Friday, December 2, 2016

Instead of Making Defined Contribution Look More Like Defined Benefit, ...

I don't think I've ever ended the title of a blog post with an ellipsis before. But, surely, there's a first time for everything.

Lately, the benefits press has written an awful lot about what must be the latest trend in employer-provided retirement benefits -- making the defined contribution (DC) plan look more like the defined benefit (DB) plan. Perhaps I am missing something, but it appears that this "major" initiative has two components to it (that's right, just two):

  • Communication of an estimate of the amount of annuity a participant's account balance can buy
  • The option to take a distribution from the plan as either a series of installments or as an annuity
Let's consider what's going on here.

Annuity Estimate

Yes, there is a huge push from the government and from some employers to communicate the annual benefit that can be "bought" with the participant's account balance. Most commonly, this is framed as a single life annuity beginning at age 65 using a dreamworld set of actuarial assumptions. For example, it might assume a discount rate in the range of 5 to 7 percent because that's the rate of return that the recordkeeper or other decision maker thinks or wants the participant to think the participant can get.

I have a challenge for those people. Go to the open annuity market. Find me some annuities from safe providers that have an underlying discount rate of 5 to 7 percent. You did say that you wanted a challenge, didn't you?

I'm taking a wild (perhaps not so wild) guess that in late 2016, you couldn't find those annuities. In fact, an insurer in business to make money (that is why they're in business, isn't it) would be crazy today to offer annuities with an implicit discount rate in that range.

But, annuity estimates often continue to use discount rates like that.

Distribution Options

Many DC plans offer distribution in a series of installments. Participants rarely take them, however, For most participants, the default behaviors are either 1) taking a lump sum distribution and rolling it over, or 2) taking a lump sum distribution and buying a proverbial (or not so proverbial) bass boat.

Why is this? I think it's a behavioral question. But, when retiring participants look at the amount that they can draw down from their account balances, it's just not as much as they had hoped. In fact, there is a tendency to suddenly wonder how they can possibly live on such a small amount. So, they might take a lump sum and spend it as needed and then hope something good will happen eventually.

Similarly, if they have the option of getting an annuity from the plan, they are typically amazed at how small that annuity payout is. And, even with the uptick in the number of DC plans offering annuity options, the take rate remains inconsequentially small.

A Better Way?

Isn't there a better way? 

Part of the switch from DB plans to DC plans was predicated on the concept of employees get it. They understand an account balance, but they can't get their arms around a deferred annuity. So, let's give them an account balance.

Part of the switch from DB to DC plans was to be able to capture the potential investment returns. Of course, with that upside potential comes downside risk. Let's give them most of that upside potential and let's take away the worst of that downside risk. That sounds great, doesn't it.

Once these participants got into their DC plans, they wanted investment options. I recall back in the late 80s and early 90s that a plan with as many as 8 investment options was viewed as having too many. Now, many plans have 25 or more such options. For what? The average participant isn't a knowledgeable investor. And, even the miraculous invention commonly known as robo-advice isn't going to make them one. Suppose we give them that upside potential with professionally managed assets that they don't have to choose.

Oh, that's available in many DC plans. They call them managed accounts. According to a Forbes article, management fees of 15 to 70 basis points on top of the fund fees are common. That can be a lot of expense. Suppose your account was part of a managed account with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in it, therefore making it eligible for deeply discounted pricing.

There is a Better Way

You can give your participants all of this. It seems hard to believe, but it's been a little more than 10 years since Congress passed and President George W Bush signed the Pension Protection Act (PPA) of 2006. PPA was lauded for various changes made to 401(k) structures. These changes were going to make retirement plans great again. But, for most, they didn't.

Also buried in that bill was a not new, but previously legally uncertain concept now known as a market-return cash balance plan (MRCB). 

Remember all those concepts that I asked for in the last section, the MRCB has them all. Remember the annuity option that participants wanted, but didn't like because insurance company profits made the benefits too low. Well, the MRCB doesn't need to turn a profit. And, for the participants who prefer a lump sum, it would be an exceptionally rare (I am not aware of any) MRCB that doesn't have a lump sum option.

Plan Sponsor Financial Implications

Plan sponsors wanted out of the DB business largely because their costs were unpredictable. But, in an MRCB, properly designed, costs should be easy to budget for and within very tight margins. In fact, I might expect an MRCB to stay closer to budget than a 401(k) with a match (remember that the amount of the match is dependent upon participant behavior). And, in a DB world, if a company happens to be cash rich and in need of a tax deduction, there will almost always be the opportunity to advance fund, thereby accelerating those deductions.


It is a win-win. Why make your DC plan look like a DB when there is already a plan that gives you the best of both worlds.

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