President Obama’s new budget proposes the establishment of a new "Automatic Workplace Pension" (see pages 84 and 85 of the OMB’s budget description and David John’s description at the Heritage Foundation’s site). It is based upon proposals from the Retirement Security Project run by Mark Iwry, David John and William Gale.

There is little doubt that the proposal will catch a lot of heat, as the logistics of establishing this type of program seems, at first glance, to be almost overwhelming. A number of trade groups are already discussing the issue of what kind of financial products and services can and should be used to implement this proposal, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer at first glance.

But there really may be an answer. The good Mr. Iwry and I have been talking about his proposal for a few years now, and it strikes me how similar this proposal is to the original 403(b) programs of the past.  Nearly 50 years ago, 403(b) programs were designed as individual pensions.  The employer’s sole responsibility was to make sure the employee’s deferrals were sent to the company of the employee’s choosing. The design was very similar (and actually still is today) to the IRAs which were adopted some 20 years or so later, more so than the qualified plans that the IRS is now trying to make them out to be.

Think about the delivery system which was successfully established by the marketplace for those early 403(b) programs. The tax-exempt employers agreed to which vendors they would permit deferrals, and the vendors came in and did the rest. They were (and still are) registered products (to the extent they provide equity based investment accounts) which are required to be sold by registered representatives. The employees owned the products, or had individual certificates under group annuities, which were completely portable. Revenue Ruling 90-24 gave employees the right to transfer their money tax free to another 403(b) investment product, making them REALLY portable.

In short: the marketplace has proven its ability to make this kind of program work, using the old 403(b) model.  Is there any reason why this shouldn’t serve as the basis for this new proposal?

There is a curious side bar to all of this, though. The IRS has spent the last 15 years trying to force the individually based 403(b) program into an "employer" based model. The IRS may face a new challenge, as the Automatic Workplace Pension proposal may well be 403(b) on steroids. It would seem to offer an alternative to all those non-ERISA 403(b) plans who find themselves being "ERISAfied" by the new 403(b) regulations.

THIS is going to be interesting…..

For a blog discussion thread on the Automatic Workplace Pension, check out the Bogleheads blog.