I suspect that most of us have no idea that today, September 10, 2021, is National 401(k) Day. This day is recognized every year on the Friday following Labor Day. The day is supposed to be an opportunity for retirement saving education and for companies to inform their employees about their ability to invest in company sponsored 401(k)s. Did you get your update today?
401(k) plans are defined contribution plans (DC). This plan type was created in the late 1970s as a “supplemental” benefit. Corporate America liked the idea of a DC offering because it helped them recruit middle and senior management types who wouldn’t accrue enough time in the company’s traditional pension plan. Again, the benefit was supplemental to the traditional monthly pension payment and not in lieu of it!
I think that defined contribution plans are fine as long as they remain supplemental to a DB plan. Asking untrained individuals to fund, manage, and then disburse a retirement benefit is a ridiculous exercise. Why do we think that 99.9% of Americans have this ability? Unfortunately, we have a significant percentage of our population living within 200% of the poverty line. Do you think that they have any discretionary income that would permit them to fund a retirement benefit when housing, health insurance, food, education, and transportation costs eat up most of an individual’s take home pay? Remember, these plans are predicated on what is contributed. Sure, there may be a company match of some kind, but we witnessed what can happen during difficult economic times. That employer contribution suddenly vanishes.
Defined benefit plans are the gold standard of retirement vehicles. They once covered more than 40% of the private sector workforce, most union employees, and roughly 85% of public sector workers. What happened? Did we lose focus on the primary objective in managing a DB plan which is to SECURE the promised benefits in a cost effective manner with prudent risk? Did our industry’s focus on the return on asset assumption (ROA) create an untenable environment? Yes, we got more volatility, but did we get the commensurate return? It was this volatility that impacted the financial statements and led to the decision to freeze and terminate a significant percentage of private DB plans. It is a tragic outcome.
What we have today is a growing economic divide among the haves and haves-not. This schism continues to grow, and the lack of retirement security is only making matters worse. DB plans can be managed effectively where excess volatility is not tolerated, where the focus is on the promised benefit and not some made up ROA and where decisions that are made relative to investment structure and asset allocation are predicated on the financial health of the plan and the funded status. We need DB plans more than ever and ONLY a return to pension basics will help us in this quest. Forget about all the new-fangled investment products being sold. Replacing one strategy for another is no better than shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. We need improved governance and a renewed focus on why pensions were provided in the first place.