As disclosures have become more comprehensive, two elements of retirement plans that have gotten particular scrutiny from outside observers are unnecessary risks and unnecessary costs. Interestingly, if a company chooses to make a generous retirement program part of its overall broad-based rewards program, outside observers generally have no problem with this.
Risk in this case is usually measured in terms of volatility. However, just plain old volatility should not be a concern. What should be a concern is volatility in plan costs as it relates to some useful metric or metrics.
Consider a hypothetical company (HC) with free cash flow of $100 million. Suppose the volatility that they are looking at is in pension contributions and that HC is expecting (baseline deterministic scenario) to have to make a contribution in 2015 of $500,000. In looking at forecasts provided by its actuary, HC notices that the 95th percentile of required pension contributions is $2 million. While that is a big increase in relative terms, it may not be enough to have any meaningful effects on the way HC runs its business (it may, depending on circumstances, but in this hypothetical situation, it does not). Depending upon HC's tolerance for risk, this may be a situation where no action needs to be taken.
On the other hand, Failing Business (FB) has a legacy frozen pension plan with expected 2016 required pension contributions of $50 million. FB has significant debt and if it contributes the full $50 million, it will just barely be able to run its operations and service its debt. If that number hits $52 million, FB will default on its largest loan.
What should FB do?
There are several schools of thought here. One is to mitigate pension contribution risk to the extent possible thereby ensuring that the ominous $52 million pension contribution number will not be reached. But, is that really a good strategy? Or is it just part of a spiral to a lingering death? The other school of thought says that FB is an ideal candidate to take on risk for potential reward. If the risk turns out to produce bad results, FB may go out of business, but it looks like whether that happens or not is only a matter of time. On the other hand, if taking the risk generates a big upside, FB will be in a much better position to revive its business.
FB is purely hypothetical and we don't know all the facts here. But, my point is that just because the trend says to do something doesn't mean its right for your company.
On the defined contribution (DC) side, the analysis is a bit different. Today, most companies (I don't have a percentage for you) offer 401(k) plans with some level of employer matching contributions. In this scenario, many companies have thought about the costs, but few have thought about the financial risks.
What are the costs that companies are thinking about? Here are a few:
- The cost of plan administration (recordkeeper, custodial, legal, accounting)
- The fund management fees
- Institutional class versus retail class
- Passive versus active management
- Open architecture versus proprietary
Generally, these are costs that a plan sponsor can control by careful selection of vendors and evaluation of options. Take a look. It may be that your current providers have let their fees to you creep up while their service to you has gone down.
Then, there's the risk.
One of the other concerns in the DC industry is that employees are not saving enough money. So, many employers are taking steps to encourage their employees to defer more. However, if they defer more, the cost of matching contributions will increase. In my experience, almost no companies actually consider this risk, but I have seen a few CFOs who have been really upset when those matching contributions got big enough that they affected the company's financials.
There are plan designs that can help to control this. Perhaps you should consider one.