DOL Throws New Lifeline to Lifetime-Income Solutions

The defined contribution (DC) community has been buzzing about lifetime-income products lately. It’s a topic that’s been dormant for several years, but there are good reasons for renewed interest.

A few years back, lifetime income in DC plans looked poised to gain traction as an option for participants’ retirement portfolios. But several surveys point to a less-than-impressive response—one placed the percentage of plan participants using a lifetime-income option in the low single digits.

Of course, US interest rates were still stuck at rock bottom then, so annuities faced broad headwinds. And DC plan sponsors were more focused on adding automatic enrollment and default investment options—and boosting target-date usage. These competing priorities left lifetime income out of focus.

For DC plans and participants, that lack of focus can have big implications. People are living longer, and their retirement assets need more staying power to fund both expected and unexpected costs in retirement. With the future of Social Security still uncertain, and with more companies freezing or eliminating their defined benefit plans, DC plan savings will be the primary source of retirement income for many Americans.

A RAY OF HOPE FROM LAWMAKERS

That leaves DC plans with a lot of heavy lifting, but federal legislators offer one ray of hope. Last year, the US Senate Committee on Finance approved the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2016 (RESA). This law includes several provisions that would help alleviate some of the issues plan sponsors face when considering an in-plan lifetime-income solution.

RESA would require that participants see a projection (at least quarterly) of how much monthly income their savings could generate in retirement. As a safeguard for plan sponsors, the Act would protect sponsors from legal liability if actual retirement income didn’t match projections. RESA would also address portability issues that would otherwise hobble wider use of lifetime-income solutions. And the Act would provide a safe harbor for evaluating insurance carriers’ long-term solvency, addressing a risk that has been holding back the wider use of lifetime-income solutions.

NEW DOL OPINION PAVES THE WAY

RESA is encouraging, but it’s only a template for policymakers to forge actual legislation. An advisory opinion published by the US Department of Labor (DOL) in late December 2016 is a more tangible step in the right direction.

The DOL’s letter responded to an inquiry from Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA). TIAA asked about the potential qualified default status of a custom target-date fund investment model that gradually allocates a percentage of investment funds to a fixed guaranteed annuity. The advisory opinion stated that it could be prudent to include a lifetime-income product in a target-date fund that served as the plan’s default investment option.

That’s a big step forward by the government: it embraces a more holistic outlook on retirement-savings issues. The DOL’s letter noted that the department’s primary focus when originally developing its qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) regulations was on retirement-savings accumulation, not spending needs in retirement.

But that was in 2006, before the global financial crisis and the slow climb back toward economic health. This recent advisory opinion indicates that longevity risk (the risk of participants outliving their savings) is becoming more important in the DOL’s thinking and guidance.

PRUDENT DEFAULT VS. QDIA

But the letter clearly distinguishes between the possibility of prudence and qualifying as a QDIA. The guaranteed annuity product in the TIAA letter fell short of the DOL’s requirements as a QDIA, because the fixed deferred annuity sleeve of that target-date offering doesn’t provide enough liquidity. The Final QDIA Rule (October 31, 2007) states that “participants and beneficiaries must have the opportunity to direct investments out of a QDIA as frequently as from other plan investments, but at least every three months.”

Fixed annuities typically require participants to trade their account balances in exchange for a guaranteed payment in the future. Once the annuity is purchased, there’s no turning back. Due to that liquidity limitation, the particular TIAA default investment wouldn’t provide full safe harbor protections for plan sponsors—and wouldn’t be considered a QDIA.