Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wake Up and See the Light, Congress!

Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Since its first major overhaul in 1922, Congress has seen fir to make earth-shaking changes to the Internal Revenue Code (Code) once every 32 years. 1922. 1954. 1986. And, while it seems that they may be one year early this time, they are pitching tax reform once again.

The concept of qualified retirement plans as we know them today comes from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) signed into law that Labor Day in 1974. Since that time, there have been relatively few changes to the Code affecting retirement plan design. And, frankly, most of them have come on the 401(k) side. In fact, Section 401(k) was added to the Code after ERISA and since then, we have been blessed with safe harbor plans, auto-enrollment, auto-escalation,Roth, and qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs). Over the same period, little has been codified or regulated to help in propagating the defined benefit plan -- you know, that plan design that has helped many born in the 40s and early 50s to retire comfortably.

Isn't this the time? Surely, it can be done with little, if any, effective revenue effects.

Since ERISA, there have been really significant changes in defined benefit (DB) plan design including the now popular traditional cash balance plan, the even better market return cash balance plan, pension equity plan, and less used other hybrid plans. And, DB plans have lots of features that should make them more popular than DC plans, especially 401(k) plans.

  • Participants can get annuity payouts directly from the plan, thereby paying wholesale rather than the retail prices they would pay from insurers for a DC account balance.
  • Participants who prefer a lump sum can take one and if they choose, roll that amount over to an IRA.
  • Assets are professionally invested and since employers have more leverage than do individuals, the invested management fees are better negotiated.
  • In the event of corporate insolvency, the benefits are secure up to limits.
  • Plan assets are invested by the plan sponsor so that participants don't have to focus on investment decisions for which they are woefully under-prepared.
  • Participants don't have to contribute in order to benefit.
But, they could be better. Isn't it time that we allowed benefits to be taken in a mixed format, e.g., 50% lump sum, 25% immediate annuity, 25% annuity deferred to age 85? Isn't it time that these benefits should be as portable as participants might like? Isn't it time to get rid of some of the absolutely foolish administrative burdens put on plan sponsors by Congress -- those burdens that Congress thought would make DB plans more understandable, but actually just create more paperwork, more plan freezes, and more plan terminations?

Thus far, however, Congress seems to be missing this golden opportunity. And, in doing so, Congress cites the praise of the 401(k) system by people whose modeling never considers that many who are eligible for 401(k) plans just don't have the means to defer enough to make those models relevant to their situations.

Sadly, Congress prefers to keep its collective blinders on rather than waking up and seeing the light. Shame on them ...

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Focusing on the Pension Part of the Deal

Let's suppose you're on the finance side of a business. That business is buying a company and you learn that the company that you are acquiring has one or more defined benefit (including cash balance) pension plans. What do you do now?

Pension plans and the finances associated with them are among the most confusing and misunderstood elements of a deal like this.The rules are unnecessarily complex and are often misunderstood even by people that you might be inclined to engage as experts. Cash flow requirements do not align well with financial accounting charges and not knowing the right questions to ask could seriously impede your ability to get the answers that you need.

So, how can I help?

Among the really nice things about pension plans is the amount of information that is publicly available on each of them. You see, in its infinite wisdom, Congress and the agencies that Congress has entrusted to regulate pensions have deemed that a myriad of such information has to be disclosed every year for each plan. In unknowing hands, that information is just that -- information. In the right hands, however, it's a veritable goldmine.

As a senior finance person, what do you need to do?

  1. Identify all of the plans that you might be (will be) acquiring.
  2. Identify what measures are important to you (e.g., cash flow, financial accounting expense, government disclosures, volatility, loan covenants).
  3. Identify your constraints (e.g., available cash to use for pensions, funded status triggers to loan covenants).
  4. Identify your goals with regard to the plans.
Notice that I didn't mention plan documents, participant census data, plan asset statements, or anything else that you thought you needed to provide. This is where that goldmine comes in.

I call your attention to a recent situation where we had just the information in 1. through 4. above. The goals were fairly simple and included roughly these:

  • Help us to understand the amount of cash necessary to pay for the plan(s),
  • Tell us what is not being done optimally, and 
  • Help us to find ways to optimize these plans on a path to termination.
Our client now has a 10-year forecast of cash flow requirements under multiple scenarios. They understand what has not been done optimally over the last 10 years or so. And, they now have a strategy all set to go so that when they do pull the trigger and finish their deal, they'll be putting their pension dollars to optimal use.

This is a place where off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter solutions don't work. Every plan is different. Every plan has different thresholds. Every company is different. Every company has different resources.

But what makes every company the same is that every company needs a solution that is customized to their situation.