Skip to main content

You are here


‘Automatic’ Transmission: Does Auto-Enrollment Create Leakage?

Most people view automatic enrollment in a 401(k) as a good thing[1. There are some administrative issues with automatic enrollment – see Why Your Recordkeeper Might Not Be an Automatic Enrollment Fan.] – but apparently it has a heretofore unappreciated “dark” side.

At least that was the focus of a headline in a recent Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) that asked (and answered) the provocative question: “401(k) or ATM? Automated Retirement Savings Prove Easy to Pluck Prematurely.”

That is at least how the Journal chose to position its coverage of a study based on a single firm’s experience with automatic enrollment. That study, according to the Journal, serves to “answer a question that has long concerned employers that put workers into 401(k) plans and give them the option to drop out, rather than requiring them to sign up on their own: Will auto-enrolled workers treat their 401(k)s like automated-teller machines?”

Now, I’ve heard a lot of questions over the years from plan sponsors about automatic enrollment – but never that one.

Regardless, the Journal says that the study provides an affirmative response to the question – but (and you can almost hear the disappointed sigh) “…not to the extent that the workers spend all their gains from auto-enrollment.” Nor is it the first time that the Journal has taken aim at automatic enrollment.[2. Earlier this year the Journal, in an article plainly titled, “Downside of Automatic 401(k) Savings: More Debt” (subscription required), cited another academic study noting that automatic enrollment has “pushed” millions of people who weren’t previously saving for retirement into those plans – but quickly cautioned that “many of these workers appear to be offsetting those savings over the long term by taking on more auto and mortgage debt than they otherwise would have.” And back in 2013, the Journal had an article titled, “Mixed Bag for Auto-enrollment,”  claiming that “employees who are automatically enrolled in their workplace savings plans save less than those who sign up on their own initiative.” That article, in turn, built on – and cited – a 2011 article that suthoir Anne Tergesen jaw-droppingly titled, “401(k) Law Suppresses Saving for Retirement.” In the case of the latter, Tergesen glommed on to one of 16 possible scenarios, and focused on the notion that some workers would simply rely on the mechanics of automatic enrollment’s 3% default, rather than picking the higher rate that they might if they filled out an enrollment form (encouraged by things like education meetings and incentivized by things like a company match).]

Now the researchers themselves – John Beshears, David Laibson and Bridget Madrian of Harvard, and James Choi of Yale – have solid retirement plan researcher “cred.” And, comparing employees hired in the 12 months after the introduction of automatic enrollment to those hired in the 12 months prior, they find that automatic enrollment increases total potential retirement system balances by 7% of starting pay eight years after hire.

On the other hand, they also find that leakage “in the form of outstanding loans and withdrawals that are not rolled over into another qualified savings plan” (more on that in a minute) also increase – by 3% of starting pay, which they say offsets approximately 40% of the potential increase in savings from automatic enrollment. Of course, even then, they acknowledge that the “net effect is that automatic enrollment increases retirement system balances by 4-5% of first year pay eight years after hire.”

‘Ample’ Turnover?

Here’s the thing: This is the experience at a single firm. Granted, it’s described as a large (approximately 7,500-participant), Fortune 500 financial services firm – but it’s one that the researchers concede has high turnover. It’s also, based on the salary information provided, one with relatively modest income workers. And automatic enrollment did “work” – transforming the plan’s participation rate from 62% to 98%.

So, this employer adopts automatic enrollment in a plan of modest income workers – creating more, albeit arguably smaller account balances – for a workforce that has high turnover – and since they have smaller balances, more likely to be below the cashout thresholds, and thus resulting in a higher number of termination payout “leakage.”

Cash Out ‘Cache’?

The Journal tries to craft a picture that automatically enrolled participants are more likely to cash out than other participants – and arguably they may well be less committed to the savings proposition. In fact, the study found (and the Journal article notes) that more than half of the auto-enrolled participants – 59% – cashed out their savings (largely driven by terminations), while among those who signed up for the plan on their own, the figure was 43%.

But was it automatic enrollment – or the smaller balances that resulted from a 3% default contribution rate at termination – that produced that result? I think we can all sense what the answer is – but the researchers note that a greater proportion of the automatically enrolled workers had balances below the $1,000 cashout threshold. Lest we need any further affirmation, even then, the researchers note that those net results “mask substantial differences across those who remain employed at the firm versus those who separate” – with the former seeing relatively little impact from leakage.

Change ‘Ranges’

And while the researchers don’t make much distinction in the impact of different types of leakage, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has previously considered the issue, and found that cashouts at job change were found to have a much more serious impact on 401(k) accumulation than either plan loan defaults or hardship withdrawals (even with the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions included). How much more? Well, cashouts at termination were approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.

Even the best researchers are limited by the amount and quality of the data. While they are careful to outline those factors in the study, the coverage of such things tends to gloss over the details that might impact the broad-based applicability of the results – things like the fact that these results are from a single employer, with high turnover and modest-incomes, a combination that may well mean that the amount – and impact – of the leakage is exacerbated.

Ultimately, the point of the study might well be a call to make it easier for individuals with smaller balances to leave their employer without cashing out their savings.

That’s hardly the fault of a plan design that helped a third more workers who weren’t saving do better. But it seems that if there’s the slightest possibility of a potential downside, the negative coverage is… automatic.