Which retirement vehicle provides the better results for workers - a pension or a 401(k)?
The question is an important one right now, as the country's corporate pension structure continues to be dismantled in favor of worker retirement accounts like 401(k)s.
While other factors are at play, the answer to the question largely depends, of course, on how generous the 401(k) is compared with the pension.
And that comparison will never come into clearer focus than when your employer, as companies are doing seemingly every week, announces that it's freezing your pension plan and, in return (if you're lucky), will sweeten your 401(k).
Should that happen, you need to know if the effect on you will be a straight swap; an improved retirement picture; or, in effect, a cut in your compensation. (Hint: Don't expect a raise out of this.)
Experts say such a comparison is difficult to make, but not impossible. "There is fundamentally no simple answer to the question of how all workers will be affected by a pension freeze," says Jack VanDerhei, a fellow at the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
But a report he issued in March offers some insight by figuring out how much larger a percentage of income would have to go into workers' 401(k) plans if their pensions were frozen, to ensure that the workers don't fall behind in retirement savings.
Generally speaking, when a company freezes a pension plan, benefits accrued to that point still would be paid to workers in retirement, but the accrual stops. The burden of replacing that benefit accrual falls to the 401(k).
There are many complicating factors, but for workers in so-called final-average pension plans, the replacement contribution to the 401(k) would have to rise by an average of 8 percentage points to cover the lost pension benefits, says VanDerhei, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and an expert on Social Security reform and pension planning. That means, if the company offers a 3 percent match, the match would have to rise to 11 percent for the workers to come out even.
"These are the benchmarks you're going to have to hit in order not to lose money," he says.
If the match doesn't rise that much, then workers who don't want to fall behind on their retirement savings should increase their contribution so that the total contribution to the 401(k) rises by 8 percent of income.
For example, if you currently put 6 percent of your income into the 401(k), and the company matches that at 50 percent, or the equivalent of 3 percent of your income, then your 401(k) has been receiving contributions at 9 percent of your income.
To make sure you come out even, you'll have to make sure that the new contribution to your 401(k), counting the amount that comes out of your income and the company match, totals 17 percent of your income.
VanDerhei stressed that the 8 percent is just a benchmark, representing the result for average-income, average-age workers in an average pension plan making an average return.
Generally speaking, for older workers, the new percentage would be even higher. To understand why, you have to understand how pension payments are figured.
One benefit of the shift from pensions to 401(k)s, at least, is that 401(k)s are a lot simpler to understand.
For example, while most workers have a good idea of how much their employer matches in the 401(k), very few know how generous the pension is. Think back: When you started your job, you knew your employer offered a pension, but did you make sure you understood how the plan would calculate your monthly retirement checks?
"Most employees who have a pension plan have no idea what they will actually receive," says Michael Busch, president of Vogel Financial Advisors in Dallas. "The benefit formulas are rather involved, making it difficult for employees to assess the sufficiency of the income streams they will receive during retirement."
In most traditional pension plans - called defined-benefit plans, because you get the same defined benefit every month in retirement until you die - payments are calculated using a "final-average" formula.
A company typically multiplies the number of years worked by the average of the worker's three highest years of pay, times a percentage. Workers who stay with the same company throughout their career maximize their benefit because their entire pension is based on their highest level of income.
In a pension, the sharp accumulation of retirement benefits starts when people are in their 50s and early 60s, when their salary is highest.
"Older workers and loyal long-term employees will often be better off with a pension plan, which awards significant credit for length of service and places an emphasis on the salary level attained in the last few years before retirement," Busch says.
A 401(k) is called a defined-contribution plan, because the contribution is defined but the benefit you take from it in retirement is up to you.