IMHO: “Forever” More?

September 22, 2010 ( - Last week the Treasury Department and Department of Labor held two-days of joint hearings on the subject of retirement income.   


Now, plan sponsors who have contemplated the issues attendant with today’s retirement income offerings in relation to ERISA plans probably wouldn’t have been much surprised by the discussion (see Lifetime Income Hearing Witnesses Demand Fiduciary Shield).  There was discussion about the need for product design enhancement (though much of the focus seemed to be on better explaining what was already available), better (i.e. cheaper) pricing for the kind institutional purchases these plans might provide (though I’m hard-pressed to see how you get any kind of aggregation benefits in terms of product just because the buyers all work for the same employer), and the challenges of portability, both when a plan changes providers and/or a participant changes employers.    

There was talk about misunderstandings about annuities that no amount of communication or education seem able to dispel (my guess is the hearings won’t alter that dynamic, either), and there was concern about differences in gender-specific annuity tables (and, let’s be honest, gender-specific savings habits and longevity experiences).  And, of course, there was a LOT of talk about things that would encourage employers to embrace these options as an integral element of their plan design.  To my ears, those recommendations tended to fall into two basic themes; some kind of QDIA-like default safe harbor, and/or some kind of fiduciary safe harbor for annuity selection by the plan fiduciary.    

IMHO, you can’t not address those concerns.  While there are any number of operational impediments still to incorporating a retirement income option, I still find that the big challenge remains plan sponsors’ concern about being on the hook for a bad annuity provider choice – not today, or a year from now, or even ten years from now – but forever.  And, while like investment advice, the Labor Department has tried to offer guidance in the interests of encouraging higher adoption rates, so far as I can tell, it hasn’t budged the needle at all. 

I don’t fault the Labor Department for this; after all, there is a fine line between offering the level of protection that will actually change fiduciary behavior, and just giving the store away.  Clearly the plan sponsor/fiduciary’s decision will have a significant impact not only on the choices available to, but the choices taken by, participants – and somebody knowledgeable needs to be accountable.  That same rationale, though it’s often glossed over, is why the plan sponsor retains its customary level of prudent expert responsibility for the choice of an investment advice provider, even if some protection is afforded them on the particulars of that advice, and why they are still on the hook for the prudent selection of a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA), even though the gain a great deal of protection from potential participant lawsuits so long as they comply with the safe harbor requirements.   

That said, IMHO there’s a world of difference between making a point in time choice of an advice or investment provider, decisions that can be monitored, reasonably readily benchmarked and changed, and that involved in selecting a retirement income option where the untangling can be considerably more “involved”. 

It’s more than a little ironic that the very thing that makes it possible for those providers to offer those kind of lifetime income guarantees also makes for a certain sense of irrevocability in the decision.  Now, I realize that it doesn’t have to be irrevocable, certainly not in a forever sense (though there are generally financial penalties attendant with that decision).  But that, I think, remains the real problem with annuity selection, not just for plan fiduciaries, but for plan participants as well.  You not only have to weigh a lot of considerations that people generally aren’t comfortable weighing, you wind up making a call that seems like it not only has to be right for now, but “right” forever.   

It is, quite simply, a decision that still seems perfectly suited to guarantee that no decision will be made for as long as it can possibly be postponed.   

Ultimately, in fact, what we may need to help plan sponsors make these options more available is not a better way to help participants get into annuities – but a better way to help them get out.