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.

“Churn” Factors

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

British Statesman and Philosopher Edmund Burke famously commented that “”Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”(1) Indeed, those with experience working with employee benefit plans, can attest to a certain déjà vu-esque quality amidst the recent discussions about tax reform, limiting deductions, and “capping” contributions. These, are, in many ways, old “solutions,”(2) albeit these days arguably applied to a new (or at least different) set of circumstances.

As the 113th Congress begins its work, and the Obama administration readies for a second term, it is perhaps not surprising that the nuances of employee benefit plans and their tax treatment might not be an area of expertise for many on Capitol Hill. However, for all the longevity in tenure frequently assumed regarding those in Congress, a review of the data shows just how much turnover has taken place.

For example, you might not be surprised to learn that no member of the current Senate was in office when Medicare, or even ERISA was signed into law. But, as EBRI President and CEO Dallas Salisbury noted recently for the EBRI Board of Trustees, just three of the current 100 members of the Senate were there when Sec. 401(k) became law, and only 10 were there when the Tax Reform Act of 1986 became a reality. Fewer than half of the Senate were in their current office when the Pension Protection Act of 2006 passed.(3)

The implications for policy making in the midst of that kind of turnover are significant for employers and employees alike. Moreover, in an environment where expanding the transferability of Roth 401(k) balances is positioned as a revenue-generating mechanism to stave off sequestration, it seems increasingly obvious that every item of potential revenue or cost savings will be viewed through a new prism of scrutiny, where the short-term cost of the benefit may well trump the long-term value. And, as the data above suggests, by many who come to these deliberations without the full understanding and appreciation that experience in these complicated matters—a “history”—can provide.

One of EBRI’s founding principles in 1978(4) was the acknowledgement that “an ongoing need exists for objective, unbiased information regarding the employee benefit system, so that decisions affecting the system may be made based on verifiable facts.” And, as EBRI approaches its 35th anniversary, it’s clear that that need for information, and its critical role in making thoughtful decisions, remains undiminished.

Senate.Turnover

BensPolicyEd

Notes

(1) A century later George Santayana would write in his “Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1,” that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

(2) In fact, a 1993 EBRI Issue Brief titled “Pension Tax Expenditures: Are They Worth the Cost?” cites a 1991 National Tax Journal article that observed, “Whereas the case for employer-sponsored pensions as an institution is strong, the case for a major tax expenditure is weak…given the demands on the budget, eliminating a tax expenditure that benefits a declining and privileged proportion of the population should be given serious consideration.“ See “Pension Tax Expenditures: Are They Worth the Cost?” online here. 

(3) See chart below, which tracks Senate turnover, by party, since 1975.

(4) See Facts about EBRI, online here. 

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

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.

“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.”