The private employer-sponsored defined benefit plan has had a good run of it, supporting two generations well in its goal of providing economic security  for retirees.  But the last 10 years have seen gradual though substantial decline in the number of employers sponsoring these plans, and in the percentage of employees being covered by these plans-now somewhere well south of 19% of the workforce is covered.The economic collapse has exacerbated the problem even further by exposing the weaknesses of the system, as the remaining DB plans are seeking funding relief from Congress.

You can find many sound opinions which attempt to explain this demise, from over-regulation, to difficult statutory schemes,  to the allure of defined contribution plans. If you step back, though, you can see that all of the reasons for the demise have a central theme: private employers are structurally ill-suited to bear the lifetime risk associated with providing this kind of benefit.

Think about it. Private business can, and indeed some must, fail. These companies  grow, expand and, ultimately either fail or need to be exposed to the risk of failure. There is a lot of conversation at the policy level about the evils inherent in having companies that are "too big to fail."  So what is the sense, then, to rely upon companies that we structurally need to fail from time to time to be responsible for funding a lifetime risk of their employees? One may claim that this is the function of the PBGC, but the PBGC doesn’t specifically reserve for risks undertaken by plans. Its reserving system is ad hoc, at best.

Taking a close look at the current DB funding rules, you can see that they really require employers to have, or buy, sophisticated actuarial and investment expertise that you will only normally find in a regulated financial institution. We are, in effect, demanding our manufacturing base to become experts at insurance.

These employers are also seeing the changing nature of their workforce and retiree population, and they find that the DB Plan is unable to meet employee and retiree demands. DB Plans are, for the most part, proverbial “one trick ponies,” whose inflexibility has limited their usefulness in the current marketplace.

I have blogged on popular new annuity products in the marketplace, many of which are reliant upon sophisticated hedging strategies.  These innovative annuity products include features well beyond anything that could be offered in a traditional DB plan. These includes features like (but not limited to) the elective, periodic purchase of a pension guarantee with each payroll; the ability to access cash balances with minimum penalties; equity participation which will raise or lower the lifetime income guarantees; guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits; guaranteed minimum income benefits with equity participation; and variable annuitization.  Employers who sponsor DB Plans are not in the business of developing and providing these sophisticated guarantees to meet changing employee and market needs. Additionally, plan sponsors generally have limited skills in even maintaining traditional DB benefits, much less having the resources to provide a wide variety of lifetime payout benefits which can adapt to change. They are also severely restricted by a regulatory scheme which discourages innovation. 

What is the answer? Most will agree that the former insurance schemes are sorely inadequate: inflexibility in pricing, little transparency, little portability, and irresponsible acting in some quarters has fueled the current economic mess. What the insurance industry DOES have is the necessary skills and regulatory scheme to guarantee and manage the solvency risks inherent  in guaranteeing life time income.  

Mark Iwry and Phylis Borzi both have recently noted noted their commitment (and cooperation) to providing a sensible regulatory scheme for providing annuitization from defined contribution plans, which will rely upon transparency, simplicity, relevancy and portability. To make this really work, we will need legislative relief as well, in such things as providing a "double 415" limit in such plans in order to provide the same sort of tax benefit which is available for sponsors of DB plans.

Should the insurance industry be able to answer this call, we may be able to finally have a sensible approach to providing retirement income from employer sponsored retirement plans.


For further discussion on this matter, see this link. 



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