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.