A retirement plan is an arrangement to provide people with an income, or pension, during retirement, when they are no longer earning a steady income from employment. Retirement plans may be set up by employers, insurance companies, the government or other institutions such as employer associations or trade unions. Retirement plans are more commonly known as pension schemes in the UK and Ireland and super annuation plans in Australia.
According to Southern California-based (401k) Enginuity (www.401kenginuity.com), twenty-year veteran in developing and running 401(k) administration and 401(k) software and recordkeeping systems, the Internet will be the primary delivery system for 401(k)s by 2007. Many web-based 401(k) plans will run on administration and recordkeeping platforms that plan providers will outsource to 401k specialists and 401k Application Service Providers (ASP).
The advantages of web-based online 401(k) plans are obvious to today's workers, and include use conveniences, real-time monitoring and reporting, and instant re-allocation of their retirement assets. The internet has also dramatically reduce the cost of 401(k) plan administration, saving plan sponsor 50% or more in ongoing fees and costs when compared to the older traditional labor-intensive plans. Outsourcing of 401(k) functions by plan providers will extend the trend towards lower cost, high-quality 401(k) products.
401(k) plan providers of all types, financial institutions including banks, insurance companies, brokerages, mutual fund companies, credit unions, and third-party administrators, are now actively outsourcing 401(k) administration and recordkeeping tasks to 401(k) ASPs --- vendors such as 401k Enginuity, whose sole function is to maintain, updated and supervise software-based 401(k) administration and recordkeeping systems on behalf of plan providers. 401(k) ASP vendors are responsible for all routine day-to-day 401(k) recordkeeping and administration functions, thus allowing the plan providers to reduce internal staff, eliminate the expense and complications of licensing, housing and running hardware and 401(k) administration software in-house. Plan providers can refocus and concentrate their efforts on to the needs of their plan sponsors and plan participants, and rely upon the outsourced ASP 401(k) vendor for the recordkeeping and technical "backbone" supporting providers' Internet-based plans. It is inevitable that some of this 401(k) outsourcing to ASPs will include secondary outsourcing of certain non-critical low-level routine day-to-day tasks to non-US locations, where labor costs are less yet the expertise is abundant.
Types of retirement plans
Retirement plans may be classified as defined benefit or defined contribution according to how the benefits are determined. A defined benefit plan guarantees a certain payout after retirement, according to a fixed formula which usually depends on the member's salary and the number of years' membership of the plan. In a defined contribution plan, the payout is dependent upon the amount of money contributed, and the performance of the investment vehicles utilized.
Some types of retirement plans, such as cash balance plans, combine features of both defined benefit and defined contribution schemes.
Defined Contribution Plans
In a defined contribution plan, contributions are paid into an individual account for each member. The contributions are invested, for example in the stock market, and the returns on the investment (which may be positive or negative) are credited to the individual's account. On retirement, the member's account is used to provide retirement benefits, often through the purchase of an annuity which provides a regular income. Defined contribution plans have become more widespread all over the world in recent years, and are now the dominant form of plan in the private sector in many countries. For example, the number of DB plans in the US has been steadily declining, as more and more employers see the large pension contributions as a large expense that they can avoid by disbanding the plan and instead offering a defined contribution plan.
Examples of defined contribution plans in the USA include Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and 401(k) plans. In such plans, the employee is responsible, to one degree or another, for selecting the types of investments toward which the funds in the retirement plan are allocated. This may range from choosing one of a small number of pre-determined mutual funds to selecting individual stocks (or other securities). Most self-directed retirement plans are characterized by certain tax advantages, and some provide for a portion of the employee's contributions to be matched by the employer. In exchange, the funds in such plans may not be withdrawn by the investor prior to reaching a certain age--typically the year the employee reaches 59.5 years old--(with a small number of exceptions) without incurring a substantial penalty.
Money contributed can either be from employee salary deferral or from employer contributions or matching. Defined contribution plans are subject to IRS limits on how much can be contributed, known as the section 415 limit. The total deferral amount including the employee and employer contribution is the lesser of $40,000 or 100% of compensation. The employee only amount is $13,000 for 2004 with a $3,000 catch up. These amounts increases in 2005 and 2006.
Defined Benefit Plans
Traditionally, retirement plans have been administered by institutions which exist specifically for that purpose, by large businesses, or, for government workers, by the government itself. A traditional form of defined benefit plan is the final salary plan, under which the pension paid is equal to the number of years worked, multiplied by the member's salary at retirement, multiplied by a factor known as the accrual rate.
Defined benefit plans may also be of the cash balance type with or without a formula that specifies an exact benefit at retirement in this way, whatever amount is accumulated can be available as a monthly pension at retirement or a lump sum at retirement and possibly before.
In addition, many countries offer state-sponsored retirement benefits, beyond those provided by employers, which are funded by payroll or other taxes. In the U.S., this is one role of Social Security.
Defined benefit plans may be either funded or unfunded. In a funded plan, contributions from the employer, and sometimes also from plan members, are invested in a fund towards meeting the benefits. The future returns on the investments, and the future benefits to be paid, are not known in advance, so there is no guarantee that a given level of contributions will be enough to meet the benefits. Typically, the contributions to be paid are regularly reviewed in a valuation of the plan's assets and liabilities, carried out by an actuary. In many countries, such as the USA, the UK and Australia, most private defined benefit plans are funded, because governments there provide tax incentives to funded plans.
In an unfunded plan, no funds are set aside. The benefits to be paid are met immediately by contributions to the plan. Most government run retirement plans, such as the social security system in the USA and most European countries, are unfunded, with benefits being paid directly out of current taxes and social security contributions. In some countries, such as Germany, Austria and Sweden, company run retirement plans are often unfunded.
Contrasting Types of Retirement Plans
Advocates of defined contribution plans point out that each employee has the ability to tailor the investment portfolio to his or her individual needs and financial situation, including the choice of how much to contribute, if anything at all. However, others state that these apparent advantages could also hinder some workers who might not posses the financial savvy to choose the correct investment vehicles or have the discipline to voluntarily contribute money to retirement accounts. This debate parallels the discussion currently going on in the U.S., where many Republican leaders favor transforming the Social Security system, at least in part, to a self-directed investment plan.
Another difference is that a defined contribution plan's assets remain with the employeee, even if he or she transfers to a new job or decides to retire early, whereas in many countries defined benefit pension benefits are typically lost if the worker fails to serve the requisite number of years with the same company. Self-directed accounts from one employer may usually be 'rolled-over' to another employer's account or converted from one type of account to another in these cases.