Current DC System Has Potential to Address Retirement Challenges

Many of the retirement challenges Americans face could be addressed by the current defined contribution (DC) plan system, if lawmakers move to effect changes, providers contend.

By John Manganaro | September 26, 2016
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A new DCIO Insights report from Neuberger Berman argues the current system of workplace defined contribution (DC) savings via payroll deductions protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) has sufficient power and flexibility to address the critical challenges ahead—especially if lawmakers can step up and make a few easy-but-necessary fixes.

Michael Barry, president of the Neuberger Berman plan advisory services group, and Michelle Rappa, head of defined contribution marketing, penned the report. They suggest leaders in Congress and across private industry have expressed the clear need to provide more support to workers hoping to do the responsible thing and save for retirement. Both groups, business leaders and lawmakers, naturally have an interest in promoting workers’ financial wellness and in protecting peoples’ future financial independence.

And so, the current moment seems like the natural environment for meaningful retirement-focused reform that could help the DC system function even better, the experts write, for example by creating new safe harbors to encourage employers to offer structured retirement income products under the protective umbrella of ERISA. Or lawmakers could create space for the establishment of non-nexus multiple employer plans (MEPs) that would allow otherwise unrelated small businesses to pool their resources when first establishing tax-advantaged DC savings and investing options for employees.  

These are all ideas that have been kicked around recently by Congress, Barry and Rappa observe, and both enjoy support from both sides of the aisle. Yet the proposals are far from a slam dunk: Given the tumultuous political environment it is very difficult to assess the short-term prospects even for these popular initiatives, the experts warn.

“As we see it, our current DC system presents three fundamental policy challenges,” the pair writes. “1) Getting adequate contributions into the system by providing workplace, auto-enrollment retirement savings vehicles to all American workers that default to an adequate contribution rate. 2) Investing those contributions efficiently by encouraging (again, through defaults) appropriate asset allocation decisions and reducing the cost of investment. 3) Distributing DC benefits in a way that adequately allows for longevity risk (the risk that a participant might outlive his/her retirement savings).”

That last policy challenge is perhaps the most difficult to achieve, Barry and Rappa predict. “Unlike traditional annuity-based defined benefit plans, where participants can see what their expected monthly distributions in retirement will be, DC plans are total account-based—meaning that participants see only the full amount of their 401(k) account balance on their statements. Consequently, policymakers, providers and sponsors have had difficulty getting DC participants to think of their account balances in terms of periodic retirement income distributions and to make appropriate decisions on that basis.”

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