By Dan Kravitz
From the boardroom bunkers to the cubicle trenches, competition to hire the best and brightest is increasingly intense. McKinsey & Company’s recent CEO briefing report, “Talent Tensions Ahead” projected a hiring gap as high as 11 percent of demand for staff with advanced degrees by 2020. Moreover, in our competitive global economy, attrition rates are climbing in many organizations.
What can employers do to improve their competitive edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining talented professionals? Company-sponsored retirement plans play a crucial role. For many high income professionals, qualified retirement plans are one of the most important sources of lifetime wealth accumulation. Consequently, any organization that wants to win the war for talent must offer a highly competitive retirement package.
What makes a retirement package compelling to talented, in-demand professionals? A generous 401(k) profit sharing plan is a good starting point but no longer goes far enough. Adding a Cash Balance (hybrid) plan makes an enormous difference, allowing high earners to double or even triple their pre-tax retirement savings and compress 20 years of retirement savings into 10. Depending on age and income, these high earners may be able to move into a lower tax bracket after their firm adds a Cash Balance plan. This shift will significantly reduce the impact of the 2013 tax hikes.
What is a Cash Balance plan?
A Cash Balance Plan is a unique type of IRS-qualified retirement plan also known as a hybrid, since it combines features of both defined benefit and defined contribution plans. Financial advisors and CPAs often describe Cash Balance as the best of both worlds, offering the portability and flexibility of a defined contribution plan along with the high contribution limits of a traditional defined benefit plan. Cash Balance plans are almost always offered as an add-on to an existing 401(k) profit sharing plan in order to create an optimized tax-efficient plan design.
For example, a 55-year-old in 2015 is limited to $24,000 in 401(k) contributions and $35,000 in profit sharing. But if her firm added a Cash Balance plan, she could enjoy a tax-deferred Cash Balance contribution of up to $175,000, toward a lifetime limit of $2.6M. Combined with her $59,000 in 401(k) profit sharing, she would have total tax-deferred retirement contributions of $234,000.
Cash Balance plans differ from traditional defined benefit in several key ways which make them appealing to employees at all levels of an organization. Assets are pooled and invested collectively, but participants have individual accounts and can see their balances. Accounts are portable and can be rolled over to an IRA or another qualified account when retiring or leaving the organization. Participants can choose either an annuity or a lump sum option.
The Retention Power of a Cash Balance Plan
Let’s illustrate the concept by looking at the world of law firms. While it’s expensive to lose talented attorneys early in their careers, it’s even more devastating to lose them mid-career. Mid-career lawyers are often in their prime in terms of productivity, skill and client retention. Their loss can greatly affect the firm’s quality of work in addition to its bottom line.
A law firm’s retirement plan can be a crucial factor in an attorney’s decision to leave. Attorneys in their 40s have typically paid down student loans and have home equity, yet many feel far behind on retirement savings. Attorneys, like physicians, start later than many professionals in saving for retirement due to student loans and years of lower paid work as associates. If the firm doesn’t help them meet their financial objectives, they will probably find another firm that can.
The single most important step a law firm, medical group, or any competitive organization can take to improve its retirement plan is to increase pre-tax contributions so partners can grow their qualified retirement accounts while significantly reducing the tax burden. This can be accomplished by adding a Cash Balance plan to the retirement plan already in place.
Law firms making these Cash Balance contributions report greatly improved partner satisfaction with retirement plans. In fact, the majority of AmLaw 200 firms now offer Cash Balance plans or are in the process of adopting them.
“Having worked with many law firms, I’ve found them eager to find ways to reduce their tax burdens,” said David Roberts, a CPA with the Los Angeles firm RBZ. “One of the most significant methods I’ve seen them use is implementing a Cash Balance pension plan in addition to their 401(k) profit sharing plan. This allows them to dramatically increase pre-tax contributions to qualified plans, sometimes as high as $250,000 per year. Cash Balance is a complex plan that may not be right for everyone, but for those who can, I would strongly recommend that they look closely at the option.”
What About Non-Qualified Alternatives?
Facing the limits of a 401(k) profit sharing plan, some business owners and high income professionals turn to savings and investment vehicles outside of a qualified plan, such insurance products, deferred compensation arrangements, and after-tax retirement accounts. However, that means missing out on the enormous financial benefits of a tax-favored qualified plan, outlined here:
Top 5 Advantages of Cash Balance Plans
1. Reducing the tax burden
Funds contributed to Cash Balance Plans are tax-deductible, and the earnings grow tax-deferred until the money is withdrawn. This benefit is enormous and can have a dramatic impact on savings accumulation. At retirement, or when leaving employment, a Cash Balance account can be rolled over into an IRA. No taxes are due until age 70 ½, at which point only a portion of the money is taxed.
2. Accelerating retirement savings
For business owners and partners who have heavily invested in their businesses and feel behind in retirement goals, Cash Balance plans are a unique opportunity to “catch up” faster than any other option can provide. In as little as 10 years, they can receive contributions up to a lifetime limit of $2.6M, going a very long way toward a sense of retirement security.
3. Attracting and retaining top talent
Like all qualified plans, Cash Balance plans require contributions to non-owner employees, a requirement that becomes a key benefit for many firms. Money that would otherwise have gone to the IRS is now enriching both the employer’s and employees’ retirement savings, helping attract, reward and retain talented employees. Professional services firms find Cash Balance Plans a great incentive on both the partner level and employee level.
4. Shelter from creditors
Assets in a Cash Balance Plan are protected from creditors in the event of a bankruptcy or lawsuit. In volatile economic times, preserving profits from both taxes and creditors is increasingly important.
5. Protecting retirement savings from market volatility
Because plan assets are usually invested conservatively for actuarial reasons, Cash Balance accounts have avoided the dramatic fluctuations seen in 401(k) accounts over the past decade. While 401(k) account holders often rely on higher risk strategies to maximize growth, Cash Balance plans grow primarily through high contribution amounts earning interest rates that stay ahead of inflation without taking on major risk.
Learn more about Cash Balance plans and explore options with a complimentary plan design
Cash Balance 101- a simple guide to understanding Cash Balance Plans:
Complete Contribution Limits Table:
Visit www.CashBalanceDesign.com or call 877 CB-Plans to learn more about whether a Cash Balance plan would be a fit for your organization.
Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2015
Dan Kravitz is the president of Kravitz, Inc., one of the nation’s largest independent retirement plan consulting firms. Dan is recognized as a leading national expert on Cash Balance retirement plans and is the author of a popular book on the topic, Beyond the 401(k). He is a frequent speaker at retirement industry conferences and has been interviewed on the topic of Cash Balance plans by many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal. At Kravitz, Dan leads a team of 75 skilled retirement professionals, including 10 actuaries, focusing on innovative plan design and the highest levels of client service. Kravitz manages retirement plans for 1,400 companies across the nation, including more than 500 Cash Balance plans. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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