SURVEY SAYS: What's This Year's Most Significant Trend/Impact?

December 2, 2005 ( - Every year about this time, I start looking back over the year just past - and try to highlight some of the major trends and developments that have impacted our industry.

This week I asked readers to pick the most significant event over the past year.

The most common response – but by no means a majority – was the nearly 29% who said it was pension funding – and the purported attempts to fix the system.   Or, as one reader “clarified”, “…pension funding, or lack thereof.”  “Many of the other items in your list may have a more profound impact on some firms, but for the system and the people (living ever longer), the accelerated decline of annuities and DB plans will have the most profound long term affect,” noted another.  “Automatic k will keep at least some off the ground for at least part of their later years (its those nasty years after ‘life expectancy’ that will likely be bare).”

“I think the final contingent of companies, including the one I work for, will be researching with more vigor the options available to defined benefit pension plans currently being used to deliver a part of retirement security to employees,” noted another.

Nearly one-in-five opted for “other” – and while the results were varied, they tended to revolve around two major categories – Katrina (and the ensuing impact) and Medicare D.  “With all of the hurricanes this year, especially Katrina, there were many legalities and questions regarding investments, distributions, paperwork, etc.   Hopefully, next year the season will be calmer,” said one.   As for Medicare D, “My vote is for the new prescription drug benefit under Medicare,” noted one.  “Not only can’t Medicare beneficiaries figure it out, I can’t figure it out, and I do this stuff every day!”

Healthcare “hiccups” was the pick of nearly 15% of this week’s respondents.  “No question – healthcare is our biggest problem.   We experienced a 37% increase this year,” explained one.  “While I am with a multi-employer (Taft-Hartley) pension and health fund, and pension funding is an issue for us, funding of health care benefits is a more immediate and worrisome problem,” noted another.

A surprisingly strong 12% cited the implications of 409A on their deferred compensation programs.  “409A appeared to be the most rushed, least considered, most wide-sweeping and most-confusing (even to lawyers) piece of tax legislation in my 25 years of comp & benefits experience.   A year later and they still don’t have it figured out…” noted one respondent.   Another who opted for the implications of 409A noted, “…in fact, we’re crunching away on plan amendments right now!”

Meanwhile, another 7% said that the biggest issue was stock option expensing, including one reader who noted, “(at least it seems so when you’re the stock plan administrator!)”  That “personal touch” was a consideration for a number of readers.   Among the other components of our list, the aftermath of the fund trading scandal (one reader noted, “Based on my new title (CCO) and workload, definitely (b) the aftermath of the mutual fund trading scandals.”),  Social Security insecurities, and automatic alternatives (auto enrollment, contribution acceleration, etc.) each drew about 5%, while contingent fee controversies and the cash balance conundrum split the remaining vote.

But this week’s Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who cited pension funding gaps as the biggest problem – but went on to explain, “Not that it is a problem with our pension, it’s the fact that our parent company located in Germany reads the newspaper about underfunded and unfunded pension plan here in the USA. I have to keep assuring and proving that our plan is above the 90% funding level.”

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!