Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Would We Ever Create a New Plan to Do Exactly What an Existing Plan Already Does?

I think my title is self-explanatory. Suppose you have a perfectly good employee benefit plan, in this case, a retirement plan, why would you seek to change another type of plan to make it look like the perfectly good plan?

I think that is a great question, but lots of people seem to disagree. Congress. Think tanks. People with something to gain from rejiggering the plan they indirectly benefit from to replace something that solves all the same problems and is already in place.

I'm sure you're wondering where I am going with this. If you want a deep dive, I wrote one for Human Resource Executive. It got a fair amount of good feedback including that from one finance executive who described it as "true thought leadership."

So, what's the problem? The problem is that participants are worried about their retirement. They are worried about outliving their savings. They are worried about a lack of lifetime income protection. They are worried about the fate of their retirement hinging on their Social Security and their 401(k).

Of course, Congress has an excellent response. Let's take the 401(k) and twist it and turn it until it looks more like a pretzel or worse yet a Mobius Strip or Klein Bottle. Let's make sure that it gets annual disclosures. And let's make sure that those disclosures estimate (poorly, I might add) the amount of lifetime income that plan can buy for you. And, let's see what we can do to mandate that lifetime income options be available from those plans, albeit ensuring that there is room for insurers and fund managers, and investment managers to profit from it which, of course, means that the lifetime income you are getting as a participant is not really a fair amount. 

This makes no sense. Not to me. And, it shouldn't to you. 

You know we already have a perfectly good plan type that provides lifetime income as a default. It provides security and that is what the public is looking for. It's called a defined benefit (DB) plan and despite what our legislators in Washington seem to think, those people who have them do not want to give them up. Under any circumstances. In fact, I could point you to swaths of people who once they have such a plan will not leave the organization that provides it unless their new organization gives them something similar. Yes, both will offer a 401(k), but only one provides the security of lifetime income. Necessarily, if the participant wants it.

If you took the 8 minutes (that's what Google tells me it takes) to read my article in the link above, you'll understand that this is workable. It might not be the DB plan that your parents had 30+ years ago, but it's still a DB plan. What makes it better is that your employer will like it too. You can understand it and they can understand it. And, as you noticed, when you retire, you can choose how much you want as a lump sum, within some reasonable limits, and how much you want in the way of lifetime income protection.

That, my friends, is what the American populace is screaming for. Yet, Congress, having a perfectly wonderful solution staring them in the face, is looking for a way to make the 401(k) plan look like that perfectly good solution, albeit with your money leaking to every constituency out there.

That makes no sense, does it?

Create your plan of the future using the tools we already have in that neat little box called DB.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

If CFOs Are Worried About Benefit Costs, Why Are They Leaving Avoidable Pension Costs on the Table?

This morning's lead article in the Wall Street Journal's CFO Journal says that CFOs are concerned about benefit costs. This was not at all surprising to me. What is surprising though is how much they are leaving on the table relative to defined benefit pension plans, often frozen legacy plans.

Let's start out with some background. 40 years ago, most large companies in the US provided defined benefit (DB) pensions for large parts of their workforce. This was, of course, before the 401(k) gave us the perhaps misguided self-sufficiency explosion. Over time, many of those employers froze those DB plans (meaning no new participants and those in the plan get no further accruals) and some terminated them. But, there remain a lot of frozen DB plans that remain in what some call hibernation. I call it lingering death.

That lingering death seems to go on interminably. And, there are reasons that happens. Freeze the plan and it becomes out of sight, out of mind. Not to overdo the cliches, but they go into a set it and forget it mode.

But, set it and forget it with a legacy pension may not work so well. Research by October Three has shown that many of these plans have what might be termed overhead or frictional costs exceeding 1% of plan assets. That means that for a not atypical frozen plan that the long-term cost of that plan -- unless the sponsor is willing to fund it sufficiently to terminate it may be 10-15% higher than if those frictional costs were entirely eliminated. (Understand that it is impossible to eliminate all of those frictional costs, but most can often be eliminated.)

How does this happen? Nobody is paying attention. There's nobody on staff focused on efficiency in that frozen plan. The last person doing that went away a few months after the plan was frozen. So, now, a typical company with a, for example, $50 million frozen plan may be spending more than half a million dollars per year on that plan unnecessarily. 

Suppose the company assigned one professional to that plan. Suppose they made that plan half of that person's responsibility, at least until the plan is terminated. And, suppose they pay that person $200,000 per year. Let's add in another 25% for additional employment costs and we're up to $250,000. Then, this company is eliminating more costs than it is incurring and in doing so, they are getting rid of perhaps an unnecessary headache.

The last obstacle is figuring out what this person should focus on. And, since they probably have not been focused on pensions, they may not know. However, there is a good chance that they are paying a lot of money for consulting that is not focused on their needs. Or, the consulting might be excellent, but the company's lack of focus causes them to ignore it.

Either way, this is something to consider and if they're not sure, I know someone who can guide them down the right path.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Coronavirus Crisis as Catalyst: Change the Way You Look at Your Rewards Structure

I saw these words this morning: "Your brain isn't resistant to change; it is lazy." Can we extend that? Is your corporate rewards program -- the way that you reward your employees for working for you -- resistant to change? Or is that change somehow always on the back burner?

You've looked at the survey data. You've heard the cries for help from employees. But, your rewards program remains right down the middle.

Perhaps you've tried some innovative ways to become an employer of choice. You put the ping pong table and beer keg in the break room. Alas, it didn't reduce turnover. It didn't make your employees happier (except when they hit the beer keg too often). It didn't reduce their real stresses even if it did mask them for a few minutes.

But, the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has forced you to change the entire compact between you and your employees. They've forgotten their office space. The fancy espresso maker you provided them sits idly as they become reaccustomed to the coffee they make quickly in their own home. At the same time, they've likely created their own custom background for their Zoom calls. All of this, they have managed. In fact, if you've kept them employed and had to cut their pay a little bit, most of them have probably managed how to live on a little less.

What they haven't learned though is how to feel secure. They haven't figured out how they are going to deal with a health catastrophe or disability, but maybe the federal government will come to the rescue. Where the federal government has not promised to come to the resuce, even in the most grandiose of campaign speeches is in helping your employees to retire.

You remember retirement. It's what your parents did. Either or both of them worked for a company for a long time. They retired with a pension. Supplemented by Social Security and perhaps some savings, somewhere in their early to mid-60s, they stopped the daily grind and pursued all the hobbies that had been given short shrift while they were working. It was part of the "American Dream."

Not for you? You can't even dream of it?

Look back at what I said a few paragraphs ago. Most of them have probably managed to live on a little less.

Let's do some oversimplified math to figure out how we are going to use this to become an employer of choice again. Consider Taylor, a good employee.

Pre-coronavirus, your basic costs for Taylor included:

  • Base pay: 100,000
  • Health benefits: 25,000
  • Other non-retirement benefits: 5,000
  • Retirement benefits: 4,000
  • Total: 134,000
With coronavirus, you've had to cut Taylor's pay by $10,000. So, the equation now looks like this:

  • Base pay: 90,000
  • Health benefits: 25,000
  • Other non-retirement benefits: 4,800 (a couple of benefits had a pay-related component)
  • Retirement benefits: 3,600
  • Total: 123,400
At some point, this crisis will end. And, during the crisis, Taylor may have learned to live on $90,000 instead of $100,000. She would love to get that full $10,000 back, but since she has learned to live on it, that's not what's keeping her up at night. 

During her new social distancing life, Taylor has taken to ever family search website she can find: 23 and Me, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and more. She's learned that going back four generations, the women in her family are long-lived. That's great news for Taylor, right?

Not really. As the she saw the stock market fall and her bank decrease the interest rate on her savings account to 0.01%, Taylor wondered how she can ever afford to retire. After all, she guesses, based on her genealogical research that she will probably live to be about 95. And, after she retires at age 62 (she learned she can start collecting Social Security then), that leaves her with a 33-year retirement. She's going to have to pay for it somehow.

As her employer, you can be the solution to her problem and be an employer of choice. After all, you don't want to lose a great employee like Taylor. And, you've committed that you are willing to spend $134,000 on her total rewards.

Before we do that, let's think about what Taylor is not good at. Like many in her age group and yours and mine and everybody else's, she's not good at financial planning. What you can do to help is to create a nest egg for her. And, don't do it so that some day, she gets a pot of cash from the company, give her lifetime income.

So, let's reconfigure the $134,000.
  • Base pay: 95,000 (she learned to live on 90,000)
  • Health benfits: 25,000
  • Other non-retirement benefits: 4,900
  • 401(k): 3,800
  • Subtotal: 128,700
You have $5,300 left to spend. That's 5.5% of pay. 

I don't care what you call it, but now is the time to call it something. Take that 5.5% of pay and allocate it to Taylor's lifetime income. Sell it to your employees until you can't sell it anymore. Tell them you are giving them this plan because you want them for their careers. And, tell them you are giving it to them because some day, you want them to be able to gracefully exit their careers and to do so without fear of outliving that little 401(k) nest egg that isn't worth what it was before coronavirus hit.

Once they get that benefit, your best employees won't leave.

Make the best of the coronavirus crisis. Let it be a catalyst for a great change.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Coronavirus and Your Retirement Prospects

If you're like most Americans, you probably plan to retire one of these days. If you're not in that category, you may be retired already. Assuming that you fall into that first group, I want to talk to you a little bit about how this pandemic is affecting you.

If you're like 10-20% of the workforce, you have lost your job, been furloughed, or had your work hours cut back. Even among the rest of the population, many of you will have trouble meeting your performance goals for the year. In any case, this is not shaping up to be a good year for retirement savings.

Despite the great performance in the last week or so, equity markets are down nearly 25% for the year. At the same time, prevailing interest rates are at or near historic lows. What that means to someone who had planned to retire in 2020 is that your ability to purchase lifetime income protection has declined.

How does that work? The higher the prevailing interest rates, the more money you or an insurer can earn on investments and therefore, the larger your lifetime income protection. So, while bond returns (investments in bonds) have been good in 2020, your falling portfolio balances combined with no place to get good and safe returns is a point of pain for people considering retirement.

How about those of you whose jobs have disappeared whether that be temporary or permanent? Your 401(k) deferrals have ceased. That means that you're not getting matching contributions either. And, you may be taking advantage of the relaxed rules in the CARES Act on hardship withdrawals or plan loans. But, where are those amounts coming from? Your retirement nest egg is being eaten up by the effects of the pandemic. Wasn't it intended for retirement? Oops, something got in the way.

As a consultant, I am hearing from real-world companies that they are looking for ways to cut back, at least for 2020, their expenditures on retirement benefits. Who does that decrease in expenditure affect? You, of course, and not in a good way.

Yes, this is filled with bad news. I can't sugar coat it. If your future retirement is dependent on a 401(k) plan (plus Social Security), you've been hit hard. And, you may be hearing it here first, but if your employer temporarily reduces the amount it is spending on your retirement benefits, that reduction may not be temporary.

Surely, not everyone is being hit that hard. Surely, there are employees who are faring just fine with respect to their retirement prospects as this pandemic wreaks havoc on the rest of them. But, is there a way we can label them?

There is. They are all participants in defined benefit plans. That means that their employers have made a commitment to them to provide lifetime income in the form of a pension. For those people, if they remain employed, they have that securiry. For them, their 401(k) is supplemental savings. Most of them are going to be just fine.

Yes, I know all of the stigma around pension plans. They're expensive ... well, they're only as expensive as the benefit they provide. They're volatile ... they don't have to be. They're a dinosaur ... only because people say they are.

But, employees in defined benefit plans have one giant reason to sleep better at night than those relying on their 401(k) only. They will get a pension.

So, when the dust settles from the pandemic, and it will, many companies will be looking to hire as people scramble to either return to their old jobs or to find new ones, where will you be?

Here's my little nugget: take the time now whether you are employed or looking. See which companies are providing ongoing pension plans. Check them out. They are likely employers of choice.

And, to companies trying to figure out how they will restock their workforces when the time comes, be that employer of choice. Be better thant the rest and offer a pension.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Fixing Retirement Inequality

Just last week, I suggested that retirement inequality is nearing an apocalypse. It's an awfully strong statement to make as both the US and the world have plenty of problems to deal with. Since this one is US-centric (I have nowhere near sufficient expertise nor do I have the requisite data to offer an informed opinion outside the US), I thought I would step up and make some suggestions.

First, the problem: according to the most optimistic data points I have seen, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of working Americans are "on track" to retire. And, these studies, when they are nice enough to disclose their assumptions use pretty aggressive assumptions, e.g., 7 to 8 percent annual returns on assets (the same people who tout that these are achievable condemn pension plans that make the same assumptions) as well as no leakage (the adverse effects of job loss, plan loans, hardship withdrawals, and deferral or match reductions). The optimists don't make it easy for you by telling you that even their optimistic studies result in 30 to 40 percent of working Americans not being on track to retire (a horrible result). They also tend to pick and choose data to suit their arguments using means when they are advantageous, but medians when they are more so.

Yes, we do have a retirement crisis and as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study was good enough to make clear, it is severely biased against the average worker.

The EPI study presented data on account balances and similar issues. It did not get into interviewing actual workers (if it did, I missed that part and apologize to EPI). But, I did. I surveyed 25 people at random in the airline club at the largest hub airport of a major US-based airline. People who wait in those clubs at rush hour are not your typical American worker; they tend to be far better off. I asked them two questions (the second only if they answered yes to the first):

  • Are you worried about being able to retire some day? 19 answered yes.
  • Would you be more productive at work if you felt that you could retire comfortably? All 19 who answered yes to the first question answered yes to the second as well.
While I didn't ask further questions, many groused about fear of outliving their wealth. Some talked about issues that fall under leakage. A few, completely unprompted remarked that if they only had a pension ...

For at least the last 13 years and probably more than that, retirement policy inside the Beltway has been focused on improving 401(k) plans with the thought that pensions are or should be dead. Even the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) was more about making 401(k)s more attractive than about protecting pensions. Yet, 13 years later with an entire decade of booming equity markets, even the optimists say that one-third of American workers are not on track to retire.

We've given every break that Congress can come up with to make 401(k)s the be all and end all of US retirement policy. They've not succeeded. 

Think back though to when the cornerstone of the US retirement system was the pension plan. The people who had them are often the ones who are on track to retire. 

Yes, I know all the arguments against them and here are a few:

  • Workers don't spend their careers at one company, so they need something account-based and or portable.
  • Companies can't stand volatility in accounting charges and in cash contribution requirements.
  • Nobody understands them.
  • They are difficult to administer.
PPA took a step toward solving all of those problems, but by the time we had regulations to interpret those changes, the "Great Recession" had happened and the world had already changed. Despite now having new pension designs available that address not just one, but all four of the bullet points above, companies have been slow to adopt these solutions. To do so, they need perhaps as many as three pushes:

  • A cry from employees that they want a modern pension in order to provide them with usable lifetime income solutions.
  • A recognition from Congress and from the regulating agencies that such plans will be inherently appropriately funded and therefore (so long as companies do make required contributions on a timely basis) do not pose undue risk to companies, to the government, to employees, or to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) (the governmental corporation that insures corporate pensions) and therefore should be encouraged not discouraged.
  • Recognition from the accounting profession in the form of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) that plans that have an appropriate match between benefit obligations and plan assets do not need to be subjected to volatile swings in profit and loss.

Give us those three things and the pensions sanctioned by the Pension Protection Act can fix retirement for the future. As the EPI study points out, we'll make a huge dent in the retirement crisis and we'll do in a way that makes the problem far less unequal.

It's the right thing to do. It's right for all working Americans.

Friday, December 13, 2019

If Income Inequality is a Crisis, Retirement Inequality is Nearing an Apocalypse

I've likely inflamed just with my title. So be it.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) earlier this week released an article by Monique Morrissey on the State of American Retirement Savings. It's subtitle is "How the shift to 401(k)s has increased gaps in retirement preparedness based on income, race, ethnicity, education, and marital status." It is stunning.

I've been saying for at least this decade that we have a retirement crisis. Despite protestations from those who favor self-sufficiency over employer and government-provided programs, the crisis looms larger. I wrote about this summer. But, as a full-time consultant working with clients who require that I place their needs first, I simply don't have time to do the research that the think tanks do. So, I often rely on the work that they have done. Regardless of the source, my considered opinion is that all of the data are sound whether the think tanks are right-leaning, left-leaning, or centrist. 

What I quibble with are the conclusions. 

More than half of Americans being on track to retire is not a favorable prognosis. It's especially not favorable when the modeling underlying that statement assumes constant, and perhaps unachievable, returns on investments and constant rates of deferral to 401(k) plans. We're asking a populace that is largely under-educated about financial and investment matters to instantly become great investors. We're also asking them to save for their retirement (including retiree health and long-term care) above all else -- no blips allowed. You lose your job? Keep saving. You pay for a child's wedding? Keep saving. You pay for an unexpected medical expense? Keep saving.

Is that practical? Of course it's not.

The EPI study has presented us with 20 charts. Each has a headline which, in my opinion (understanding that yours may be different) fairly depicts the data it shows. Here are a few of the more eye-catching ones (indented notes after the headlines are mine and should not be attributed to or blamed on EPI)::

  • Retirement plan participation declined even as baby boomers approached retirement
    • A smaller percentage of workers are now participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans than were 10 years ago. With the rise of the gig economy, this rates to get worse.
  • The share of families with retirement savings grew in the 1990s but declined after the Great Recession
    • Fewer than 60% have retirement savings. Period. How are the rest to ever retire?
  • Retirement savings have stagnated in the new millennium
    • Despite that savings of those above the age of 55 have increased fairly dramatically, those for the entire working population have barely moved suggesting that the runup in equity markets over the last decade has done little for most of America.
  • Most families—even those approaching retirement—have little or no retirement savings
    • This is frightening. In any age range, median (meaning half are better off and half are worse off) retirement savings are well beneath $50,000 ... in total.
  • More people have 401(k)s, but participation in traditional pensions is more equal
    • We'll return to this later, but this suggests that poorer people and minorities are less likely to make use of 401(k)s. Identifying the root cause is a highly charged issue and cannot be done with certainty, but identifying this as a sign of a problem is clear.
  • High-income families are seven times as likely to have retirement account savings as low-income families
  • Most black and Hispanic families have no retirement account savings
  • Single people have less, but retirement savings are too low across the board
    • The data show that single women, in particular, lack retirement savings. But, even among married couples, levels of retirement savings are abysmal.
  • 401(k)s magnify inequality
    • Those out of the top 20% when stratified by income represent a disproportionately low level of savings account balances.
I said I would return to the statement that participation in traditional pensions is more equal. It seems clear that this is because in most cases, an employee becomes a participant in a pension not through an affirmative decision to do so, but as part of his or her employment. It doesn't require an income disruption. It's not more difficult to participate when you have an unexpected expense.It's not easier for the wealthy to participate, nor for men nor ethnic or racial majorities. 

Yes, pensions have a horrible stigma attached to them right now. Many public pensions are horrifically underfunded and potentially place their sponsors (cities, states, etc.) in grave financial danger. The same could be said about some of what are known as multiemployer plans (that's a story for another day) except that their sponsors are, generally speaking, employers that employ very specific types of employees. 

For the rest of the populace and potential plan sponsors (employers), sponsorship of traditional pensions has waned considerably. About 18 months ago, I explained why. 

Before we write them off completely, however, let's look at what pensions do. According to the EPI study, participation is somewhat equal. They provide lifetime income protection, the single greatest fear of people nearing retirement. They can be part of the employment covenant.

The data in the EPI study and not simply their interpretations absolutely scream that more than income inequality, retirement inequality is the looming personal financial crisis. Congress will bat this around and try to make it a partisan issue. But, it shouldn't be. It's a people crisis. It's a dire crisis. It needs a fix and the fix is available, but it needs to get started.

Friday, September 20, 2019

When Your Deal Involves a Pension

Corporate deals abound perhaps like never before. Mergers, acquisitions, consolidations -- call them what you will. They're still deals and they involve pensions, sometimes frozen, more often than you think. If you are the acquirer in any of these transactions, it would not be at all surprising to find that your team is giving these pensions were getting shorter shrift than they deserve.


More than most other elements of a corporate transaction, the costs of sponsoring a pension plan (single-employer) or being a participating employer in one (multiemployer) are both volatile and perhaps a bit out of your control. On the surface, that's bad. And, a significant problem is that traditional due diligence does not address this.

What do I mean by that? There are plenty of firms out there that perform due diligence in deals. On the financial side of this, the work is typically done by large accounting firms and their consulting arms or by the larger, traditional, multi-service consulting firms. What I have seen, and I have by no means seen everything, tends to be a fairly standard report with numbers filled in. It often relies a lot on the past and tends to assume that the past will be reflective of the future. For many of those future costs, that's probably not a horrible assumption. For pensions, unfortunately, it often is.

You see, whether you are focused on cash or on financial accounting, the amount of your future costs is dependent on rules. The rules are complex and they do not lend themselves to cost stability. Today, estimating what those costs will be is not easy. Doing so under a variety of economic scenarios is more complex and likely more expensive. Developing strategies to control those future costs adds even more difficulty and even more cost. It also takes a long time. And, of course, you are never able to work with current or perfect data. In the future, it will be much simpler. At least that sounds nice, but our predictions about the future are often wrong.

The future is here. It's here today.

Everything I said above that was difficult and expensive and more difficult and more expensive and takes a long time -- it doesn't have to.

We don't need great data. We don't need to bother your staff. We can move at the speed of deals. And it won't break the bank.

That future you were hoping for -- it's here now.