3 ways Congress can meaningfully reform 401(k)s
In both the House and Senate’s tax bills there are no significant changes made to 401(k), 403(b) and IRA retirement accounts — for now. Congress has preserved the majority of tax benefits. However, we are only getting started, and there is still room for improvement. The drafted bills will look different, perhaps significantly so, before getting finalized into law.
As our elected officials debate and negotiate tax legislation, I’d like to offer some input and advice on key characteristics and design structures that we should be advocating for with respect to retirement plans, and how advisers and benefits professionals can work to continually improve the private retirement system:
1) Improving coverage. One of the chief complaints from 401(k) critics is that many workers in this country don’t have access to a plan. Various research indicates that somewhere between 50%–65% of employees have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) and the remaining don’t.
This coverage gap primarily extends to part-time and “gig” workers, as well as small businesses with less than 30 employees. Retirement plan advisers and practitioners need to create forward-thinking solutions to provide these employees with access to employer-sponsored and tax qualified retirement plans.
Most of all, we can shrink the coverage gap if we get small businesses to establish plans. Both data and anecdotal evidence find that the biggest drivers for small businesses to create and offer retirement plans are 1) tax benefits to the owners and executives; and 2) simple, easy to use programs with minimal liability. This is where some of the tax policy or other reforms could really help.
2) Updating antiquated testing rules. While we often cite the $18,500 (or $24,500 for those eligible to make catch-up contributions) employee deferral limits for retirement plans in 2018, the practical nature is that a lot of highly compensated employees, HCEs, (including small business owners) are limited to contributing at much lower levels due to various non-discrimination tests.
While the spirit of non-discrimination testing is just — ensuring business owners and executives aren’t structuring their plans to limit or prevent their employees from benefiting, or inequitably benefiting owners and their family members — the current structure significantly dis-incentivizes the small business owner from offering a plan in the first place because they can’t maximize their benefit.
Let me be clear, we are big proponents of matching and profit sharing contributions, and want to see employers help their employees get on track for retirement too; however, the current safe harbor provisions with immediate, or short vesting schedules, along with cumbersome testing requirements, often cause too big of a hurdle for the small business owners to commit and therefore, short changes their employees with no plan at all.
I would love to see tax reform improve safe harbor provisions and/or testing components that might make it easier for business owners and HCEs save up to the limit without concerns of failed testing or hefty safe harbor contributions. Practically speaking, these workers need to save more in order to meet their retirement income needs, since Social Security will make up a small percentage of their income replacement, and the 401(k) is the best place to make it happen.
3) Expanding limits and maintaining choice. Just before Congressional Republicans announced their tax bill, a group of Senate Democrats unveiled a plan which would actually raise limits for 401(k) plans. While our research aligns with many other studies that the vast majority of savers don’t reach the annual limits, we would be in favor of expanding the limits — even if it only allowed for Roth-type contributions above the $18,500 (or $24,500) limits.
Additionally, we think an employee’s ability to select either Roth or pre-tax contributions is critical. While the tax preferential treatment of defined contribution plans is just one component that makes these vehicles so valuable, it has definitely emerged and remained as the “branding tool” that encourages so many workers to get into the plan in the first place.
As retirement advisers and benefits professionals, we need to continually improve our mechanisms for providing guidance and advice to workers on how 401(k) retirement plans can be configured to an individual’s needs — and it’s not just about the tax break. Automated savings, dollar-cost averaging, the ability to toggle between pre-tax, Roth, or use both — are all functions that are helping hard-working Americans get on track for their financial future.
To close, I’m pleased to see that we don’t have an uphill battle to recommit leaders around the 401(k) retirement plan and the importance of its savings limits. However, we still have a lot of work today through this tax reform debate to ensure that these plans are preserved and enhanced to help more people get on track for retirement.
There are a lot of other components I’ve failed to touch on: improving and expanding automatic features; ensuring other tax laws (such as the pass-through entity changes) don’t erode the 401(k)s tax benefits; and making it easier for companies to start, maintain and navigate the complex rules and regulations around these plans. 401(k) plans are not perfect, we still have a long way to go, but there is an incredible amount of foundational success and positives built within these plans and their structure, so let’s actively improve on these building blocks.
Securities and Advisory Services offered through Commonwealth Financial Network, Member FINRA, SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser.