Retirement Plan

A retirement plan is an arrangement to provide people with an income, or pension, during retirement, when they are no longer earning a steady income from employment. Retirement plans may be set up by employers, insurance companies, the government or other institutions such as employer associations or trade unions. Retirement plans are more commonly known as pension schemes in the UK and Ireland and superannuation plans in Australia.

Retirement Plan

A retirement plan is an arrangement to provide people with an income, or pension, during retirement, when they are no longer earning a steady income from employment. Retirement plans may be set up by employers, insurance companies, the government or other institutions such as employer associations or trade unions. Retirement plans are more commonly known as pension schemes in the UK and Ireland and superannuation plans in Australia.

1 Types of retirement plans
1.1 Defined contribution plans
1.2 Defined benefit plans
2 Hybrid plans
3 Contrasting types of retirement plans
4 Portability

Types of retirement plans

Retirement plans may be classified as defined benefit or defined contribution according to how the benefits are determined. A defined benefit plan guarantees a certain payout at retirement, according to a fixed formula which usually depends on the member's salary and the number of years' membership in the plan. A defined contribution plan will provide a payout at retirement that is dependent upon the amount of money contributed and the performance of the investment vehicles utilized.

Some types of retirement plans, such as cash balance plans, combine features of both defined benefit and defined contribution schemes.

Defined contribution plans

In a defined contribution plan, contributions are paid into an individual account for each member. The contributions are invested, for example in the stock market, and the returns on the investment (which may be positive or negative) are credited to the individual's account. On retirement, the member's account is used to provide retirement benefits, often through the purchase of an annuity which provides a regular income. Defined contribution plans have become more widespread all over the world in recent years, and are now the dominant form of plan in the private sector in many countries. For example, the number of DB plans in the US has been steadily declining, as more and more employers see the large pension contributions as a large expense that they can avoid by disbanding the plan and instead offering a defined contribution plan.

Examples of defined contribution plans in the USA include Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and 401(k) plans. In such plans, the employee is responsible, to one degree or another, for selecting the types of investments toward which the funds in the retirement plan are allocated. This may range from choosing one of a small number of pre-determined mutual funds to selecting individual stocks or other securities. Most self-directed retirement plans are characterized by certain tax advantages, and some provide for a portion of the employee's contributions to be matched by the employer. In exchange, the funds in such plans may not be withdrawn by the investor prior to reaching a certain age--typically the year the employee reaches 59.5 years old--(with a small number of exceptions) without incurring a substantial penalty.

Defined benefit plans

Traditionally, retirement plans have been administered by institutions which exist specifically for that purpose, by large businesses, or, for government workers, by the government itself. A traditional form of defined benefit plan is the final salary plan, under which the pension paid is equal to the number of years worked, multiplied by the member's salary at retirement, multiplied by a factor known as the accrual rate.

The final accrued amount is available as a monthly pension or a lump sum.

In addition, many countries offer state-sponsored retirement benefits, beyond those provided by employers, which are funded by payroll or other taxes. In the U.S., this is one role of Social Security.

Defined benefit plans may be either funded or unfunded. In a funded plan, contributions from the employer, and sometimes also from plan members, are invested in a fund towards meeting the benefits. The future returns on the investments, and the future benefits to be paid, are not known in advance, so there is no guarantee that a given level of contributions will be enough to meet the benefits. Typically, the contributions to be paid are regularly reviewed in a valuation of the plan's assets and liabilities, carried out by an actuary. In many countries, such as the USA, the UK and Australia, most private defined benefit plans are funded, because governments there provide tax incentives to funded plans.

In an unfunded plan, no funds are set aside. The benefits to be paid are met immediately by contributions to the plan. Most government run retirement plans, such as the social security system in the USA and most European countries, are unfunded, with benefits being paid directly out of current taxes and social security contributions. In some countries, such as Germany, Austria and Sweden, company run retirement plans are often unfunded. In the USA, part of the risk of unfunded defined benefit plans is shifted from eployees and to the federal agency, the PBGC or Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Because of this guarantee, some financially stressed employers haved tried to use bankrupcty to offload some of their pension liabilities. While this is still being litigated and while Congress is proposing to fix the insurance system, PBGC is facing ever larger deficits.

Hybrid plans

A cash balance plan is a defined benefit plan made by the employer, with the help (some critics say the connivance) of consulting actuaries (like Kwasha Lipton, whom it is said created the cash balance plan) to appear as if they were defined contribution plans. They have notional balances in hypothetical accounts where, typically, each year the plan administrator will contribute an amount equal to a certain percentage of each participant's salary; a second contribution, called interest credit, is made as well. These are not actual contributions and further discussion is beyond the scope of this entry suffice it to say that there is currently much controversy.

Target Benefit plans are defined contribution plans made to match (or look like) defined benefit plans. This would only work if all actuarial assumptions are actually realized.

Contrasting types of retirement plans

Advocates of defined contribution plans point out that each employee has the ability to tailor the investment portfolio to his or her individual needs and financial situation, including the choice of how much to contribute, if anything at all. However, others state that these apparent advantages could also hinder some workers who might not possess the financial savvy to choose the correct investment vehicles or have the discipline to voluntarily contribute money to retirement accounts. This debate parallels the discussion currently going on in the U.S., where many Republican leaders favor transforming the Social Security system, at least in part, to a self-directed investment plan.


Because defined contribution plans have actual balances, employers can simply check a check because the amount of their liability at termination of employment which may be decades before actual normal (65) retirement date of the plan, is known with certainty. There is no legal requirement that the employer allow the former worker take his money out to roll over into an IRA, though it is relatively uncommon in the US not to allow this.

Likewise for defined benefit plans, there is no mandated portability. However, because the lump sum actuarial present value of a former worker's vested accrued benefit is uncertain, the IRS mandate in Section 417(e) of the Internal Revenue Code specfies the interest and mortality that must be used. This has caused some employers as in the Berger versus Xerox case in the 7th Circuit (Richard A. Posner was the judge who wrote the opinion) with cash balance plans to have a higher liability for employers for a lump sum than was in the employee's "notional" or "hypothetical" account balance. When the interest credit rate exceeds the IRS mandated Section 417(e) discounting rate, the legally mandated lump sum value payable to the employee [if the plan sponsor allows for pre-retirement lump sums] would exceed the notional balance in the employee's cahs balance account. This has been colourfully dubbed the "Whipsaw" in actuarial parlance.

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