Thursday, November 29, 2018

Surprise -- Employees Want Pensions

I read an article yesterday highlighting, as the author pointed out, that employees value benefits more than a raise. Some of the findings were predictable -- the two most important were health insurance and a 401(k) match and they were followed by paid time off. But, just barely trailing those were pension benefits with flexible work hours and the ability to work remotely far behind.

Let's put some numbers behind the ordering:

  • Health insurance -- 56%
  • 401(k) match -- 56%
  • Paid time off -- 33%
  • Pension -- 31%
  • Flexible work hours -- 21%
  • Working remotely -- 15%
What I found remarkable about this is that five of those six get constant attention. In today's workplace, however, as compared to one generation ago, pensions get little, if any, attention yet nearly one-third of workers would rather have pensions than a raise.

Why is this the case? Neither the survey nor the article got into any analysis as to the reasons, so I get to way in here entirely unencumbered by nasty things like facts. I get to express my opinions.

Ask a worker what they fear. I think they will tell you that two of their biggest fears are losing their health and outliving their savings. The second, of course, can be mitigated by guaranteed lifetime income.

Workers are beginning to realize that 401(k) plans are exactly what Congress intended them to be -- supplemental tax-favored savings plans. In fact, generating lifetime income from those 401(k)s is beyond what a typical worker is able to do. Their options for doing so, generally speaking, are to self-annuitize (when you run out of money, however, the guarantee goes away) or to purchase an annuity in the free market. 

That, too, comes with a problem. While that purchase is easy to do and does come with a lifetime income guarantee, it also comes with overhead costs (insurance company risk mitigation and profits plus the earnings of a broker). Roughly speaking, a retiree may be paying 20% of their savings to others in order to annuitize. That's a high price. Is it worth it? Is that why workers want pensions despite often not really knowing what they are?

Pensions are not for everybody; they're also not for every company. But, this survey strongly suggests that companies that provide pensions may become employers of choice. In the battle for talent, that's really important.

Many companies exited the pension world because the rules made those pensions too cumbersome. But, the rules have gotten better. They've put in writing the legality of plans that many employers wanted to adopt 15 to 20 years ago, but feared doing something largely untried. And, there is bipartisan language floating around in Congress that would make such plans more accessible for more employers.

Designed properly, those plans will check all the boxes for both the employer and the employees. It seems time to take another look.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When the American Academy of Actuaries has no Clothes

We're all familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes," about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent – while in reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new "clothes", no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. Finally, a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"  
Such appears to be the current position of the American Academy of Actuaries. They have opened voting on two amendments to their bylaws which voting will close November 9 just before midnight. Amendment 1 would take away most rights of Members not on the Board of Directors while Amendment 2 would ensure transparency to the processes of the Actuarial Standards Board (paralleling what we see in other professions such as accounting).
Tuesday, a group of 9 Presidents of the Academy (current, future, and 7 former) sent an email to all members of the Academy urging Members to vote in favor of Amendment 1 and against Amendment 2. They preached transparency and independence. They offer neither.
In fact, were Amendment 1 to pass, in order for a member-driven bylaws amendment to have even a chance to be brought to a vote, it would take a petition of 15% of the membership. Think about that for a moment. 15%. Since no member has a distribution list of contact information for Academy members, gathering signatures of 15% of members would be a herculean task, nigh impossible. And, even if 15% were gathered, the Academy Board could by 2/3 vote of Board members refuse to bring such bylaws amendment to a vote of members.
On the other hand, Amendment 2, the supposedly uppity, disruptive Amendment 2, would have its greatest effect by making meetings of the Actuarial Standards Board -- the professional standards setting organization for US actuaries -- open.
Quel dommage.
Meetings of the ASB should be open. They should be open because we are now at the point where members of the Actuarial Standards Board are chosen in significant part by the Academy's Board (actually, they are chosen by a Selection Committee chaired by the Academy President and having 1/3 of its votes from the Academy, but if the proposed SOA-CAS merger takes effect, that 1/3 will increase to 1/2).
The 9 presidents tell us how important this is for the Academy and for the profession. They talk about the independence of the Academy. They talk about the transparency of the Academy. They expect that the masses -- the sheeple -- to chant in agreement.
So, I urge you to vote NO on Amendment 1 and to vote YES on Amendment 2.
Be like the little boy. Tell the 9 presidents. Tell the Academy. Tell them that the Academy wears no clothes.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Big Surprise Gotcha in the Million Dollar Pay Cap

Even those of us who have been hiding under rocks know that late last year, the President signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And, as part of that Act, there was language that amended Code Section 162(m) also known as the million dollar pay cap. After Treasury gave us guidance on those changes in Notice 2018-68, some observers were surprised by a few of the interpretations that the regulators took. One in particular, however, that they didn't quite spell out, meets my criteria for a big surprise gotcha.

I'll come back to that and consider how an employer might get around it, but first some background. Under the old 162(m), deductions for reasonable compensation under Section 162 were limited to $1,000,000 per year for the CEO and the four other highest compensated employees of, generally speaking, publicly traded companies. However, most performance-based compensation was exempt from that calculation and was deductible as it would have been before the cap came into being.

Under the new 162(m), the definition of covered employee has been changed to be the CEO, CFO, and the three other highest paid employees. But, once you become a covered employee, you remain a covered employee. So, by 2030, for example, a company could easily have 25 covered employees. [Hats off to the cynics who know this is a silly example because no law stays in place unchanged for 13 years anymore.] Further, performance-based compensation is no longer exempt.

Like most law changes that affect compensation and benefits, this one, too, has a grandfather provision. Here, the new rules are not to apply to remuneration paid pursuant to a binding contract that was in effect on November 2, 2017, and which has not been materially modified after that date. The keys then relate to what is compensation for these purposes, what sort of modifications might be material, and what constitutes a binding contract.

Compensation is essentially any compensation that would be deductible were it not for the million dollar pay cap. Whether a modification is material remains a bit subjective, but the guidance does specify that cost-of-living increases in compensation are not material, but that those that meaningfully exceed cost-of-living are.

The binding contract issue is the really sneaky one. Your read and your counsel's read may be different, but my read is that if the employer has the ability to unilaterally change the contract, it's not binding. That is problematic.

Consider a nonqualified retirement plan be it a defined benefit (DB) SERP or a traditional nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan. In my experience, it's fairly common (completely undefined term) to see language that gives an employer the unilateral right to amend said plan, subject to any employment agreements that may overrule. Well, if the company can amend the plan, there would seem to be no binding agreement. And, that means that when that nonqualified plan is paid out to the employee, perhaps none of a large payout will be deductible for the employer. I'm aware of some payouts well into nine figures.

When it's a nine-figure payout, there really aren't great solutions. But, for the typical nonqualified plan, whether it's DB or DC, qualifying some of the benefits changes the treatment. If the benefits can be qualified in a DB plan using a QSERP device, employer funding will be deductible if it is deductible under Section 404. That's far more forgiving and, in fact, it is not at all unlikely that the deductions will already have been taken before the covered employee retires.

Yes, it's still a big surprise gotcha, but don't you prefer a surprise gotcha when it has a surprise solution.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Time to Revisit the Work Relationship

I read an article the other day highlighting some findings from a Willis Towers Watson survey. Quoting from the article:
Yet only 25% rank contributing to a health savings account (HSA) as a top current financial priority, falling below saving for retirement in a 401(k), paying for essential day-to-day expenses and paying off debt. The survey found the majority of employees (69%) who didn't enroll in an HSA said they chose not to because they didn't see the benefit, understand HSAs, or take the time to understand them.
Let's think about the hidden part of what is being said there. The relationship between employers and employees has changed. As two factions battle for dominance in what that relationship should look like -- those who preach self-reliance think that employers should provide availability of savings options only and those who preach mandated pay and benefits think that the only differentiators should be things like office gyms and juice bars -- we are left in a world where creativity is encouraged, but not in any determination of how employees are rewarded.

If you were to take a survey of which benefits employees find the most important (many have, but I can't put my hands on one right now), I suspect that numbers one and two would be their health benefits and their 401(k). Why? The data that I cite above shows that most don't understand their health benefits and having worked in the retirement space for more than half my life, I can tell you that the large majority don't understand their 401(k) either. Many understand what it is, but relatively few understand what it's not.

So much for the people who preach self-reliance as in 2018, those are two benefit types that are the epitome of self-reliance.

Let's turn for a moment to another side of the equation -- pay. The other side of the spectrum would have us believe that as an employer, you are not particularly entitled to differentiate between employees based on much of anything because if the data suggests that any two employees are paid any differently from each other and it is even remotely possible that maybe someone in their wildest dreams could divine that those differences in pay are based on something that the law doesn't or shouldn't, in their opinion, allow, the company is in trouble.

Suppose we were to scrap the current system. Suppose different companies offered different benefits that their employees could understand. Suppose they paid employees based on the value they brought to those companies (yes, I know that value is nigh impossible to measure).

In the thought to be antiquated employer-employee relationship that existed 30-35 years ago, consider what we had:

  • Companies were generally nicely profitable;
  • Employees tended to stay with the companies that they worked for at age 35 until they retired;
  • Those employees, generally speaking, lived as well as or better in retirement than they did while they were working;
  • Health benefits were such that employees didn't go into debt to pay their share of them from every paychecks; and 
  • Neither the country nor its citizens were reeling in debt.
I also see data that tells me that more than half (usually about 55%) are on track to retire. Translated, that means that nearly half are woefully behind. That's not a success. That is an utter failure.

The experiments of employee self-reliance and of paying everyone the same because you're not allowed to pay them differently have been failures. More likely than not, they will remain failures. 

Perhaps it's time to see what was right about the employer-employee relationship in the 80s and bring it back. Let's aim for 100% of employees being on track to retire. Let's aim for benefits that employees use because they do understand them. Let's pay people that deliver value in the workplace. It is time to revisit the work relationship.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

As President of the Conference of Consulting Actuaries

I have had the honor and privilege to serve my profession and the members of the Conference of Consulting Actuaries (CCA) for almost a year now. My term will come to an end at the close of our Annual Meeting on October 24.

Last Thursday, I received a phone call and later an emailed letter from the President of the American Academy of Actuaries. The Academy later notified its membership with a similar communication.

Here is a paragraph from the Academy's communication to its members:

  • The Board believes that ACOPA and CCA perform important functions for their members. Those functions, which include advocating for the commercial interests of their members and their members’ clients, are highly valued by many in the profession. They are, however, incompatible with maintaining the independence and objectivity of the ASB and ABCD. Preserving this independence is vital to the public’s confidence in the U.S. actuarial profession’s ability to regulate itself.
None of the functions of the CCA is advocating for the commercial interests of our members and our members' clients. In fact, the CCA is not a lobbying organization. We do not currently and to my knowledge, never have had a presence on Capitol Hill.

The Academy does.

Of the five major US-based actuarial organizations, the CCA was the first to impose upon its members formal standards for continuing professional education. Later, the Academy and others adopted ours.

In 2006, in response to a crisis within the actuarial profession in the UK, a specially appointed task force of the US-based actuarial organizations released the final CRUSAP report (Critical Review of the US Actuarial Profession) outlining a series of recommendations to keep the independence of the US actuarial profession intact. To my knowledge, the last remaining remnant of CRUSAP had been the Joint Discipline Council (JDC), a group and function whose role was to jointly recommend discipline for violations of the Code of Professional Conduct. Leadership of the CCA took perhaps the largest role in seeing that the JDC came to fruition. All five major US-based actuarial organizations were signatories to it. Last fall, the Academy withdrew causing the JDC to be disbanded.

It's not up to me to be the arbiter of right and wrong.

I've laid out facts.

You decide.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Using Cash Balance to Improve Outcomes for Sponsors and Participants

In a recent Cash Balance survey from October Three, the focus to a large extent was on interest crediting rates used by plan sponsors in corporate cash balance plans. In large part, the study shows that those methods are mostly unchanged over the past 20 years or so, this, despite the passage of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) that gave statutory blessing to a new and more innovative design. I look briefly at what that design is and why it is preferable for plan sponsors.

Prior to the passage of PPA, some practitioners and plan sponsors had looked at the idea of using market-based interest crediting rates to cash balance plans. But, while it seemed legal, most shied away, one would think, due to both statutory and regulatory uncertainty as to whether such designs could be used in qualified plans.

With the passage of PPA, however, we now know that such designs, within fairly broad limits, are, in fact allowed by both statute and regulation. That said, very few corporate plan sponsors have adopted them despite extremely compelling arguments as to why they should be preferable.

For roughly 20 years, the holy grail for defined benefit plan, including cash balance plan, sponsors has been reducing volatility and therefore risk. As a result, many have adopted what are known as liability driven investment (LDI) strategies. In a nutshell, as many readers will know, these strategies seek to match the duration of the investment portfolio to the duration of the underlying assets. Frankly, this is a tail wagging the dog type strategy. It forces the plan sponsor into conservative investments to match those liabilities.

Better is the strategy where liabilities match assets. We sometimes refer to that as investment driven liabilities (IDL). In such a strategy, if assets are invested aggressively, liabilities will track those aggressive investments. It’s derisking while availing the plan of opportunities for excellent investment returns.

I alluded to the new design that was blessed by PPA. It is usually referred to as market-return cash balance (MRCB). In an MRCB design, with only minor adjustments necessitated by the law, the interest crediting rates are equal to the returns on plan assets (or the returns with a minor downward tweak). That means that liabilities track assets. However the assets move, the liabilities move with them meaning that volatility is negligible, and, in turn, risk to the plan sponsor is negligible. Yet, because this is a defined benefit plan, participants retain the option for lifetime income that so many complain is not there in today’s ubiquitous defined contribution world. (We realize that some DC plans do offer lifetime income options, but only after paying profits and administrative expenses to insurers (a retail solution) as compared to a wholesale solution in DB plans.)

When asked, many CFOs will tell you that their companies exited the defined benefit market because of the inherent volatility of the plans. While they loved them in the early 90s when required contributions were mostly zero, falling interest rates and several very significant bear markets led to those same sponsors having to make contributions they had not budgeted for. The obvious response was to freeze those plans and to terminate them if they could although more than not remain frozen, but not yet terminated.

Would those sponsors consider reopening them if the volatility were gone? What would be all of the boxes that would need to be checked before they would do so?

Plan sponsors and, because of the IDL strategies, participants now can get the benefits of professionally and potentially aggressively invested asset portfolios. So, what we have is a win-win scenario: very limited volatility for sponsors with participants having upside return potential, portability, and wholesale priced lifetime income options.

The survey, as well as others that I have seen that focus on participant outcomes and desires, tells us that this strategy checks all the boxes. Now is the time to learn how 2018’s designs are winnersfor plans sponsors and participants alike.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Imagining Retirement Plans Through the Eyes of a Child

Imagine retirement plans. Imagine retirement plans through the eyes of a child (gratuitous Moody Blues reference for readers in my age range).

I know, this sounds really strange. Of all the people who are not thinking about retirement, kids are at the top of that list. Bear with me though. I will bring you back.

Before I do, however, think back to when you were a child. You probably either lived in a house on a street where there were other kids or in an apartment where there were other kids around or went to school where there were other kids. One way or another, most of us found ourselves around other children.

Now, think about what really made you beam with pride and joy. There were lots of things -- good grades, winning a game or a race, and being the first kid on the block to have something that every kid wanted. It didn't have to be something big. But, if you had it first, every kid wanted to be you.

I promised that I would bring you back and I'm going to start now. Take yourself out of the mind of a child. At least do that a little bit, but we're going to be meandering back and forth a bit on this short journey.

Think about the employer-employee relationship. Some employees want a job; others want a career. Some employees want a paycheck; others want to be somewhere where they want to come to work. Some employers want to have employees who collect a paycheck and perhaps as small a paycheck as the employer can get away with; others want to be employers of choice.

From an excellent article in Fast Company, "[O]ne of the top factors most likely to keep professionals at their company for 5+ years ... is having strong workplace benefits ... ." The article continued, "[I]n comparison, the least enticing factor for keeping professionals at their current companies is having in-office perks such as food, game rooms, and gyms."

Employers that want to be employers of choice will care about this stuff. And, so will employees. And, many of these employees actually do remember being children. Just as I do, they remember things like spending a nickel on a stick of Topps bubble gum that came with five baseball cards and upon opening the pack seeing that they were the first kid they knew of to get a Mickey Mantle. You really do have something special then.

Often times, employers that want to be employers of choice want that because they know that the cost of unwanted employee turnover is so high. In fact, when companies are counting their beans, if they use 150% of one year's pay as a proxy for the cost of an unplanned and unwanted turnover of a professional employee, then 1) they are likely pretty close, and 2) they will realize that the cost of benefits probably pales in comparison to the cost of turnover.

One of those benefits that we mentioned is a retirement program (note that I talk about a program not an individual plan). Most companies, or certainly many if not most, have 401(k) plans. Their employees don't really know what they are, but everybody thinks they are important, and, in fact, they are. So, giving an employee a 401(k) plan doesn't make her feel special when she looks at it through her eyes of a child.

But, suppose I told her that I had a special plan for her. We don't have to give that plan a name. Suppose I told her that I, her employer, value my employees and that I was going to give her something like a match, but that it was better. Suppose I told her that I was going to auto-enroll her in our 401(k) plan because everybody says auto-enrollment is a best practice, but even if a year came where she had to stop deferring to the 401(k) plan, I was still going to contribute the same 5% of pay to her retirement account. And, by the way, those assets that accumulated from those over and over again five percents were going to grow based on professional investments. And, someday when she retires, she'll be able to take her benefit as a lump sum, or as an annuity, or as some combination of the two.

Imagine how a child thinks about that.

The child's eyes light up.

She is the first kid on her block to have this special benefit.

She is special.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

District Court Affirms Withdrawal Liability Calculations, But Appears to Leave an Opening

Working right before the holiday, New Jersey District Court Judge Kevin McNulty issued a lengthy opinion late on July 3 in Manhattan Ford Lincoln, Inc. v UAW Local 259 Pension Fund. The case concerns the withdrawal liability assessed against Manhattan Ford, a withdrawing employer from a multiemployer pension plan and the actuarial assumptions used for the calculations. While this is far from the first case on this topic, it may be instructive to contributing employers who are considering withdrawing from multiemployer plans and for consultants and actuaries who work with these plans.

Before diving too deeply into the case, we need some background for readers who do not work in the multiemployer plan world on a daily basis. As the background is geared toward the more casual reader than to the multiemployer expert, we've intentionally omitted some details.

In 1980, Congress passed and President Carter signed into law the Multiemployer Pension Plans Amendments Act (MPPAA). In part, MPPAA established the concept of withdrawal liability as a means of ensuring that employers who choose to leave those plans pay their fair share of any unfunded liabilities.

For years, one of the frustrations of many who are involved with multiemployer plans has been the lack of guidance on actuarial assumptions particularly the discount rate to be used in determining the vested benefit liability (VBL) under a plan. That said, the statutory language that provides much of the guidance that we have in this arena and the language that the fund's actuary looks to in determining the discount rate to be used in annual actuarial valuations are somewhat instructive.

Quoting from a footnote in Judge McNulty's opinion, "The main upshot, for our purposes, is that under current law, 'each' actuarial assumption must be reasonable for the purpose of minimum funding, whereas they must be reasonable 'in the aggregate' for purposes of withdrawal liability." The language here is strikingly similar yet as we will discuss later, the calculations are often very far apart.

In this particular case, the plan's Enrolled Actuary (EA) used the Segal Blend (a method developed by the Segal Company in the early days of MPPAA) as a means of discounting in order to determine the fund's VBL and therefore the unfunded vested benefits (UVB) as well. To understand this case and the distinctions we will make later, we'll have to get hypertechnical (yet still oversimplified) for a moment to explain the Segal Blend. The Segal Blend essentially does two calculations and blends them. It considers that liabilities that can be settled by plan assets are assumed to have their risk transferred and therefore use PBGC rates (the rates inherent in insurance company annuity settlements) to discount the liabilities. But, for the portion of the liabilities not covered by plan assets, it acknowledges a risk premium and uses the funding interest rate (the EA's best estimate of future investment returns).

In Manhattan Ford, the fund's calculation performed by the EA showed that the withdrawing employer owed a roughly $2.5 million withdrawal liability based on the Segal Blend. The employer challenged the calculation and an arbitrator found in favor of the fund. Manhattan Ford appealed to the District Court.

Judge McNulty found that two essential questions were raised [quoting]:

  1. As a matter of ERISA law, must a pension plan's actuary use identical actuarial assumptions to calculate the plan's satisfaction of minimum funding requirements and its unfunded vested benefits ("UVB") for withdrawal liability?
  2. Assuming the answer to question 1 is "no," did the Arbitrator err in this case when he found that the discount rate applied by the Pension Fund's actuary to determine Manhattan Ford's withdrawal liability, the Segal Blend, did not render the actuarial assumptions "in the aggregate, unreasonable (taking into account the experience of the plan and reasonable expectations)"?
The Judge found that answer to both questions to be "no" and granted summary judgment to the Pension Fund. Summary judgment is granted only when the Court finds that the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Stated differently and from an extremely non-legal perspective, the Court found that even if all of the facts claimed by Manhattan Ford were true, it still had no valid case.

Thinking about this as a consulting actuary or even putting us in the lens of a withdrawing employer, this would appear to leave little room. And, this would appear that based on the fact pattern in this case that at least in the District of New Jersey that the Segal Blend produces results that are not unreasonable (note that the burden of proof here by statute is on the withdrawing employer).

What this opinion specifically does not say, however, is that the EA's judgment is infallible or indisputable. While the opinion did not address this, that the statute gives withdrawing employers the ability to challenge withdrawal liability calculations suggests that ERISA contemplates that there are, in fact, valid challenges.

What might they be?

We've seen a number of calculations of withdrawal liability where all of the discounting is done using PBGC rates. To understand the significance of this, note that in recent years, PBGC rates for this purpose have often been less than 3% while funding interest rates are often in the vicinity of 8%. Conservatively, changing the discount rate from 8% to 3% could increase liabilities by anywhere from 40% to more than 100% depending on the demographics of plan participants. For purposes of an example, let's use 60% and further, for extreme simplicity, let's assume that all liabilities of our hypothetical multiemployer plan are vested.

Suppose our plan has assets of $1 billion and liabilities discounted at 8% of $1 billion. Then, the unfunded liability at 8% is $0. However, decreasing our discount rate to 3% increases our liabilities to $1.6 billion and increases our unfunded liability from $0 to $600 million. That helps us to illustrate the extreme leverage inherent in many of these calculations.

So, to return to some of the questions at hand, let's suppose that the 8% discount rate applied in the annual valuation of the plan is the EA's actuarial assumption. In fact, when he has put it on the Schedule MB to Form 5500, he has asserted under penalty of perjury that it is reasonable. And, he has similarly asserted under penalty of perjury that each of his other assumptions is reasonable. Finally, he has asserted that, in combination, these assumptions offer his best estimate of expected future experience under the plan.

Now, the EA is asked to perform a withdrawal liability calculation. In performing that calculation, he keeps all assumptions except for the discount rate the same as they were for minimum funding. But, he changes the discount rate from 8% to 3%.

If each assumption is individually reasonable, one can extrapolate that the set of assumptions, in the aggregate, is reasonable. 

Given that the unfunded liability has increased from $0 to $600 million and even conceding that the purpose of the measurement is different, this begs the question as to how the revised assumptions (only one is revised), in the aggregate, can also be reasonable.

Withdrawing and potentially withdrawing employers should weigh these issues carefully when withdrawing. In combination with counsel and with other experts including actuaries, they should also weigh these issues when appealing a determination of withdrawal liability.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How Ready are Americans for a Successful Retirement

Every weekday morning, one of the first blasts that glamorizes my inbox is the Plan Sponsor News Dash. If you don't subscribe already, you should probably remedy that situation. It's free and it's pretty unobtrusive, and once in a while even features my wisdom or lack thereof. But, this morning, I read an article from the News Dash that struck my mathematical, actuarial, and consulting senses a bit funny.

This article told me that according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute,  57.4% of U.S. households are on track to be able to cover 100% of expenses in retirement, but if long-term care costs are removed from the equation, the percentage jumps to 75.5%. Then it goes on to tell me how much rosier the picture gets if they only have to cover 90% of their household expenses, or even 80%, or finally even 100% if you also remove long-term care costs.

Holy Symmetry, Batman!

What happened to the scenario where expenses go up more than we are anticipating? I've not been able to find the EBRI research, so perhaps the article is explaining everything that the research actually does present.

According to the article, the research goes on to suggest that if we auto-enrolled all workers at 6% in an automatic DC plan that the retirement crisis would virtually disappear. 

From a policy standpoint, this just feels so wrong. If you look at your pay stub today, unless your compensation for the year has already gone above $128,400, you'll see that 6.2% of it is going to the government in the form of FICA tax. For those that don't know the terminology, that's the old age part of Social Security. In addition, regardless of how much you have made thus far this year, an additional 1.45% is going to the Social Security Administration to support the Medicare system. So, what this proposal is telling me is that it wants to, right off the top, direct 13.65% of my pay towards my retirement and the retirements of others. That's almost one dollar in seven of what most Americans earn. We would have no say. In fact, if you add that to federal, state, and local income taxes, it feels like the policymakers are directing more of what I make than I am.

Think about that.

But, returning to the original topic, how ready are Americans for a successful retirement? It doesn't seem likely to me that covering 80% of ones projected expenses is going to be sufficient. But, if we focus on the analysis in which we are supposed to cover 100%, 3 in 7 American households can't do it. Were we to bump that to 110% (inflation increases), we probably get to the point where more than half of those households cannot sustain retirement.


The 401(k) as the cornerstone of American retirement system does not work. Remember, this study was done after some huge run-ups in equity markets. What happens if we have a significant correction? What happens if we are in a bubble?

You want a policy solution? Reinvent the pension plan in ways that offer some degree of lifetime income, longevity protection, and inflation protection. Design it so that costs are stable (that's really easy by the way) while still providing for consistent and responsible funding. Let employees use the 401(k) as it was intended -- as a supplemental savings program.

Households will be ready for a successful retirement.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Compensating Executives Under the New 162(m)

Except for those who are either executives or people involved in determining the ways that executives are compensated, one of the changes to the Internal Revenue Code last fall seemed like a little throw-in designed to appease a small constituency, but that few would really care about. That small group that does understand the change, however, knows it is a pretty big deal.

Let's recap so that we can all be on the same page. Prior to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA), and oversimplifying somewhat, public companies were entitled to deductions for executive compensation so long as such compensation did not exceed $1 million per year for a covered employee. Performance-based compensation was not to be counted against that limit and covered employees were the CEO plus the four other highest compensated employees.

Since the passage of the TCJA, there have been several key changes to Section 162(m):

  • Once you become a covered employee of a company (beginning in 2017), you remain a covered employee of that company, essentially forever;
  • The CEO plus four other highest paid has been changed to CEO plus CFO plus three other highest paid;
  • Companies no longer get an exemption for performance-based compensation; and
  • Some grandfathering exists for certain agreements that existed in writing.
That does not leave a whole lot of wiggle room for companies. And, for companies that have provided large amounts of performance-based compensation to their executive group, meaningful deductions may be gone.

I'm not about to suggest that I can fix this new problem. But, you should note that amounts that have been deductible under Section 404 are unaffected by these changes. Section 404 of the Internal Revenue Code relates to qualified pension plans. What this means is that to the extent that parts of an executive's compensation which would be subject to Section 162(m) are somehow moved into a qualified pension plan, the funding of that plan will, subject to the rules of Section 404, generally qualify for a corporate tax deduction.

Of course, there are a myriad of rules around what it takes to keep such a pension qualified including the nondiscrimination rules of Section 401(a)(4). But, for most companies that still maintain ongoing pensions, the ability to transfer some otherwise nondeductible compensation to such a pension plan may still exist. It's one of the tools in the tool box that companies should look into.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Desire to Move to Lifetime Income Options -- Is It Real?

I read an article this morning that tells me, among other things, that two in ten defined contribution (DC) plan participants plan to use some portion of their plan assets to purchase lifetime income products. I don't dispute the research that was done, but I absolutely dispute that behaviors will be as the data imply.

Before you read on, I want to be clear. Any criticism that I have here is not of the author. The piece does an excellent job of explaining what the data say. My criticism is also not of the data collection. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) asked legitimate questions and reported the answers that they received.

But, this is a case where I posit that a perfectly good interpretation of perfectly good data is likely to not be a good predictor of future behaviors, at least not as the law exists today. What we need to help these data to be a reliable predictor is a statute that is focused on retirement policy not on the assumption that small groups of people will abuse the Tax Code. And, once that statute works, we need plan designs that give well-meaning plan participants the ability to customize their individual retirement income streams to meet their own needs without worry that somehow they will fall prey to regulations that were written to stop abuse by a few. (For the retirement and tax geeks reading this, yes, sections like 401(a)(9), I mean you.)

Is this newfangled design DC? Maybe or maybe not. Is this newfangled design defined benefit (DB)? Maybe or maybe not. Why do we really need such a broad distinction?

I'll return to the design issues later, but first I am going to make a u-turn back to my comment about these data as predictors.

Yes, two in ten DC plan participants would like to get some lifetime income or longevity protection from their DC plans. But, what options are available? Generally speaking, whether they are in plan or out of plan, they are retail priced annuities (meaning they are priced favorably for the annuity provider and therefore unfavorably for the annuity buyer). There are traditional annuities and there are qualified longevity annuity contracts (QLACs). The experience in the marketplace thus far (anecdotally) is that participants will pay anywhere from 15% to 40% more for these annuities from DC plans than would be considered actuarially equivalent to a lump sum in a DB plan. Insurers need to be both risk-averse and profitable and therein lies a difference. DB plans, on the other hand, are intended, generally speaking, to provide optional forms on an agnostic basis.

So, how do we get there? As I said earlier, changing the statute to allow common-sense streams of income for participants is a great first step. Then we need a new type of design. To me, it probably doesn't fall into the current, common notion of DB or DC.

Let's call it the Plan of the Future.

And, once those common-sense options are available, my prediction is that far more than two in ten participants will want some amount of lifetime income whether it's from DC plans, DB plans, or just qualified retirement plans.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Check Your Lenses to See Properly

Which lenses are you wearing right now? Come on, take a look. Are they the right ones?

No, this is not one of those cheesy Ray-Ban coupons that litter social media. This is about consulting.

Which lenses are you wearing right now?

I think it's a good question.

If you're like me, you've been wearing glasses or contact lenses for a long time in order to see more clearly. In my case, I wear progressive lenses (readers, mid-range, and distance all in one) for every day and work and I wear distance only lenses for sports. In case you're wondering, it's not easy to hit a tennis ball well when the size of the ball changes as you look through different parts of your lens.

But, back to consulting, did you check to see which lenses you are wearing?

Let's consider a simple example. I'm an actuary. A lot of the people I work with -- my peers -- are also actuaries. My clients generally are not.

If I am writing a memo for internal consumption by other actuaries, i can wear my actuarial lens. There is a high expectation that my readers will understand my position in the ways that I want them to understand it.

But, suppose I need to take that same memo and send it to a client. My client may not know the difference between a carryover balance and a prefunding balance. My client may not understand that PBO and ABO do not move necessarily in lockstep. My client may not even know what any of these things are.

So, when I write to my client, I explain things to them at the level that I perceive is right for them. Or, put differently, when going from my internal actuarial memo to my external consulting memo, I've changed lenses. In the first case, my lenses are thick and monocular. In the second case, they are gradual and at least binocular as I translate from that which is hard to see at a distance to something that my client can see easily close up.

My lenses have an emotional side to them as well. And, there's a fancy name for it, well not so fancy. Empathy. I try the best I can to put myself in my client's shoes -- to put myself in their position and to write for their benefit, not for anyone else's.

That's hard. When we write a consulting piece, we all want to seem brilliant to our clients. We take off that client lens and put on our own lens just dazzle from the keyboard with thoughts so profound and complex that we must truly be in a league of our own. But, who knows it? The poor client who reads it gets bored. They put it down. They call a competitor for a translation.

Uh oh, or if you are a fan of Scooby Doo, rutro.

So, let's take off our own lens and put the client lens back on. In doing so, we rewrite our masterpiece on the intricacies of an Internal Revenue Code section whose mere label fills up an entire line and simplify it. We make it so that our client can understand it. Yes, I know, we think we have dumbed it down. But, really, that client lens is the empathy lens. Done properly, our client doesn't find it dumbed down, but just right.

Now, our client thinks we are brilliant.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fitting a Square Retirement Peg Into a Round Hole

I just don't get it. We knew what they were and honestly, they may have been well defined before then, but in 1974, Congress saw fit to codify defined benefit plans (DB) and defined contribution plans (DC) in ERISA. At the time, there was no Section 401(k) in the Internal Revenue Code.

It was also pretty clear back then. Pension plans were required to offer annuity options. Plans that were not pension plans (mostly profit sharing plans) were not required to offer annuity options. And ERISA said it was good.

In a profit sharing plan, a participant's accrued benefit was his or her account balance, generally. In a pension plan, generally, a participant's accrued benefit was the amount of his or her annuity. And ERISA said it was good.

But, time went by and despite ERISA saying things were good, Congress decided to tinker. And, as a group, Congress has few tools in its bag of tricks that exceed its ability to tinker. It usually works like this. Representative A introduces a bill and she has just enough votes locked up that she can almost get it through the House. And, Representative B comes to her with an idea and says that if you'll just add this one [stupid] provision, I'll vote with you and I can drag C, D, E, F, G, and H along.

That's how the sausage is made in the tinkering factory.

So, once upon a time, we had this round retirement hole (the structure that ERISA gave us) and it was good. It worked pretty well. The evidence of that is that people who spent a good part of their careers under the structure developed in ERISA have generally retired and if they planned at all well, their retirements are not at all bad compared to their working lifetimes.

But, as Congress saw fit to tinker with the rules, it found ways, among others, through bills known as Pension Protection Act[s] to convince employers to get rid of pensions. That's right, Pension Protection Acts killed pensions.


So, through Pension Protection Acts, workers were suddenly left with nothing but account balances and through improved awareness of health risks and better medical care, they were also left with longer life spans. Those account balances that were perfectly sufficient to get them to the age 75 or so that was their life expectancy at birth had no chance of getting them to their new life expectancy that was closer to 85.

Now what?

The hue and cry was for annuities. And, thus Congress began to tinker again. How could they possibly fit this square account balance peg into the round annuity hole. So, Congress explored ideas for annuities in DC plans.

But, you see that if you offer actuarially equivalent annuities from a DC plan, then you have gains and losses and that would essentially be a DB plan. If you offer insurance company provided annuities (and recall that insurance companies are in business to make money), then you have too small of an annuity.

Oh the ignominy of the square peg.

We had a perfectly good system. It came with perfectly good benefits and for most plans, perfectly good actuarial assumptions and methods.

And Congress broke it. And after all these years, despite taking file and rasp and hammer to the square peg, the round hole remains empty.

Congress, there are smart people who do not sit in your chambers. Give us your objectives and let us find you a solution. We'll make that peg round and Americans will be able to look forward to their golden years again.

ERISA will once again say it is good.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Are You Better Off than You Were 20 Years Ago?

Nearly 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan asked voters if they were better off than they were four years earlier. And, that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy Carter's reelection hopes. So, without trying to end anything for you, I ask if you are better off from a retirement standpoint than you were 20 years ago.

For Americans as a group, I think the answer is a clear no. Our retirement system has been broken by the momentum that has gathered around the 401(k) plan. After all, when Section 401(k) was added to the Internal Revenue Code in the Revenue Act of 1978, it was never intended to be a primary retirement vehicle. In fact, it was a throw in that even among those who were there, there doesn't seem to be much agreement on why it was thrown into the Act.

When it was, however, defined benefit (DB) pension plans were in their heyday. People who were fortunate enough to be in those plans then are now retired and an awful lot of them are living very well in retirement. On the other hand, people who are now retiring having been in 401(k) plans only have their retirement fates scattered all over the place. Some are very well off, bit others are essentially living off of Social Security.

Let's consider where those people went wrong. For many, when they first had the opportunity to defer, they chose not to. They had bills to pay and they just couldn't make ends meet if they didn't take that current income. By the time they realized that they should have been saving all along, they couldn't catch up.

For others, they were doing well until they lost a job. Where could they get current income? They took a 401(k) distribution.

Yes, I am very well aware that the models show that people who are auto-enrolled and auto-escalated in a 401(k) plan with a safe harbor match will fare quite well. Those models all assume no disruptions and constant returns on account balances of usually around 7%.

Let's return to reality. The reality is that young workers are (likely because of all the campaigns telling them to do so) deferring liberally when they start in the workforce. The problem is, and I get this anecdotally from young workers, that more of them than not reach a point where they just can't defer at those levels any more. They get married, buy a house, and have kids, and the financial equation doesn't work. So, they cut back on deferrals. I know a number who have gutted one or more of their 401(k) plans in order to buy a house. The fact is that it's not easy to defer, for example, 10% of your pay into your 401(k), another 5% into your health savings account (HSA), and save money for a down payment on a house.

Where were we 20 years ago? For many Americans, they were about to be getting those notices that their DB plans were getting frozen. Congress killed those DB plans. The FASB killed those DB plans.

When I got into this business in 1985, most (not all) corporate pension plans were being funded responsibly. And, this status was helped, albeit for only a year or two by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (shortening amortization periods). One of the big keys, and this will be understood largely by actuaries, is that we had choices of actuarial cost methods. My favorite then and it would be now as well for traditional DB plans is known as the entry age normal (EAN) method. The reason for this is that under EAN, the current (or normal) cost of a plan was either a level cost per participant (for non pay-related plans) or a level percentage of payroll for pay-related plans. Put yourself in the position of a CFO -- that makes it really easy to budget for.

But Congress and the FASB knew better. In the Pension Protection Act of 1987 (often referred to OBRA 87 because it was one title of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), we had it imposed on us that we must perform a Unit Credit (another actuarial cost method) valuation for all DB plans. And, in doing that Unit Credit (UC) valuation, we were given prescribed discount rates. At about the same time (most companies adopted what was then called FAS 87 and is now part of ASC 715), DB plan sponsors also had to start doing a separate accounting valuation using the Projected Unit Credit (PUC)  (Unit Credit for non-pay related plans) actuarial cost method. Most of those sponsors found that their fees would be less if they just used these various unit credit methods for their regular valuations as well and we were off and running ... in the wrong direction.

You see, PUC generally produced lower funding requirements than EAN and the arbitrary limits on funding put in place by that second funding regime known as current liability (the UC valuation) and most DB plans had what is known as a $0 full funding limit. In other words, they could not make deductible contributions to their DB plans during much of the 1990s. And, it stayed that way until prescribed discount rates plummeted and there were a few years of investment losses.

What happened then?

CFOs balked. They had gotten used to running these plans for free. Suddenly they had to contribute to them and because the funding rules were entirely broken, the amounts that they had to contribute were volatile and unpredictable. That's a bad combination.

So, one after another, sponsors began to freeze those DB plans. And, they did it at just the time that their workers could least afford it.

For all the data and models that tell us that it should be otherwise, more people than ever before are working into their 70s, generally, in my opinion, because they have to, not because they want to. As a population, we're not better off in this regard than we were 20 years ago In fact we are far worse off.

Even for those people who did accumulate large account balances, many of them don't know how to handle that money in retirement and they don't have longevity protection.

We need a fresh start. We need funding rules that makes sense and we need a plan of the future. It shouldn't be that difficult. I'd like to think that my actuarial brethren are smart people and that they can design that cadre of plans. They'll be understandable, they'll be portable as people change jobs, they'll have lump sum options and annuity options , and they'll even have longevity insurance. They'll allow participants the ability to combine all those in, for example, taking 30% of their benefit as a lump sum, using 55% for an annuity from the plan beginning at retirement, and 15% to "buy" cost-of-living protection from the plan.

That's great, isn't it? Even most of the 535 people in Congress would probably tell you that it is.

But those same 535 people don't really understand a lick about DB plans or generally about retirement plans (there are a few exceptions, but very few). In order to get that fresh start, we need laws that will allow those designs to work.

We surely don't have them now.

Over the years, Congress has punished the many plan sponsors because of a few bad actors. If 95% of DB plans were being funded responsibly, then Congress changed the funding rules for 100% of plans to be more punitive because of the other 5%.

Isn't it time to go back to the future to get this all fixed?

Let's kill the 401(k) as a primary retirement plan and develop the plan of the future. It could be here much sooner than you think.

Friday, February 2, 2018

How Big Does Your ROI Have to Be? You Can Get It Here

Let's make believe it's 2018. Let's further make believe that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) or whatever it's long-winded name turned out to be was signed into law late last year. And, let's finally make believe that you hold a corporate position where you get to weigh in on corporate investments and deployment of capital.

Just how big of a return on investment do you need to be able to project in order to pull the trigger?

8%? 10%? 12%? 15%?

For most of you, I'm guessing that I've finally surpassed or at least hit your target. You'll definitely want to read on. For those that need a bigger number, give me a chance. But, I didn't want to scare away those people who think that really big numbers are only found in Fantasyland.

For those of you that really want to get into the technical details, I'm going to refer you to an excellent piece written by my Partner, Brian Donohue. Some of you may not want to get into that level of gory detail and you just want the big picture and a summary to convince you, you've come to the right place.

First off, you need to sponsor a defined benefit (DB) pension plan. It's fine if it's of the cash balance or some other hybrid variety. So, let's suppose that you do because if you don't and you have no plans to, unless you just really love my writing or just have a strange desire to find out what you are missing out on, you can probably stop reading now.

I don't want to put this in terms of dollars because if I talk about billions and you are a $100 million company, you may not think this is for you. And, conversely, if I talk about millions and you think millions go away in rounding, you won't think it's for you. So, let's talk about units.

Suppose your DB plan is fully funded on a Schedule SB basis. In other words, your funding target and your actuarial value of assets both equal 1000. Then your minimum required contribution, generally speaking, is equal to your target normal cost, probably not a big number compared to what we are talking about here.

Despite not having to, contribute 200 units. Go ahead. Do it. Trust me. I wouldn't sell you snake oil.

Here are your benefits from having done so before September 15, 2018 (assuming calendar year plan year and tax year):

  • The 200 units are tax-deductible under Code Section 404 for 2017 when your corporate marginal tax rate was likely 35% (yes, there are unusual circumstances where they may not be or where the deductions may not be of value to you, but for most sponsors, this is the case) as compared to 21% beginning in 2018. Savings of 14% of 200=28 units.
  • Your PBGC variable rate premiums may come down by as much as 8 units, But that could be as much as 8 units per year for multiple years (let's call it 5 years for sake of argument). Savings of 8 units times 5 years=40 units.
That's 68 units of savings on a 200 unit deployment of cash. That's 34%.

Now, I'm not going to claim that your ROI here is actually 34%. Yes, you will contribute these amounts more than likely in future years and when you do, you will take a tax deduction. But, you'll take it in the future (you remember time value of money) and you'll only get a 21% deduction when you do. And, yes, you may not get those full PBGC savings and some of them will be in the future, but your savings are likely to be significant.

And, then there is the other really key benefit -- your plan will now have a surplus on a funding basis meaning that you almost certainly don't have to contribute and deal with volatility of minimum required contributions in the near future.

I'd be doing you a disservice, of course, if I didn't give fair consideration to the downsides and perceived downsides of this strategy. So, I'm going to shoot straight with you.

Yes, you will have 200 units of cash tied up with no immediate means of accessing it. However, it's getting you a pretty good and rapid ROI, so in most cases, I think you'll get over that one.

Pension surplus is considered to be a bad thing. In fact, prevailing wisdom is that pension surplus is worth only pennies on the dollar. Well, sometimes prevailing wisdom shouldn't prevail.

If your DB plan is ongoing, this is just advance funding, plain and simple. It's money that you would have to contribute and the future when you could take your deductions at a 21% marginal tax rate.

If your DB plan is frozen, the argument is a little trickier. But, for most sponsors, if you do have a frozen plan, the cost to terminate is likely going to exceed your funding target. In fact, it's likely to exceed your funding target by a fair amount. So, those 200 units will be put to use.

But, let's take the extreme scenario where your investments do well, interest rates rise, and those 200 units really start to look like trapped surplus. 

Do you sponsor a defined contribution (DC) plan? It may not fit your current DC strategy, but generally speaking, your DB surplus upon termination can be used to fund a "qualified replacement plan" (think profit sharing or non-elective contributions) for up to seven years. So, in that case, you would be getting an advance deduction for future DC contributions.

Yes, I've simplified things and there are potential tax and legal issues here, so I leave you with this:

Nothing in here should be construed as tax or legal advice which can only be obtained from a qualified tax or legal professional. If you need tax or legal advice, you should consult such a professional. And as with any strategy of this sort, your mileage may vary.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Everybody Must Get Sued

I logged into my social media this morning and I noticed a pervasive theme. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter -- the trend in their highlights or whatever the particular site is calling that section is that somebody is getting sued. In fact, looking at my top highlights on each of those sites, more than 50% of those highlights is that somebody is suing somebody else. That's a frightening sign of the times.

Suppose instead of those sites, there was a site called BenefitsGram or SnapCompensation, what would they look like? Well, there are sites that are a little bit like that -- there's Plan Sponsor's News Dash and Benefits Link's Benefits Buzz, a pair of news consolidator sites. And, when I look at what's trending there, it's the same -- everybody must get sued.

So, why am I writing about this here?

In these days where many of the pundits talk about risk management and de-risking, is there a bigger risk than getting sued? For many companies, there may not be. A big enough lawsuit can put one of them out of business. I could certainly name some where that has happened (I'll skip that part though as I'm sure you have access to Google search as well).

In my world, it's happening around benefits and compensation programs on a more than daily basis. Somebody is getting sued. And, yes, I will agree, many of those lawsuits are frivolous. And, even among the ones that have some substance to them, an awful lot of those should fail on the merits.

The sad part, though, is that among those that should fail on the merits and even those that should succeed, almost all of them could have been avoided.

Defending a lawsuit is expensive. Even if you win, you probably paid an attorney a lot of money to defend you. And, that attorney likely convinced you (rightfully so in most cases) that you needed an expert witness or two or three on your side and you paid them a lot of money as well. So, even if you won, you lost.

What does real winning look like? It looks like not getting sued in the first place. On the contracts side, the key seems to be to write 100 page license agreements (or similar documents) that you know your customers won't read before they sign off on something that is so one-sided that they have no rights at all. On the benefits and compensation side, it's not so simple. Usually, you have to have things like plan documents and those documents have lots of legal requirements to comply with all the laws that Congress touts, but that are festered with so much junk that makes for great PR, but no sense at all.

So, you write those documents or get counsel to do that for you (probably a better idea). And, back in Section 14.23 of one of the documents, somebody wrote a really long and confusing paragraph. and, they left off an s at the end of a word that would have changed a singular to a plural. Voila! Somebody finds that the s is missing and decides that was always intended and not having that s will entitle an entire class of potential plaintiffs to double their benefits or more.

Will they find a court that will allow them to strike the first blow? Do they win at the District Court level? If they do, you have already spent a lot of money and if you want to appeal, you'll have to spend  a lot more.

So, what's the message here? Do everything you can to make sure that your intent of each of your plans is clear. Explain with examples. While I don't often praise IRS and Treasury for their mastery of the English language, they are well known for using words such as "the provisions of this paragraph (b) can be illustrated by the following examples" and then they give maybe five examples to make crystal clear what they intended.

You can too.

And you should.

But you probably haven't.

And neither have your counterparts at thousands of other companies.

So, here's your checklist:

  1. Address the litigation risks in your plans.
  2. Take steps to fix and problems that you have uncovered.
  3. If you do get sued, make sure your counsel finds great expert witnesses for you.
Otherwise, everybody must get sued ... with apologies to Bob Dylan and Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.