Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Qualified Retirement Plans Are Not a Congressional Toy

I was at the Southern Employee Benefits Conference Annual Educational event yesterday. One of the speakers had just returned from a conference in Washington where there were a number of presenters who are staffers on The (Capitol) Hill. Reports are that staffers from both parties strongly implied that tax-favored status of 401(k) and other qualified retirement plans may be in jeopardy.

In short, this is bad -- really bad.

The eventual ability of many Americans to retire in the recently traditional sense is already in jeopardy. Various surveys that I have seen say that the majority of Americans in the workforce have no savings outside of their qualified retirement plans and for most, those are 401(k) plans only. If Congress were to eliminate some or all of the tax breaks associated with them, I fear that those savings would disappear as well for many people. All but those who had the ability and foresight to save and invest on their own would be left to find sources of income until they reached their deathbeds.

That is bad -- really bad.

I don't think I have ranted too much for a while, but this topic is always good for one.

When Congress looks at issues that have tax effects, they break them into two categories -- tax revenues and tax expenditures. Anything that causes the government to collect less money in taxes is a tax expenditure.

Therein lies the rub. Most things that Congress can do for the country cost money. If Congress chooses to send a bill to the President that provides for some improvement that was not previously planned, it needs to pay for those costs. It often chooses to do so through reductions in tax expenditures.

According to IRS publications, the two largest current tax expenditures are for employer-provided health insurance and for employer-provided retirement plans. Health insurance is a sacred cow. It's not going away unless or until we have a single-payer system. Retirement does not appear to be so sacred.

And, retirement always seems to be a good revenue raiser, at least the way that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores bills. The CBO looks at 10-year costs or revenues. So, Congress needs money to pay for a highway bill -- they reduce required contributions to defined benefit plans. That cuts tax expenditures ... in the short run.

As I have said many times, Congress should not intermingle tax policy and public policy. Ever!

Sadly, Congress does not listen to me. All of my readers know that Congress should listen to me, at least on these issues, but alas, they are not so wise.

So, we are left with a Congress that makes changes to employee benefit plans in the most interesting places. Here are a few that will either refresh your memory or leave you scratching your head or both:

  • The Uruguay Round Agreements that led to the formation of the World Trade Organization
  • HATFA, the 2014 highway funding bill
  • Several defense appropriations acts
  • Any number of omnibus budget reconciliation acts (OBRAs)
  • KETRA, the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005
  • SBJPA, the Small Business Jobs Protection Act
If Congress wants to eliminate the tax breaks for qualified plans, it should do so by eliminating the federal income tax. If Congress chooses not to do that, don't mess with them.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Proxy Hysteria Arrives -- I Was Right

I told you it would happen, didn't I? I said that companies whose executives participate in defined benefit (DB) pension plans, especially nonqualified plans were going to report massive increases in CEO compensation. I said that there would be a big name company for which the increase in CEO compensation due in large part to the amount from pensions would create hysteria.

It has happened. Bloomberg reported in a video and an article that GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt was rewarded with an 88% increase in compensation despite sluggish performance. The company attributed the compensation increase to his reshaping of the company and to an increase in the value of his pension.

In my opinion, this could have been handled better. They could have focused on the message from my January 7 post. It said right there what was going to happen. I wouldn't lie to you and I wouldn't lie to GE.

Let's digress for a moment and think about how executive compensation is disclosed for the named executive officers (NEOs), including the CEO, at a public company. The company discloses compensation generally in the Summary Compensation Table (SCT) of the proxy. In the Compensation Discussion and Analysis section (CD&A), the company is afforded the opportunity to discuss its compensation practices, procedures, and policies. As the CD&A is a narrative, the company is required to discuss its rationale for its policies, but it is certainly not precluded from explaining changes. In fact, this is a great place for the company to explain what happened.

According to the Bloomberg article, Immelt's total compensation was approximately $37.3 million. I am neither condoning nor condemning that level of compensation here; that's not my point. Bloomberg says that that amount represents an 88% increase in compensation. Using that figure suggests that Immelt's compensation in the previous year was approximately $19.8 million. Further, Bloomberg says that GE noted that without the pension increase, Immelt's 2014 compensation would have been $18.9 million.

Opportunity knocked, but nobody opened the door. Apparently, GE did give Immelt a roughly 6% increase in base pay apparently from $3.2 million to $3.4 million. There appear to have been no other changes in compensation structure or policy with regard to the CEO.

Suppose GE took the step of explaining the pension increase. The pension plans in which Immelt participates did not change. He wasn't granted a massive benefit increase resulting in his total compensation doubling. What happened was that his 2014 compensation replaced his 2009 compensation (remember 2009 was a horrible year for the US and global economies) in a 5-year average, pension discount rates dropped (this increases the present value of pension benefits), and the Society of Actuaries released a new mortality table (I suspect GE adopted it) reflecting longer life expectancies in general.

What could GE have controlled in an effort to keep Immelt's disclosed compensation relatively steady? They could not have controlled discount rates as they are based largely on the high-quality corporate bond market. They could have chosen, subject to the approval of their external auditors, to not update the mortality table to use for the calculations, but that would only have been obfuscating the issue and frankly, the updated table is likely more appropriate for them. Finally, 2009 happened in 2009. It can't be undone. Incentives paid out more in 2014 than they did in 2009. That's true for almost all companies. What it is reflective of, that corporate performance has improved, is true for many companies and it's a good thing.

So, GE and Immelt didn't do anything evil. Their crime, so to speak, was not an error of commission, so much as it appears to have been one of omission.

GE had to know that this "increase in compensation" would set off alarms. Bloomberg appears to have received or at least heard statements from GE. Why did GE not prepare its spokesperson to address this? The fault was not in changes to their compensation program; the fault was in their lack having a prepared message.

I don't expect that they will be the only company to face this issue. I can help you craft the message. Get out ahead of this problem.

You'll thank me later.