October 23, 2011 in Business

Retirement plan providers try new 401(k) ideas

David Pitt
 

Several 401(k) providers are rolling out new bells and whistles.

Some of the changes are driven by the realization that many workers haven’t saved enough to get them through retirement. In addition, this summer’s market volatility amid concerns of a global economic crisis has reduced their balances yet again, prompting many to pull their money out of the market.

“Given the low balances in 401(k) plans, if our industry doesn’t help provide better solutions, at some point the government will come under pressure to do something,” said Chuck Cornelio, president of defined contribution at Lincoln Financial Group, which provides retirement and other financial services. “Sometimes government solutions are good, sometimes they’re not.”

Here’s a snapshot of some of the new ideas emerging in 401(k) plans:

Pension-like income

Workers are increasingly skeptical about their ability to save enough to retire when they’d hoped. As a result, companies in the 401(k) business are trying to come up with ways to offer their accountholders a guaranteed income stream, much like traditional pension plans once did.

The latest effort comes from Hartford Financial Services Group, which has designed a plan that allows 401(k) account holders to buy what it calls income shares. Each share is guaranteed to pay $10 of monthly income for life beginning at age 65. A worker could buy 50 income shares during working years to generate $500 a month in retirement, for example.

The cost of each income share is based on the person’s age, current interest rates, and is predicated on retirement at age 65. The amount of income from each unit will increase if the participant retires later or decrease if the participant retires earlier. Retirement plan participants can buy shares through regular payroll deductions or lump-sum payments.

The income is provided from an annuity that’s an investment option within the 401(k) plan.

Here’s an example of how it works.

Let’s say Maria, a 30-year-old worker with an annual salary of $40,000, saves $200 a month in her 401(k). She wants to be sure she has $500 a month in retirement to cover basic expenses. In order to do that she could contribute $86 a month toward the purchase of income shares until age 65. Her total contribution would be $36,120, yet she would be paid a total of $120,000 from age 65 to 85 — or $500 a month. If she lives longer, the guaranteed income would be $180,000 from age 65 to 95.

Hartford’s income shares are portable, which means that the investor can retain the shares and the guaranteed income they provide if he or she changes employers, or if the worker’s employer changes retirement plan providers.

The option should be viewed as another investment choice within a 401(k) plan, said Patricia Harris, director of retirement income products at Hartford.

Workers enrolled in the plan can get help creating a retirement plan that estimates what they’ll need to pay in basic expenses and put aside enough to cover that amount.

The concept was to create an option that fills the space of a pension plan for 401(k) participants, but enables workers to control and manage the money on their own, Harris said.

Small business 401(k)

Small-business owners and their workers may be interested in a new low-cost offering.

The Vanguard Group has launched a 401(k) plan for small businesses; defined as those with assets of less than $20 million. The plans include index funds and target-date funds for employees to choose from. Employers pay one fee for record keeping and administrative costs. Also included: a call center, participant education materials, and plan sponsor and participant websites.

Vanguard says the total cost is much lower than the industry norm. One of its small-business plans – with a mix of its index funds and some active funds, about $5 million in assets and an average account balance of $50,000 – would charge 0.32 percent of plan assets. The industry median for small plans between $1 million and $10 million in assets is 1.27 percent.

To keep costs down, the plans primarily feature index funds – those that closely mirror the performance of a broad index such as the Standard & Poor’s 500. They will include target-date funds, which are diversified funds whose asset allocations become more conservative the closer the investor gets to retirement age.

The small businesses also may offer money market, actively managed, and stable value funds.

Socially responsible investing

The number of 401(k) plans offering investment choices focusing on companies that promote environmentally sustainable practices, human rights, and diversity — known as socially responsible investing, or SRI — could double in the next few years, according to a new report.

Business benefits consultant Mercer and the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment surveyed more than 400 companies offering 401(k) plans earlier this year. While 14 percent surveyed said they already offer one or more SRI options, an additional 13 percent said they are discussing an SRI option or intend to add one within the next two to three years. More than 84 percent said they expect demand for socially responsible options in retirement plans to increase over the next five years.

The survey shows plenty of room for education on the topic since 58 percent of the respondents said they have minimal or no understanding of SRI investments.

Those that offer such options say they do so to align their retirement plans with their company’s goals and to meet employee demand.

Automatic enrollment

Automatic enrollment has been credited with increasing worker participation in 401(k) accounts. Human resources consultant Aon Hewitt says nearly 76 percent of eligible workers participated in their company’s 401(k) plan in 2010, the highest level since the company began tracking data. It credited automatic enrollment with the increased participation.

Now, a new study by Vanguard shows auto enrollment dramatically improved the participation rates for African Americans — the participation rate is 94 percent under automatic enrollment, up from 57 percent under voluntary enrollment. The Hispanic participation rate jumped to 95 percent through automatic enrollment, up from 67 percent under voluntary enrollment.

Participation rates also are much higher among whites and Asians when automatic enrollment is used.

Auto enrollment is particularly important for low-income blacks and Hispanics, who are far less likely to participate in a plan under voluntary enrollment. The participation rate in voluntary enrollment plans among black workers earning less than $30,000 a year is only 35 percent. It is 36 percent for Hispanic workers in the same income group. These rates jump to 93 percent for blacks and 94 percent for Hispanic workers under automatic enrollment.

Vanguard researchers analyzed 2010 data for more than a quarter million participants in seven large defined contribution plans for which Vanguard provides record keeping services.

David Pitt writes about personal finance for the Associated Press.

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