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 ...

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