Friday, April 19, 2024

Clawbacks and 401(k) Vesting Schedules

Samantha Prince, Timothy G. Azizkhan, Cassidy R. Prince, and Luke Gorman recently released an interesting paper on the effects of 401(k) vesting schedules. With defined-contribution plans, employees always get to keep the contributions withheld from their paychecks.  Whether the employee will always keep the employer contributions depends on the vesting schedule in play, if any.

And vesting schedules really matter.  The authors found that in the 909 2022 filings they reviewed at least 1.8 million employees lost out on at least a portion of their employer contributions.  After the employees forfeit employer contributions on termination, the employers get to recycle the funds within the plan, avoiding the need for additional contributions. The filings indicated that employer contributions that were recycled were over $1.5 billion. This large sum represents money failing to follow the employee out the door because employment terminated before employees "vested" under the plans.

The analysis shows a partial picture of the broader American landscape because they analyzed 909 different single employer plans.  Still, the plans analyzed covered some major employers such as Amazon and Home Depot.

There are two main types of vesting schedules--graded vesting and cliff vesting.  In graded plans, the employee gradually gets to keep more and more of the employer contribution over time on their departure. In cliff vesting, employees who don't make it a set number of years (often three) lose all of the employer contributions to their retirement. The employers with employees losing the most money on departure generally use cliff schedules.

What happens to the money that gets left behind?  The employer gets to put it to work.  Usually, this means that it won't make more contributions for other employees.  Instead it'll just allocate some of the forfeited funds to cover its obligation to make an employer contribution.  Sometimes, they'll also use the money to offset other expenses.  In any event, employers with these vesting schedules benefit significantly when someone's employment ends before the vesting deadline.

Marketwatch recently covered the draft article and made some follow up calls to employers.  The responses were 

Almost as absurdly, several teams of flacks tried to deny that the companies themselves benefited from this clawback in 401(k) contributions. No, no, they insisted. We don’t benefit. It goes to the other employees in the 401(k) plan.

No, it doesn’t. If this money really went to the other employees, it would appear as a separate bonus. Instead, as Prince and her team’s investigation has shown, most of the money clawed back is used to cut the company’s contributions.

In other words, it’s a shell game. The employers don’t get that $1.5 billion. It just cuts the amount they have to spend on 401(k) contributions next year. By how much? Oh … er … $1.5 billion.

Amazon and Home Depot led the pack with the most employees affected by these plans.  In 2022, Amazon employees forfeited $102 million in employer contributions. Home Depot had the second most affected employees, but the total forfeiture amount came to around $7 million.

Interestingly, immediate competitors now often use different vesting schedules.  Prospective employees considering whether to work at firm A or firm B probably do not have the sophistication or access to information to understand vesting schedule differences and what it will mean for them in practical terms.

Although vesting schedules result in lower overall American retirement savings, employers may face some market pressure to adopt them.  If they face no real negative repercussions in the labor market for a three-year cliff vesting schedule, shifting their retirement vesting could allow them to delay or avoid millions in annual expenses over time. 

Absent some government intervention, I expect more employers will probably move to vesting schedules.  It's not hard to imagine how a management consultant could take the paper's data and then use it to go from company to company selling retirement plan adjustments that will more than pay for millions in consulting fees.

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