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.

“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.”

Confidence Intervals

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) released a report that included responses from more than 70 percent of America’s Fortune 100 companies—a report that indicated that those employers could “save hundreds of millions of dollars a year under the new health care law by simply terminating health insurance for their workers and dumping these employees into taxpayer-funded health care exchanges” (see the committee’s report, online here).

This, of course, follows recent arguments challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) before the United States Supreme Court—with a ruling anticipated by the end of June. At which point, regardless of the outcome, healthcare reform seems likely to remain an issue for the 2012 political campaign.

What remains to be known is what that will mean for employment-based health coverage(1)—and American’s confidence in their health care system.

Last year, EBRI’s Health Confidence Survey(2) noted that, in 2011, 57 percent of individuals with employment-based coverage were extremely or very confident that their employer or union would continue to offer health coverage. That was down from 68 percent in 2000, but most of that erosion occurred between 2000 and 2002.

Indeed, other than a one-year dip in 2010 (to 52 percent), the percentage who were extremely or very confident has remained just below 60 percent. And, for the very most part, individuals who had such coverage were satisfied with it (60 percent of those with health insurance coverage are extremely or very satisfied with their current plan, and 29 percent were somewhat satisfied—see this EBRI analysis, online here.

The 2011 HCS(3) did highlight some areas of concern. While more than half (56 percent) said they were extremely or very satisfied with the quality of the medical care they have received in the past two years, just 18 percent were extremely or very satisfied with the cost of their health insurance, and only 15 percent were satisfied with the cost of health care services not covered by insurance. Moreover, the 2011 HCS also found that individuals have a low level of confidence that they can afford to purchase health coverage on their own—even if their employer or union gave them the money to do so.

This year’s Health Confidence Survey (HCS) will be fielded in July, allowing time for the Supreme Court’s ruling to come to light, so that survey respondents can better assess and reflect on its impact on their circumstances. In this, the 15th annual HCS, the issues of health care cost, coverage, quality, and confidence in the future of the employment-based system are, if anything, more important than ever—and the need for a clear understanding of the American public’s attitudes on health care never greater.

Endnotes

(1) The Congressional Budget Office recently revised its estimates of the number of people projected to have employment-based coverage in the future. In a recent blog post, Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Education and Research Program, said: “As the CBO notes in a footnote for its 2019 estimates, as a result of PPACA, about 14 million fewer people are expected to have employment-based coverage (about 11 million individuals will lose access to employment-based coverage, and another 3 million will decline employment-based coverage and enroll in health insurance from a different source), while about 9 million will newly enroll in employment-based coverage under PPACA.” (see Fronstin’s blog, online here).

(2) The HCS is co-sponsored by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization, and Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc., a Washington, DC-based market research firm. The 2011 HCS data collection was funded by grants from 12 private organizations. Staffing was donated by EBRI and Greenwald & Associates. HCS materials and a list of underwriters may be accessed at the EBRI website: http://www.ebri.org/surveys/hcs/2011/  If your organization would like to help underwrite the 2012 HCS, please contact Ken McDonnell, at (202) 775-6367, or e-mail: mcdonnell@ebri.org or Paul Fronstin at (202) 659-0670, or e-mail: fronstin@ebri.org

(3) Additional information from the 2011 HCS 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.