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4 Things That Make Me Go ‘Huh?’

Ours is a business where surveys and trends often shape not only perceptions, but policy — though sometimes the conclusions drawn, and even the premise itself — make me go “huh?”

Here’s a sampling:

Citing a drop in deferral rates as a failure of automatic enrollment.

Every so often a personal finance writer will stumble across an industry survey that shows that the average deferral rate in 401(k) plans has declined, a problem they attribute to automatic enrollment adoption. We all know what is going on here; individuals who take the time to fill out a form and enroll in the plan manually tend to defer at a higher rate than do those who are automatically enrolled, the latter typically at a modest 3% rate. On the other hand, automatic enrollment has a dramatic impact on raising the participation rate. The rest is just math — more people, saving at lower rates = a lower average deferral rate.

Now, those individuals automatically enrolled at a 3% rate may draw down the average deferral rate of a plan, or the industry, but it’s almost certainly true that most people who are now saving 3% without automatic enrollment would likely have been saving — nothing at all.

Equating retirement confidence with retirement readiness.

Seems as though every other month we get yet another take on how Americans feel about their retirement prospects — and it’s never very reassuring. The Retirement Confidence Survey conducted by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald & Associates has been chronicling that sentiment for a quarter century and over that span of time has tracked movements in confidence that mostly seem to mirror the markets, rather than any real cognizance of retirement preparations. Indeed, the RCS has routinely found that fewer than half of the survey respondents have made even a single attempt — including guessing — to ascertain their retirement needs.

It’s not that confidence about one’s retirement prospects isn’t a relevant consideration — but we shouldn’t equate an uninformed sense of that status with reality.

Comparisons of DB versus DC investment returns.

If ever there was an apples-and-oranges undertaking, it’s the comparison of defined benefit and defined contribution plan returns. The former is, of course, the return of a portfolio representing a single overriding investment philosophy designed to achieve a specific aggregate objective, and one overseen by a plan fiduciary (or plan fiduciary committee). The latter is little more than an aggregation of individually managed (or more frequently unmanaged) portfolios.

And yet, every so often someone wants to offer a comparison of the returns between the two as some kind of evaluation as to which is “better.”

In many of these comparisons, defined benefit portfolios have fared “better,” and the underlying explanation (implicit or explicit) for that differential has tended to be diversification (or “better” diversification), and in more recent years, lower fees have been credited. What we’re apparently supposed to draw from that is that DB plans are better-managed in terms of asset allocation by professionals, better able to negotiate lower fees than their DC counterparts, and generally provide a better return on investment. In other words, DB plans are “better.”

Now, I’m not saying that all, or even most, of those individually directed DC plan allocations are as well designed or maintained as those put in place by a DB investment committee, and however well negotiated it is, it’s hard to imagine that a DC plan with all its inherent complexities could (or should) get as good a deal on price as a DB offering. In fact, unless your defined benefit plan has a single participant, those programs have completely different objectives and timeframes.

You might as well be comparing a sports car to a Hummer; which is “better” depends on the distance, the terrain, the length of time you have to complete the journey, how much fuel you have — and how many people you have to transport.

Using average 401(k) balances as a proxy for retirement security.

If there is one number I wish our industry would quit publishing, it’s the average 401(k) balance. Here you have participants who may (or may not) have a DB program, who are of all ages, who receive widely different levels of pay, who work for employers that provide varying levels of match, and who live (and may retire) in completely different parts of the country. Frequently it is based only on the accumulations that have occurred during their tenure at an individual employer, and often only the balance that is found on the single recordkeeping system that is publishing the result. But in preparing this number, those widely varied circumstances are all slopped together to create — mush.

Worse than mush, actually. Because it is an average of so many varied circumstances, the result is almost never “enough” to provide anything remotely resembling an adequate source of retirement income, a point that is reiterated somewhat incessantly (and generally without the caveats about what it is an average of) in the press.

I’ll allow that some of the permutations of this calculation — such as when we see that average broken down by age demographic — can be instructive as to longer-term trends, but an average 401(k) balance is akin to an average reviewer rating on

As with everything else on my “huh?” list, it’s mathematically accurate — and nearly completely useless.