Sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same. But other times, like today in the retirement industry, the coming changes will be unprecedented and represent a seismic shift that has been decades in the making.
In a nutshell, a comfortable and secure retirement is no longer something the vast majority of the U.S. populations can take for granted. And unlike the past, no institution or corporation will be coming to the rescue with any guarantees. Today, employees are largely on their own when it comes to preparing for the future. But the extent to which most people will reprioritize to fund their own retirement remains to be seen.
With this looming threat of a flatlining retirement industry, defined contribution plans, like the 401(k), are arguably the best defibrillator going. But they are far from a sure bet.
Taking a Step Back: How Did We Get Here?
No matter how unfashionable it might be to acknowledge past actions or inactions that have led to a current conundrum, every now and then, it’s worth a pause to consider the course of events that have led to where we are and where we’re most likely headed.
Rather than rehashing 50 years of history, suffice to say that globalization is largely to blame for much of the strife facing the retirement industry today. If you look back to the late 1960s, after Vietnam and before low-cost labor from Asia impacted worldwide pay scales, baby boomers became a driving force, both politically and economically, exerting significant pressure on both wages and benefits in the United States. Those were the halcyon days of labor unions, when employees, both skilled and unskilled, were given not only high wages but also high quality medical benefits and pension plans that would ensure a flow of income all the way to the grave.
The risks and costs of guaranteeing lifetime benefits didn’t escape the attention of the companies offering them, but there were no easy solutions. Some defined benefit pension plans were negotiated but then not properly funded. And others got creative with their actuarial assumptions, in some cases applying a discount rate of 8% or more in an attempt to deny or forestall the reality of the future cost of the guaranteed retirement plan.
Then, when China decided to become a member of the world community, things went from bad to worse. Product production shifted into high gear in Asia at a cost that was substantially less than goods produced in the United States. And this sent U.S. companies scrambling to remain competitive, which meant reducing costs and overhead as much as possible. As a way of reducing labor costs, benefit plans were among the first expense categories that came under pressure.
Over the past 20 years, corporate America has increasingly done away with defined benefit plans to instead offer profit sharing plans in conjunction with 401(k) plans. Today, DB plans have all but evaporated from the landscape, with the exception of plans offered by local, state and federal governments. These employers have not felt the pressure of foreign competition, however tremendous unfunded liabilities and significantly longer life expectancies are beginning to take their toll. The strain on governments to properly fund these plans leaves few other options than to raise taxes.
Thus, the whole concept of a guaranteed lifetime benefit has gone the way of other impossible dreams. The 401(k), 403(b), and other similar plans are now the primary source of future retirement income to go along with Social Security. And employees are now largely responsible for their own retirements. So, where do we go from here?
The Much Needed Wake Up Call
Right off the bat, employees must be made to understand exactly what’s at stake. And the most effective way to make that point clear is by providing a personalized retirement readiness assessment. For some, this can feel much like a virtual ice bucket challenge, which is just what you want. The report should delineate how much employees should save for retirement, based on their specific needs, versus how much they’re saving currently. And if they’re not going to make it, they need to be told—in no uncertain terms.
Employees are not the only ones that need a wake up call. The responsibility also lies with plan providers. The new DOL ruling is an admonition to the retirement industry—that plan providers and advisors must act in the best interests of plan participants, which should mean helping to alleviate some of the retirement planning burden by providing the best possible services at fair and reasonable prices.
A Pill Worth Swallowing
Breaking the news to plan participants that need to save around 18% of their earnings can be difficult. But there is good news to deliver as well. The key points to illustrate are the exponential benefits of even small increases in 401(k) contributions, the power of compound interest over time, and the tax savings that can be realized.
Another vital part of this conversation should be a discussion of the optimal asset allocation and investment choices based on the employee’s specific needs. When the advisor can illustrate savings growth, based on realistic rate of return assumptions, financial goals begin to seem achievable.
The employee education process is crucial to the success of the 401(k) plan. But the time and effort it takes to really get through to people—including group educational forums and one-on-one planning session—is substantial.
Increasing the Odds
No matter how much plan participants can discipline themselves to save, if they’re invested in inferior investment products, it could be all for naught. To make a real difference in people’s lives, plan fiduciaries must be hawkish when it comes to the quality of the investments options and the legitimacy of the fees.
Advisors should recommend benchmarking the plan on a continual basis, to determine the latest industry standard for investments and to identify and eliminate any excessive and unnecessary fee. This is at the heart of what it means to be a plan fiduciary—to act solely in the best interests of the plan participants, act in a prudent manner, diversify the plan’s investments, and ensure that the plan expenses are reasonable.
Through a diversified fund lineup, that includes both active and low-cost passive investment options, and by ensuring that providers are free of inherent conflicts of interest, the odds of achieving a desired level of retirement readiness can be well within grasp.
Once the right products are in place, it’s imperative to remain vigilant in ensuring that performance remains on course and individual plans stay on track. To that end, a process for the selection, monitoring and replacement of investment choices is imperative.
As those in the retirement industry for any length of time have observed, if the current course is left unchecked, the prospects are bleak. We’re trending toward a scenario where many, many people will find themselves struggling to make ends meet during retirement. That’s why, now more than ever, plans sponsors and their advisors have a duty to help.
If being in this businesses is worth doing, how much more satisfying to know that you’ve helped steer as many people as possible toward a more promising future. It’s a great challenge and it will take a concerted effort on behalf of everyone to see to it that no one is left behind.
John Beirne is the Founding Partner and Chief Investment Officer at Beirne Wealth Consulting. For most of John’s 50 year career in financial services, he has specialized in public pension fund management. His vast institutional expertise also includes private pension plans, endowments, hospitals, foundations and 401(k) plans. John Beirne created Beirne Wealth Consulting in 2012 predicated on his philosophy that doing what is in the best interest of clients is always mutually beneficial over the long term.
About Beirne Wealth Consulting Services, LLC
Beirne Wealth Consulting Services, LLC (“BWC”) is a growing, privately owned, SEC Registered Investment Advisor with about $2 billion in assets under management and over 25 employees in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida. BWC provides independent, fee-based investment management services and customized financial planning solutions. Our institutional business provides consulting expertise to defined benefit and defined contribution plans, endowments, foundations and non-profit organizations. Our private clients include high net-worth individuals and prominent families, many of whom bring complex wealth management challenges and multigenerational planning needs. For more information, please visit www.beirnewealth.com or give us a call today at 888-231-6372.