IMHO: “Sure” Things

In a very real sense, this has been a “rebuilding” year for many plan sponsors and participants.  

It has been a time spent rebuilding account balances, resurrecting and/or reviving employer match contributions, a time for shoring up participation rates, and—in some cases—restoring trust.  The markets, overall, have been sympathetic to those causes, but in many respects, the still-soft economic trends doubtless weighed on the kinds of dramatic trend shifts that we have seen in recent years. 

That said, only a quarter (24.9%) of some 6,000 plan sponsor respondents to PLANSPONSOR’s annual Defined Contribution Survey said that “all or nearly all” of their participants were deferring enough to take full advantage of the employer match, a reading that declines sharply with plan size.  Additionally, participation rates were roughly flat with a year ago; with responding plans reporting a combined participation rate of 71.5%, compared with 72.3% a year ago.  The median participation rate was also lower; 75.0% in 2010, compared with 78% in last year’s survey.

As for automatic enrollment, the 2010 trend line was mixed.  While the overall adoption rate was slightly lower this year, there  was a discernable uptick in adoption at the largest programs (62.7% in 2010, compared with 52.3% a year ago), and about a 10% increase in the number of mid- and large-size programs—but small and micro plans showed no change at all.  The overall pace of contribution acceleration – that process of providing for annual increases in the rate of deferral – slipped from a 15.5% adoption rate in 2009 to just one in 10 plans this year (though most of that decline came from the smallest plans).  However, even the adoption rate at the largest plans was effectively flat from a year ago. 

The number of plans not offering some form of financial/investment advice continued to shrink.  In this year’s survey, fewer than one in four plan sponsors did not offer that support, though larger programs were more likely to eschew the option.  Relying on a financial adviser outside the plan was the preference for 37.5% of this year’s respondents, though that option was significantly more appealing to micro and smaller employers.  While there continued to be different trend lines in different market segments, there was a distinct and noticeable trend across market segments toward offering – and accepting – “help”.

But as I sorted through the results of our annual Defined Contribution Survey, the one thing that emerged as something of a theme across multiple categories was – a lack of clarity.  Plan sponsor respondents– and I maintain that those who respond to our survey are some of the most knowledgeable and actively engaged in their responsibilities – expressed what I thought were relatively high levels of uncertainty around several key plan design elements; fees, target-date glide paths, retirement-income offerings, the focus of their investment policy statements, even the “best” option for a qualified default investment alternative (QDIA).

Now, that may simply be a reflection of the wide array of choices available, the pace of new product development, and the unsettling effects of volatile markets.  In fact, it might even reflect a certain level of prudent humility on the part of serious plan fiduciaries, who are aware of just how much they don’t know in the midst of that change and turbulence, and are willing to own up to that reality.

After all, as Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”