IMHO: The Measure of the Plan

Not so long ago, plan sponsors gauged the success of their defined contribution offerings by a single metric: participation rate.   

It’s not that they didn’t pay attention to other criteria, but participation rate is objective, easy to calculate, and, certainly for a voluntary savings program, it’s not an inappropriate gauge of the program’s perceived value. 

Over the past couple of years, a growing number of plan providers have brought to market a new set of plan diagnostic measures, measures that not only show individual and plan balances, but also project those balances out to an estimate of what those balances will provide in retirement income, or presented as a measure of retirement readiness—compared with an established level of income replacement. 

It’s not a new idea, of course.  Heck, there has even been legislation introduced to place—on participant statements—a projection as to what the participant’s monthly retirement income would be.  Meanwhile, despite long-standing fears that participants, confronted with the stark realities of their savings situation, would abandon the cause, the realities seem to be quite different.  One might well expect the providers touting such wares to extol the virtues of the approach (and they do), but I have yet to meet a plan sponsor who had adopted these enhanced gauges of retirement readiness who said it had had a negative impact. 

That said, there are still many plan sponsors that have not yet taken that step.  At the PLANSPONSOR National Conference this past June, I asked the audience of some 200-plus plan sponsors if they had established any kind of target replacement ratio as part of their program design.  While the survey sampling was admittedly unscientific (though I would suspect skewered toward more-active, involved, engaged plan sponsors) a whopping 78% said “no.”  Just one in 10 said yes, while the remaining 12% responded “not explicitly, but it’s in the back of our minds.” (1)

Based on that result, I wasn’t too surprised that just 28% said their participants will be able to retire comfortably, while 43% said “maybe” (the polling was anonymous). (2)

Now, most of us have a hard enough time answering that comfortable retirement question for our individual situation, much less an entire employee populationbut I was struck by how many of those in that particular attendance didn’t even seem to have a rough notion in the back of their mind.  As I explored that poll result with the audience, a couple of themes emerged: First, plan sponsors only know so much about an individual participant’s lifestyle, sources of income, and/or plans for retirement, and generally don’t have the time or inclination to know any of that, anyway.  Second, these are voluntary programs, and while plan sponsors take seriously their responsibility to see that they are well, reasonably, and efficiently run, most don’t see it as their responsibility to make sure that participants are doing what they need to do (in fairness, most plan sponsors have their hands full just trying to make sure that THEY are doing what they need to do).

In casual conversations with plan sponsors about these types of programs and their reluctance to embrace them, it isn’t the cost or complexity that holds them back, nor is it concern about the response of newly enlightened participant-savers.  Rather, it’s an underlying concern that, once those retirement replacement goals have been established at a plan committee level, and once those readiness results are presented in black and white (or multi-color) to plan fiduciaries, they could be held accountable for the results and/or shortfalls.  Ignorance, to some it seems, is not only bliss, it’s a litigation shield.

Personally, I think plan sponsors already carry burdens and responsibilities beyond what many, perhaps most, are compensated for (and some beyond what they are aware).  That said, it seems to me that presenting plan participants with specific information about their retirement savings situation, coupled with the kinds of diagnostic tools that accompany most of these offerings (not to mention the counsel of a trusted adviser) not only serves to help them make better decisions sooner, it effectively undermines their ability to later turn on the plan fiduciaries and try to hold them accountable for the participant’s results.

Now, some might argue that sponsoring these programs with no specific goal in mind is not much better than participants who save with no goal or focus to those efforts.  Others would go so far as to suggest that failing to administer these programs with those kinds of specific goals in mind runs afoul of ERISA’s fiduciary charge. 

For me, it’s not about measuring your program—it’s about seeing how your program measures up.


(1) While I don’t have a correlation between the responses and the program designs represented, it seems fair to say that many were in the DC-only camp.

(2) As for the rest of the responses, 16% said “no,” 10% were “not sure,” and 3% said “I’ve no idea.”