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Why the ‘Ideal’ Plan Isn’t

Advisors and providers often talk about the “ideal” plan — but ideal for what?

That’s a rhetorical question of sorts — generally it means “ideal” in terms of providing a better retirement savings outcome. Indeed, I routinely see articles and commentaries (and panel presentations) that self-righteously take employers to task for not “caring” enough about their workers (or their retirement outcomes) to do the “right” things.

While I think our industry views such observations as a challenge, a call to action, all too often I think policymakers and regulators — and certainly the 401(k) “haters” — hear a different message. While I suspect that one-on-one, most advisors allow for a more nuanced perspective on such things, at the risk of stirring up a little controversy, let me offer a different perspective on that “ideal” plan.

Extending Automatic Enrollment to All

Following the passage of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, with its automatic enrollment safe harbor, many likely assumed that plans which adopted the provision would do so for all eligible workers. And yet, nine years on, most industry surveys indicate that the majority (on the order of two-thirds) of automatic enrollment plans have extended that feature only to new hires.

This is a subject that I have broached with plan sponsors and advisors numerous times over the years. Most frequently I am told that there is a great reluctance to “second guess” the participation decisions of workers who have had multiple opportunities over the years to enroll and yet, for a variety of reasons, haven’t done so. And so, whether it’s attributed to “not wanting to insult their intelligence” or a simply willingness to “let sleeping dogs lie,” most plan sponsors I have spoken with simply find it easier (or less painful) to implement new things with “new” people.

One concern that is not generally articulated, but is surely a concern for some, is that automatic enrollment’s very success may be a financial impediment. Doubtless you’ve proudly promoted the surge in participation that embracing automatic enrollment produces. But have you considered what a 20% increase in participation by older, more tenured, and likely higher paid individuals would add to your typical benefits budget?

Automatic Enrollment — at 6%

By just about any measure — and in what has to be the vast majority of situations — starting participants off by deferring 3% of their pay won’t be enough to fund their retirement. It is a start, however, and a better start than many younger and lower-income workers would have in the absence of automatic enrollment (despite the periodic news items and research reports that suggest that automatic enrollment results in diminished savings rates).

There’s a flip side to that level, of course. While a 3% starting rate has the legislative imprimatur of the PPA, long before 2006 it had been widely accepted as a “standard” default rate precisely because it was deemed to be so small that workers wouldn’t take steps to stop their contributions. The experience of the past 30 years supports that premise.

As noted above, 3% is probably not enough — but in looking at the trends in automatic enrollment, 3% remains the “norm.” Moreover, participants tend not to modify that starting default. And since the adoption of automatic escalation noticeably lags the adoption of automatic enrollment, we run the risk of creating a new generation of sub-optimal savers.

Recognizing that disconnect, a growing number of people are calling for a higher starting default rate, generally 6%. Moreover, there many surveys have suggested that inertia is a strong enough force that participants aren’t much more inclined to opt out from a 6% default than they are from a 3% default.

And while a growing number of providers and advisors are touting it — and there are plan sponsors embracing that higher default rate — the vast majority aren’t.

So what’s behind the reluctance to raise the bar to 6%?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s hard to figure out. The reasons cited by plan sponsors vary, and while some still express concerns about employee pushback (see above), it seems fair to think that the typical 20% increase in plan participation rates, coupled with a commensurate increase in match costs, would give any rational plan sponsor pause, particularly to a level that would, in many circumstances, require the maximum employer matching dollars.

Stretch ‘Math’

For sponsors that have pushed back on the match cost associated with automatic enrollment, it’s gotten very trendy to push a “stretch” match. The logic goes like this: An employer that might be reluctant to expand participation (and its employer match) with a match of 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of pay could instead offer a match of 25 cents on the dollar up to 12% of pay. The match structure is supposed to encourage participants (certainly those motivated by the employer match) to increase their contributions, but the cost of the match to the employer will be the same as under the prior formula.

Well, the math certainly works out. But we’re dealing with people, so let’s just admit that some number of those who contributed 6% to get the match won’t (and in some cases won’t be able to) contribute at the higher level.

But the larger problem — and one that is almost never acknowledged by proponents of the stretch match — is that once you’ve actually had a match program in place, “stretching” out the match is almost certain to be an employee relations disaster for the plan sponsor. The goal may be to keep the cost the same, but workers will almost certainly see the move as a reduction in benefits.

The Cost of Bad Retirement Outcomes

Ultimately the plan design alternatives outlined above don’t require employer involvement to be undertaken by employees, who can enroll on their own, and at levels higher than the standard “auto” defaults provide.

There is, of course, a cost associated with “bad” retirement outcomes: Workers who don’t have (or don’t think they have) enough retirement savings may seek to extend their tenure beyond that considered optimal for the employer. That can impact the employer’s health care costs and impede its ability to hire, retain and promote. And workers worried about their finances and retirement security may well be less productive.

So, yes, Virginia, that “ideal” plan has a price tag. And helping plan sponsors make “better” plan design decisions requires not only an acknowledgement of that fiscal reality, but creative solutions that take those considerations into account.