Ripple Effects

Adams

Adams

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” The story takes place in the future when, having figured out time travel, mankind has found a way to commercialize it by selling safaris back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Not just random dinosaurs, mind you—cognizant of the potential implications that a change in the past can ripple through and affect future events, the safari organizers take care to target only those that are destined to die in short order of natural causes. Further, participants are cautioned to stay on a special artificial path designed to preclude interaction with the local flora and fauna. Until, of course, one of the hunters panics and stumbles off the path—and the group finds that, upon returning to their own time, subtle (and not so subtle) changes have occurred. Apparently because in leaving the path, the hunter stepped on a butterfly—whose untimely demise, magnified by the passage of time produced changes much larger than one might have expected from its modest beginnings.

The recently released White House budget proposal for 2014 included a plan to raise $9 billion over 10 years by imposing a retirement savings cap for tax-preferred accounts. While initial reports focused on the aggregate dollar limit of $3 million included in the text, it soon became clear that that figure was merely a frame of reference for the real limit: the annual annuity equivalent of that sum, $205,000 per year in 2013 for an individual age 62.¹

Of course, there are a number of variables that influence annuity purchase prices. As an EBRI analysis this week outlines, while $3 million might provide that annual annuity today, if interest/discount rates were to move higher, that limit could be even lower. As the EBRI analysis explains, if you look only as far back as late 2006, based on a time series of annuity purchase prices for males age 65, the actuarial equivalent of the $205,000 threshold could be as low as $2.2 million—and a higher interest rate environment could result in an even lower cap threshold.

At the same time, the passage of time, which normally works to the advantage of younger savers by allowing savings to accumulate, tends to increase the probability that younger workers will reach the inflation-adjusted limits by the time they reach age 65, relative to older workers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) allows us to estimate what the potential future impact could be. Utilizing a specific set of assumptions,² EBRI finds that 1.2 percent of those ages 26–35 in the sample would be affected by the adjusted $3 million cap by the time they reach age 65, while 4.2 percent of that group would be affected by the cap of $2.2 million derived from the discount rates in 2006 cited above.

While the EBRI analysis offers a sense of how variables such as time, market returns, and discount rates can have, there are other potential “ripples” we aren’t yet able to consider, such as the potential response of individual savers—and of employers that make decisions about sponsoring these retirement savings programs—to such a change in tax policy.

Like the hunters in Bradbury’s tale, the initial focus is understandably on the here-and-now, how today’s decisions affect things today. However, decisions whose impact can be magnified by the passage of time are generally better informed when they also take into account the full impact³ they might have in the future.

Notes

¹ With the publication of the final budget proposal, we also learned that the calculation of the threshold also includes defined benefit accruals. While our current analysis did not contemplate the inclusion of defined benefit accruals, it seems likely that the number of individuals affected will change. The White House budget proposal is online here.

² The specific assumptions involved taking age adjustments into account in asset allocation, real returns of 6 percent on equity investments, and 3 percent on nonequity investments, 1 percent real wage growth, and no job turnover. This particular analysis was focused on participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database with account balances at the end of 2011 and contributions in that year. The assumptions used in modeling a variety of scenarios is outlined online here.

³ As with all budget proposals, most of the instant analysis focuses on the numbers. The objective in this preliminary analysis was simply to answer the immediate question: How many individuals might be affected by imposing such a cap on retirement savings accounts? Of necessity, it does not yet consider the administrative complexities of implementation and monitoring such a cap, nor does it take into account the potential response of individual savers and their employers to such a change in tax policy—all of which could create additional “ripples” of impact. The latter consideration is of particular importance in considering the implications of tax policy changes to the current voluntary retirement savings system.

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

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.

“After” Math

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Last week, EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei(1) testified before the House Ways & Means Committee on the subject of “Tax Reform and Tax-Favored Retirement Accounts”, a hearing described as considering “…the current menu of options for retirement savings—both with respect to employer-based defined contribution plans and with respect to IRAs.” According to Committee Chairman David Camp (R-MI), the hearing was to “…explore whether, as part of comprehensive tax reform, various reform options could achieve the three goals of simplification, efficiency, and increasing retirement and financial security for American families.”

That hearing preceded by just a day Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad’s (D-ND) unveiling of his Fiscal Commission Budget Plan (see link here).  That plan(2) referenced the original Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission’s “Illustrative” Tax Reform option under which the exclusion for employment-based health insurance would be eliminated, capping its value for five years and then phasing it out over 20 years, while retirement savings accounts would be consolidated, with a cap on tax-preferred contributions.(3)

While the prospects for actual legislation ahead of the November election seem unlikely, it is clear that concerns about the nation’s budget deficit will keep tax reform—and the tax status of workplace benefit programs—front-and-center in the weeks and months to come.

Appropriately enough, next month EBRI will host its 70th policy forum, titled “’After’ Math: The Impact and Influence of Incentives on Benefit Policy.” At this semi-annual policy forum, panels of experts will deal with a variety of pertinent and timely issues, including the potential impact of changes to current tax incentives for employee benefits, and the “true cost” of tax deferrals.

We’ll also talk about what 401(k)/defined contribution plans are delivering, and what individuals actually do after retirement with respect to their retirement savings, as well as optimal approaches on retirement income designs for defined contribution plans. We’ll even look around the globe for some potential lessons to be drawn from international comparisons.

It’s a day of information, interaction, and networking that you won’t want to miss.

However, seats are limited—reserve your place today. You can’t afford not to.

A copy of the full policy forum agenda, and registration information is online here.

Endnotes

1) A copy of Jack VanDerhei’s written testimony for the House Ways & Means Committee is available online here.

Video of the testimony is available in two sections, online here.

Additional information regarding the Ways & Means hearing is available online here.

2) See page 11, online here.

3) Last year an EBRI Notes article (July 2011, online  here)  analyzed the potential impact of those kind of changes on retirement savings.