With most private firms shifting workers to 401(k)-style defined contribution (DC) retirement plans since the 1980s, the state and local government market is effectively the last bastion of traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans. However, even among governments, the ubiquity of traditional pension plans has been slipping. And much of the movement away from traditional DB plan designs has been caused by accumulated unfunded liabilities that are fiscally burdening both the pension plan and jurisdictions’ budgets.
Public pension reform has been seen as a binary choice: the traditional DB or a 401(k)-style DC plan, with the latter option frequently presented as a standalone retirement option. In practice, a traditional 401(k) on its own will rarely comprise a core, or primary, retirement plan. This is because this type of plan was designed, and functions best, as a supplemental, employer-sponsored, tax-deferred savings plan.
This study presents a new retirement plan design, the Personal Retirement Optimization— or PRO Plan, which is built on a DC foundation but designed to operate more like a traditional pension. The DC foundation for the PRO Plan was chosen because it allows more public employees to accrue valuable retirement benefits regardless of length of service compared to defined benefit approaches. The design uses cutting-edge financial technologies to focus on providing plan participants with a predictable and customizable retirement income. It uses a liability-driven contribution (LDC) approach, tailored to individual situations and needs, for determining necessary contribution levels. Primarily concerned with risk-managed income adequacy in retirement, it addresses wealth accumulation only as a secondary objective. The PRO Plan provides participants the flexibility to choose an asset distribution methodology but uses several types of currently available annuities as a default method. The annuity default, combined with proper financial education and advice, tailor the PRO Plan income to an individual’s unique situation.
This study illustrates the effectiveness of the PRO Plan design in meeting individual retirement needs while effectively managing employer workplace expectations. To do so, the study elaborates on various scenarios that are relevant for the public sector. This analysis compares the relative funding requirements for three separate longevity scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Do-It-Yourself (DIY) – the individual self-insures their personal longevity for the entire period until age 95.
- Scenario 2: QLAC (deferred annuity) – the individual purchases an IRS Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract to address longevity risk from 85 to 95.
- Scenario 3: 100% Immediate Annuity – the individual purchases an immediate life annuity at retirement age 67 for the entire stream of payments.
Each scenario’s funding requirement is based on an actuarial analysis of net present value of a stream of inflation-adjusted payments starting at age 67 until age 95 (or death). We found that a DIY scenario was the costliest PRO Plan alternative. Our analysis shows that a typical mid-level earner at age 67 would require $1,050,000 under the DIY scenario. The QLAC scenario requires 28% less funding, or only $760,000. The 100% Immediate Annuity scenario requires 38% less funding than the DIY scenario, or $652,000, to achieve the same retirement income.
To show how the PRO Plan would work when the target benefit accumulation is greater or lesser than needed, we analyzed both a shortfall and excess $100,000 in plan accumulations at age 50. These scenarios showed that PRO Plans would better protect individuals by positioning them to adjust savings rates up or down as needed. Similar to the baseline scenarios, the QLAC and 100% Immediate Annuity options require lower additional contributions to allow participants in shortfall situations to reach the target retirement benefits.
This study serves as a hands-on tool for public fund managers willing to implement the PRO Plan option. In addition to providing the reader with various scenarios, it details all the plan features necessary for its successful implementation. The PRO Plan is an innovative way of incorporating the benefits of 401(k)-style solutions into modern-day public sector retirement plans that give their workers flexibility and predictability of their benefits.
A state or local government employer seeking to implement a new retirement plan or redesign their existing retirement plan should always begin by clearly identifying sound retirement benefit design principles and using those principles to determine and articulate the objectives of that plan. The principles and resulting design should include as the primary objective providing a share of lifetime income, attributable to the employee’s tenure, enabling the employee to maintain their standard of living in retirement. The design of the plan should provide the flexibility to meet the needs of employees in varying circumstances. Of course, other workplace objectives of the employer and financial realities for plan sponsors should also be considered.
Standard DB and 401(k)-type DC plans are often compared with little regard to the simple question of what design elements provide the greatest utility to the greatest number of employees while still serving the employer’s workforce management objectives. Many arguments have been advanced on all sides of the issue, some valid, others not so much. The real answer to the question of what type of plan most aids recruiting and retention is a plan that best meets the varying needs of most employees.
This analysis concludes that providing retirement benefits and savings solutions that adjust to meet the different and changing needs of employees is what will more likely aid employers in attracting and retaining quality employees.
The PRO Plan design is specifically crafted to be adaptable to the needs of the broadest cross-section of employees possible. The focus of the plan is on providing employees with the target retirement income replacement ratio determined by the employer. Income replacement is the primary objective, with wealth accumulation a secondary consideration. Importantly, the plan, based on employer-specific criteria, can have a longevity annuity default that can be opted out of by employees meeting certain specific criteria. The mandatory contribution rates for both employer and employee, as defined by the employer, combined with the investment design and distribution controls, are all designed to minimize risks for the employee while meeting employer workplace objectives.
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