart. All of you worked this out before I said anything. But, lots of people have been surprised by this article and the FDA recommendations in it.

The FDA, for the first time, is recommending a different drug dosage for women than for men, although they go on to say that perhaps the reduced dosage is appropriate for men as well.  What surprises me is not that this happened, but that it took so long to happen.

Let's consider why.

Before drugs go on the market in the US, the FDA requires that they go through extensive research and clinical trials. Those are done almost exclusively on men. Why? To quote an FDA official whose name I cannot remember, "Women are hormonally inconvenient." In other words, because women monthly have significant hormonal swings, it is much more difficult to filter out the noise in the data.

Unfortunately, this means that much of the data that we actually have collected on drug efficacy and drug interaction may be somewhat accurate for men, but it's probably less accurate for women. And, as long as I am being politically incorrect, I would hypothesize that the same efficacy and interaction deficiencies that result from gender specific studies also result from the fact that studies have generally not been filtered by data such as ethnicity and blood type.

I've not done the research, so I am just guessing. But, my guess would be that people of different ethnicities and people of different blood types (among other differences) handle different drugs differently. It just makes sense.

So, what's in the future?

I don't really know, but this is my blog, so I get to hazard a guess.

Today, one of the current trends is genome mapping. Without having any particular expertise in the field, I understand that each of us has our own individual genetic map (perhaps monozygotic twins (identical) have the same genetic map, I just don't know). Surely then, the ideal medical treatment of each of us for a specific condition is different than for anyone else and those differences are based on our genetic maps. The data to develop these new medical plans of action will be here soon. Are we going to let hormonal inconveniences get in the way of better treatment plans?

401(k) Plans Without Matching Contributions Will Not Allow the Masses to Retire

I read an article this morning entitled "Encouraging Savings Without a Match." The article was informative enough and it did discuss the importance of getting workers to save. It discussed how auto features (auto-enrollment and auto-escalation) will have positive effects in allowing workers to accumulate balances large enough to retire someday.

The author and her sources are correct. Auto features will help, but they are not enough.

Why not?

Suppose I am a participant in a 401(k) plan and you are my employer. Suppose that in that plan, you provide me with a fairly measly (by today's standards) match of 25 cents on the dollar for the first 4% of pay that I contribute. That's not much; you're only contributing as much as 1% of my pay, but you are motivating (note the lack of use of the non-word incentivize) me to defer at least 4% of my pay. That means that 5% of my pay will go into my account. It's also a first-year return on my investment of 25% before I have even a bit of positive investment performance.

If instead, you provide me with a more generous match of 50 cents on the dollar for my first 6% of pay, the motivation for me to defer at least that 6% is even greater. And, of course, if you provide me with one of the nice safe harbor matches that are even more generous, I am motivated still further.

Auto-enrollment provides no such motivation. Without that motivation, when I hit a financial crunch (perhaps my new-fangled high-deductible health plan is not providing me with the risk management tools that I really need), the first place I may look to for an extra source of weekly or monthly cash is those 401(k) deferrals. Perhaps stopping them allows me to pay my rent or mortgage on time. Perhaps it allows me to make my car payments. Because I don't have an additional incentive beyond the holy grail of retirement to continue saving, ceasing my 401(k) deferrals sure feels like a good idea. And, once I stop, I probably won't start again.

From where I sit, most people today seem to live at or above their means where their means are characterized by their take-home pay. The old defined benefit-based system allowed people to retire because their take-home pay was perhaps a little bit less in order to pay for their retirement benefit which could be a fair amount more. The discipline in that was not employee-driven, but plan design and ERISA-driven.

Now, the motivation is largely gone and the discipline is largely gone. People are living longer and a lot of them are going to have to work for a long, long time.

Monday, February 10, 2014

AOL Reacts to Media and Employee Pressure

AOL had made a decision to follow in what many were calling the IBM mold. Rather than providing matching contributions in its 401(k) plan on a payroll period basis, it had decided to make single matching contributions after the end of the plan year. Therefore, employees who left during the year would not receive matching contributions.

The media were up in arms. Employees were up in arms. AOL gave in and is returning to its former policy of matching on a payroll period by payroll period basis.

And, this is big news!?

What really got to me about the media coverage was the spin that they managed to put on it. Employees could be losing out on the massive run-up on the matching contributions. Not said was that those balances could lose money as well. It's not fair that employees who leave during the year won't get matching contributions. What makes this fair or unfair? If you know the rules up front and you are evaluating leaving during the year, this should be one of your considerations.

How bad is it really? I'm going to oversimplify my example so that the math doesn't strain my brain. Suppose Employee Z has wages of $100,000 per year and a company matches 50 cents on the dollar on the first 6% of pay contributed. This is not an unusual design. Further suppose (and this is not quite right) that matching contributions are usually made on average exactly halfway through the year. Also assume that under the IBM design that matching contributions are made on the January 1 after the end of the year. Finally, assume that balances earn, on average, 10% returns (I want that investment adviser).

Suppose Z does not leave the company during the year. Then the difference during that year is is approximately 5% of $3,000. In other words, under the more traditional design, Z will have an account balance that is $150 larger. Yes, there are the effects of compounding, but this is really not as big a deal as the media made it out to be.

Surely, AOL has already determined how much money it plans to spend on its employees. if it spends more on the 401(k) plan, rest assured it will spend less somewhere else. It all comes out in the wash. But, it sure does make for an exciting story when a bunch of reporters, many of who think the plan is called a 401 [without the (k)], get a hold of it.

Really, it isn't.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blip Theory -- The Downfall of 401(k) Outcome Theory

Most of the non-regulatory material that I read about 401(k) plans these days deals with participant outcomes. In fact, outcome seems to be one of the big buzzwords for 2014. We are suddenly talking about financial outcomes, health outcomes, and every other kind of outcome you can think of.

Don't get me wrong, I think it would be great if we all have wonderful outcomes. I just don't believe the studies that tell us how to get there.

In the typical piece that I read, I learn that in order to get the best outcomes, participants should begin saving at the beginning of their working career, increase the percentage of their pay that they save over time and convert their account balance (one way or another) to an inflation-adjusted annuity for longevity protection.

That's great. And, when a smart person models what will happen if a young adult follows this guidance, that person will always be destined to have a highly prosperous retirement.

But, it seems that very few people, even those who started saving when they were fairly young, are actually on target to have that very prosperous retirement.

Why not? What happened?

Life happened.

None of these models seem to reflect real life. In real life, people have periods of unemployment. During that unemployment, they stop saving. In fact, to the extent that those people have not also saved well outside of their 401(k), many will need to take distributions from those very 401(k) plans (paying income tax and the early distribution excise tax) just to stay afloat.

Where is this event in the models?

In real life, many young people actually do start to save at a modest rate and gradually increase the amount that they save. But, in real life, many of those people choose to have children and some will have them without having made a truly conscious decision to do so. Kids cost more money than anyone seems to think they will. That increase in savings rate often fails to be sustainable.

Where is this event in the models?

In real life, in 2014, an awful lot of people participate in high-deductible health plans. They are told that one of the great tax benefits of the modern world comes to people who put money away in a health savings account (HSA) to fund the high deductible part of their plans. This is a great idea as well, but real wages have not been increasing for probably the last 15 or more years. This model expects participants to save upwards of 10% of compensation in their 401(k) plans and an additional, say, $4000 per year in their HSAs. That's a lot of money. I think more people than not would tell you that this is just not feasible.

Where is this conundrum in the models?

Purchasing an in-plan annuity or taking an annuity distribution in your 401(k) is often an excellent idea. But, not all plans have them. Among those that do, many are not offered on a particularly favorable or attractive basis. The models that I have seen use a current, no-profit basis for converting your account balance to an annuity.

Where can I get one of these annuities on which an insurer makes no profit?

I'm all for wonderful outcomes. But, somebody needs to merge blip theory with outcome theory. Under blip theory, and I have never heard the term used before the morning of January 17, 2014, just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to wonderful outcomes is paved with potholes hereinafter known as blips. When models start including realistic numbers of blips, I'll start to believe the expected outcomes.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Anther Application of Modern Portfolio Theory

Modern portfolio theory deals largely with the allocation of assets between asset classes in a portfolio. The field, grown predominantly from Markowitz's concept of the efficient frontier has been a hot topic among both investment professionals and more casual investors alike during my time in the workforce (no, that doesn't take us back to prehistoric times, just close).

Essentially, the most significant outgrowth of this concept is that there exists a continuum of allocations that maximize expected return for a given level of risk, or conversely, that minimize risk for a given expected return. All of this, of course, is based on a large set of assumptions, in this case, capital market assumptions. Oversimplifying somewhat, what Markowitz, and after him others, discovered was that you can reduce risk in a portfolio while sometime even increasing longer-term expected return.

That's pretty cool. Part of what we learned is the value of populating a portfolio with uncorrelated and inversely correlated assets. Okay, John, what does that mean?

Consider a two-holding portfolio. Suppose each holding has an expected return of 8% per year and that their returns are well correlated. In other words, when one goes up, the other is expected to go up by a similar percentage. And, when one goes down, the other is expected to go down by a similar percentage. Essentially, your diversification is not. You're not getting any additional benefit from the second holding.

Suppose instead, your tow holdings are somewhat inversely correlated. In other words, they are neither expected to perform particularly well nor particularly poorly at the same time as each other. The expected return of each holding doesn't change. But, by decreasing the overall risk of the portfolio, you are able to increase the long-term expected return of the total portfolio by decreasing volatility.

Now that we've got that straight, let's change our portfolio. Instead of looking at financial assets, let's consider the insured lives of a health insurance company. While less is known about correlations of costs among diverse populations, it seems clear to me that a homogeneous population carries with it a higher risk to the insurer than one that is not.

As an example, consider a population consisting of 100 insured lives, all of them men between the ages of 65 and 75. Without doing any research to get the correct percentage, my past reading tells me that a meaningful percentage of them are going to get prostate cancer over the next 10 years. That's a largely unavoidable occurrence, or so I read, and the claims could all come at the same time.

How would an insurer manage that risk (other than reinsuring or hedging in some other way)? Suppose they cut their population of insured age 65-75 males from 100 to 10 and added in 90 other insureds. Some of them might be of the type that represent a very low risk, say 20-30 year-old males. Some might be women in their 40s, mostly past the age that they will be in the maternity ward.

What it seems that we will find is that the more diversification that our insurer has in its portfolio, the less volatility in claims it will have over time. This is good for them.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), again somewhat oversimplified, health insurers must pay out at least 85% of their premium dollars in medical claims. Suppose they develop a set of premiums whereby they expect to pay out, on average, 90% of their claims. Further suppose that the 90% average has a standard deviation of either 5% or 15%. If I am doing my math correctly, then in the case where the standard deviation is 5%, our insurer will only have to pay rebates in about 16% of all years. In the 15% standard deviation case, however, they will pay rebates in 37% of all years.

In a nutshell, here is what this means. Our hero, if you choose, the insurance company will keep its full profit in either 84% (100%-16%) of all years or in 63% of all years. Before rebates, their long-term profits will be identical, but managing their portfolio for lower risk allows them to actually keep more of their profits.

Another application of modern portfolio theory?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Useful and Not so Much of Wellness Programs

A friend and reader referred me to this New York Times article that discusses a DOL-commissioned study performed by the RAND Corporation and PepsiCo. The study looked at wellness programs to determine the relative values of disease management components and lifestyle management components.

I was surprised that the results were so glaring. I'll get into that difference in just a minute.

First, for readers who don't deal in this area every day, it's useful to explain what we are talking about here. Disease management programs target people with chronic illnesses by educating them about their risks, reminding them to see their physicians, and reminding them to take medications. Lifestyle management programs focus on things such as stress management and weight loss.

The study found that disease management produces very meaningful cost savings, but lifestyle management results in virtually no savings at all. First and foremost, the PepsiCo disease management program has reduced hospital admissions significantly, and hospital admissions are one of the leading contributors to high medical claims costs.

Personally, I think there is more to the difference than what appears in the NYT article. Consider a patient with hypertension (high blood pressure). That blood pressure can be measured. There are prescription drugs whose primary purpose is to get a patient's blood pressure under control. Taking that medication once a day is easy as long as you can remember to do it. For most people, since the medications usually don't have severe side effects, there is nothing discomforting about doing this. Patients see the improvements and they are happy. Statistically speaking, a person with normal blood pressure is less likely to be admitted to the hospital than a hypertensive person. And, blood pressure medication is not among the more expensive ones.

How about lifestyle management? How exactly would I measure stress? How exactly would I control my stress? How would I know that my stress was reduced?

To my mind, these are all largely indeterminable elements. I know when I feel less stressed, but it's usually not something that can be controlled. If I think I will have trouble paying my bills, I will be stressed. If I think I will lose my job, I will be stressed. If a family member is ill, I will be stressed. No stress management program can change this.

Looking at the numbers cited in the study, the disease management program saved nearly $4 for every dollar spent on it while the lifestyle management program saved only about 50 cents for every dollar spent. In total, the program saved nearly $1.50 for each dollar spent.

One could look at this in several ways. We could say that the program in total is working. We could say that PepsiCo should eliminate the lifestyle management component. What we can't say is that disease management doesn't work.