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?

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