The Hassle Factor

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

Much is made these days of the application of behavioral finance and the implications for plan design, as well as the role of choice architecture in helping workers make “better” (if not more informed) benefit decisions.  Valuable as these insights have been, I think much of human behavior (or lack thereof) in these matters can be more simply explained.

What’s at work is a concept a friend of mine described to me more than 20 years ago – something he called “the hassle factor.”  It was a philosophy he routinely applied in many aspects of his personal and professional life.  Simply stated, presented with a choice between doing something that is hard, time-consuming, complicated, or even inconvenient, and doing something else, my friend – and, in fairness, human beings generally seem to be – inclined to opt for the latter.

Of course, the “hassle factor” CAN be trumped by exterior needs or forces, as anyone who has endured the long lines at the DMV or sat through the background music on an interminably long customer service line can attest.  That said, things like an unduly complicated 401(k) enrollment form/process can certainly serve as a barrier to plan entry, and there’s every reason to expect that the same might apply when it comes time to exit the plan.

Job change is a point in time at which a lot of important decisions are made—some voluntary and some forced upon us—and the disposition of one’s retirement savings account certainly looms large among them.  A recent EBRI Notes article examined what workers age 50 and above did with their defined contribution account balances at the point of job change, looking at data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with individuals age 50 and over.  EBRI analyzed responses from 2008 and 2010 for this study.

In terms of demographic characteristics, no significant difference was found between men and women in terms of their DC account balances and what they chose to do with them at job change.  And while married or partnered individuals were less likely to withdraw their assets and more likely to roll them over into an IRA than singles, the differences were small.

The EBRI analysis did find that a decision to take a withdrawal in cash declined with higher account balances, higher incomes, existing ownership of an IRA, and higher financial wealth. Not surprisingly, the decision to cash out rose with individual debt levels.

However, among those who left their employer but remained in the workforce, the most common outcome was to leave their retirement account balance with their prior employer’s plan.  The EBRI report notes that, unlike the outcomes detailed above, there was no clear trend between the financial variables, and the decision to leave those DC balances in the prior employer plans.

As for what might explain that outcome, the report noted that it might simply be a decision to postpone taking the money until it was needed, or that there “may be behavioral factors, such as inertia, driving what might be seen as a ‘non-decision.’”

Or, as my friend might have been inclined to say, a non-decision based on the “hassle factor.”

  • Notes

“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?” is published in the EBRI May Notes, available 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.