“Counter” Intuitive?

 By Nevin Adams, EBRI


When one considers the impact of changes in tax policy on retirement plan savings, it is perhaps natural to assume that those who pay more taxes would respond to changes in the taxation of their contributions and/or savings. However, what’s probably not as obvious to many is that lower-income workers could also be significantly impacted. Indeed, as noted in the March 2011 EBRI Notes, “…behavioral economics has shown that the reaction of employees in situations similar to this are often at odds with what would have been predicted by an objective concerned simply with optimizing a financial strategy.”(1)

As part of the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, workers were asked about the importance of tax deferrals in encouraging them to save for retirement. Quoting from the November 2011 EBRI Issue Brief, “If one were to look at this from a strictly financial perspective, one would assume that the lower-income individuals (those most likely to pay no or low marginal tax rates and therefore have a smaller financial incentive to deduct retirement savings contributions from taxable income) would be least likely to rate this as ‘very important.’ However, those in the lowest household income category ($15,000 to less than $25,000) actually have the largest percentage of respondents classifying the tax deductibility of contributions as very important (76.2 percent).”

Additionally, asked how they would likely respond if their ability to defer those taxes was eliminated, it was the lowest-income category ($15,000 to less than $25,000) that reacted most negatively—with 56.7 percent indicating they would reduce the amount they would save in these plans (see more, online here).

As part of the 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey,(2) participants were asked about their likely response to a different set of federal tax modifications included in a specific proposal. (3) Those participant responses were subsequently integrated with those of plan sponsor respondents to a 2011 AllianceBernstein survey(4) to the changes contemplated under that same proposal. The proposal author’s analysis had largely assumed status quo in terms of plan design changes (by plan sponsors) and contribution flows (by both individual participants and employers) in response to those changes.

In fact, the average percentage reduction for 401(k) participants in the two smallest plan size categories (less than $1 million and $1–$10 million in assets) were more than 1.5 times the value of the average percentage reduction for participants in any of the larger plan-size categories (regardless of the income level of the 401(k) participants). Striking as those results are, there is a ripple effect on participant savings to be considered as well.

A new EBRI study uses the EBRI-ERF Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM), and with a database of tens of thousands of 401(k) plans and millions of participant accounts, to provide baseline analysis. That analysis indicates that the cumulative impact of reported plan sponsor modifications and individual participant reactions would result in an average percentage reduction in 401(k) balances of between 6–22 percent at Social Security normal retirement age for workers currently ages 26–35. That analysis also indicates that an even larger average percentage accumulation reduction would result for participants in small plans.(5)

Those participant and plan sponsor responses may be counter-intuitive to some—but it’s the type of response, and impact, that shouldn’t be overlooked.


(1) See “The Impact of Modifying the Exclusion of Employee Contributions for Retirement Savings Plans From Taxable Income: Results from the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey,” online here.

(2) See “The 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey: Job Insecurity, Debt Weigh on Retirement Confidence, Savings,” online here.

(3) It’s not the first time EBRI has undertaken such an analysis, of course. EBRI has looked at preliminary evidence of the impact of these “20/20 caps” on projected retirement accumulations under a set of assumptions—see “Capping Tax-Preferred Retirement Contributions: Preliminary Evidence of the Impact of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Recommendations,” online here, and “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security,” EBRI Issue Brief, No. 364, November 2011, online here. EBRI also provided testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on the issue, online here.

Research Director Jack VanDerhei also submitted testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on “The Impact of Modifying the Exclusion of Employee Contributions for Retirement Savings Plans From Taxable Income: Results From the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey,” online here.

(4) AllianceBernstein, 2011, “Inside the Minds of Plan Sponsors” Research.

(5) That integration of sentiment with EBRI’s extensive 401(k) database and modeling capabilities provided a unique perspective on the full potential impact of these changes on cumulative savings amounts, which was outlined in our recent March 2012 EBRI Notes article, “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances,” online here.

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