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.

The Impact and Influence of Tax Incentives on Health and Retirement Benefits

Workers routinely rank their employment-based health coverage as the most important benefit they receive, followed by a retirement plan—but the tax preferences that support them are drawing increased scrutiny.

To examine the implications for private-sector health and retirement benefits, as well the costs and consequences and what the numbers are, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently held a day-long policy forum in Washington, DC. Titled “’After’ Math: The Impact and Influence of Incentives on Benefit Policy,” this was EBRI’s 70th biannual forum on benefits issues. It drew about 100 experts, benefits professionals, and policy makers to provide their perspectives and predictions.

As a new EBRI report about the forum notes, the reach and impact of these benefits is immense. Employment-based health benefits are the most common form of health insurance in the United States, covering almost 59 percent of all nonelderly Americans in 2010 and about 69 percent of working adults. Assets in employment-based defined benefit (pension) and defined contribution (401(k)-type) plans account for more than a third of all retirement assets held in the United States, and a significant percentage of assets held today in individual retirement accounts (IRAs) originated as a rollover account from an employer-sponsored program. Workers routinely rank their employment-based health coverage as the most important benefit they receive, followed by a retirement plan.

Since private-sector health benefits alone rank as the largest single “tax expenditure” in the federal budget, various proposals have been made to either reduce or even phase out the cost of that program to the government. Both for employers that sponsor these benefits—and the workers who receive them—the implications are enormous, the EBRI report points out.

“When you look at some of the recent proposals for reform, benefit plan tax incentives are an area of total and complete volatility, and neither employers nor workers can have any certainty of what lies ahead,” said Dallas Salisbury, president and CEO of EBRI.

The press release is online here. The full report is online here.

“Macro” Management

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Earlier this week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) outlined his overall goals for comprehensive tax reform, noting that he planned to use both the Domenici-Rivlin debt reduction plan and the fiscal recommendations of the president’s Simpson-Bowles Commission¹ as the “starting points for full-scale tax reform,” citing the former in commenting that “‘Everything must be on the table’ when it comes to tax and entitlement reform.” The New York Times on Monday reported a “Push for a Fiscal Pact Picks Up Speed, and Power,” even as other published reports suggested that lawmakers would look to defer those votes until after the November elections.

Those headlines echoed the sense that EBRI CEO and President Dallas Salisbury outlined last month to the EBRI board of trustees at their spring meeting—a sense that broad-based tax reform would be the focus of Congress, with fiscal issues driving a focus on the macro impact of policies rather than the micro outcomes that might result. While there’s an acknowledgement that the “devil’s in the details,” there is also a growing sense that sweeping change is needed, and that—whatever the potential negative effects at the micro level, enacting change would be supported because it was seen as “best for the nation and the economy.”

Salisbury cited a meeting at which a senior congressional staffer noted that when Congress did act, it would include changes in the tax treatment of retirement plans—“we just can’t tell you what.” Later at that same meeting, a more senior official made it even clearer that those issues would be part of the equation, going so far as to outline about a half dozen specific provisions under consideration. Salisbury highlighted as “the most telling words in that senior staffer’s presentation” that “the biggest roadblock to meaningful action toward a rational retirement policy was inter-industry competition”—the competition of firms within the retirement plan industry lobbying for different provisions, all of which carry a cost to the federal government, but with no one willing to suggest ways to pay for their proposals.

“If there is a message,” Salisbury noted, “it is that whatever the government is willing to spend on retirement in the future is less than they are now willing to spend.” Not that there isn’t interest in broader policy objectives, such as increasing the number of individuals covered by retirement programs; however, the sense is that the expense to the government of any new initiatives (such as “automatic” IRAs) would have to come from current tax preferences for other programs. “It’s less than a zero sum game,” Salisbury told the group.

Salisbury cited the comments made by Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico, at another recent event, who spoke of a dynamic of policy and party volatility in the near-term, with, at the extreme, control of at least one house of Congress changing every two years for the next decade. VandeHei noted that with the electorate so polarized, at the margins, he expects the presidential election in a number of states to be decided by extremely narrow margins, such as 1,000 to 4,000 votes. Moreover, because of the primary process, the extremes rule in both political parties. The resulting political polarization means that fiscal constraints dominate all discussions on Capitol Hill.

Salisbury noted that proposals to reduce Social Security, the sole source of retirement income for 37 percent of today’s retirees—or Medicare—will widen the current retirement savings gap, as will any reduction in retirement plan tax preferences, or that of workplace-based healthcare programs. “That diminishes an individual’s ability and/or willingness to retire—and that has an impact on employers, and workforce management,” he noted. That also means less capacity in the retired population to consume goods and services—a potentially critical factor in the nation’s future economic growth as well.

As we approach the end of 2012, there is potential for massive political and economic chaos, Salisbury said, because of the concurrent scheduled expiration of the Bush administration tax cuts, the impact of federal budget sequestration and its automatic spending cuts due to hit at year-end, the end of the (extended) payroll tax “holiday,” and the likely need to approve an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling shortly thereafter. The sense is that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will have less control in the next Congress than the current one, assuming Republicans maintain the majority in that chamber.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, regardless of which political party wins control, “60 is the new 50”—meaning that a super-majority of votes will be needed to break a filibuster and pass major legislation..

Salisbury suggested that “it’s all going to happen during the last breathing moments of the current Congress,” reflecting a sense that lame-duck members of the U.S. House and Senate—those who won’t be part of the next Congress—will be willing to cast otherwise politically risky votes in order to make something meaningful happen. The strategy: Let everything “hit the fan” on December 31, which would, among other things, restore higher tax rates. At that point, ANY change that reduces those “new” rates can be seen as a tax cut, rather than an increase. In effect, that means that the current Congress can vote for things on January 2 that would have been tagged a tax hike on December 31, but that on January 2 will be deemed a tax cut. This would all have to occur in the narrow window the end of the year and the start of the new 113th Congress. Newly elected (but not yet seated) lawmakers would not even have to vote, noted Salisbury. (Incidentally, the New York Times reported on a similar scenario this past week, a month behind Salisbury.)

Salisbury said that the highest probability for this outcome is if the status quo emerges from the 2012 election—the Senate split 50/50, the House remains in GOP control, and President Obama is re-elected—“because all three will have a huge stake in things being solved, since they are going to have to live with it over the next four years.”

On the other hand, he noted, if there is a change in the balance of power—such that one party doesn’t have to live with the consequences of it, that the result can be blamed on the other party—lawmakers might defer action.

In any event, Salisbury noted that if the 2012 elections produce the “status quo” in party alignments, by early January we will not only know what the Supreme Court has decided on health care, we may know what the tax status is of workplace benefit plans and programs like Social Security and Medicare—and then the nation’s employers will know what they’re dealing with. But if action is deferred, there will be no letup from uncertainty.

“The macro, not the micro, is driving policy,” Salisbury noted. “This is about saving the economy.” But with everybody focused on macro, he added, “HR execs will have to deal with the impact on the micro.” And, with trust in employers very high by both current workers and retirees, “individuals are likely to turn to employers even more than they do today to help them achieve health and financial security, including retirement security.”

Notes

¹ EBRI has run multiple simulations on these proposals, and their potential impact on retirement savings. See EBRI Notes, March 2012, “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances;” EBRI Issue Brief #360, July 2011, “Employment-Based Health Benefits and Taxation: Implications of Efforts to Reduce the Deficit and National Debt;”  and EBRI Issue Brief #364, November 2011, “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security.”

Retirement Roundup in Washington: The Future of Pensions

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams, EBRI

On Dec. 8, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) convened a forum on “the Future of Pensions.” The forum was structured around two separate panels of experts (including EBRI President and CEO Dallas Salisbury) who spoke to an audience of pension industry thought leaders on the current retirement landscape, as well as potential enhancements and solutions.

Among the insights/observations shared in the session:

• In 1975, among those over age 65, 23 percent had pension/annuity income; in 2010, that had risen to 33 percent.

• According to EBRI’s Retirement Readiness Rating (RRR) 57 percent of those under age 65 were considered to be at risk of not having sufficient retirement resources to pay for “basic” retirement expenditures and uninsured health care costs, a figure that had declined to 45 percent in 2010.

• In fact, a world in which 30-year job tenure (and associated pension benefit) was never a reality for 80 percent of the nation’s workers. Rather, it was a myth that led “too many to do too little for too long,” leaving many with no retirement resources other than Social Security. Today, more Americans will retire at far more fiscally appropriate times, with more assets from which to draw.

• Financial insecurity looms large, but has increased consumer awareness of the situation, the need to prepare, and the possibility of scaling back retirement expectations.

• Today, about 18 percent of those over age 65 are still in the workforce; 10 years ago, just 11% were.

• People assume they will be able to work longer—but the data indicate they won’t be able to, for reasons outside their control.

• Regulation/legislation does impact/influence the decision by employers to offer workplace retirement plans.

• Employers are rational when it comes to offering benefits—and they consider both shareholder value and employees in their decision-making.

• Employees are also rational when it comes to making decisions; health care a more immediate concern for many than retirement.

• People make rational decisions, but they also tend to be inefficient about those decisions.

• Americans are far too optimistic—they assume that their pay will continue to increase, despite data that indicates that it plateaus for many in their mid-40s. They assume that they will save more later, but they don’t.

• National retirement plan participation rates of 50 percent include workers (part-timers, those under 21) that aren’t normally covered by these plans.

• Health care costs impact certainty/predictability of benefit programs and individual savings rates.

• It’s not how much you have at retirement, it’s how much you have at the end of retirement.

• Guaranteed returns are very expensive.

• The better we understand retirement risks, the better we’ll be able to mitigate them.

• Social Security offers universal defined benefit (DB) coverage—and offers a critical foundation for other retirement solutions to build on.

• If employers are going to take on the risk of offering a DB plan, there has to be some reward beyond just doing right by their retirees.

• Predictability is a key factor in employer decision-making on retirement plan designs.

• Regulations tend to be “one size fits all,” but employers are not, and vary greatly.

• “If you tell employers they can never take it out, they will never put it in.”

• Providing lifetime income in a low interest rate environment is very expensive.

• Employers care about retirement income—don’t drive them away from providing these programs.

• Investment risk, interest rate risk and longevity risk represent the major DB risks for employers. These risks are shifted to workers in the shift to defined contribution (DC) retirement plans, but the impact is very different. Investment risk and interest rate risk have an immediate impact on employer, but not on the individual saver. However, employers have the ability to pool (and thus mitigate) longevity risk—an option not available to individual savers.

Restructuring Incentives for Savings and the Agenda of the “Super-Committee”

Salisbury

A retirement-related proposal from former OMB Director Peter Orszag (now of Citicorp), Bill Gale of Brookings, and Jonathan Gruber of MIT and NBER that was published in 2006 is being put “on the table” as part of the deficit reduction/tax reform activity for this year and beyond. The just-created “Super-Committee” that must come up with a deficit reduction plan by late November will be asked to consider changing current savings incentives in the tax code.

Significantly, both House Ways and Means Chairman Camp, and Senate Finance Chairman Baucus are among the “12 Apostles” (as the 12-member “Super-Committee is called), making it possible—and possibly  likely—that the group will consider some  tax changes as part of the deficit package. Many interests will be pushing for consideration of their “reform” proposal.

Special commissions of 2010 proposed a change in the defined contribution and IRA limits that would first combine them, and then limit them to $20,000 or 20% of income per year, whichever is lower.

EBRI has published preliminary  analysis of the projected impact of the 20/20 proposal  on employees’ retirement account balances, and is now expanding that analysis to include the Orszag/Gale/Gruber proposal, which they designed to redirect tax incentives to middle- and low-income households (a link to their full paper is online here; a separate pdf is available here).

That proposal, in short form, would:\

(1) Make all contributions to a retirement plan after-tax;
(2) Create a 30 percent government match in the form of a tax credit;
(3) With the match limited to the “minimum of either: a) 10 percent of adjusted gross income, up to a maximum of  $200,000, on which federal income taxes are imposed; or b) $20,000 for 401(k) accounts and $5,000 for IRAs (married couples could contribute twice this amount  based upon household income);
(4) Deposit the government match directly into the retirement account as pretax income, subject to taxation upon withdrawal.

Any significant changes in the tax treatment of savings incentives, whether for retirement or other needs, would affect both employer and employee behavior. EBRI databases and models make analysis possible that others are not able to conduct, and that is what we will undertake in this case, seeking to fulfill our mission of allowing more informed plan design and policy decisions based upon the facts.

Given the challenging budget and deficit outlook painted by the mid-year budget review just released by the Congressional Budget Office (www.cbo.gov), new proposals for changing the tax treatment of incentives for most employee benefit programs can be expected to arise on a regular basis, and proposals for changes from past decades can be expected to re-appear as well.

The tax and regulatory environment for employee benefits—and thus the decision framework for employer and individual decision-making—are likely to become more uncertain with each passing month in the decades ahead. The CBO report makes it clear that the work of the “12 Apostles” is just the beginning.

Stay tuned. Let me know your thoughts. Salisbury@ebri.org or 202-775-6322.

Dallas Salisbury
August 24, 2011

EBRI Data in F.A. Article on “The Coming Retirement Wave”

July 2011 Issue

The current (July 2011) issue of Financial Advisor magazine has an interesting article on “The Coming Retirement Wave—Are Americans financially prepared for life after work?” The article uses data from the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) by EBRI, specifically on Americans’ self-reported savings levels and their falling confidence about being able to afford retirement.

Financial Advisor article is online here.

EBRI’s 2011 RCS is online here.

EBRI Data in Cincinnati Enquirer 401(k) Article

The Jan. 9, 2011, Cincinnati Enquirer published a major series of stories on how local 401(k) plans fared during the 2008 recession. EBRI’s president and CEO, Dallas Salisbury, was an invited op-ed contributor to the series, commenting on how 401(k)s were designed and how they have performed.

The newspaper’s story is based on 2008 data (the latest available) from the federal government’s Form 5500 data that private-sector employers with retirement plans are required to file, so does not include results from 2009 and 2010.

The main feature, “401(k): What’s the New Normal?” is online here.

Salisbury’s op-ed, “401(k)s Have Assisted Millions of Retirees,” is online here.