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.