Every Dollar Counts in Today’s Zero-Interest-Rate Environment

By Spencer Williams
Published on September 17, 2020

ebn logoIt’s no secret that interest rates have been at historically low levels for quite some time, but the recent announcement by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell indicates that rates will stay near zero for the foreseeable future. Chairman Powell stated in his address last month that the Fed would tolerate above-2% inflation instead of attempting to preemptively control inflation by raising interest rates.
 
With rates likely to remain low, investors, and especially participants in sponsored 401(k) plans in the U.S. retirement system, need every dollar they can save to achieve their goals in retirement. This is particularly true this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic having inflicted significant disruption, uncertainty, and volatility on our nation’s workforce as well as the financial markets.

Even before the pandemic, low interest rates were already hitting Americans enjoying or nearing retirement very hard, because lower rates for annuities and money market accounts require people to save more when trying to convert savings into income. The indexing of Social Security benefits at lower rates also decreases income in retirement.

The Fed’s policy shift indicates that, going forward, Americans will have to continue to save more in order to increase their retirement income. Making matters worse is that, as a result of COVID-19, many employers have been forced to suspend or reduce their 401(k) employer match contributions. The Plan Sponsor Council of America’s CARES Act survey, conducted in early April, found that 16.3% of all defined contribution plans are suspending their match contributions, and 8.7% are decreasing them.

Stop Automatically Cashing Out Terminated Participants’ Small-Account Balances!

Since every dollar counts for plan participants in our pandemic-disrupted, zero-interest-rate environment, why are sponsors (who have a duty to adhere to the fiduciary standard) continuing to cash out small, stranded accounts with less than $1,000?

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) estimates that a total of $92 billion in hard-earned savings leaks out of the U.S. retirement system every year because 401(k) plan participants prematurely cash out their accounts when they switch jobs. Conducting automatic cash-outs for terminated participants adds to the already sizable leakage of assets from our nation’s retirement system.

As we have noted in previous articles in this space, the primary driver of cash-out leakage is the lack of seamless plan-to-plan asset portability for participants at the point of job-change—and the resultant costly and time-consuming nature of DIY portability.

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has reported that, on average, premature cash-outs decrease participants’ total 401(k) assets for retirement by 25%. Cashing out 401(k) savings early is perhaps the worst blunder that a retirement-saver can make. But when sponsors automatically cash out small accounts, they potentially open themselves up to new fiduciary liability down the road.

After all, if a terminated participant has moved to a new house or apartment in the years since working for a former employer, and the new mailing address has not been updated in the files of the plan sponsor’s recordkeeper, then the check for the cashed-out small balance may not reach the accountholder. If that occurs, and the accountholder finds out the assets in their former-employer 401(k) account were lost, the employer could be sued, or the plan could be the focus of a regulatory inquiry.

Auto Portability can Eliminate the Need for Automatic Cash-Outs & Rollovers

By adopting the technology solutions which enable auto portability, sponsors can potentially avoid having to conduct automatic cash-outs and automatic rollovers to keep their average account balances and related metrics at healthy levels.

Auto portability—the routine, standardized, and automated movement of a retirement plan participant’s 401(k) savings account from their former employer’s plan to an active account in their current employer’s plan—is powered by “locate” technology and a “match” algorithm. Together, these innovations locate lost and missing participants, and kick-off the process of moving their savings into 401(k) accounts in their current-employer plans.

Auto portability also has the power to make automatic rollovers of small accounts into safe-harbor IRAs a redundant practice. Placing terminated participants’ assets for retirement into safe-harbor IRAs in a low-interest-rate environment isn’t exactly benefiting them, since the only default investment options allowed in safe-harbor IRAs are principal-protected products. The combination of low yields and high fees in too many safe-harbor IRAs can deplete accountholders’ assets over the long term.

The capability to begin the movement and consolidation of 401(k) assets as participants change jobs, as well as reunite lost and missing participants with their 401(k) savings, can help decrease cash-out leakage—and savings depletion—at a time when every dollar in the U.S. retirement system counts more than ever.

EBRI estimates that the widespread adoption of auto portability by sponsors and recordkeepers would preserve up to $1.5 trillion (measured in today’s dollars) in our nation’s retirement system over the course of a 40-year period, primarily for the benefit of low-income workers. Based on EBRI data, Retirement Clearinghouse estimates that widespread adoption of auto portability would preserve $619 billion in savings for 67 million minority participants in the U.S. retirement system—including $191 billion for 21 million African-Americans.

Fortunately, auto portability has been live for more than three years, and it’s available to help sponsors make every dollar count for participants during these extraordinary times.

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