Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Cash Balance Pension: a Retirement Plan for the Future?

It's hardly a secret that retirement plans and retirement planning are a mess. Traditional defined benefit pensions can be costly to fund properly and all too often have proven to be underfunded. Employers battered by the recession sometimes abandon their plans, leaving beneficiaries with only the payments guaranteed by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. These plans are going the way of the dinosaurs.

Newer defined contribution plans like 401(k)s are much less risky for employers. But the risks are dumped on beneficiaries, who are at the mercy of high expenses, Wall Street induced economic crises, flash crashes and other financial market volatility, and limited numbers of often unattractive investment options. It's almost impossible to predict the benefits one will receive from a defined contribution plan, and funding an account is more an act of faith than planning for retirement. The average defined contribution plan account is worth somewhere near $70,000. When you think about it, that's a lot of money to put in a black hole.

Both employers and employees want something better. Oddly, a runt of the retirement planning litter called the cash balance pension may provide an answer. It's an amalgam of not entirely attractive features. But it may prove workable in an uncertain world.

The cash balance plan annually credits a dollar value to each employee's account. The amount credited is usually a percentage of the employee's compensation. The accumulated balance in each employee's account is paid interest (at a fixed or variable rate, as specified by the plan), which is compounded annually. Employee accounts gain value over time from annual credits and the compounding of interest. Upon retirement, the employee generally has a choice between receiving the account value as a lump sum, or using it to buy an annuity (which would provide monthly payments). If an employee leaves the employer before retiring, he or she retains the accrued value of his or her cash balance account and can remove the money from account.

The cash balance plan is a compromise. The employer guarantees the growth of account balances up to the point of retirement or termination of employment. Then, the employee is responsible for deciding what to do with the account after retirement: either withdraw a lump sum and personally invest it at market risk, or take an annuity that provides monthly payments. The employer can fund the annuity through a contract with an insurance company, largely relieving the employer of the burdens of guaranteeing years and perhaps decades of retirement benefits. (However, the employer remains legally liable for the annuity payments and bears the risk of the creditworthiness of the insurance company.) Cash balance pensions are guaranteed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., so there is federal backing for employees' benefits.

The advantage to employees is that the employer takes on the costs and risks of funding the cash balance plan until the employee retires. The formulaic nature of the cash balance plan makes it easier for employees to predict how much they'll have upon reaching retirement age, and thereby facilitates financial planning. Employers benefit from the same predictability, making it easier to fund and manage the plan. Small businesses also get large tax deductions from cash balance plans.

Are cash balance plans a win-win? Not necessarily. They have a poor reputation stemming from litigation over early iterations of these plans, when employers converted from traditional defined benefit pensions to cash balance plans in ways that left longtime employees feeling shafted. Some cash balance plans have been attacked in court for alleged unlawful discrimination against older workers. Because cash balance plans can be structured to give older employees lower benefits than traditional defined benefit plans, they are disfavored by many workers.

But pension plans are voluntary, and an employer doesn't need to offer any kind of pension. Many don't, substituting 401(k) plans and all the risks they present to workers. Other employers offer nothing, leaving employees to limited self-help measures such as IRAs. A cash balance plan has the somewhat dissatisfying quality of a compromise. But it offers a degree of certainty and predictability to both employers and employees. Many employers want to offer pensions plans as a means of recruiting and retaining employees, yet don't want the burdens of traditional defined benefit pensions. The cash balance plan may be a way for employers to have such a recruiting tool, and for employees to predictably accumulate retirement benefits in amounts they'd never save on their own.

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