“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

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

“Out” Takes

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

My first car wasn’t anything special, other than it was my first car. It was an older model Ford, ran reasonably well, with one small problem— it went through oil almost as quickly as it did gasoline. At first I attributed that to being a function of the car’s age, but as the leakage grew, I eventually dealt with it by keeping a couple of quarts of oil in the trunk “just in case.” Eventually, I took the car to a dealership—but by the time they finished estimating the cost of a head gasket repair, let’s just say that, even on my limited budget, I could buy a LOT of oil by the quart, over a long period of time, and still be ahead financially.

“Leakage”—the withdrawal of retirement savings via loan or distribution prior to retirement— is a matter of ongoing discussion among employers, regulators, and policy makers alike. In fact, EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei was recently asked to present findings on “The Impact of Leakages on 401(k) Accumulations at Retirement Age” to the ERISA Advisory Council in Washington.[1]

EBRI’s analysis considered the impact on young employees with more than 30 years of 401(k) eligibility by age 65 if cashouts at job turnover, hardship withdrawals (and the accompanying six-month suspension of contributions) and plan loan defaults were substantially reduced or eliminated. The analysis assumed automatic enrollment and (as explicitly noted) no behavioral response on the part of participants or plan sponsors if that access to plan balances was eliminated.

Looked at together, EBRI found that there was a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80 percent real income replacement rate (combining 401(k) accumulations and Social Security benefits) of 8.8 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 7.0 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. Said another way, 27.3 percent of those in the lowest-income quartile (and 15.2 percent of those in the highest-income quartile) who would have come up short of an 80 percent real replacement rate under current assumptions WOULD reach that level if no leakages are assumed.

The EBRI analysis also looked at the impact of the various types of “leakage” individually. Of loan defaults, hardships, and cashouts at job change, cashouts at job change were found to have a much more serious impact on 401(k) accumulation than either plan loan defaults or hardship withdrawals (even with the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions included). The leakages from cashouts resulted in a decrease in the probability of reaching an 80 percent real replacement rate of 5.9 percentage points for the lowest-income quartile and 4.5 percentage points for those in the highest-income quartile. That effect from cashouts—not loans or hardship withdrawals—turns out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact.

However, and as the testimony makes clear, it’s one thing to quantify the impact of not allowing early access to these funds—and something else altogether to assume that participants and plan sponsors would not respond in any way to those changes, perhaps by reducing contributions,[2] potentially offsetting some or all of the prospective gains from restricting access to those funds.

Because ultimately, whether you’re dealing with an old car or your retirement savings account, what matters isn’t how much “leaks” out—it’s how much you put in, and how much you have to “run” on.

Notes

[1] EBRI’s testimony for the ERISA Advisory Council, U.S. Department of Labor Hearing on Lifetime Participation in plans is available online here.  

[2] An EBRI/ICI analysis published in the October 2001 EBRI Issue Brief found that, “[o]n average, a participant in a plan offering loans appeared to contribute 0.6 percentage point more of his or her salary to the plan than a participant in a plan with no loan provision.” Testimony provided to the ERISA Advisory Council testimony notes that it’s likely that a similar relationship exists with respect to the availability of hardship withdrawals. See “Contribution Behavior of 401(k) Plan Participants,” online here.

Source “Spots”

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) have been around a long time – since the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), in fact[i].

Today IRAs represent nearly $6 trillion in assets, approximately a quarter of the $23.7 trillion in retirement plan assets in the nation. As an account type, they currently hold the largest single share of U.S. retirement plan assets with, as a recent EBRI publication notes, a substantial (and growing) portion of these IRA assets having originated in other tax-qualified retirement plans, such as defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans. Recognizing not only the significant growth but the increasing importance of these accounts to individual retirement security, the Department of Labor has proposed expanding ERISA’s fiduciary protections to these accounts.

To help better understand the trends driving this critical retirement savings component, the EBRI IRA Database, an ongoing project that collects data from IRA plan administrators across the nation, was created. For year-end 2012, it contained information on 25.3 million accounts owned by 19.9 million unique individuals, with total assets of $2.09 trillion. The EBRI IRA Database is unique in its ability to track individual IRA owners with more than one account, thereby providing a more accurate measure of how much they have accumulated in IRAs.

For example, a recent EBRI analysis[ii] notes that the average IRA account balance in 2012 in the EBRI IRA database was $81,660, while the average IRA individual balance (all accounts from the same person combined) was $105,001. Overall, the cumulative IRA average balance was 29 percent larger than the unique account balance.

While almost 2.4 million accounts in the EBRI IRA database received contributions in 2012, compared with the 1.3 million accounts that received rollovers for that year, the amount added to IRAs through rollovers was 10 times the amount from contributions.

However, an annual-snapshot percentage of IRA contributions doesn’t show whether the same individuals were contributing over time, or if different people contributed in different years. Taking advantage of the ability to look at multiple years across multiple accounts of individual owners across the EBRI IRA database, the report notes that while approximately 10 percent of traditional IRA owners contributed at some point during the three-year period, only 6 percent contributed to their IRA each year. On the other hand, while approximately 25 percent contributed to their Roth IRA in any one year, 35 percent did so at some point over the three-year period.

Looking at the pace of contribution activity, the EBRI analysis found that among those who contributed to their IRA in each of the three years, the pattern seemed pretty consistent: 12.1 percent did so in 2010, 13.2 percent in 2011, and 13.1 percent in 2012. Looking at the specific sources of those contributions, among traditional IRAs, we find that the percentage that contributed to them rose from 5.2 percent in 2010 to 6.6 percent in 2012 – but among Roth IRA owners, 24.0 percent contributed in 2010, 26.0 percent in 2011, and 25.1 percent in 2012.

Consider too that, among traditional IRA owners, only 3.0 percent contributed all three years, compared with 15.0 percent of Roth IRA owners who did so. Moreover, Roth IRA owners ages 25–29 were the most likely to contribute in any year and all three years (56.1 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively). Indeed, more than 4 in 10 (43 percent) Roth owners ages 25–29 contributed to their Roth in 2012.

The EBRI analysis found significant differences in the distribution patterns among older IRA owners, specifically those ages 70 or older, due to the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules. Those rules require individuals to begin making withdrawals from traditional IRAs starting April 1 of the year following the calendar year in which they reach age 70½. However, the RMD rules do not apply to Roth IRAs, a factor that likely explains the continued increases in account balances for Roth owners in that age group.

In sum, while the gross accumulations of retirement savings in IRAs provide value in terms of quantifying an increasingly significant component of the nation’s retirement security, a focus that takes into account only aggregate movements, or isolated account holdings, one that ignores the original source(s) of the money in the account, and/or the accompanying restrictions, runs the risk of overlooking significant undercurrents.

Undercurrents that may provide a better understanding of the growth trends in this important savings vehicle and ultimately, of course, explain how – and when – these retirement savings are withdrawn.

  • Notes

[i] Originally designed as a means to provide workers who did not have employment-based pensions an opportunity to save for retirement on a tax-deferred basis, IRAs have undergone a number of changes over time. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA) extended the availability of IRAs to all workers with earned income (including those with pension coverage), while the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA ’86) brought with it some restrictions on the tax deductibility (and, in some cases, availability) of IRA contributions. A decade later the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 (TRA ’97) created a new type of nondeductible IRA—the Roth IRA—and allowed nonworking spouses to contribute to an IRA, subject to certain income restrictions.

[ii] The May 2014 EBRI Issue Brief, “Individual Retirement Account Balances, Contributions, and Rollovers, 2012; With Longitudinal Results 2010–2012: The EBRI IRA Database,” is available online here.

 

 

“Expected” Values

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Over the past several years, a growing amount of attention has been focused on the decumulations of defined contribution plan balances in retirement. Much of that focus has, of course, been driven by concerns that those individuals won’t have enough resources accumulated to fund those retirements. More recently, there has been a sense that one way to help provide a different perspective on these retirement savings would be to provide participants with an estimate of what their current or projected savings would produce in terms of a retirement income stream.

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) focusing on lifetime income illustrations. Under that proposal, a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance.

As noted in a recent EBRI Notes article[i], there appears to be little empirical evidence on the likely impact of such a lifetime income illustration on defined contribution participant behavior. In an attempt to provide some additional evidence with respect to potential defined contribution participant reaction to lifetime income illustrations similar to those proposed by EBSA, EBRI included a series of questions in the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey that would provide monthly income illustrations similar in many respects to those provided by the EBSA’s online Lifetime Income Calculator.

Of course, any such projection is necessarily required to make a number of critical assumptions—including future contribution activity, future rates of return, future asset allocation, and future annuity purchase prices. Moreover, the estimates we provided were different in several aspects, notably:

  • Rather than using normal retirement age for the calculation, we asked their expected retirement age.
  • Since the age of the spouse was not known for married respondents, only the single life annuity income illustration was used.
  • Given that the information was being provided to the respondent during a phone interview, only the projected monthly income (based on the projected account balance given the respondents’ reporting of their current balances) was provided.

What we found was that fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) of the defined contribution participants said the monthly amount was much less than expected, though another 1 in 5 (19 percent) said it was somewhat less than expected[ii].

However, more than half (58 percent) thought that the illustrated monthly income was in line with their expectations.

Considering those results, it is perhaps not surprising that the vast majority (81 percent) of the respondents indicated that they would continue to contribute what they do now after hearing the projected monthly income amount, while 17 percent replied that hearing this information would lead them to increase the amount they are contributing. Similarly, the vast majority (89 percent) did not believe this information would impact their expected retirement age.

They may not have been much surprised by the results, but the vast majority of respondents said the retirement income projection was useful; more than 1 in 3 (36 percent) respondents thought that it was very useful to hear an estimate of the monthly retirement income they might expect from their plan, and another 49 percent thought it was somewhat useful. Moreover, the utility of the projection appeared to transcend the results; 90 percent of those whose illustrated values were lower than expected found the estimates somewhat or very useful, and nearly as many (86 percent) of those whose values were equal to what they expected also found the estimates somewhat or very useful. Even among those who felt the values were higher than expected, 79 percent found the estimates somewhat or very useful.

I’ve heard from several in the industry since the results were released who were surprised – that the survey respondents weren’t surprised. It is, of course, possible (as the article explains) that these respondents’ current participation in employment-based plans has already provided them the education and information necessary for an appreciation both of the projected total and the monthly income estimate, and thus a greater alignment of those projections with their expectations. It could also be that, having given some thought to the subject of savings and retirement over the course of the interview, they had more realistic expectations.

Of course, whether those expectations about living on those amounts in retirement will turn out to be realistic remains to be seen.

  • Notes

[i] The EBRI March 2014 Notes article, “How Would Defined Contribution Participants React to Lifetime Income Illustrations? Evidence from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey,” is available online here.

[ii] There were some interesting differences by income level; combining the “much less” and “somewhat less” categories, we found that 42 percent of those in the lowest quartile for illustrated monthly income indicated that the value was less than expected, versus only 9 percent of the highest quartile.

 

Pet “Smart?”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

I’ve had both cats and dogs in my family over the years, and while each of our individual pets has had a unique personality, there are some attributes that seem to apply to each species, regardless of the individual animal. One of the most obvious is their approach to food.  For example, you can leave your cat alone in an apartment for a weekend with a supply of food and water sufficient to last for a few days, and odds are when you return home, there will still be some left.  But leave your dog alone in the same apartment with the same additional allotment of food and water, chances are it won’t last 30 minutes.  And in those circumstances, if you have both a cat and a dog in that apartment, odds are the latter will eat the former’s food as well.

Animal psychologists have a variety of explanations for why dogs and cats approach food the way they do, generally citing either a confidence of its future availability, or a concern that if it’s not consumed now, it will disappear.

Experts have long been worried about how quickly individuals would spend through their savings in retirement, whether those rates of spending would too rapidly deplete savings, and if those rates would be sufficient to sustain a reasonable post-retirement lifestyle.

A recent analysis[i] of activity within the EBRI IRA database[ii] found that just over 16 percent of traditional and Roth IRA accounts had a withdrawal in 2011, including 20.5 percent of traditional accounts.  The report notes that this percentage was largely driven by activity among traditional IRAs owned by individuals ages 70½ or older where the individuals were required by law to make withdrawals from their tax qualified accounts or pay significant tax penalties.

Significantly, for those at the RMD age, the withdrawal rates at the median appeared close to the amount required by law to be withdrawn, though some were significantly more. And while the highest 25 percent did appear to be taking out amounts in excess of those required by law, the report notes that some of these accounts could be the focus of the owners’ withdrawals instead of other accounts owned by them.

A separate EBRI analysis[iii] of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) found that at age 61, only 22.2 percent of households with an individual retirement account (IRA) said that they took a withdrawal from that account, but that the pace slowly increased to 40.5 percent by age 69 before jumping to 77 percent at age 71.  That EBRI analysis also found that the percentage of households with an IRA making a withdrawal from that account not only increased with age, but also spiked around ages 70 and 71, a trend that, the report explains, appears to be a direct result of the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules in the Internal Revenue Code.

IRAs are, of course, a vital component of U.S. retirement savings, holding more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the nation, according a recent EBRI report. A substantial and growing portion of these IRA assets originated in other employment-based tax-qualified retirement plans, such as defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans.

While the median withdrawal rates evident in the proprietary EBRI IRA database suggest that many individuals are highly likely to maintain the IRA as a source of income throughout retirement, further study is needed to see if these rates hold up over time as their owners age further into retirement, and to evaluate whether those rates, in conjunction with other resources, are adequate to provide a reasonable, if not comfortable, post-retirement lifestyle.  In the months ahead, we’ll not only be looking at this withdrawal behavior over time, but, as part of EBRI’s Center for Research on Retirement Income (CRI), we’ll be examining how IRA owners with a 401(k) plan draw down those assets across accounts, leveraging the unique ability of EBRI’s databases to link individuals’ IRAs and 401(k) accounts.

After all, it’s not just pets that consume more wisely when they have confidence in the future of that next meal.

Notes


[i] See “IRA Withdrawals, 2011” online here.

[ii] The EBRI IRA Database, an ongoing project that collects data from IRA plan administrators, contains information for2011 on 20.5 million accounts with total assets of $1.456 trillion.  In this particular analysis, only withdrawals from the accounts identified as traditional or Roth IRAs in the database are examined, a total of 15.3 million accounts with $1.11 trillion in assets.  More information on the database, and EBRI’s research centers is online here.

[iii] See “IRA Withdrawals: How Much, When, and Other Saving Behavior” online here.

Take it or Leave it?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI
Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

While each situation is different, in my experience leaving a job brings with it nearly as much paperwork as joining a new employer. Granted, you’re not asked to wade through a kit of enrollment materials, and the number of options are generally fewer, but you do have to make certain benefits-related decisions, including the determination of what to do with your retirement plan distribution(s).

Unfortunately, even in the most amicable of partings, workers have traditionally lacked the particulars to facilitate a rollover to either an individual retirement account (IRA) or a subsequent employer’s retirement plan—and thus, the easiest thing to do was simply to request that distribution be paid to him or her in cash.

Over the years, a number of changes have been made to discourage the “leakage” of retirement savings at job change: Legal thresholds for mandatory distributions have been set; a requirement established that distributions between $1,000 and $5,000 on which instructions are not received either be rolled over into an IRA or left in the plan; and even the requirement that a 20 percent tax withholding would be applied to an eligible rollover distribution—unless the recipient elected to have the distribution paid in a direct rollover to an eligible retirement plan, including an IRA. All these have doubtless served to at least give pause to that individual distribution “calculus” at job change.

Indeed, a recent EBRI analysis¹ indicates that workers now taking a retirement plan distribution are doing a better job at holding on to those retirement savings than had those in the past. Among those who reported in 2012 ever having received a distribution, 48.1 percent reported rolling over at least some of their most recent distribution into another tax-qualified savings vehicle, and among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, the percentage who used any portion of it for consumption was also lower, at 15.7 percent (compared with 25.2 percent of those whose most recent distribution was received through 2003, and 38.3 percent through 1993).

As you might expect with the struggling economy, there was an uptick in the percentage of recipients through 2012 who used their lump sum for debts, business, and home expenses, and a decrease in the percentage saving in nontax-qualified vehicles relative to distributions through 2006. However, the EBRI analysis found that the percentage of lump-sum recipients who used the entire amount of their most recent distribution for tax-qualified savings has increased sharply since 1993: Well over 4 in 10 (45.2 percent) of those who received their most recent distribution through 2012 did so, compared with 19.3 percent of those who received their most recent distribution through 1993.

The EBRI report also notes that an important factor in the change in the relative percentages between the 1993 and 2012 data is the percentage of lump sums that were used for a single purpose. Consider that among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, nearly all (94.0 percent) of those who rolled over at least some² of their most recent distribution did so for the entire amount.

There is both encouraging and disappointing news in the EBRI report findings: The data show that improvement has been made in the percentage of employment-based retirement plan participants rolling over all of their LSDs on job change, along with less frequent pure-consumption use of any of the distributions. However, the data also show that approximately 55 percent of those who took a lump-sum payment did not roll all of it into tax-qualified savings.

In common parlance, “Take it or leave it” is an ultimatum—an “either/or” proposition that frequently comes at the end, not the beginning, of a decision process. However, as the EBRI analysis indicates, for retirement plan participants it is a decision that can (certainly for younger workers, or those with significant balances) have a dramatic impact on their financial futures.

Notes
¹ The November 2013 EBRI Notes article, “Lump-Sum Distributions at Job Change, Distributions Through 2012,” is online here. 
² Two important factors in whether a lump-sum distribution is used exclusively for tax-qualified savings appear to be the age of the recipient and the size of the distribution. The likelihood of the distribution being rolled over entirely to tax-qualified savings increased with the age of the recipient at the time of receipt until age 64. Similarly, the larger the distribution, the more likely it was kept entirely in tax-qualified savings.