Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Get Your 401(k) Design Right

I happened to read a few things today about 401(k) matching contributions. One in particular talked about stretching the match. Apparently that means that if you are willing to spend 3% of pay on your workforce, consider making your match 50 cents on the dollar on the first 6% of pay deferred instead of dollar for dollar on the first 3% of pay deferred. This will encourage employees to save more.

That might be a really good idea ... for some companies. For other companies, it might not be.

First and foremost a 401(k) plan is, and should be, an employee benefit plan. Taken quite literally, that means that it should be for the benefit of employees.

Plan sponsors may look at the plan and say that they get a tax deduction. That's true, but they also get a tax deduction for reasonable compensation. And, there is probably less of a compliance burden with paying cash than there is with maintaining a 401(k) plan.

Where does the typical 401(k) design come from? Usually, it's the brainchild, or lack thereof, of someone internal to the plan sponsor or of an external adviser. Either way, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Most plan sponsors have plenty of smart and thoughtful employees and many external advisers are really good.

On the other hand, when it comes to designing a 401(k) plan, some people just don't ask the right questions. And, just as important, they don't answer the right questions. We often see this in marketing pieces or other similar propaganda that talk about designing the best plan. We might see that the best plan has all of these features:

  • Safe harbor design (to avoid ADP and ACP testing)
  • Auto-enrollment (to get higher participation rates)
  • Auto-escalation (so that people will save more)
  • Target date fund as a QDIA (because virtually every recordkeeper wants you in their target date funds)
All of these could be great features for your 401(k) plan, but on the other hand, they might not be. Let's consider why.

Safe harbor designs are really nice. They eliminate the need for ADP and ACP nondiscrimination testing. They also provide for immediate vesting of matching contributions. Suppose your goal, as plan sponsor, is to use your 401(k) plan at least in part as a retention device. Suppose further that every year, you pass your ADP and ACP tests with ease. Then, one would wonder why you are adopting a plan with immediate vesting whose sole benefit is the elimination of ADP and ACP testing. Perhaps someone told you that safe harbor plans were the best and you listened. Perhaps nobody bothered to find out why you were sponsoring a 401(k) plan and what you expected to gain from having that plan.

Auto-enrollment is another feature that is considered a best practice. (Oh I despise that term and would prefer to call it something other than best, but best practice is a consulting buzzword.) Most surveys that I have read indicate that where auto-enrollment is in place, the most common auto-enrollment level is 3% of pay. Your adviser who just knows that he has to tell you about auto-enrollment tells you that it is a best practice. Perhaps he didn't consider that prior to auto-enrollment, you had 93% participation and that 87% of those 93% already deferred more than 3% of pay. Since he heard it was the thing to do, he advised you to re-enroll everyone and now, you are up to 95% participation, but only 45% of them defer more than 3% of pay. Perhaps nobody bothered to ask you how your current plan was doing.

In the words of a generation younger than me, this is an epic fail.

I could go on and on about other highly recommended features, but the moral of the story is largely the same. Your plan design should fit with your company, your employees, your recruiting and retention needs, and your budget. That your largest competitor has a safe harbor plan doesn't make it right for you. It may not even be right for them. That the company whose headquarters are across the hall from yours has auto-escalation doesn't make it right for you. It may not be right for them either.

If you are designing or redesigning a plan for your company, ask some basic questions before you go there.
  • What do you want to accomplish with the plan?
    • Enough wealth accumulation so that your employees can retire based solely on that plan?
    • Enough so that the plan is competitive?
    • Something else?
  • Will eliminating nondiscrimination testing be important?
  • What is your budget? Will it change from year to year? As a dollar amount? As a percentage of payroll?
  • What do you want your employees to think of the plan?
    • It's a primary retirement vehicle.
    • My employer has a 401(k) plan; that's all I need to know.
    • My employer has a great 401(k) plan.
    • My 401(k) is a great place to save, but I need additional savings as well.
  • Will any complexity that I add to the plan help my company to meet its goals or my employees to meet their goals? If not, why did I add that complexity?
These are the types of questions that your adviser asked you when you designed or last redesigned your plan, aren't they?

They're not?

Perhaps it's time to rethink your plan.

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