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6 Obstacles to Retirement Income Adoption

Retirement Income

It’s ironic that programs designed to provide retirement income pay so little attention to the realization of that objective. Still, some have said that this could be the year for retirement income—a combination of new offerings, volatile markets, and rising interest rates—and yet, it still seems that there are obstacles to overcome. 

Here are six:

1. There is no legal requirement to provide a lifetime income option.

Let’s face it, it’s a full-time job just keeping up with the plan provisions, standards, participant notices and nondiscrimination tests that are required by law. The notion that a plan sponsor would, in the absence of a compelling motivation take on extra work, and work that carries with it additional financial and fiduciary responsibility as well, doesn’t seem very realistic.

Indeed, with no legal obligation to provide this offering, and an underlying concern that providing the option does involve taking on additional liability…

2. The safe harbor for selecting an annuity provider doesn’t feel very “safe.”

I’ve never met a plan sponsor who felt that the guidance on offering in-plan retirement income options was “enough.”

I’m not saying they’re not out there—clearly there are in-plan options available in the marketplace now, and thus, logically, there are plan sponsors who have either derived the requisite assurances (or don’t find them necessary). Or who feel that the benefits and/or participant need for such options makes it worth the additional considerations. That said, industry surveys (still) indicate that only about half of defined contribution plans provide an option for participants to establish a systematic series of periodic payments, much less an annuity or other in-plan retirement income option. 

Now, over the years the Labor Department has tried to ameliorate those concerns, as recently as Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2015-02. Perhaps more significantly, among the key elements of the SECURE Act that sought to expand retirement income awareness/availability was a new safe harbor. Essentially it says that when a plan fiduciary of a defined contribution plan selects a “guaranteed lifetime income contract” to be offered under its plan, the fiduciary will be deemed to have acted prudently if it follows the steps outlined in the law. In other words, it provides a specific road map to follow[i], and if it’s followed, the new safe harbor means that the fiduciary will not be liable if the insurance company later defaults on its obligation to participants who invest in the contract. Basically, the fiduciary must obtain specified representations from insurance companies about their financial soundness (and not have any information that contradicts those representations).

Of course, that safe harbor emerged in the waning days of 2019—just ahead of COVID, the CARES Act, and a fair amount of workplace/workforce disruption. It seems fair to say that the implications of its guidance have yet to be absorbed by most plan sponsors. Will it finally be “enough?” Time will tell.

3. Operational and cost concerns linger.

While several industry providers have offered what seem to be workable, effective solutions to the “portability problem,” plan sponsors remain concerned that the cost and complexity of transitioning these offerings—either by individual plan participants, or the plan itself—would be daunting, at best.  And that doesn’t take into account the educational challenges. 

Granted, there are a host of new and newly-branded solutions in and coming to market (check out our recent Retirement Income Buyer’s Guide for some insights)—but there remains a “learning” curve, and, at least in some cases, an UN-learning curve—for plan fiduciaries, and those who advise them.   

4. Participants aren’t asking for it.

Once you’ve walked through all the objections[ii] to in-plan retirement income options, it all seems to come down to this. Despite industry surveys that suggest worker interest in the concept (if not the reality) of retirement income solutions, it never seems to get to the level of expressing that interest to those who actually make retirement plan design decisions.

Sure, most plan sponsors acknowledge that participants (certainly older, longer-tenured participants) could use the kind of help that a retirement income structure could provide, and yes, plan sponsors are (still) looking for a more secure safe harbor, and they’d certainly welcome a PPA-ish “nudge” (along the lines of QDIAs) in that direction. At the same time large employers, anyway, have expressed interest in helping workers retire “on time,” and there is apparently increasing interest in retaining participant accounts in their plans. All in all, it seems that those interests would be well-served by a prudent, well-executed solution to provide a reliable retirement income alternative. 

That said, until it becomes an articulated concern for the workers they hope to attract, retain and eventually retire from their workforce, it’s likely that the adoption rate—by plans and plan participants—will be slower than might be hoped.

5. Participants don’t take advantage of the option when offered.

The so-called “take up” rates among participants can be sliced in different ways—by provider (the options are varied, after all), by participant age, even by the involvement of the employer in positioning in the option—but however you parse it, the word I’ve generally heard to describe participant adoption rates is… “disappointing.”

Not that those dynamics can’t be influenced by plan design or advisor input, but justifiable concerns remain about fees, portability and provider sustainability. Moreover, there are significant behavioral finance impediments—be it the overweighting of small probabilities, mental accounting, the fear of losing control of finances, a desire to leave something to heirs, or simple risk aversion. It’s often not just one thing. It’s… complicated.

To its credit, the retirement income industry has pretty consistently tried to overcome the objections raised with a series of product innovations. Unfortunately, that process has tended to make the offerings more complex AND more expensive. One thing for sure—if it’s not TDF-easy/simple to use, participants won’t.

6. (Most) advisors (still) aren’t promoting it.

Plan design can surely help steer participants toward these options, but most advisors I’ve spoken with say that, for a variety of reasons (mainly cost and complexity) these retirement income options are still sold, and not bought. Beyond that, the current advisory focus seems more targeted on wealth management—a perfectly logical emphasis for those with enough wealth to warrant it, but arguably beyond the needs of many retirement plan accounts.     

As an industry, we bemoan worker inattentiveness to the sufficiency of their retirement savings accumulations—and that’s with the aid and assistance of workplace retirement savings education, defaults for decisions like contribution amount and investments, and increasingly the availability of a retirement plan advisor. 

But let’s face it: When it comes to making a decision about a lifetime income option, or even evaluating the option, most workers are—still—literally on their own.