Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Doing Your Due Diligence on Advisers and Actuaries

I read an interesting article this morning. In it, I read about a company that had used the same retirement plan adviser for quite a long time and developed a good relationship with them. After 13 years of this adviser assisting them with investment monitory, a fiduciary policy, and an investment policy, as well as manager searches, the company in question decided that just as part of due diligence, even though they figured there would only be about a 10% of chance of changing advisers to go through that due diligence process and bid those services out as well.

What the company, Dot Foods, found was that it was being charged perhaps more than a market competitive price and getting less than market competitive level of service. It was time for a change.

We could draw an analogy to lots of different kinds of services, but as consultants like to say, I'm going to drill down a little bit (I can't believe I used that term as hearing it always makes me hear a dentist's drill).

Let's put this in the context of a decent-sized, but not enormous defined benefit pension plan. To give some context, let's say that the plan has between $50 million and $1 billion in plan assets and let's assume that the plan is frozen (this is not an uncommon situation).

Now consider your plan advisers, particularly your actuary. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How long have you been working with your current actuarial firm?
  • Over that time, how many fresh ideas or analyses have they brought you with respect to your plan? When was the last time they brought you one that they didn't charge you for?
  • Reflecting the fact that your plan was frozen and that some of the work behind the actuarial valuation would be much simpler, did they voluntarily reduce your actuarial fees the year after you froze your plan?
  • Do you get as much attention from them as you did before your plan was frozen?
  • Have they given you a strategic plan to get to termination of your plan? Or, have they just told you that interest rates are too low now and you'll have to wait it out?
  • If they have given you a plan, was it provided in the context of your business or was it just their standard template?
You can pretty easily tell what the so-called best practice answers to all of these questions are. And, for your sake, I hope that after reflecting on your answers that you are able to tell yourself and your colleagues that most or all of those answers are what you would like them to be.

Suppose they're not. 

I know. You have a frozen plan and you think you are in set it and forget it mode. You don't really want to spend time both in the due diligence or RFP process to do this check and you certainly don't want to invest the time and effort that you think will be necessary during transition. 

Consider this scenario. You are able through that process to identify enough hard savings and soft savings that hiring a contractor or temporary employee to help with the transition would be a drop in the bucket in terms of cost compared to what you will be saving. During the RFP process, you get a freebie of some ideas that will help you to meet your strategic objectives with a promise of more to come. You learn that your actuary had gotten lazy and was delivering sub-optimal consulting.

Hmm ... there's an interesting term. What in the world is sub-optimal consulting

Sub-optimal consulting is a fancy way of saying that your actuary is just going through the motions. Everything they are providing you is correct, but none of it is the best correct answer.

I'm not implying here that your actuary should be doing anything underhanded or unethical. Quite to the contrary, your actuary should be following the law and Actuarial Standards of Practice to a tee. Oftentimes, however, within those constraints, there are a range of potential answers. Some are far more conducive to your business than others.

Consider this recent real example. A company, now a client, didn't like the news it was consistently getting from its actuary. That company didn't know if that news was the only way or if there was a better way. So, they asked. 

What they learned was that if their actuary did take the time to understand the interrelationship between their plan and their business that there was better news that they could be getting. The company came back to us and asked, "Can you save us money?" The answer was that there were hard dollar savings (fees) that would be small and other savings that would be significant. 

Perhaps you are the company that is getting great service and perhaps you maintain the plan for which everything is being done properly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Save Our Social Security Act

What a novel idea -- Congressman Reid Ribble (R-WI) who I was completely unfamiliar with previous to today, has introduced into the House of Representatives a bill that incorporates ideas espoused by both parties. That's right, it's somewhat of a compromise bill designed to save our Social Security system by adding some burden to high earners while also increasing retirement ages.

The sad part is that I think that most people will look at this bill and focus on the parts that they, philosophically, don't like rather than emphasizing that it represents an excellent effort at potential bipartisan compromise. I hope I'm wrong.

What's in the bill?

  • The Social Security Wage Base, that is the amount subject to the 6.2% OASDI tax that is currently at $118,500, will increase as follows:
    • $156,550 in 2017
    • $194,600 in 2018
    • $232,650 in 2019
    • $270,700 in 2020
    • $308,750 in 2021
    • after 2021, to be determined by the Secretary of the Treasury to capture 90% of all FICA-covered wages
  • Change the current 3-band formula for calculating Social Security benefits to a 4-band formula thus allowing that all compensation considered for purposes of Social Security taxes also be considered for Social Security benefits, but not increasing Social Security benefits for the highest earners.
  • Beginning in 2022, the Social Security Normal Retirement Age (SSNRA) would again begin to gradually increase. This would have little, if any, effect on people currently close to SSNRA, but would reflect longer work spans and life spans for younger workers. This piece of the bill would be reexamined by actuaries every 10 years to study the effects of mortality improvements.
  • Change the basis for calculating the annual COLA for current SS beneficiaries by putting more weight on, for example, food, clothing, and transportation, and by putting relatively lower weight on housing, medical care, and recreation. The intent is to more closely mirror the necessary spending of a senior citizen as compared to that of an average urban wage earner.
  • Create a minimum benefit at 125% of the poverty level
  • Increase the benefit amount (I can't quite determine how this will work) after a person has been eligible to have been in pay status for 20 years
  • Base the SS benefit on 38 years of SS wages rather than 35
  • No legislation can be considered that would temporarily lower SS revenue for a year
Is this what I think is the best solution for Social Security? Probably not.

On the other hand, is this the best solution that I have seen that has a chance of passing Congress and being signed into law by the President? In my opinion, it has the best chance since 1983.

Let's see where it goes.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Plight of Retirement And It's No-Mention Status in the Election

We have a Presidential election coming up. We have 34 US Senate seats that need to be filled this year and 435 seats in the House of Representatives. I've looked pretty closely. I've not see a single comment from an individual running for one of those offices that mentions retirement policy or retirement plans. That, while a majority of working Americans either worry daily about the prospects of retirement or would and should have that worry if they came out from under that rock they have hidden under.

There has been far more emphasis on other areas of workers' rewards packages and frankly, that emphasis has not had a major positive effect on the bulk of those American workers. Perhaps you have seen differently, but the three things that have gotten lots of focus ordered only by the way that I choose to type them have been:

  • Health care (primarily the Affordable Care Act)
  • The need (according to many to reduce executive compensation
  • The hourly minimum wage
Let's assume for the moment that if you are reading this that you are over the age of 25 (if you're under 25 and you have an interest in what I write here, I expect that you will have a successful future) and that you have some useful skill set. If that's the case, then there is a good chance that you are employed, employable, and looking for work, not working by choice, or retired. 

If you are working and you fall into those categories, there is a very good chance that you have access to decent health care benefits and, in fact, you probably had them or would have had them had you been similarly situated, before the effective date of the Affordable Care Act. So, while the ACA may have made some changes to your health benefits, it's not likely that those differences were life-changing for you (yes, I understand that uncapping the lifetime maximum and allowing your kids up to age 26 on your policy could have had that big a difference for you).

Similarly, most of us are not executives and certainly not of the classification whose compensation draws the significant ire of others. As individuals, we might have opinions on levels of executive compensation or we might not, but most of us know that even reducing our CEO's pay by 75% would not change our compensation one iota. We are compensated roughly on our value in the marketplace. Our value does not change merely because our CEO takes a pay cut.

Finally, there is the hourly minimum wage. I could be wrong, but my observation is that there just aren't a whole lot of people earning less than $15 an hour (unless they are currently in school) who read this blog. So, for you, the hourly minimum wage probably doesn't make much of a personal difference (I understand that you may have very strong opinions on it, but those are from the standpoint of what's right and what's wrong).

Where is poor little retirement? Social Security gets debated. But, we all know that you just can't retire on Social Security. 

I'm not going to spout statistics here because I don't have them at my fingertips. But, my observation is that a generation ago, far more employees than not were covered by meaningful employer-provided defined benefit (DB) plans. And, among those who were not, likely the majority of the rest were in often generous money purchase or profit sharing plans. 401(k) plans were in their infancy. As I've written many times here, 401(k) plans were never intended to be a primary means of retirement savings. 

That was the way of the mid 70s through mid 80s. 

Today, as we know, more employees than not, have a 401(k) plan as their only employer-sponsored retirement plan. Many of them are not generous. Many are poorly invested. In a perfect world, the employees in many of those plans will find it difficult to retire with anywhere near the standards of living they are used to. 

It gets worse, of course. Many of us will have or have had work interruptions or, at the very least, periods where we need to reduce or even cease our 401(k) contributions.  

We have a crisis. 

There, I said it. I believe it. 

In fact, it affects and will affect more Americans more profoundly than most of the issues being hotly debated. It certainly affects us more than does knowledge about Hillary Clinton's emails or Donald Trump's tax returns.

Yet, the candidates remain silent.

So very sad.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Opinion: American Workers Need Pensions and They Should Look Like This

Since I last blogged, I've seen a lot of survey data. Among the very compelling themes has been that Americans are afraid that they will not have enough money with which to retire. Those fears are well founded for many.

As I've written here many times, the 401(k) plan was never intended to be the primary retirement source of retirement income for American workers. Neither was Social Security. Rather, Social Security was intended to be a supplement to bridge people for what was usually just a few years of retirement before death. Section 401(k) was a throw-in in a late 70s tax law that was suddenly discovered. It was intended to give companies a way to help their employees to save more tax effectively. And, remember, in the late 70s, the norm was that whatever company employed you at age 35 was likely to be your last full-time employer. ERISA had recently become law and most American workers had defined benefit pensions. These plans were designed to assist employers in recruiting and retaining employees.

Then, again, as I've written many times, along came change through the government and through quasi-governmental organizations. Employers didn't like the mismatch between cash flow requirements and financial accounting charges. New pension funding laws, beginning in 1987, were designed not to ensure responsible funding of pension plans, but to provide an offset to tax expenditures (a fancy name for tax breaks and government overspending). Looking at it from the standpoint of someone in Congress trying to decrease tax expenditures, if you can decrease required company contributions, you decrease their tax deductions, and thus cut those evil tax expenditures.

Nearly 30 years later, pensions have tried hard to go the way of the dinosaur. The fact is, however, that there are still lots of defined benefit pension plans out there. But, they don't look the same as they did 30 years ago. The laws have changed, creative minds have been at work, and new and better designs have emerged.

American workers generally should have employer-provided defined benefit pension plans. But, since these creative minds have been at work, what exactly should these new plans look like?

  • While they offer a sense of stability in retirement, annuity payments do not appeal to many Americans and they do not necessarily understand them. So, while all defined benefit plans must have annuity options, they should also have lump sum options.
  • The plans should not be "back-loaded" (a term that means that most of your accruals and therefore cost to your employer emerges late in your career). The typical final average pay plan of yesteryear was designed so that most of your accruals occurred close to or after you were eligible to retire. This made some sense when you spent your whole career with one employer. But, in 2016, that very rarely happens. So, plans should accrue benefits fairly ratably.
  • Benefits should be portable. That is, you should be able to take them with you either to an IRA or to another employer. This works best if there is a lump sum option through which you can take a direct rollover and maintain the tax-deferred status.
  • Employer costs should be predictable and stable. This can be achieved when there is no longer a mismatch between assets and liabilities in a plan.
  • Employers should see that plan assets are professionally managed, but fluctuations in asset returns from those that are expected can be borne by plan participants.
This sounds like pension nirvana, doesn't it? Such plans and designs can't possibly exist.

Well, they do. 

The plan design that accomplishes this is often known as a Market Return Cash Balance Plan (MRCB).

While an MRCB carries with it all of the required characteristics of defined benefit plan and it looks a lot like a 401(k) or other defined contribution plan, it brings with it additional benefits. It satisfies all of the bullets I've outlined above. Budgeting gets easy and predictable. There is no "leakage" due to sudden expenses when a participant's car decides to break down or an unexpected flood ravages their house.

An MRCB is very suitable to be a primary retirement plan. You want to save a bit extra? That's what your 401(k) plan is for. 

If you are an employer and you're reading this, you really need to know more, don't you?