Anyone of sufficient age who exercises regularly knows that gains become harder as you grow older. While improvements are possible, increased effort doesn’t always work. Instead, older fitness aficionados dial in the quality and efficiency of their workouts to experience continued gains.
Similarly, America’s 45-year-old defined contribution (DC) system has been wildly successful in increasing retirement security for millions of Americans – but is seeing new gains become increasingly difficult. Going forward, attempts to expand the system may produce benefits at the margin but should be paired with measures that increase the DC system’s quality and efficiency to maximize gains in retirement security.
Below is my “workout plan” for America’s defined contribution system.
According to EBRI, solving the problem of cashout leakage adds $2 trillion (in current dollars) to our retirement security. For $1.5 trillion of this amount, EBRI identifies auto portability (for balances less than $5,000) as the answer.
When it comes to plugging leaks, everyone seems to be getting on board the auto portability bandwagon, led by the five major recordkeepers who have announced participation in the industry-owned and led consortium, Portability Services Network, representing 71 million workers across more than 143,000 plans.
While auto portability addresses non-emergency cashout leakage, emergency savings could help stem leakage resulting from financial emergencies. SECURE 2.0 advances emergency savings through two provisions which, beginning in 2024, include: 1) emergency withdrawals of up to $1,000 per year and 2) allowing pension-linked emergency savings accounts, or PLESAs, to which non-highly compensated employees can contribute up to $2,500, indexed for inflation. There is, however, understandable concern that measures linking emergency savings to retirement balances might lead to more cashout leakage, as participants begin to view their retirement savings as a ready source of funds.
If you believe the answer to stranded & lost accounts will be found in the Retirement Savings Lost and Found registry, I have some bad news. While the measure might help some to locate legitimately lost or forgotten accounts, the database – absent any meaningful support for consolidation into existing accounts – could unintentionally trigger cashout leakage as participants go dialing for dollars.
“Consolidate the balances” is a mantra coined by former Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA) President David Wray, who was years ahead of his time when he wrote this piece in 2012. Back then, Wray recognized that account consolidation – where two or more accounts become one – is inherently efficient and has a protective effect on preserving retirement savings. By allowing, encouraging and facilitating roll-ins for new participants, plan sponsors can make a big difference in promoting consolidation.
The reason is simple: the demographic segments who benefit most from these initiatives are the very same segments most likely to cash out or to frequently change jobs. Expanding access also creates a dilemma for plan sponsors, who must deal with the administrative hassles and increased costs from an explosion of small balance accounts, along with higher levels of missing participants and uncashed distribution checks.
The smart way to expand access and participation is to do so in tandem with enhanced portability and consolidation. That’s not just my opinion – below are direct links to EBRI research that calculated the incremental benefits of pairing auto portability with expanded access initiatives:
- EBRI Issue Brief No. 550, “Impact of Five Legislative Proposals and Industry Innovations on Retirement Income Adequacy” (January 2022) Finding: When combined with an Automatic Contribution/Plan Arrangement and an enhanced saver's credit, auto portability reduces retirement deficits by 11% to 14%, depending on race.
- EBRI Issue Brief No, 501, “How Much More Secure Does the SECURE Act Make American Workers: Evidence From EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model,” (February 2020) Finding: The SECURE Act could cut the nation's Retirement Savings Shortfall (RSS) by 3%, or $115 billion. When paired with auto portability, the SECURE Act would generate a 10%, or $383 billion, reduction in the RSS, of which $268 billion is directly attributable to auto portability.
- EBRI Issue Brief No. 494, “What if OregonSaves Went National: A Look at the Impact on Retirement Income Adequacy” (October 2019) Finding: In a hypothetical, nationwide Auto IRA program, retirement deficits would be reduced by $759 billion, of which $303 billion is directly attributable to the addition of auto portability.
- EBRI Fast Facts, “How Much Would Auto-Portability Help Retirement Reform Proposals to Reduce Retirement Deficits?” (September 2018). Finding: If auto portability were added to ARPA, the RSS would be reduced by an additional $287 billion for a total reduction of $932 billion or 22.6 percent of the current deficit.
I could cite more, but I think you get the idea. Expanded access is good – but expanded access plus portability is a whole lot better.
A smart “workout plan” for the DC system would pair expanded access initiatives with measures that plug leakage and promote account consolidation, ensuring that continued gains are more easily secured.