Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Less Expensive Way to Provide Better Retirement Benefits -- DB

I've been pushing defined benefit (DB) plans hard lately. I still believe in them. The problem as I have noted is that regulators don't. They have done everything they can to kill them. Many are gone, many remain.

Yesterday, I happened upon a brief from Boston College's Center for Retirement Research. If you want, you can get the full brief here. In the brief, based on 23 years of data, Alicia Munnell, Jean-Pierre Aubry, and Caroline Crawford -- all from the CCRC -- demonstrate that returns on assets in DB plans actually are better than those in defined contribution (DC) plans.

When you combine this with the inability of many to defer enough to their 401(k) plans to get the full company match, you can see why many will never be able to retire well with a 401(k) as their core retirement plan.

For years, though, the cry has been that people understand 401(k) plans, but don't understand DB. But, suppose I gave you a DB plan that looked like a DC plan, provided returns for participants like a particularly well-invested DC plan, provided better downside investment return protection than a DC plan, and cost the employer less than a DC plan. What would you think?

In the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (yes, that was more than 9 years ago), Congress sanctioned what are now known as market return cash balance plans. What they are are DB plans that look like DC plans to participants, provide more and better opportunities for participants to elect annuity forms of distribution if they like, and provide the opportunity for plan sponsors to control costs and create almost a perfect investment hedge if they choose.

Suppose you had such a plan. Suppose to participants looking at their retirement website, the plan just looked like another account any day they chose to look. Suppose the costs were stable. Suppose the plan provided you as a sponsor more flexibility.

That would be nirvana in Xanadu, or something like that, wouldn't it?