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Retirement Plans and Retirement Income: It’s Complicated

One of the great concerns of our industry — when we aren’t worrying if people have saved enough for retirement — is worrying about how those savings are going to last through retirement.

Enter to that debate a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that basically takes the Labor Department to task for not doing enough to encourage the use of lifetime income options in workplace retirement plans.

Sure enough, it’s been hard for lifetime income options to get traction with retirement plans. The GAO rightly outlines a number of the concerns typically articulated with these options — which are well known to those who have looked to remedy the situation (see “5 Reasons Why More Plans Don’t Offer Retirement Income Options”).

GAO Alternatives

So, what suggestions does the GAO have for the DOL? Well, the GAO has several specific suggestions, including that the DOL:

  • do more to clarify the safe harbor for selecting an annuity provider;

  • consider providing legal relief for plan fiduciaries offering an appropriate mix of annuity and withdrawal options;

  • help encourage the use by incorporating references to selecting a lifetime income/annuity provider in both its current publications, or by issuing new guidance to do so;

  • include participant access to advice on the plan’s lifetime income options from an expert in retirement income strategies; and

  • consider providing required minimum distribution (RMD)-based default income plan distributions as a default stream of lifetime income based on the RMD methodology beginning, unless they opt out, when retirement-age participants separate from employment, rather than after age 70½.

The GAO goes so far as to suggest that the Labor Department encourage plan sponsors to use a record keeper that includes annuities from multiple providers on their record keeping platform (as if one wasn’t complicated enough), to encourage them to offer participants the option to partially annuitize their account balance, and to take into account changing providers that could put the current lifetime income products at risk.

The Logic

The thinking, of course, is that if you made it (feel) safer for plan sponsors to offer lifetime income options, more would do so. And that if you had more plan sponsors offering the options, more participants would have a chance to, and ultimately would, choose them. And that if you set up those options as a default, even more participants would “choose” them, or at least wind up with them. It’s hard to rationally argue with that logic. And yet, for years I’ve watched a number of truly innovative and objection-responsive solutions come to market — and, for the most part, fail to live up to expectations. Why? Well, it’s complicated.

Consider that, unlike automatic enrollment — around which the Pension Protection Act so carefully crafted provisions that provided an exit path for participants who had second thoughts — unwinding lifetime income options is generally seen as more… complicated. Not impossible, mind you — but “complicated.”

As for the enhancements to the current safe harbor that GAO recommends — well, if plan sponsors are to be believed, that would certainly help. But let’s not ignore the reality that the DOL has already taken some pretty significant steps in that direction (and seems reluctant to go further). Despite those steps, I think it’s fair to say that plan fiduciaries still find it their responsibilities with regard to those options… complicated, certainly compared to the other providers/services for which they are accountable.

Behavioral Barriers

There’s little question that participants need help structuring their income in retirement — and little doubt that a lifetime income option could help them do that. That said, the biggest impediment to adoption may simply be that (industry surveys notwithstanding) participants don’t seem to be asking for the option — and when they do have access, mostly don’t take advantage, even when defined participants have a choice, they opt for the lump sum. 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, or mental accounting — or simply 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.

Ultimately, while the GAO’s recommendations would surely expand the availability of these options, would it have an impact on participant adoption? An income option with all the features participants want will be even more complex (and expensive) — and, if there were to be a default withdrawal option into a lifetime income option, I suspect that the opt-out rates would be high, for (all) the reasons noted above.

Why? Well, because it’s (still) complicated.