Yeap, yeap.....two thumbs up for a Cash based plan....401Ks are being replaced or have a hybrid of the two 401K and a cash based plan. One of my old corporate employers has this type of plan so I get pension/cash based plan. I like the fact that they ride the market well...but on the downside there isn't a lot of aggressive growth=high risk
Could this retirement plan replace the 401(k)?
The retirement world is largely focused on 401(k) and traditional defined benefit plans. But investors and financial advisers alike should be paying closer attention to something called a cash balance pension plan. Cash balance plans are the fastest-growing part of the defined-benefit pension universe and could become as numerous as 401(k) plans within the next few years, according to the trade publication Pension & Investments.
Consider: The number of such plans rose from 1,300 in 2000 to more than 7,600 in 2010, an average annual growth rate of around 20%, according to recent research from Sage Advisory Services. (See Sage Advisory’s recent news release, “Cash balance plans challenge 401(k) supremacy.”)
What’s more, the number of participants nationwide in cash balance plans reached 11 million in 2011, and cash balance plan assets that year totaled $724 billion, according to the most recent Cash balance Research Report from the retirement-plan design firm Kravitz Inc. (Read a recent report from Kravitz, Cash Balance Retirement Plans Double Projected Growth Rate.“)
What are cash balance plans, and what do you need to know about such plans should you have one or should one be in your future?
Often misunderstood, the cash balance plan is becoming increasingly popular for several reasons. First, large firms are converting their defined benefit plans into cash balance plans as a way to cap their pension liabilities. Second, small- and midsize firms are starting to rely on these plans, which when used in combination with 401(k) plans, can help participants cut their current tax bill and sock away quite a bit of money for retirement.
Sage Advisory Services and others describe cash balance plans as hybrids of a defined benefit plan (think:a traditional pension) and a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k). Dan Kravitz, the president of Kravitz Inc. said cash balance plans combine the high contribution limits of a defined benefit plan (employers can contribute on behalf the employee an amount much greater than the maximum an employee can contribute to a 401(k) plan—which is $17,500) with the flexibility and portability of a 401(k) plan.
The Labor Department puts it this way: “A cash balance plan is a defined benefit plan that defines the benefit in terms that are more characteristic of a defined contribution plan. In other words, a cash balance plan defines the promised benefit in terms of a stated account balance.” Read the department’s FAQs About Cash balance Pension Plans.
As of 2011, the 10 largest cash balance plans belong to International Business Machines Corp(IBM) ., AT&T Inc.(XNYS:T) , The Boeing Co.(BA) , Ford Motor Co.(XNYS:F) , Alcatel Lucent USA Inc.(ALU) , 3M Co.(MMM) , Northrop Grumman Corp.(NOC) , United Technologies Corp.(UTX) , Honeywell International Inc.(HON) , and Citigroup Inc.(XNYS:C) , according to Kravitz’ 2013 Cash Balance Research Report.
Even states are trying to get in on the trend. The Arnold Foundation, which was founded by John Arnold, a former Enron executive, has partnered with Pew Center on the States to advocate for cash balance plans for state government employees. (In January, however, a Louisiana district court judge struck down as violating the state constitution a recent law there that aims to establish a cash balance plan for some employees in three of the state’s pension funds.)
Offering a guaranteed return
With a cash balance plan, the plan sponsor contributes money into a hypothetical account for each employee based on a set interest crediting rate (for example, the U.S. 30-year Treasury bond rate) and a percentage of the employee’s pay, according to Sage Advisor. That crediting rate essentially represents a guaranteed rate of growth for each employee’s balance.
Kravitz said cash balance plans are IRS-qualified under ERISA, and must pass a range of IRS fairness testing requirements to make sure that the plans don’t benefit owners at the expense of rank-and-file employees.
In the main, advisers and experts seem quite fond of these plans. “I am positive about cash balance plans,” said Michael Angelucci of Angelucci Wealth Management. “It’s a pretty good benefit in an environment where most employer plans are transferring all risk to the employee.”
“I emphasize to participants that they are receiving an employer contribution to an account that is guaranteed to grow,” said Angelucci. The value of your 401(k), by contrast, is likely to rise or fall based on market returns, your asset allocation, and your saving behavior.
Do understand, however, that your cash balance account is a notional account that is part of a larger pooled trust, said Alex Kuhel, a cash balance practice leader at actuarial consulting group Clarity in Numbers. But the vested balance is guaranteed.
No investment decisions for savers
Cash balance participants—unlike those in a 401(k) plan—don’t have to worry about how to invest the money in their account. Participants have no investment discretion; such decisions are made by the plan’s trustees, said Kuhel.
“On the accumulation front, there’s not much a participant can do,” said José Martin Jara, an ERISA managing director at the law firm Dentons. “As with traditional defined benefit plans, under a cash balance plan the employer is responsible for funding the plan and investments in the plan.”
Thus, Jara said, the risk of investment loss remains with the employer.
According to Kravitz, the assets must be invested conservatively so they do not fluctuate dramatically with market swings. A typical cash balance interest crediting rate is in the range of 4% to 5%.
Kravitz also noted that participant accounts increase annually in two ways: through an employer contribution (either a flat amount or a percentage of pay) and a guaranteed interest credit. Both are specified in the plan document.
Tax breaks, and a government backstop
Another good feature of the cash balance plan is that if the employer is on the brink of collapse or actually goes bankrupt, the plan is partly insured by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation.
Of course, this isn’t to say that no one has to worry about the investment strategy. The trustees of the plan sponsor are responsible for that, and management of the plan assets can present a challenge.
Kravitz said cash balance contributions on behalf of owners/partners are tax-deferred, and contributions on behalf of employees are tax deductible. In a recent piece promoting the merits of cash balance plans, Kravitz described the example of a small-business owner with $400,000 having to pay $103,000 in federal income taxes in the absence of a cash balance plan. But that small-business owner could cut that tax bill to $51,000 by putting $150,000 into a cash balance plan.
Angelucci said that cash balance plan participants will have a better idea than 401(k) plan members of what they will have in their account at retirement. Cash balance plan participants won’t have to try to predict future market returns or account for their own investment decision-making. “I emphasize that based on studies of investor behavior, the guaranteed return they will get over time has a high probability of being better than if they received a comparable profit share in a 401(k),” said Angelucci.
Kravitz noted that lifetime contribution limits are about $2.5 million per employee, but that the age-weighted annual maximum contributions for shareholders can exceed $200,000 a year, allowing older owners to catch up rapidly on delayed retirement savings.
What’s more, Kravitz said, cash balance plans are typically combined with a 401(k) profit-sharing plan, and the IRS fairness requirement may be satisfied through an increased profit-sharing contribution, typically in the range of 5% to 7.5% of pay.
When you retire, cash balance plans can become, in many ways, like traditional defined benefit pension plans. “Cash balance is what it says it is,” said Nicholas Paleveda, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University and the CEO of consulting and actuarial firm National Pension Partners. “You receive the lump-sum balance in your hypothetical account, or an income for life based upon your current salary. The plan sponsor or your company is responsible to pay you the lump sum or lifetime income.”
Or at least that’s true in some cases. “I believe the single most important issue for a participant in a cash balance plan is whether the participant can elect a lifetime annuity or lump sum,” said Jara. Some plans, Jara said, do not allow lump sum payments. “But if the plan does permit lump sum payments, a participant has to be careful if they do elect a lump sum that they properly manage that money to ensure they don’t deplete it prior to dying,” he said.
Angelucci said reasons why one may want a lump sum include the following: A short life expectancy, desire to leave wealth, and the opportunity to do a part-lump sum and part- annuity strategy. Reasons to take the annuity option include an anticipated long life, or the possible cushion of having other wealth to pass to heirs.
Also of note, Paleveda said some cash balance participants might be unaware of the “actuarial equivalence” of what a lump sum in their cash balance plan can buy as a lifetime income. For example, he noted that a lump sum of $250,000 today will buy a lifetime income of $1,293 a month or $15,516 a year for a female age 65, which he said is “basically the poverty level in the U.S.”
“If you saved $250,000 in your cash balance plan, you saved enough to retire into poverty,” Paleveda said.
In many cases, the vested balance can be rolled over to an IRA or 401(k) plan upon leaving the company, said Kuhel. “Owners and partners must begin taking required minimum distributions in year following age 70 ½,” Kuhel said. “And any balance not taken continues to earn guaranteed interest per the plan’s provisions.”
If you are not an owner, you are not required to take required minimum distributions or RMDs until the later of 70½ or separation from service. So if you are still working as an employee past that age, you are not required to take an RMD. For employer-sponsored plans (401(k), traditional defined benefit, and cash balance), this particular rule is the same, provided the plan document allows for it, Kuhel said.
When to collect
Understanding when a participant is entitled to a distribution from a cash balance plan is critical for a participant to optimize their own personal finances. “Plans might provide distribution at normal retirement age,” Jara said. “But some plans can have a normal retirement age that is below the age of 65.”
If a participant switches employers, Jara said they can cash out their “hypothetical account.” But the better course of action would be to roll over those amounts into an IRA or other qualified plan to avoid any tax consequences.
To be sure, there are some negatives associated with cash balance plans. “A cash balance plan is admittedly not as rich as a traditional DB plan,” said Angelucci. But in the main, having one is better than not having either a traditional DB plan or a 401(k) plan.
Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, published by MarketWatch. Learn more about Retirement Weekly here. Follow his tweets @RJPIII. Got questions about retirement? Get answers. Email email@example.com.