IMHO: Trend Spotting

Here's a headline you won't see this week: "Nobody Cut Their 401(k) Match Today."

That’s right, even though there is a very good chance that it will be an accurate statement on just about every day, I’m betting it won’t even make its way into the business briefs section, much less a newspaper headline.

Not that employers aren’t making decisions to cut back on, or even suspend, their 401(k) match.   You don’t have much trouble keeping up with that activity.   Regardless of plan size or industry, these days, pretty much any plan that takes that step can count on making headlines—and every article beneath those headlines spends at least a sentence or two recounting the latest list of 401(k) match casualties.

Even in our publications, sadly (1) .   Let’s face it, it’s “news.”

With such incessant coverage, it’s hard to shake a sense that we have the makings of a trend—particularly for plan sponsors.   Indeed, for employers looking for some respite in one of the more challenging economic times in memory, such coverage surely plants at least the seed of doubt about the necessity of the financial obligations attendant with such commitments.  

Those developments notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that, when it comes to their matching contributions, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of employers that offer 401(k) plans will make them in 2009 at the same level they did in 2008—and as they did in 2007, though you may never see a headline to that effect (a rare exception: ” 83% of Employers Surveyed do not Expect Employer Contribution Changes “).

That said, I’m not altogether sure where one crosses the line between a series of related occurrences and “a trend”—when the tipping point is reached, the Rubicon crossed….

What I do know is that we are still at a point where the decision to suspend a 401(k) match is “news.”  

And I dread the day—should it ever come—when it isn’t.

– Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also ” IMHO: ‘Out of’ Practice

(1) and yes, I’m aware that we’ve seen nearly a half dozen of these announcements in the past week alone.