Recent legislation passed by both the House and the Senate with substantial bipartisan majorities (the SECURE Act and RESA) is aimed at promoting retirement savings in Section 401(k) plans.

Legislative concerns about 401(k) participants who are financially unprepared for retirement has resulted in a number of specific provisions intended to encourage participants to save more. Those provisions include tax credits for small businesses that include automatic enrollment provisions in their 401(k) plans, expanded availability of multiple employer plans, 401(k) eligibility for tenured part-time employees, postponed start date for required minimum distributions from age 70½ to 72, and penalty free participant withdraws of up to $5,000.00 upon the birth or adoption of a child.

The legislation also includes provisions that afford some liability protection for 401(k) fiduciaries who choose to include annuities in the investment options offered to plan participants.

Annuity investments (or “lifetime income” options) are intended to encourage participants to save more for retirement and provide an income stream in retirement that they (and their beneficiaries) cannot outlive. But even though you cannot outlive an annuity, this protection comes at a cost. There are annuity sales commissions as well as annual maintenance fees, mortality charges, and the risk of forfeiture if you (or your beneficiary) die sooner than expected. There also is a tradeoff from the significant equity investments that many investment advisors suggest as a hedge against your outliving average life expectancies.

In-plan annuities also offer the prospect of providing a “variable” annuity product which combines a fixed annuity component with investment funds that are intended to provide additional retirement income. But no load mutual funds will be more flexible and definitely less expensive than annuity investment funds in today’s market.

So, Plan Fiduciary, do you want to add annuity contracts to your investment mix?

Consider the cost and complication of an annuity product. You, as a fiduciary, need to be able to understand the annuity product before offering it to plan participants. But your participants also need to make an informed choice. Also ask yourself, is your workforce likely to save more for retirement because they can choose to invest in an annuity? Would other measures (such as auto enrollment) work better? And, will annuities appeal to the typical 401(k) participant? You may find that annuities appeal primarily to those sober and sophisticated participants who are best equipped to plan their financial affairs with traditional investment funds.

Annuities can appeal to participants particularly when they are assessing their financial situation at or near retirement age. But adding variable annuities as an investment option for younger participants seems unduly complicated for both plan fiduciaries who have to evaluate them and participants who have to select them.

Takeaways:

Fiduciaries of 401(k) plans should not select an annuity investment for their plans without first thoroughly investigating the product and the financial institution behind it. Also document this investigation.

Consider limiting any offered annuity to a fixed annuity and not offer any annuity that is bundled with investment products that are not currently cost competitive with traditional mutual funds. And if you do want to offer fixed annuities, consider providing that option only for participants at or near retirement age when they are in a better position to evaluate their income needs in retirement.