ERISA’s 40th Birthday—Private Plan Performance

Salisbury

Salisbury

By Dallas Salisbury, EBRI

This week marks the 40th Labor Day since President Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 into law. ERISA has been amended many times since then—as have Internal Revenue Code provisions that relate to ERISA-covered employee benefit plans. Private-sector regulatory change has come as well, via the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The U.S. and global economies, trade and employment have changed continuously over this 40 years, as has the general societal view of individual responsibility

I will leave to others conclusions on why things have gone as they have, but will provide four data pictures of the 40 years of ERISA—and by coincidence, my entire career in the benefits world—which has revolved around ERISA and employee benefits.

Chart 1

Chart 1

Chart 1 shows income sources in 1975 as reported by the Current Population Survey. Many describe the 70’s and earlier as the “good old days” for retirement: 25% of those over 65 in 1975 reported pension income. Some had both private and public pension income, with 16.9% reporting private pension income and 8.2% reporting public pension income. A central intent of ERISA was to increase the number of workers who would have private pension income in the future.

This was to be accomplished with new standards for retirement plan participation and vesting that would increase the number of plans in which workers would participate, and to increase the number of workers who would gain a non-forfeitable right to a benefit. Chart 2 shows that sponsorship has steadily increased, that participation as a percent of all workers has not, but that the increase in workers with non-forfeitable benefit rights has been achieved.

Chart 2

Chart 2

Research undertaken by EBRI since 1978 documents the change. Today our unique databases and our Retirement Security Projection Model® and the EBRI Retirement Readiness Rating™ it produces indicate that the financial well-being delivered by the voluntary private-sector system will continue to provide significant supplementation to Social Security  in the decades ahead (unless legislative or regulatory changes or economic changes that cannot be predicted tear things apart).

Why have the ERISA (and amendments) vesting rules made such a difference? Because of short job tenure: Most U.S workers have never worked long careers with one employer (or in one industry that might have a multi-employer plan). Chart 3 shows that median labor force tenure has changed little for workers under the age of 44 over the life of ERISA. It has shortened a bit more for workers 46‒54, and significantly for workers 55‒64, such that the vesting standards in ERISA have been exceedingly important.

Chart 3

Chart 3

Chart 4 shows from 1983 forward (data collection has become more robust over time), that among public- and private-sector workers 45-64 the percentage with 25 or more years of tenure in both sectors is quite low, with nearly 4/5ths of the population experiencing tenures that are less than a “full career” with one employer. Data in Chart 5 on long tenure can be examined by sector, and shows that public-sector workers have significantly more full careers with one employer than is true in the private sector.

Chart 4

Chart 4

ERISA at 40—What we know as facts is that:

♦ There are about 700,000 plans today as compared to 300,000 when ERISA was enacted.

♦ The proportion of workers who are active retirement plan participants has increased from under 40 million to over 85 million, and that it is about the same proportion of the workforce as it was in 1975.

♦ The proportion of participants gaining vested benefits has more than doubled, as vesting periods have grown shorter, with 46% of workers participating and 43% of workers having vested rights.

♦ We know that total plan assets, average plan assets by various demographics, the proportion of those over 65 with income and/or accumulated wealth that is attributable to their prior vested participation in ERISA plans has grown every year. And it continues to grow, according to data from the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce Income and Product Accounts, the Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, and administrative data of plans themselves.

♦ And we know that the PBGC is paying benefits to millions of retirees because this ERISA-created agency exists.

Chart 5

Chart 5

There is no way to know where we would be had ERISA never been enacted, but data clearly tells us where we were and where we are.

These advancements in the financial well-being of retirees and future retirees are the legacy of a voluntary system that has flexed with changes in the economy, with workforce changes, working alongside Social Security, and other in-kind income and benefit programs from the government, and from other voluntary programs. OECD, World Bank, and other international comparisons document that the post-ERISA U.S. system is one of the best-funded and most stable in the world, when judged against voluntary programs working in combination with annuity-paying public social insurance programs elsewhere. Comparisons to other nations with only mandatory programs produce a less favorable picture when looking at the issue of retirement narrowly, but looking more broadly at the overall economic state of nations and populations, the U.S. retirement system certainly ranks near the top of the heap.

Younger persons than I will have to write about ERISA at 80, but I hope to still be writing about it at 50 and 60. If I live a year longer than my parents, I will even write a perspective in 2044, as I celebrate the beginning of my 95th year—and ERISA marks birthday 70. Stay tuned.

Note: To read more about ERISA at 40, see this PlanSponsor interview, online here.

 

A Futurist Past

Salisbury

Salisbury

By Dallas Salisbury, EBRI

At EBRI’s 35th anniversary policy forum last December, it occurred to me that one of the youngest minds in the room happened to belong to the oldest panelist we had invited. Arnold Brown, 87 when he spoke at our forum, was nationally renowned not only for his insightful observations about the future, but his often surprising predictions of how the American labor force—and the employment-based benefits on which they depend—might change in response. How fitting that the forum panel on which he participated was titled “The Road to Tomorrow.”¹

So I was especially saddened to hear of his recent passing, shortly before his 88th birthday. He died surrounded by family, who described him as “brilliant, witty, wise and generous.” Having followed him and his work closely in my own career, I would agree with all that and more.

At a time when news reports warn of the “technological divide” between the young and the old in this country, Brown’s specialty was using hard data to help us understand why and how technology is changing our lives. Ironically for a tech-head, he started out as an English major (he graduated with honors from UCLA), before going on to serve in the Navy.

Arnold Brown

Arnold Brown

His big break on the national stage came when he was vice-chairman of the American Council of Life Insurers, where in 1969 he created ACLI’s Trend Analysis Program. This was the first, and considered among the best, “environmental scanning programs” that focused on long-range business planning and strategy. In 1977, he formed his own company, Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., consultants in strategic planning and the management of change, where many of the biggest companies in the world would become clients. Not surprisingly, he served as board chairman of the World Future Society.

Much of his recent work focused on the trend toward “deskilled workers,” as more and more employers turn to computers, software, and robots to replace both blue-collar and white-collar human employees. He pointed out the many ripple effects that is already having and will have going forward, especially on state and federal social insurance programs that depend on taxes drawn from employment payrolls to survive. As workers are increasingly replaced by robots, Brown asked at the EBRI forum, “Should we require employers of robots to pay Social Security for them?”

Among his other thought-provoking, data-driven points at the EBRI forum:

  • The prolonged recession has masked what he called a “profound transformation of the economy” driven by automation, one that has to do with the very nature of work and jobs as the nation moves into the future. In 2012, he noted, approximately 85 percent of robots were purchased were for manufacturing purposes, and within the next few years 30 percent or more of robots will be for non-manufacturing, white-collar use.
  • Part-time, contract, and temporary workers are becoming the norm worldwide. Brown noted that in France in 2012, 82 percent of the new jobs created were temporary, and in Germany, what are referred to as “mini jobs” (low-paid, short-term jobs) now comprise 20 percent of all jobs in that economy. Another aspect of this job trend: Of the 16-to-25-year-old cohort not currently in school, barely a third (36 percent) have full-time jobs, and a major reason for this is new technology (such as 3-D printing), he said.
  • The upshot is that “The old model of the contract between employer and employee is increasingly obsolete,” Brown said at the EBRI forum, and “more and more, we will need a new model of what the relationship will be between the employer and the employee.” Over the next 35 years, he predicted, there will evolve “an entirely different, unprecedented relationship in the workplace between employers and employees, and what the consequences of that will be are really very profound in terms of what your businesses will be facing.”

Professionally, I greatly admired his acute use of data to make highly informed analysis about the future. Personally, I deeply admired how someone almost in his 90s lived so much in the future.

In Washington, there is naturally great attention given to how federal law (particularly tax law) and regulation affect business and employee benefits. But Arnold Brown’s focus was elsewhere: How the economy—and the underlying technology and skills that drive it—affect not only the business world, but society as a whole, faster and far more powerfully than even government policy.

His keen mind and often accurate predictions will be missed.

Notes

¹ The complete report on the EBRI 35th anniversary policy forum, “Employee Benefits: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday,” is published in the July EBRI Issue Brief and is online here.

Lessons Learned

 

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

I joined EBRI with a passion for the insights that quality research can provide, and a modest concern about the dangers that inaccurate, sloppy, and/or poorly constructed methodologies and the flawed conclusions and recommendations they support can wreak on policy decisions.  While my tenure here has only served to increase my passion for the former, on (too) many occasions I have been struck not only by the breadth of assumptions made in employee benefit research, but just how difficult – though not impossible – it is for a non-researcher to discern those particulars.

We have over the past couple of years devoted some of this space to highlighting some of the most egregious instances, but as I close this chapter of my professional career, I wanted to share with you a “top 10” list of things I have learned in my search to find reliable, objective, actionable research:

There are always assumptions in research; find out what they are. Garbage in, garbage out, after all (the harder you have to look, the more suspicious you should be).

Just because research validates your sense of reality doesn’t make it “right.” But just because it invalidates your sense of reality doesn’t necessarily make it right, either.

Take the conclusions of sponsored research with a grain of salt.

Self-reported data can tell you what the individual thinks they have, but not necessarily what they actually have.

Sample size matters. A lot.

“Averages” (e.g., balances/income/savings) don’t generally tell you much.

There’s a certain irony that those who propose massive changes in plan design, policy, or tax treatment, frequently assume no behavioral changes in response.

When it comes to research findings, “directionally accurate” is an oxymoron.

In assessing conclusions or recommendations, it’s important to know the difference between partisan, bipartisan and nonpartisan.

In an employment-based benefits system, the ability to accurately gauge employee response to benefits change is dependent on the reaction of the employers who provide access to those benefits.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about the field of employee benefits was that there was always something new to learn, and with each position along the way I have gained a new and fresh perspective.  I’ll always treasure my time here as a member of the EBRI team, the opportunity I’ve had to contribute to this body of work – and I’m looking forward to continuing to draw on EBRI research for insights and analysis in my new position, as I have for most of my professional career.

That said, I’ll close by commending to your attention one of my favorite “lessons” – a quote attributed to Mark Twain, and one worth keeping in mind along with the 10 “lessons” above:

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” 

Here’s to not being fooled.

“Repeat” Performance

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

A few months back, I was intrigued to catch several episodes of “Cosmos,” an updated version of the classic 1980 Carl Sagan series.  Along with the significantly expanded and enhanced visuals and (to me, anyway, generally annoying) animations, the series recounted the work, travails and accomplishments of Edmond Halley, who, even today, is probably best remembered for the comet whose 75-year cycle he identified and which still, as Halley’s Comet, bears his name.

Halley wasn’t the first to see the comet, of course – in fact, it had been recorded by Chinese astronomers as far back as 240 BC, noted subsequently in Babylonian records, and perhaps most famously shortly before the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror (who claimed the comet’s appearance foretold his success).  Halley noted appearances by the comet in 1531, 1607 and 1682, and based on those prior observations – and the application of the work and mathematical formulas of his friend Isaac Newton – predicted the return of the comet in 1758, which it did, albeit 16 years after his death in 1742.

Of course, the importance of repeated, measured observations isn’t restricted to celestial phenomena.  Consider that individual retirement accounts (IRAs) currently represent about a quarter of the nation’s retirement assets; and yet, despite an ongoing focus on the accumulations in defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans that have, via rollovers, fueled a significant amount of this growth, a detailed understanding as to how these funds are actually used during retirement has, to date, not been as well understood.

To address this knowledge shortfall, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has developed the EBRI IRA Database, which includes a wealth of data on IRAs including withdrawals or distributions, both by calendar year and longitudinally, which provides a unique ability to analyze a large cross-sectional segment of this vital retirement savings component, both at a point in time and as the individual ages and either changes jobs or retires.  Indeed, as a recent EBRI publication notes, the rate of withdrawals from these IRAs is important in determining the likelihood of having sufficient funds for the duration of an individual’s life, certainly where these balances are a primary source of post-retirement income.

Previous EBRI reports[i] have explored this activity for particular points in time, but a recent EBRI analysis[ii] looked for trends in the withdrawal patterns of a longitudinal three-year sample of individual post-retirement withdrawal activity, specifically those age 70 or older (in 2010), the point at which individuals are required by law to begin withdrawing money from their IRAS.

The EBRI analysis concluded that, when looking at the withdrawal rates for those ages 70 or older, the median of the average withdrawal rates over a three-year period indicated that most individuals are withdrawing at a rate that not only approximates what they are required by law to withdraw, but at a rate that is likely to be able to sustain some level of post-retirement income from IRAs as the individual continues to age.

Furthermore, the report notes that an examination of these trends over this period suggests that, based on the resulting distribution of average withdrawal rates over time as a function of the initial-year withdrawal rate, the initial withdrawal rate for those in this age group appeared to be one that these individuals are likely to continue to make the next year.

Of course, while the median withdrawal rates suggest many individuals would be able to maintain the IRA as an ongoing source of income throughout retirement, further study is needed to see if these individuals are maintaining those withdrawal rates over longer periods of time.  Moreover, the integration of IRA data with data from employment-based defined contribution retirement accounts currently underway as part of initiatives associated with EBRI’s Center for Research on Retirement Income (CRI) will allow for an even more comprehensive picture of what those who may have multiple types of retirement accounts do as they age through retirement.

And we won’t have to wait 75 years to see how it turns out.

  • Notes

[i] See “IRA Withdrawals, 2011” online here.   See also ““Take it or Leave it? The Disposition of DC Accounts: Who Rolls Over into an IRA? Who Leaves Money in the Plan and Who Withdraws Cash?” online here

[ii] See “IRA Withdrawals in 2012 and Longitudinal Results, 2010–2012” online here

Look-Back “Provisions”

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

My wife and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary.  It was a special day, as they all are, but as I thought back on the events of our life together, I was struck by the realization that I have now been married for about half my life.  Not that I didn’t expect to remain married, or to live this long; if someone had asked on my wedding day if I thought I’d still be alive and married this many years hence, I’m sure that I would have expressed confidence, likely strong confidence, in both outcomes.  However, if someone on that same day had asked me to guess then where I would be living now, what I would be doing, or what my income would be (or need to be)—well, my responses would likely have been much less certain.

In just a few weeks we’ll be making preparations to launch the 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS)[i].  It is, by far, the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation.  Indeed, this will be its 25th year.  Think for a moment about where you were a quarter century ago, what (or if) you thought about retirement, what preparations you had made… then consider for a moment what you have done in the years since.  Are you where you thought you would be?  Are you more – or less – confident about your prospects for a financially secure retirement?  Have you planned toward a specific retirement date or age?  Has that changed over the years – how, and why?

Through the prism of that near-quarter-century window, the RCS provides a unique perspective to view in the here and now, and to look back over time on how American workers – and retirees – have viewed their preparations, readiness, and confidence about retirement.  It has also provided those who are working to help improve and/or ensure those prospects insights into those collective preparations, or lack thereof. Moreover, the RCS has offered the ability to gauge potential responses to specific regulatory, administrative and legislative alternatives, both real and envisioned – a critical real-world filter to balance the theoretical world in which academics often imagine we live and respond, or as they often assume, won’t respond[ii].

Retirement confidence is, of course, a state of mind at a point in time, unique to individual situations, and as past waves of the RCS have shown, it’s not always based on a realistic assessment of where you are or what lies ahead.  That said, the RCS offers more than a sentiment snapshot, and those who look not only to feel better about retirement but to have a basis for that feeling need look back no further than the pages of that report.

The RCS has outlined the impact that real-world actions can have on confidence: having saved for retirement, having sought professional investment advice, having made a determination as to how much is needed for retirement, and – as last year’s RCS findings emphasized — having some kind of retirement savings account.  Little wonder that those who have undertaken those steps are more confident of the outcomes.

It’s one thing to anticipate that eventual cessation of paid employment, and something else altogether to make the preparations – to choose to save – and to be confident that you’ll be able to look back with satisfaction one day knowing that you have the financial resources to enjoy it.

  • Notes

Your organization can be part of the 25th Retirement Confidence Survey.  Survey underwriters serve as a member of the survey’s Advisory Board, along with the opportunity to participate in the review and update of the 2014 questionnaire; have the opportunity to participate in a pre-release, underwriters’ briefing on the results of the survey; are able to utilize the survey materials and findings for your research, marketing, communications, and product-development purposes – and you’ll be acknowledged as an underwriter of this, the 25th Retirement Confidence Survey, among other benefits.  For more information, contact us at nadams@ebri.org.

 

[i] More information about the Retirement Confidence Survey is available online here.

[ii] See “The Status Quo.”

The Status Quo

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

While the prospects for “comprehensive tax reform” may seem remote in this highly charged election year, the current tax preferences accorded employee benefits continue to be a focus of much discussion among policymakers and academics.

The most recent entry was a report by the Urban Institute which simulated the short- and long-term effect of three policy options for “flattening tax incentives and increasing retirement savings for low- and middle-income workers.”  The report concluded that “reducing 401(k) contribution limits increases taxes for high-income taxpayers; expanding the saver’s credit raises saving incentives and lowers taxes for low- and middle-income taxpayers; and replacing the exclusion for retirement saving contributions with a 25 percent refundable credit benefits primarily low- and middle-income taxpayers, and raises taxes and reduces retirement assets for high-income taxpayers.”

However, and to the authors’ credit, the report also noted that “the behavioral responses by both employers and employees will affect the final savings outcomes achieved under reform but are beyond the scope of our estimates[i].”

In previous posts, we’ve highlighted the dangers attendant with relying on simplistic retirement modeling assumptions, the application of dated plan design information to future accumulations, and the choice of adequacy thresholds that, while mathematically accurate, seem unlikely to provide a retirement lifestyle that would, in reality, feel “adequate.”

However, one of the more pervasive assumptions, particularly when it comes to modeling the impact of policy and/or tax reform changes, is that, regardless of the size and scope of the changes proposed, workers – and employers – will generally continue to do what they are currently doing, and at the current rate(s), for both contributions and/or plan offerings.  Consequently, there is talk of restricting participant access to their retirement savings until retirement, with little if any discussion as to how that might affect future contribution levels, by both workers and employers, and there are debate about modifying retirement plan tax preferences as though those changes would have no impact at all on the calculus of those making decisions to offer and support these programs with matching contributions.  Ultimately, these behavioral responses might not only impact the projected budget “savings” associated with the proposals, but the retirement savings accumulations themselves.

EBRI research has previously been able to leverage its extensive databases and survey data (including the long-running Retirement Confidence Survey) to both capture  potential responses to these types of proposals and, more significantly, to quantify their potential impact on retirement security today and over the extended time periods over which their influence extends.  In recent months, that research has provided insights on the full breadth of:

  • A retirement savings cap[ii],
  • The proportionality of savings account balances with incomes[iii], and
  • The impact of permanently modifying the exclusion of employer and employee contributions for retirement savings from taxable income, among other proposals[iv].

While we can’t be certain what the future brings, considering the likely responses to policy changes is a critical element in any comprehensive impact assessment – not only because the status quo is rarely a dependable outcome, but because, after all, those who assume the status quo are generally looking to change it.

  • Notes

[i] From Urban Institute and Brookings Institution:  Flattening Tax Incentives for Retirement Saving“Our findings should be interpreted with caution. Actual legislation for flattening tax incentives requires more than the simple adjustments discussed here. For instance, if a credit-based approach is used, then the laws would need to ensure some recapture of those benefits for those who made contributions one year and withdrew them soon thereafter.

Additionally, the behavioral responses by both employers and employees will affect the final savings outcomes achieved under reform but are beyond the scope of our estimates. For instance, employees may save more in response to improved incentives, in which case the benefits to low lifetime income households would be greater than we find. On the other hand, employers might reduce their contributions in response to some of the policy changes outlined. In this case, the tax and savings benefits we find would be overstated.  While our policy simulations are illustrative, addressing these behavioral responses would be a chief concern in tailoring specific policies to create the best incentives.”

[ii] See “The Impact of a Retirement Savings Account Cap

[iii] See “Upside” Potential

[iv] See “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security”, and “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances

Map “Quests”

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

I’ve been hooked on the convenience of GPS systems ever since the first time one was included in the price of a rental car on a family trip in unfamiliar territory. After all, it combines the opportunity to tinker with electronic gadgetry alongside the convenience of not having to do much in the way of pre-planning trip routes—not to mention avoiding the need to stop and ask for directions (that is frequently associated with not doing much in the way of pre-planning trip routes).

There are, of course, horror stories about drivers who have blindly followed GPS instructions without paying attention to the evidence of their eyes. My family still chuckles at the memory of a trip where we were running late to our plane, and the rental car GPS, based on what appeared to be an outdated address for the return office, kept directing us to an address that was not only miles from the real office, but a place from which I wondered if we might never return.

As a growing number of Americans near, and head into, retirement, policymakers, retirement plan sponsors, and individual workers alike increasingly wonder—will Americans have enough to live on when they retire? Unfortunately, as a recent EBRI publication[1] explains, the answers provided are as diverse, and sometimes disparate, as the projection models that produce those results.

While it is not always clear from their results, some of those models limit their analysis to households already retired, while others focus on households still working, but old enough that reasonably accurate projections regarding their future wages and prospects for accumulating retirement wealth are obtainable. Still others attempt to analyze the prospects for all working households, including those whose relative youth (and distance from retirement) makes accurate, long-term predictions somewhat problematic.

Moreover, there are varied definitions of retirement income adequacy. As the EBRI report explains, some either (1) model only the accumulation side of the equation and then rely on some type of preretirement income replacement rate measure as a threshold for success, or (2) make use of a so-called “life-cycle” model that attempts to smooth/spread some type of consumption-based utility over the decision-maker’s lifetime.

The problem with the former is that, since very few households annuitize all (or even most) of their individual accounts in retirement, a replacement-rate focus overlooks the potential risk of outliving their income (longevity risk). And while the annuity purchase price relied upon in a replacement-rate target does depend on an implicit assumption with respect to (at least some) future market returns, it does not typically account for the potential investment risk. Additionally, and as previous EBRI research has demonstrated, one of the biggest financial obstacles in terms of maintaining retirement income adequacy for households that might otherwise have sufficient financial resources at retirement age is the risk of long-term care costs for a prolonged period. In the real world, few retirees have long-term care insurance policies in place that would cover the potentially catastrophic financial impact of this exposure—and thus, simply adding the cost of long-term care insurance into a replacement-rate methodology will vastly underestimate the potential severity of this exposure.

As for the life-cycle smoothing model, the EBRI report notes that approach typically produces extraordinarily low levels of “optimal” savings for low-income individuals at retirement, and while some households may, in fact, have no choice but to subsist at those levels in retirement, from a public policy perspective EBRI chose instead to establish a threshold that would allow households to afford average expenditures (for retirees in the appropriate income category) throughout their retirement, while at the same time accounting for the potential impact of uninsured long-term care costs.

EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model®[2] takes a different—arguably unique and more realistic—perspective. Rather than relying on an individual’s projected ability to achieve an arbitrarily designated percentage of his or her preretirement income as a proxy for retirement income adequacy, RSPM grew out of a multiyear project to analyze the future economic well-being of the retired population at the state level, focused on identifying the point at which individuals would run short of money and perhaps become a financial obligation of the state.

As valuable a resource as a GPS can be, it can quickly become a nuisance—or worse—if the input destination point is incorrect, or the mapping system is out of date. Similarly, those who want a financially secure retirement may find that relying on a model based on flawed assumptions or outdated “destinations” may find themselves short of their goal and with little time to do anything about it.

Notes

[1] See ““’Short’ Falls: Who’s Most Likely to Come up Short in Retirement, and When?” online here.

[2] A brief description of EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® can be found online here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,250 other followers