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New Regulations Enhance Savers’ Retirement Security

General Motors auto worker retiree stands next to his pick-up truck

Americans who use defined contribution retirement savings plans (for example, 401(k) or 403(b) plans) or Individual Retirement Accounts will see their retirement security enhanced by two recently announced regulatory initiatives. The first is a series of Treasury Department/IRS proposed regulations that such individuals to use annuity-like guaranteed lifetime income products. The second is a final Department of Labor rule requiring complete fee disclosure to employers sponsoring retirement saving plans. Together, the two initiatives will give current retirement savers and future retirees more flexibility in structuring their retirement incomes, while making it possible to avoid excessive or hidden fees.

Four Treasury/IRS proposals, which were developed under the leadership of our former RSP colleague Mark Iwry, deal with several of the most pressing issues faced by employers and savers that currently reduce the use of annuities. The first proposal would reduce barriers to giving retiring savers the option of annuitizing part of their account balances. Currently, people need to annuitize either the entire balance or none at all. People are naturally wary of annuitizing the entire amount because it leaves them with little in the way of a cash cushion for emergencies. By choosing to annuitize part of the balance, people can retain a lump sum for emergency or other purposes.

A second proposal would remove a technical impediment to using longevity annuities, an annuity that is typically purchased close to retirement but does not begin to pay benefit until the retiree reaches age 85 or a similar age. Longevity annuities enable retirees to manage their money for a set period of time, secure in the knowledge that the longevity annuity will provide income after that, should they live longer than expected.

The third proposal would allow an individual to begin to partially annuitize their savings well before retirement. Starting to annuitize early by buying small pieces of an annuity over twenty or so years allows the saver to avoid having to make a “once and for all” decision and allows the savers to spread out the interest rate risk over time. This option had been subject to a requirement that the saver get a notarized statement from his or her spouse (if any) concerning whether the annuity covers just the saver or both the saver and his or her spouse. The proposal allows this to be handled by the issuing insurer when payments would begin rather than when purchases begin.

The fourth proposal would apply to relatively rare case where the employer has both a retirement savings plan and a traditional defined benefit pension, and would allow an employee to buy a low-cost annuity through the employer’s DB pension.

These four regulatory changes are positive developments. The changes announced today eliminate unintentional barriers to the use of lifetime income products without dictating how individuals should use them. Some may choose to partially annuitize at retirement, some to use longevity annuities to protect them in later years, and some to begin to buy annuities well before retirement. Whatever the choice, the proposals open up new options to future retirees, and should encourage even more market innovations.

At about the same time, the Department of Labor released final regulations requiring providers to disclose all direct and indirect fees to the employer sponsoring a 401(k) plan. The regulations will add needed transparency on fees that will enable increased competition to produce better results for employers and employees.

Despite removing a required template of charges, the new regulations nevertheless give employers a complete and accurate picture of all charges they have to pay, including indirect fees paid by the provider to others. Currently, many indirect fees are not disclosed even though they may reduce the earnings of participants. Endorsed by industry and consumer groups, the disclosures will enable employers who use this information properly to meet their fiduciary responsibility to choose a responsible fee level. What is even more important, the full disclosure will enable employers to structure their 401(k) plan so that individual savers can get the best returns possible, and not be subject to unreasonable fees.

While much more remains to be done to improve retirement savings plan, the steps taken by the proposed Treasury/IRS regulations and the Department of Labor’s final regulations will help savers to improve retirement security.