Studies Support Pairing Auto-escalation with Auto-enrollment

Auto-enrolling 401(k) plan participants without also incorporating an auto-escalation feature might be a counterproductive exercise. J.P. Morgan Asset Management survey data suggests that average 401(k) plan deferral rates have been trending downward even though more employers are adopting auto-enrollment. The apparent culprit — low auto-deferral rates.

Stats Tell the Story

From 2012 to 2014, the average annual employee deferral rate was 7.2%. This is down slightly from the 7.4% average in the prior two-year period, and well below the 8% average during 2007 to 2008.

Even though 45% of surveyed employers auto-enroll new participants, just 31% have auto-escalation features built in. One interesting note from the study, for plans with at least $200 million in assets, the numbers are considerably higher — 62% of these high-asset plans have automatic enrollment and 48% use auto-escalation clauses.

The most common auto-enrollment default deferral rate is only 3%, according to the most recent Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (“DCIIA”) survey. Participants who were auto-enrolled into such a low deferral rate generally don’t increase it significantly. With typical automatic increases in deferral rates being 1% per year, it’ll take new employees several years to begin deferring at reasonable levels, and many more to reach the 15% that DCIIA sees as ideal.

The DCIIA survey reveals impressive deferral rates for plans that both auto-enroll and auto-escalate participants. “Plan sponsors who offer both automatic enrollment and automatic contribution escalation have over twice as many participants with retirement savings rates over 15% (14% of respondents) as those that don’t offer both (6% of respondents),” according to the survey.

Change Is In the Air

Seems like an easy decision, so why don’t plan sponsors implement these features? According to the survey, plan sponsors with less than $50 million in plan assets were concerned about complaints from participants (28%) and feared it would be seen as paternalistic (18%). A whopping 31% have never considered using it.

But the DCIIA study concluded that, when properly implemented, automatic features can make a positive difference. Contact your benefits specialist to learn how to use both auto-enrollment and auto-escalation clauses to help benefit your employees.

© 2016

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