401k Employer Match Across the Board vs. Contingent

401k Employer Match Across the Board vs. Contingent

January 18, 2022

The American College of Financial Services


Which is more powerful—a generous match, or a high savings rate default? 

As it turns out, Christmas Eve brought us a new white paper with the fairly innocuous title, “The Impact of Employer Defaults and Match Rates on Retirement Saving.” Indeed, there have been plenty of surveys (and tons of data) that speak to this issue (many of which are cited as references in the paper)—but underneath that bland title the authors take on an intriguing question, specifically how, and how differently, the deployment of specific plan design features—the employer match, or default enrollment—impact retirement savings. 

With regard to the former, there’s been plenty of real data to buttress the notion that the employer match acts as a virtual target for retirement savings—with employee contributions clustering around those like moths to a flame, regardless of the savings needs or income wherewithal of the participant. Similarly, we’ve long—but even more so since the advent of the Pension Protection Act of 2006– seen the dynamic impact that default savings rates—making individuals “opt out” rather than sign up—for retirement savings routinely produce participation rates north of 90%. 

Now, these plan designs have long been seen by employers (and those who support them) as positive forces to encourage workers to avail themselves of these critical benefits. On the other hand (and somewhat cynically), both can be seen as devices to produce retirement deferral rates sufficiently high to permit retirement plans to pass the muster of the various nondiscrimination tests to which they are subjected. And let’s face it, both carry costs for the employer(s) sponsoring the program. Indeed, if there is a shortcoming to these mechanisms at all it is that employees have seemed to assume they represent an answer to the “how much should I save” question, rather than simply being a function of how much the employer choses to spend on benefits.

‘Better’ Idea?

As it turns out, the researchers (David Blanchett of PGIM DC Solutions, Michael Finke of the American College of Financial Services & Empower’s Zhikun Liu) have an answer to the question as to which is “better”—well “better” meaning the plan design that results in the highest employee savings rates, highest acceptance of the default investment, and lowest disparities in savings rates by income—that would be the one that uses a high default rate and a lower employee match.

More specifically, based on a review of the activities of approximately 157,000 participants[1] who recently enrolled in an employer-matched 401(k) plan, they conclude that “a higher default rate has the largest impact on employee savings rates.”

Not only that, they caution that “plans with low default rates (say 3% or 4%) that match a high percentage of employee earnings induce higher-income participants to actively move away from the low default savings rate, resulting in a wider savings gap between higher- and lower-income employees.” On the other hand, setting a high default means that “fewer move away from the default savings rate resulting in higher and more equal savings rates among employees.” 

Other Considerations

There are some other considerations. They note that low default rates and high match rates also result in significantly fewer employees remaining in the default investment, and that while “raising the default savings level should increase savings rates for new participants, it won’t necessarily help existing participants.” As a consequence, the researchers comment that “plan sponsors may also consider different kinds of reenrollment or plan-reset options to utilize the positive impact of default savings rate increase. Additionally, plan sponsors should also consider including provisions for automatic savings rate increases to further boost participant savings levels”—because the one thing we know about most retirement savers is that—like Newton’s 1st Law of Motion—an object at rest remains at rest. And that’s what happens to most participants defaulted at a specific saving rate and in a specific investment—they stay there.

They also note that a high match appears to motivate workers to make an active decision to save more only when placed in a low initial default rate. Moreover, they found that a higher match motivates higher-income workers to save more, but only motivates lower-income workers who are defaulted (at the aforementioned 3% or 4% savings rate). They found that, when defaulted at a higher savings rate, the match rate only motivates high earners to increase their savings rate.

All in all, the match seems to matter to those who are more actively involved with the decision to join the plan—and those who are defaulted into the plan, in general, don’t seem to be those. There’s also a sense that more highly compensated individuals are more aware of, and active in, maximizing the match—though that may create nondiscrimination testing issues since less highly compensated workers seem to be more inclined to simply stay with the default rate.

Ultimately, of course, what matters is the default rate and the terms of the match; and with any luck at all, it’s not either or, but both!


[1] Not that it matters, but the paper specifically cites “the second largest recordkeeper for retirement plans in the United States, which services over 12.8 million DC plan participants across approximately 67,000 retirement plans as of the third quarter of 2021”—Empower.