Sponsor Strategies vs. Plan Realities

A recent J.P. Morgan survey found significant gaps between plan sponsors’ intentions and the reality of how plan strategies actually unfold.

J.P. Morgan Asset Management released the results of their 2013 Defined Contribution (DC) Plan Sponsor Survey, which highlights a clear gap between the intent to provide retirement well-being for plan participants and the actual approaches they are using to achieve results. It also uncovered issues that may be impeding progress toward achieving plan objectives.

According to the survey findings, employers consider their role to go beyond just providing an effective 401(k) plan, but measurement does not always reflect this goal. For example, more than 75% of plan sponsors rate “increasing financial security” and “helping ensure employees have a financially secure retirement” as highly important, with percentages reaching into the 85% to 90% range for larger plans. This suggests that concern goes beyond the realm of 401(k) plans. Sixty percent of plan sponsors say they have a somewhat high to very high sense of responsibility for the “overall financial wellness of employees” yet, only about 40% see the number of participants with account balances on track to provide retirement security as a highly important measure of success.

The survey also found that many plan sponsors need a nudge in the right direction, as well as some proactive guidance. For example, only 14% of plan sponsors say their adviser or consultant proactively suggests new ideas and shares best practices for evolving their plan. In addition, while many participants continue to underestimate how much income they will need in retirement, only 25% of plan sponsors have considered promoting an understanding of what participants are on track to receive in retirement as a top communications goal.

“Employers see the need for change, but most need help in determining the best approach for their plan,” said Catherine Peterson, director of Retirement Insights at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. “The new generation of 401(k) plan components—from design to investments, communications and administration—is readily available and simply needs to be prioritized, coordinated and managed toward plan objectives and goals. There is a second generation 401(k) plan emerging and it shouldn’t be reserved for large plan sponsors only.”

The survey also found that employers are more worried about participant reactions than they need to be. The reason most frequently given by plan sponsors for not introducing automatic enrollment (27%) or automatic contribution escalation (30%) is concern that employees would not approve of these features. In reality, a recent participant survey by J.P. Morgan (the 2013 Plan Participant Survey Findings) suggests greater support for these features than employers may think. Only 20% were opposed to such a combination. And two-thirds of respondents had a high level of trust in their employers' ability to select an appropriate retirement plan provider and set investment options.

“The implementation of automatic features is absolutely critical to helping participants achieve optimal outcomes,” said Peterson. “Industry research shows that, once enrolled in a plan with auto enrollment and auto escalation, less than 10% of participants ever opt out. Imagine the impact these auto features can have on the saving habits of those employees. Providing more Americans with the experience and satisfaction of a secure retirement calls for the continued evolution of 401(k) plans with all parties contributing—participants, employers, advisors, plan providers and policymakers.”

J.P. Morgan Asset Management conducted the survey online from December 18, 2012, to January 25, 2013. Each of the 796 plan sponsor respondents was a key decisionmaker with respect to their organizations' defined contribution plans. All companies represented have been in operation for at least three years, offer a 401(k) or 403(b) plan to their U.S. employees and have at least 10 full-time employees.

The full findings of the survey can be viewed here.