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(Not) Standing Still

Industry Trends and Research

A recent headline screamed that 401(k) savings rates have “stagnated” – but that’s missing the point.

“Stagnated” in this case apparently means that the average savings rate in 2018 — both employee and employer contributions — was 10.6%, roughly the same as the 10.4% rate reported in the survey in 2004. The point seems to be that, despite roughly a decade of automatic enrollment and other plan design enhancements, Americans aren’t saving any more.

That’s a perfectly obvious point to draw from those two datapoints – in this case from the recent 2019 How America Saves report from Vanguard. While the report only covers plans recordkept by Vanguard, the experience of 1,900 plans and 5 million participants in the survey always provides some interesting insights.

First a couple of basics; what do you suppose the odds are that we have the same plans (and participants) in the 2004 and 2019 surveys? Exactly. So, while it may not be apples to oranges, it’s clearly not pure apples to apples, either. The Vanguard authors themselves at one point acknowledge that there has been an impact to the report averages due to bringing on new plans with lower account balances. Secondly – and I’ve written about this previously – averages are mathematically simple, but can gloss over individual details. 

There is, however, much more going on behind the scenes than the average conveys[i]. The reality is that automatic enrollment, while it boosts participation, actually – initially – depresses average savings rates. Why? Because while it generally lifts the participation rate from 70% or so to 90% or so, at the same time it “creates” a whole new group of people saving at a default rate (typically 3%)[ii], whereas those who signed up voluntarily save at rates more than double that. Consequently, you might well expect that a decade of automatic enrollment plan designs might have done good things for participation, they might well have depressed savings rates – and yet, they haven’t.

Some of that can be attributed to improvements in those automatic designs; in 2018, echoing results from the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 61st Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans, slightly more than half of plans chose a default rate of 4% or higher, whereas in 2008 only about a quarter (27%) of plans did. The report also notes that in 2018 23% of plans chose a default rate of 6% or more – more than double the percentage that did so in 2009. And while it has long been the “norm” to apply automatic enrollment provisions to new hires only, the newest Vanguard report finds that it has now been applied to all non-participants in half the plans. 

Better still, two-thirds of the plans with automatic enrollment have now implemented automatic annual deferral rate increases, and as of 2018 that has served to narrow the spread between deferral rates for participants in voluntary enrollment plans and those with automatic enrollment to just 0.4 percentage points!

Not that there isn’t room for “improvement”; just one-in-five had a deferral rate of 10% or higher in 2018, and – to the point above, 3 in 10 had a deferral rate of less than 4%. Moreover, only 13% of participants capped out at the 402(g) limit ($18,500), and in plans that allow catch-up contributions for those aged 50 and more, only 15% took advantage of that opportunity in 2018.  And – even among the highest paid workers, 6% of those eligible aren’t (yet) taking advantage of that opportunity.

The dictionary defines “stagnant” as “showing no activity; dull and sluggish.” Well, while one number may make it seem that retirement savings has been standing still, the reality is quite different – and not at all stagnant.  

[i] To their credit, the Vanguard report authors take pains in the space of the 112-page report to not only provide median, as well as average figures, but to break data down by tenure, salary, and in some cases, age, as well as for participants who have been consistently in their database over a period of time.

[ii] The Vanguard report notes that even among individuals earning less than $30,000 in plans with automatic enrollment have a participation rate more than double that of those in plans with voluntary enrollment.