Missed Behaviors

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

As the nation continues to grapple with fiscal challenges, the subject of so-called “tax expenditures,” (the amount of tax breaks accorded various programs) has attracted a great deal of attention. Critics of the current tax preferences structure for work place retirement plans have questioned the efficacy of those preferences relative to the savings produced.

In that vein, a recent study¹ examined the experience of the Danish pension system to consider the relative impact of government retirement-savings tax preferences on savings behaviors, as well as the impacts on savings patterns of a mandate that required all Danish citizens to contribute 1 percent of their earnings to a retirement savings account from 1998 until 2003.

In explaining their rationale for drawing on the Danish pension experience, the study’s authors described that nation’s pension system as “broadly similar in structure” to that in the United States and other developed countries, in that it has individual accounts, employer-provided pensions, and a government-supported defined benefit (DB) retirement plan. However, while the components are similar, as a recent EBRI Notes article² points out, the Danish retirement system functions differently in several critical aspects.

The Danish Experience

Not surprisingly, the research on Danish workers noted a “sharp increase” in savings rates in 1998 (when the mandate took hold), and sharp reductions in total savings in 2004 (when the mandate lapsed). They also considered worker savings responses when, in 1999, the Danish government reduced the subsidy for contributing to capital pension accounts for individuals in the top income tax bracket, noting that while contributions fell sharply for individuals in the top bracket, they “remained virtually unchanged for individuals just below that bracket.” In other words, the individuals directly affected by changes in the incentives reacted, while those for whom the tax subsidy was unchanged did not.

They also found that the reduction in incentives also had a larger effect on Danish workers who make frequent changes to their pension contributions. In essence, Danish savers who were actively making decisions about their pension contributions were more likely to respond to the change in incentives than other individuals. This group the study authors classified as “active savers,” who, as it turns out, also have significantly higher wealth/income ratios and were more likely to be older than other Danish workers in the study.

Combining all these results, the authors arrive at two top-line conclusions about the saving behavior of Danish workers. First, that only 15 percent of those individuals are “active” savers, that only those active savers respond to tax incentive changes, and then largely only by reallocating savings between their tax-deferred pension accounts and taxable savings accounts. Second, for these active savers, a $1 of tax expenditure by the government on subsidies for retirement savings raises total savings by only about 1 cent, on average. Not surprisingly, these conclusions have drawn the attention of those who question the efficacy of the current retirement savings tax incentives in the U.S. But is this Danish experience relevant to the United States?

For the most part, the U.S. private sector relies on a voluntary retirement system—both on the part of workers to participate and save, and, significantly, on the part of employers to not only sponsor but also encourage participation with education, payroll deduction, and matching contributions. Furthermore, while U.S. employers sponsor these programs to attract and retain workers, they are encouraged to do so by certain tax preferences, conditional on administering the plan in accordance with various “nondiscrimination” standards. However, if the tax-deferred status of pension savings accounts were altered, previous surveys have shown these ties would almost certainly be weakened, if not entirely broken.³

Ultimately, the study of Danish worker savings behaviors was just that, and—as a study of individual savings behaviors in that environment—it has merit. It did not, however, consider the reaction of employers to these kind of changes. Those who would draw lessons from that experience should consider that the “success” of defined contribution work place retirement plans in the United States currently depends on the behavior of TWO parties: workers who voluntarily elect to defer compensation, and employers that choose to sponsor and, in many cases, contribute to them.

Notes

¹ See Chetty, Raj, John N. Friedman, Soren Leth-Petersen, Torben Heien Nielsen, and Tore Olsen, “Active vs. Passive Decisions and Crowd-Out in Retirement Savings Accounts: Evidence from Denmark,” NBER Working Paper # 18565, November 2012, online here.

² See “Tax Preferences and Mandates: Is the Danish Savings Experience Applicable to the United States?”

³ A survey conducted on behalf of The Principal Financial Group in 2011 determined that if workers’ ability to deduct any amount of the 401(k) contribution from taxable income was eliminated, 65 percent of the plan sponsor respondents would have less desire to continue offering their 401(k) plan. A separate survey of plan sponsors by AllianceBernstein that same year found that small plan sponsors were more likely to respond negatively to a proposed change in the deductibility of contributions by employees than larger employers—the impact of the loss of access to plans, and to the matching contributions often associated with those plans, was documented in previous EBRI research. See “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances,” online here.

Tax Incentives for Retirement Plans: Lessons from Denmark?

Notes.Jan13.FinalFlow.TxIncns.Pg1A recent study found that tax incentives for retirement savings in Denmark had virtually no impact on increasing total savings But are those findings relevant to the United States?

Maybe not, according to a new report by EBRI: The two retirement systems have some similarities but also major differences—mainly that, unlike in the United States, in Denmark the availability of employment-based, tax-deferred retirement plans is not tied to the tax-deferred status of the accounts.

At issue are so-called “tax expenditures” in the United States—preferential tax treatment for public policy goals such as retirement, health insurance, home ownership, and a variety of other issues—that currently are under heavy scrutiny in the debate over the federal debt, taxes, and spending.

The authors of the study on Danish savings behaviors offered statistical evidence that changes in tax preferences for Danish work place retirement savings plans had virtually no effect on total savings of those affected by the change. This has drawn the attention of those interested in considering a modification of the long-standing tax preferences for employment-based retirement savings plans in this country.

However, aside from the differences in incentive structures between the two countries, the EBRI report notes that study of Danish workers examined only the impact that changes in tax incentives for work place retirement plans might have on worker savings behaviors—but did not address how employers might react to changes in retirement savings tax incentives.

The EBRI report notes recent surveys have found many American private-sector plan sponsors have expressed a desire to offer no plans at all in the absence of tax incentives for workers. If this happened, low-wage workers—who are generally less prepared for retirement—would suffer on several counts, said Sudipto Banerjee, EBRI research associate and co-author of the report.

“The Danish study provided insight into the savings behavior of Danes, conditioned by the culture and influences of public policies and programs of Denmark,” Banerjee said. “But the ‘success’ of work place retirement plans in the United States depends on the behavior of two parties: workers who voluntarily elect to defer compensation, and employers that sponsor and, in many cases, contribute to them.”

“While the study of Danish savings behaviors presented the impact of tax-incentives and the ‘nudges’ of automatic mandatory savings as an ‘either/or’ solution, the optimal solution—certainly for a voluntary system such as the one currently in place in the U.S.—may well be a combination of the two,” noted Nevin Adams, co-director of the EBRI Center for Research on Retirement Income, and co-author of the report.

The full report is published in the January 2013 EBRI Notes, “Tax Preferences and Mandates: Is the Danish Savings Experience Relevant to America?” online at www.ebri.org

Most Workers Would Look for Alternatives if Health Benefits Are Taxed

What if Congress decides to start taxing workers’ health benefits as a means to raise revenue as part of an effort to rein in the federal deficit? More than half of American workers would either switch to a less costly plan, shop around, or drop coverage, according to new research from EBRI.

The 2012 EBRI/MGA Health Confidence Survey (HCS) finds that if current tax preferences were to change and employment-based coverage became taxable to workers, 26 percent would want to switch to a less costly plan, 21 percent say they would want to shop for coverage directly from insurers, and 9 percent say they would want to drop coverage altogether.  However, nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) individuals say they would continue with their current level of coverage, up 10 percentage points from last year’s HCS findings.

While changes resulting from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) have raised concerns as to whether employers will continue to offer health coverage in the future, the 2012 HCS finds that health benefits remain a key a factor for workers in choosing a job, and health insurance in particular continues to be—by far—the most important employee benefit to workers.

“Most Americans are satisfied with the health benefits they have now and prefer not to change the mix of benefits and wages,” said Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s health Research and Education Program and author of the report. “About three-quarters say they are satisfied with the health benefits they currently receive, while 15 percent say they would trade wages to get more health benefits, and 9 percent say they would surrender health benefits for higher wages.”

Full results of the 2012 Health Confidence Survey are published in the December 2012 EBRI Notes, “Views on Employment-Based Health Benefits: Findings from the 2012 Health Confidence Survey,” online at www.ebri.org

The HCS examines a broad spectrum of health care issues, including Americans’ satisfaction with health care, confidence in the future of the nation’s health care system and the Medicare program, as well as their attitudes toward certain aspects of health care reform.

Notes.Dec12.HCS.Fig5

“Next” Step

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

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Adams

On December 13, EBRI will hold its 71st biannual policy forum, “’Post’ Script: What’s Next for Employment-Based Health Benefits?” It is a question that has been on the mind of employers, lawmakers and policymakers alike for some time now. It predates the time that the structure for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) was put in place, has evolved, but not been resolved, as regulations were, and continue to be issued subsequent to its passage. It has remained on the minds of employers, providers, and policymakers following the various courts’ assessment of the various challenges to the constitutionality of the law, and even as the nation went to the polls last month.

Today we know more than we once did about certain aspects of the law, its provisions and applications.¹And yet there is much yet to know about its broader implementation: How the insurance exchanges might work,² for example, or how their presence might affect or influence cost, access, or employer plan designs. Will employers step away from their traditional role in providing these benefits, or will these changes lead to an environment in which employers find them to be of even greater value to their retention programs and strategies? In addition, an overarching concern at present—not just for health benefits, but workplace benefits overall—is the potential impact that changes in tax policy³ could have on these programs, both direct and indirect.

Our next policy forum will bring together a wide range of national experts on U.S. healthcare policy to share a post-election perspective on fiscal impacts from the federal budget, findings from the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation, and a sense of how employment-based health benefits might evolve as a result of the changes set to come.

In a field as complex and sensitive as healthcare policy, we may not always know “what’s next”—but it’s our hope that the information, and interaction, at the EBRI policy forum will provide insights and clarity that can help.

EBRI’s 71st biannual Policy Forum will be held on Thursday, Dec. 13, from 9:00 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 1330 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. The agenda and registration information are available online here. For those not able to attend in person, a free live webcast of the policy forum will be provided by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, online here.

Notes

¹ A summary of EBRI Research on PPACA and its Potential Impact on Private-Sector Health Benefits is available online here.  Of specific topical interest are:

² For insights on the topic of health insurance exchanges, see “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online here.

³ See “Employment-Based Health Benefits and Taxation: Implications of Efforts to Reduce the Deficit and National Debt,” online here.

Self-Insured Health Plans Growing, Driven by Large Employers

Large private-sector employers are driving a trend toward more “self-insured” health plans, according to a new report by EBRI.

Among employers that offer health coverage to their workers, there are two basic types of insurance plan:

* A self-insured plan, in which the employer assumes the financial risk related to health insurance; or

* A fully insured plan, in which an insurance company is paid to assume the risk.

Historically, large employers have been far more likely to self-insure than have been small employers, the EBRI report notes, and there are significant incentives for them to do so: Large multi-state employers can provide uniform health benefits across state lines if they self-insure (lowering administrative costs) and also are not required to cover state-mandated health care services—as are fully insured plans.

Following the passage and implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), there has been speculation that an increasing number of smaller employers would opt for self-insurance. As the EBRI report explains, some employers think that components of PPACA, such as the strict grandfathering requirements, the minimum-creditable-coverage requirement, the breadth of essential health benefits, affordability requirements, as well as taxes on insurers, medical-device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies and reinsurance fees will work to drive up the cost of health coverage.

“Employers generally, and small employers particularly, concerned about the rising cost of providing health coverage may view self-insurance as a better way to control expected cost increases,” notes Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report. “This new analysis provides a baseline against which to measure future trends.”

Among the findings of the EBRI report:

  • The percentage of workers in private-sector self-insured health plans has been increasing. In 2011, 58.5 percent of workers with health coverage were in self-insured plans, up from 40.9 percent in 1998. To date, large employers (with 1,000 or more workers) have driven the upward trend in overall self-insurance. The percentage of workers in self-insured plans in firms with fewer than 50 employees has remained close to 12 percent in most years examined.
  • Massachusetts, the only state to have enacted health reform similar to PPACA, has seen an increase in the percentage of workers in self-insured plans among all firm-size cohorts, except among workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees.
  • Overall, 58.5 percent of workers were in self-insured plans in 2011, but the percentage ranged by state, from a low of 30.5 percent to a high of 73.8 percent.

Full results are published in the November 2012 EBRI Notes, “Self-Insured Health Plans: State Variation and Recent Trends by Firm Size,” online at www.ebri.org

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.

Reality “Checks”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

A recent opinion piece by Teresa Ghilarducci in the New York Times took on what she termed a “ridiculous approach to retirement,” drawn from what appears to be a series of “ad hoc” dinner conversations with friends about their “retirement plans and prospects.”

Most of the op-ed focused on the perceived shortfalls of the voluntary retirement savings system: People don’t have enough savings, don’t know how much “enough” is, make inaccurate assumptions about the length of their lives and their ability to extend their working careers, and aren’t able to find qualified help to help them make more appropriate savings decisions.   In place of the current system, which Ghilarducci maintains “will always fall short,” she proposes “a way out” via mandatory savings in addition to the current Social Security withholding.  Consider that, just three sentences into the op-ed, she posits the jaw-dropping statistic that 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.

“You don’t like mandates?  Get real,” she declares.

When we looked across the EBRI database of some 2.3 million active1 401(k) participants at the end of 2010 who were between the ages of 56 and 65, inclusive – people who have chosen to supplement Social Security through voluntary savings – we found only about half that number (37 percent) with less than $30,000 in those accounts.  Moreover, when looking at those in that group who have more than 30 years of tenure, fewer than 13% are in that circumstance – and neither set of numbers includes retirement assets that those individuals may have accumulated in the plans of their previous employers, or that they may have rolled into Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), as well as pensions or other savings (see Average IRA Balances a Third Higher When Multiple Accounts are Considered).

That’s not to say that the financial challenges outlined in the op-ed won’t be a reality for some. In fact, EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) developed in 2003, updated in 20102, finds that for Early Baby Boomers (individuals born between 1948 and 1954), Late Baby Boomers (born between 1955 and 1964) and Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1974), roughly 44 percent of the simulated lifepaths were projected to lack adequate retirement income for basic retirement expenses plus uninsured health care costs (see “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model”) .

The op-ed declares that a voluntary Social Security system “would have been a disaster.”  Indeed, an objective observer might conclude that that is why Congress originally established Social Security as a mandatory system, to provide a base of income for retirees as it still does today.   With the underpinnings of that mandatory foundation of Social Security, the current voluntary system was established to allow employers and individuals to supplement that base.  In recent decades Social Security’s benefits have been “reduced” by increases in the definition of normal retirement age, and a partial taxation of benefits, despite increases in the mandatory withholding rates, in order to adjust to the realities of rising costs from changing demographics.  Even before the recent two-year partial withholding “holiday,” Congress was, and is still today, discussing additional adjustments to that mandatory system.

The voluntary system should be judged as just that, a voluntary system.  As noted above, the data makes it clear that voluntary employer-based plans are, in fact, leading to a great deal of real savings accumulated to supplement Social Security.  Many in the nation work every day to encourage those savings to be increased (see www.choosetosave.org ).

The “real” questions, certainly as one reflects on the debate over the Affordable Care Act mandate, amidst today’s political and economic turmoil, are whether the Congress and the nation will be willing – and able – to pay the price of an expanded or new retirement savings mandate, and, regardless of that outcome, how can a voluntary system be moved to higher levels of success?

Notes

1 Active in this case is defined as anyone in the database with a positive account balance and a positive total contribution (employee plus employer) for 2010.

2 The RSPM was updated for a variety of significant changes, including the impacts of defined benefit plan freezes, automatic enrollment provisions for 401(k) plans, and the recent crises in the financial and housing markets. EBRI has recently updated RSPM to account for changes in financial and real estate market conditions as well as underlying demographic changes and changes in 401(k) participant behavior since January 1, 2010.  For more information on the RSPM, check out the May 2012 EBRI Notes, “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model.”

Last June EBRI CEO Dallas Salisbury participated in an “Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman” program discussion with Ghilarducci and Alex Brill from the American Enterprise Institute titled “America’s Retirement Challenge: Should We Ditch 401(k) Plans?”  You can view it online here.