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.

Consumer-Driven Health Plan Participants More Cost-Conscious

Adults in a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP) were more likely than those in a traditional plan to exhibit a number of cost-conscious behaviors, according to new research from EBRI.

While CDHP enrollees, high-deductible health plan (HDHP) enrollees, and traditional-plan enrollees were about equally likely to report that they made use of quality information provided by their health plan, CDHP enrollees were more likely to use cost information and to try to find information about their doctors’ costs and quality from sources other than the health plan, according to the report. Moreover, CDHP enrollees were more likely than traditional-plan enrollees to take advantage of various wellness programs, such as health-risk assessments, health-promotion programs, and biometric screenings. In addition, financial incentives mattered more to CDHP enrollees than to traditional-plan enrollees.

More Americans are continuing to enroll in so-called “consumer-driven” health plans: In 2012, 12 percent of the population was enrolled in a CDHP, up 3 percentage points from last year, according to the new EBRI research, while enrollment in so-called “high deductible” health plans was unchanged, at 16 percent, EBRI found. HDHPs have lower premiums but higher deductibles (at least $1,000 for employee-only coverage) than traditional health plans.

“It is clear that the underlying characteristics of the populations enrolled in these plans are different,” noted Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report. “Adults in a CDHP were significantly more likely to report being in excellent or very good health, and they were significantly more likely to exercise.” He noted that those in a CDHP and those in a HDHP were significantly less likely to smoke than were adults in a traditional plan—and that CDHP and HDHP enrollees were also more likely than traditional-plan enrollees to be highly educated.

The full report is published in the December EBRI Issue Brief, online at www.ebri.org

Covered “Call”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

Sooner or later, at just about every retirement plan conference, you’ll hear someone—and generally more than just one someone—cite the statistic that “only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.”

It’s a data point that is widely and openly presented as fact—not only by those inclined to dismiss the current system as inadequate (or worse), but even by some of its most ardent champions, who see it as a call to action for expanded access to these programs. It’s drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS).(1) But does it tell the full story?

A recent EBRI Issue Brief notes that in 2011, 78.5 million workers worked for an employer/union that did not sponsor a retirement plan. Looking specifically at those who did not work for an employer that sponsored a plan, the report notes that:

  • 8.9 million were self-employed (and were thus barred from having a plan by their own inaction).
  • 6.2 million were under the age of 21 (below ERISA’s mandated coverage level).
  • 3.9 million were age 65 or older (beyond “normal” retirement age).
  • Just over 31 million were not full-time, full-year workers.
  • 16.8 million had annual earnings of less than $10,000.

Taking those factors(2) into account, it’s not hard to see why a large percentage of the 78.5 million people who worked for an employer that did not sponsor a plan—roughly 66.8 million in 2011, based on the CPS estimates above—might not be covered by a workplace plan for reasons that have little to do with the efficiency or efficacy of the current retirement plan structure.

When you filter out the overlap between those categories—situations where workers fall into several of those categories simultaneously (for example, workers who are under age 21, have less than $10,000 in annual earnings, and who are not a full-time, full-year worker)—there are about 42.4 million workers whose lack of coverage might be attributed to being in one or more of those categories. And yes, that’s more than half of the “uncovered” workers in the CPS analysis.

Indeed, while claiming that “fewer than half of working Americans have access to a workplace retirement plan” might be technically accurate, doing so exaggerates the size of the coverage “gap”—and obscures factors that might actually help explain it.

Notes
(1) A similar result can be gleaned from the National Compensation Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
(2) There are other factors linked to rates of participation. For example, the EBRI Issue Brief also notes a correlation between firm size and participation. See Figure 30 in “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation; Geographic Differences and Trends, 2010.”

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Employment-Based Health Coverage Continues Decline; Uninsured Rate Shrinks as Public Coverage Grows

The uninsured rate for working-age Americans ticked down in 2011, but only because public program coverage grew faster than employment-based health insurance coverage declined, according to a new report by EBRI.

While employment-based health coverage is still the dominant source of health insurance in the United States, it has been steadily shrinking since 2000. The latest data show that it continued to do so last year.

The EBRI analysis finds that the percentage of the nonelderly population (under age 65) with health insurance coverage increased to 82 percent in 2011 (up about half a percentage point from 2010), which is notable since increases in health insurance coverage have been recorded in only three years since 1994.

However, different trends are taking place behind that overall result: Among the nonelderly population, employment-based coverage is trending down (58.4 percent had employment-based benefits in 20011, down from the peak of 69.3 percent in 2000), while public-program coverage is trending up (accounting for 22.5 percent of the nonelderly population, up from the low of 14.1 percent in 1999).

Enrollment in Medicaid (the federal-state health care program for poor) and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) increased to a combined 46.9 million in 2011, covering 17.6 percent of the nonelderly population, significantly above the 10.2 percent level of 1999. Other sources of public health insurance include Medicare (which covers many disabled as well as the elderly), Tricare, CHAMPVA, and Veterans Administration (VA) health insurance.

Full details of the EBRI report, “Sources of Health Insurance and Characteristics of the Uninsured: Analysis of the March 2012 Current Population Survey,” are published in the September 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, no. 376, online at www.ebri.org  The report is based primarily on the March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, with some analysis based on other Census surveys.

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