A Pension Protection Perspective

By Nevin Adams • July 21, 2016 • 0 Comments
It’s hard to believe, but the Pension Protection Act of 2006 will be a decade old next month. And it’s probably done more good for the nation’s retirement security than most realize.

The PPA drew its name from the portions targeted at shoring up defined benefit plans (and PBGC funding, I suppose), though at the time I remember most people thinking it was an ironic name, in that it may have been intended to secure the pensions that were already in existence, but might well accelerate the demise of some on the cusp, and in any event was unlikely to help spur any new growth in that area. Some went so far as to call it the Pension Destruction Act.

Indeed, at a recent panel session featuring the perspectives of a number of the Hill staffers who shepherded the at times controversial legislation through its passage, the emphasis was largely on the DB aspects that, though well-intentioned, had been overwhelmed (if not undermined) by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and the “historically low” interest rate environment that continues to pressure pension funding to this day.

DC Developments

In contrast, the aftermath of the PPA on the defined contribution side has been nothing short of extraordinary. Sure it was all voluntary — the use of carrots like safe harbors for automatic enrollment, rather than the sticks that accompanied the DB provisions. And yet, seemingly overnight, and without a government mandate or regulatory imperative, the decades-old concept of “negative election” (now “rebranded” as automatic enrollment) became part of every credible retirement plan advisor’s toolkit.

Without relying on a mandate to impose its will, nearly overnight the paradigm on automatic enrollment shifted. Sure, it’s still far more common among larger employers than those downstream — and yet, those larger plans are where most participants are. And if the adoption of contribution acceleration has lagged behind automatic enrollment, it is nonetheless far more advanced than it would have been in the absence of the PPA.

For my money, the biggest long-term positive impact of all may have been the rapid expansion of the qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) as the plan default investment option. One need look no further than the millions of dollars in retirement savings that have been channeled into a range of professionally managed asset allocation solutions to appreciate the impact that change has had. All have significantly and positively moved the needle in helping enhance the ultimate financial security of thousands, if not millions, of American workers.

‘Staying’ Power

However, perhaps the most-overlooked, if not underappreciated, aspect of the PPA was that it made permanent the retirement savings incentives enacted under the Economic Growth And Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), including annual contribution limits for IRAs, Roth 401(k) plans, enhanced portability of retirement benefits, and reduced administrative burdens on plan sponsors. Without that support, all the gains made on those provisions would have fallen back. The PPA also made the Saver’s Credit permanent, as well as resolving legal uncertainty surrounding cash balance plans, and requiring DC plans to permit employees to diversify out of investments in employer securities if the securities are publicly traded.

The work is not done, of course. Innovative retirement income offerings continue to be introduced, but can’t seem to find traction, the focus on outcomes (these days generally under the banner of financial wellness) is still nascent, and the challenges of compliance with the DOL’s new fiduciary regulation lie ahead.

With so much progress made — and yet so much yet to be achieved — it may seem naïve in this exceedingly unusual election year to hold out hope that the nation’s legislative bodies could put their heads together and work together as constructively as they did just a decade ago.

But one can (still) hope.