Effective Retirement Plan Communications

My blog post entitled "Simplifying Retirement Planning Communications" resonated with readers. It's no surprise that there are still discussions about how best to improve the information provided to participants. Given the amount of litigation alleging lack of transparency, sponsors are wise to offer understandable documents that can be used by employees and retirees to make financial decisions. According to "Improved Retirement Plan Communication Can Boost Confidence" (Plan Sponsor, December 15, 2016), it's not just content but the delivery format as well. Companies are adding more retirement readiness tools to their websites, even if participants are sometimes slow to take advantage.

Financial literacy is another issue that challenges employers and participants alike. Even when adequate information is available, the recipient may be unable to digest product descriptions or performance reports. In his write-up entitled "401(k) Communication Challenges," Dr. Richard Glass bemoans the low rate of financial literacy and its negative impact on saving. His take is that defined contribution plan sponsors "have not recognized that the participants' sense of distrust and their lack of knowledge can easily create a mindset that is conducive to inaction." He uses target date fund disclosures to exemplify his view that more should be done to put participants at ease and thereby motivate them to better prepare for life after work. His suggestions include the following:

  • Don't sugar coat the issue of risk but instead make it known that no product is free of uncertainty;
  • Emphasize that calculations are based on assumptions;
  • Hold "educational sessions that explain to participants why arriving at the assumptions involves a lot of crystal ball gazing and why, in spite of that fact, assumptions still have to be made" for purposes of forecasting; and
  • Supply "gap analyses that show participants how many years they can expect to receive their targeted inflation-adjusted incomes at their current contribution rates."

I agree that strengthening financial literacy is essential although I am not particularly sanguine about getting everyone quickly up to speed on concepts such as diversification and risk measurement. That's not to say that employers should look the other way. To the contrary, they should act even though some organizations will have to do more work then others. As I explain in another blog post, grade 12 proficiency in reading and math is abysmally low in the United States. Anyone who gets hired with a poor grasp of such basics may struggle with learning even elementary investing ideas. See "Employers Worry About Skills Gap That Impacts Bottom Line" (January 7, 2017).

Despite the fact that companies spent nearly $71 billion in 2015 on training, chances are those expenses will increase. Realistically, shareholders and taxpayers may have little choice but to foot the bill for further education of anyone not yet able to understand what it means to save now for later on. The Aegon Retirement Readiness Survey 2016 finds that "[A]round the world, many workers are heavily reliant on government benefits and are not saving enough to adequately fund their retirement income needs." Obviously there is no time like the present to prioritize thrift and prudent investing.

April is Financial Literacy Month

Every year, April brings spring showers and a celebration of Financial Literacy Month. Instead of balloons and party favors, the Council for Economic Education launched a video campaign of famous people who explain "what they've learned about the importance of financial literacy and saving." Given the dismal outlook of retirement readiness, any effort to get people thinking about putting money aside for the future is a good thing.

According to the 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey, roughly one of every five individuals expects to postpone retirement for monetary reasons. Insured Retirement Institute research suggests that "less than a quarter of baby boomers, 24 percent, are confident they will have enough savings to last throughout their retirement years."

The extent to which the recently released U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule will impact savings patterns is unknown at this time. Certainly the goal is to empower individuals to plan ahead.

$89 For An Umbrella and No Money To Retire

In between business meetings in Greenwich, Connecticut the other day, it started to rain heavily so this blogger walked a few blocks to an upscale department store (the closest in sight), in search of a reasonably priced umbrella. Since I have so many umbrellas already (but had forgotten to pack one), I figured I would spend a modest $15 or $20 to buy another umbrella to keep me dry. How much could an umbrella cost after all? To my surprise and shock, none of the umbrellas came in at less than $89 (plus tax of course). For some people, that's a tiny price for protection. Certainly this merchant was thriving with designer attire, shoes and jewelry finding its way into shoppers' bags.

However, the reality is that not everyone is going to shell out 89 big ones for an umbrella, no matter what the brand. For a large segment of the U.S. population, money is a scarce resource and confidence in a secure future is low. According to the results of a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor study, optimism is down and pessimism is up. At the same time that 68% of respondents say they have "little to no" confidence in the stock market as a way to prepare for retirement, 80% of investors urge lawmakers to act now so that savings is encouraged.

Unfortunately, most of the initiatives that individuals cite as "must have" elements of a national retirement readiness program are in direct conflict with the political grab to raise taxes. Consider a few examples.

  • Sixty-nine percent of the survey respondents say it is "extremely" or "very important" that politicians encourage every company to offer a 401(k) plan to its employees. Since there is already talk in Washington, DC about stripping companies of the tax benefits associated with offering retirement plans, it is unlikely that employers will realize further tax advantages at the expense of big spenders having to lose tax "revenue."
  • Sixty-six percent cite the need for the government to figure out how Americans who participate in 401(k) plans can get "more quality investment advice." Anticipating increased regulations as relates to investment fiduciary duties, some financial advisors are becoming less generous with information for fear of being sued. As described in "401(k) Lawsuits, Investment Advisers and Fiduciary Breach" (November 18, 2012), breach of fiduciary duty is cited as the top complaint in FINRA arbitration matters.
  • Sixty-nine percent want the government to establish initiatives that will motivate individuals to participate in their employer's 401(k) retirement savings option, assuming that they work for a company that offers benefits. Yet here we are, talking about a fiscal cliff that could impact millions of people with incomes below the magical "rich" benchmark of $250,000.  For one thing, in the absence of inflation indexing, the Alternative Minimum Tax that was enacted decades ago will show up as a nasty spring 2013 surprise for countless tax-paying middle-class households. Then there is the issue of jobs not created because employers will be writing larger checks to the IRS instead as various tax rates go up.

The United States is not alone in having to tackle difficult problems. The list is long and includes (but is not limited to) insufficient aggregate savings, underfunded social programs that are not sustainable safety nets without reform, high unemployment, corporate jitters about parting with cash, uncertain tax and regulatory environment and conflicting interests that make it almost possible to come up with near-term solutions.

There is a way forward to expand economic growth but that will require political courage. Let's hold our policy-makers accountable in 2013.