It would be imprudent to write about retirement plans today without acknowledging the financial and employment concerns the country is facing. Stories abound about the diminishing value of retirement accounts, and a small number of companies have opted to reduce or eliminate their corporate contributions. When the markets and employment levels are consistently going up, it is easier to see that tax-deferred growth can pay enormous “dividends.” But, even in a flat market, the inherent tax advantages of qualified retirement plans still provide a tremendous incentive for the use of such tax-preferred vehicles, and, as noted above, the need to rely on organized retirement tools is never going away. Even 401(k) plan participants who are laid off still have access to their retirement funds.
According to the U.S. government, there are some 6.3 million small businesses without any form of an organized retirement savings plan. But more importantly for insurance agents, many of these companies may now be ready to consider such a plan. This shift in attitude comes at a time when new Internet-based 401(k) technology, along with changes in approved retirement plan practices, have converged, offering significant growth opportunities for agents who choose to add 401(k) plans to their small-business service mix.
When launching such an effort, agents may benefit from some historical perspective. For decades, small-business owners have believed 401(k) plans were too expensive and too difficult to administer and exposed them to too much liability. As a result, 25 percent of business owners polled by Fidelity in 2006 did not know of any plans designed for companies of their size.
However, today, agents can offer small companies a variety of solutions from a new breed of online 401(k) providers. At the same time, they can point out that the liability and procedural concerns previously raised by business owners have been effectively removed by the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA). These regulations provide a variety of safe harbors, which can limit an employer’s liability related to plan design, allowable contributions, and investment options.
Another market factor in the agents’ favor is the growing recognition by small-business owners and their employees that they alone are accountable for building up their own retirement savings.
New breed of solutions
Small-business owners often find their largest concern about any employee benefit plan is cost, followed by enrollment and administration challenges, employee retention, ability to attract new employees, and securing employees financially. Online 401(k) plan features enable agents to offer retirement benefits that respond to each of these issues.
The online 401(k) platforms have been created by a new breed of retirement plan providers. They are in the business of developing proprietary Web-based software that they use to create online plans for small businesses. As such, they perform all of the required setup, administration, calculation, reporting, and record-keeping services. The significant cost savings these plans offer are achieved because one online provider can administer plans for a large number of companies, making the initial setup costs and annual administration fees very low. So, a small business only needs the ability to connect to these software applications via the Internet in order to enter basic plan and employee information. The software does the rest.
A small company opting for an online plan will recognize its advantages as soon as it begins to set up the plan, which can be accomplished in a matter of minutes. Using a sequence of fill-in-the-blank templates, a representative can enter the required company information, plus specific plan provisions related to employer and employee contribution levels, vesting schedules, and investment options to be offered.
Once the plan is in place, additional software guides the company through processes of entering employee census information and tracking employee eligibility, enrolling employees, and processing scheduled contributions. To provide additional assistance, most online providers also have staff available to provide assistance by telephone or Web chat, if needed.
However, the majority of these online providers do not market plans directly to businesses. Their primary role in the marketplace is to develop privately labeled online plans for financial service organizations, such as banks and insurance companies, whereby those institutions market them through their existing distribution channels.
Employees need help, as well
The mere presence of a 401(k) retirement plan is often not enough to spur all employees into action, as most employees have a disappointing track record when it comes to retirement savings.