It started on July 7 when TheWall Street Journal ran a front-page story titled “401(k) Law Suppresses Saving for Retirement” (a story that is still, as I write on Saturday morning, on WSJ.com’s most popular listing). And, no, that article wasn’t talking about discrimination testing rules, the imposition of annual contribution limits, talk of a mandatory limit on loans, or the imposition of mandatory annuitization of distributions. Rather, it was talking about…automatic enrollment.
The report claimed that “40% of new hires at companies with automatic enrollments are socking away less money than they would if left to enroll voluntarily,” citing data from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). The problem, according to the report, was that “[m]ore than two-thirds of companies set contribution rates at 3% of salary or less, unless an employee chooses otherwise.”
Well, duh. That, as they say, is the law.
EBRI quickly took issue with the WSJ’s characterizations, outlining in some detail the non-partisan group’s extensive history in examining these trends, and then noted that “The Wall Street Journal article reported only the most pessimistic set of assumptions,” failing to “cite any of the other 15 combinations of assumptions reported in the study” referenced in the report. More significantly, EBRI’s Jack VanDerhei commented later that same day that the WSJ managed to completely ignore the reality that automatic enrollment is “increasing savings for many more—especially the lowest-income 401(k) participants.”
Now, while EBRI was, IMHO, rightly miffed to see its data and analysis mis-, or perhaps less-than-fully, represented, the authors of the Pension Protection Act were no less maligned. The law was designed to help more employers make it easier for more employees to become participants, and for those participants to become more-effective retirement savers, and it seems to me that, in just about every way, it has been a huge success.
Are there those who once might have filled out an enrollment form and opted for a higher rate of deferral (say to the full level of match) that now take the “easy” way and allow themselves to be automatically enrolled at the lower rate called for by the PPA? Absolutely. However, as the EBRI data show—and, for anyone paying attention, have shown for years now—the folks most likely to be disadvantaged by that choice are higher-income workers, most of whom, IMHO, should know better.