Order Code RL30196
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Pension Issues: Cash-Balance Plans
Updated January 24, 2005
Patrick J. Purcell
Specialist in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Pension Issues: Cash-Balance Plans
In recent years, hundreds of employers have converted their traditional defined
benefit pension plans into what are called a cash-balance plans. In these plans, the
employer regularly sets aside pay and interest credits into “hypothetical” employee
accounts. The accounts are hypothetical because, while the employee receives
periodic statements of the amount of pay and interest credits that have accumulated
in his or her “account,” all of the funds in the plan are commingled and the employer
makes all the investment decisions. The employer also determines the percentage of
pay and the interest rate (or index of rates) that will be credited to employee accounts.
Employees covered by cash-balance plans usually are given the option of receiving
a lump-sum distribution from the plan when they leave their employer, a practice that
is not typical of traditional defined benefit pensions.
Cash-balance plans have become popular with employers both because they can
reduce pension expenses and because they may be better appreciated by younger
employees than traditional pension plans. Cash-balance plans provide the employer
with the control over pension assets characteristic of traditional defined benefit plans
while potentially reducing the employer’s financial liability. In a traditional defined
benefit pension, the retirement benefit usually is based on years of service and
average income in the years immediately prior to retirement. In a cash-balance plan,
the employer contributes a percentage of pay to the plan and pays interest at a rate
that the employer may determine in advance. Funding is easier to estimate, and any
excess growth in pension assets can be used to fund future pay and interest credits.
As more employers have converted their traditional pensions to cash-balance
plans, two issues of particular concern to many pension plan participants have been
(1) employer practices in disclosing the impact of the pension conversions on
employees’ pensions and (2) the effect of conversions on older and long-service
employees. Employees who are informed about the future value of their benefits can
better decide how to prepare for retirement, such as by saving more on their own.
Employees who expect to change jobs several times over the course of their careers
sometimes can accumulate larger retirement assets under a cash-balance plan than
under a traditional plan, provided that they re-invest the lump-sum distributions they
receive when they leave an employer. Employees who have worked for many years
under a traditional pension, however, can experience substantial reductions in future
benefit accruals as the result of a conversion to a cash-balance plan.
Section 659 of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001
(P.L. 107-16) amended §4980(f) of the Internal Revenue Code to impose an excise
tax of $100 per participant per day on any employer that fails to notify to plan
participants of an amendment that would significantly reduce future benefit accruals.
The Secretary of the Treasury may issue a simplified notice requirement for plans
with fewer than 100 participants or that allow participants to choose between the old
plans and the new plan. The President’s budget for FY2005 proposed legislation that
would have clarified the legal status of cash balance plans, provided protections for
workers in future cash balance conversions, and repealed regulations that effectively
limit interest credits to cash balance plans. Congress took no action on the proposals.
Background on Retirement Plan Design . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
“Defined Benefit” and “Defined Contribution” Plans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Locus of Risk in DB and DC Plans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Reasons for the Shift to DC Plans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
The Cash-Balance Plan: A “Hybrid” Pension Plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Reasons for Converting to a Cash Balance Plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Key Characteristics of Cash-Balance Plans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Converting a Traditional Pension to a Cash Balance Plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Setting the Initial Account Balance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Older Workers and Cash Balance Conversions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Choosing an Interest Rate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Policy Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
(1) Determining the Value of Lump-Sum Distributions . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
(2) Age Discrimination . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Defining the “Accrued Benefit” in a Cash Balance Plan . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Proposed IRS Regulation Issued in December 2002 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
President’s Budget Proposal for FY2005 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Potential Retirement Income: Comparing Traditional Pensions and
Cash-Balance Plans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Assumptions Underlying the Estimates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Additional Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
List of Tables
Table 1. Participation in Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans by Employees
in the Private Sector in 2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Table 2. Worker Spending 30 years with One Employer, Retiring at Age 65 . . 22
Table 3. Worker Spending 30 Years with Three Employers, Retiring at
Age 65 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
Pension Issues: Cash Balance Plans
Background on Retirement Plan Design
In 2004, about half of all workers in the private sector participated in an
employer-sponsored retirement plan. (See Table 1). This is roughly the same
proportion of the workforce that had an employer-sponsored retirement plan in 1980.
However, while the percentage of workers who participate in an employer-sponsored
retirement plan has remained stable over the past two decades, the distribution of
workers among the two main types of retirement plan has shifted substantially. In
1980, most workers whose employer sponsored a retirement plan were covered by
a traditional defined-benefit pension. Today, however, defined contribution plans,
such as the 401(k) are the most prevalent form of employer-sponsored plan.
Moreover, in recent years, hundreds of employers have converted their traditional
defined-benefit pension plans into new “hybrid” plans that have characteristics of
both a traditional pension and the popular 401(k) plan.
Table 1. Participation in Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans
by Employees in the Private Sector in 2004
Type of Retirement Plan
100 or more workers
Source: National Compensation Survey, U.S. Department of Labor.
Note: Data represent 102 million workers employed in the private sector.
“Defined Benefit” and “Defined Contribution” Plans. Employersponsored retirement plans are legally classified as either defined benefit plans or
defined contribution plans. In a defined benefit or “DB” plan, the retirement benefit
usually is based on an employee’s salary and years of service. In a typical DB plan,
the participant accrues a retirement benefit that is equal to a percentage of the average
pay earned over a period of years, such as the final five years with the employer.
Typically, the benefit amount is determined by multiplying the employee’s final
average pay by the number of years of service and the rate at which benefits accrue,
commonly between 1% and 2% per year. For example, an employee with 30 years
of service who accrues benefits at 1.5% per year would be eligible for a pension
equal to 45% of final average pay upon reaching the plan’s normal retirement age,
which in most plans is 62 or 65. Many firms allow employees with 20 or more years
of service to retire with a reduced benefit before reaching the normal retirement age.
Defined contribution — or “DC” — plans, such as those authorized by section
401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code, are much like savings accounts maintained by
the employer on behalf of each participating employee.1 The employer contributes
a specific dollar amount or percentage of pay into the account, which is then invested
in stocks, bonds, or other financial assets. In some plans, the size of the employer’s
contribution depends on the amount the employee contributes from his or her pay.
When the worker retires, the retirement benefit is the balance in the account. This
is the sum of all the contributions that have been made plus interest, dividends, and
capital gains (or losses). The worker typically has the option to receive these funds
in the form of a life-long annuity, as a series of fixed payments over a period of years,
or as a lump-sum. Initially, many employers adopted defined contribution plans to
supplement a traditional defined benefit pension. Increasingly, however, employers
have chosen to sponsor a DC plan as their sole retirement plan.
The Locus of Risk in DB and DC Plans. In a traditional defined benefit
plan, the employer promises to provide retirement benefits equal to a certain dollar
amount or a specific percentage of the employee’s pay. Employees who have
become vested participants in the plan have a legal right to claim pension benefits
when they reach the retirement age defined by the plan, which can be no later than
age 65. To pay these promised benefits, the employer sets aside funds in a pension
fund that is invested in stocks, bonds, and other assets. Retirement benefits are paid
from the pension fund, and the employer is at risk for the benefits that have been
promised to retired employees and their surviving spouses. If the assets in the
pension fund lose value or appreciate too slowly to keep up with the promised
benefits, the employer is responsible for the shortfall. Although employees who
become vested participants in a traditional defined benefit pension plan have a legally
enforceable claim to retirement benefits from the plan, the employer (or its agent)
manages the pension fund and decides how the funds will be invested. Any assets
in excess of the amount needed to pay benefits are the property of the employer,
although these assets are subject to a federal excise tax of up to 50% if they are used
for any other purpose than to provide pension benefits or health insurance for retirees.
In a defined contribution plan, the employer bears no financial risk beyond the
obligation to make contributions to each employee’s retirement account according
to a formula specified in the plan. In a DC plan, it is the employee who owns the
assets in his or her individual account. Thus, the employee bears the risk that the
account will increase in value sufficiently to provide adequate income during
retirement. If the contributions made to the account by the employer and the
employee are too small, or if the securities in which the account is invested lose value
or increase in value too slowly, the employee risks having an income in retirement
§401(k) is the section of the Internal Revenue Code that authorizes deferral of federal
income taxes on amounts contributed to these plans.
that cannot sustain his or her desired standard of living. If this situation occurs, the
worker might choose to delay retirement.
Reasons for the Shift to DC Plans. One reason that employers have been
shifting their pension coverage from defined benefit plans to defined contribution
plans is that DB plans generally are more difficult and costly to administer. For
example, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 (P.L. 93406) requires that defined benefit pension plans must be fully funded. The employer’s
responsibility to fully fund benefits under a DB plan represents a financial risk to the
plan’s sponsor. In addition to bearing the financial risk associated with a DB plan,
the employer incurs ongoing administrative expenses to assure that the plan remains
in compliance with relevant federal regulations. An employer who sponsors a
defined benefit plan also must pay insurance premiums to the Pension Benefit
Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The current premium — established in law by
Congress — is $19 per participant per year.
To be fully-funded, the assets of a defined benefit plan must be equal to the
present value of the benefits that have been accrued by the plan’s participants.2 To
estimate the funding requirements of the plan, an actuary forecasts the age at
retirement, length of service, final average salary, and eventual mortality of the firm’s
employees many years into the future. If a plan becomes “under-funded,” the firm
must restore it to fully-funded status over a period of years or risk losing its taxqualified status, which can result in substantial taxes and penalties.3 Moreover, any
unfunded liability of the plan must be displayed on the firm’s financial statements.
(The reverse is also true. Should the plan become over-funded, the excess assets are
shown on the firm’s balance sheet).4
DC Plans Are Both Easier and Cheaper to Administer. A defined
contribution plan is relatively easy to administer because a DC plan is by definition
fully funded at all times. In a DC plan, an employer makes no promise about the
amount of benefits to be paid during retirement; the firm merely commits itself to
making contributions of a certain amount or percentage of pay during the employee’s
tenure with the employer (sometimes conditioned on the employee making
contributions as well). Defined contribution plans are not insured by the PBGC, and
so the firm pays no insurance premiums. The employee bears the risk that the
contributions to the plan and its investment earnings will be sufficient to provide an
adequate income during retirement.
Pensions and Employee Mobility. Traditional defined benefit plans can
provide substantial retirement income to workers who spend an entire career with one
A future stream of payments or income can be expressed as a lump-sum by calculating its
“present value,” which depends mainly on the length of time over which the benefits will
be paid and the rate of interest at which these payments will be discounted to the present.
A “qualified” pension is one that meets the standards of §401(a) of the Internal Revenue
Code. Plan sponsors can deduct contributions to the plan from taxable income, and the plan
participants defer taxes on the contributions and investment earnings until they have retired.
Financial Accounting Standards Board Statement 87, Employers’ Accounting for Pensions
and 132, Employers’ Disclosures about Pensions and Other Post-retirement Benefits.
employer; however, because length of service and final average pay usually are
significant factors in determining the size of the benefit, DB plans are not well suited
to the needs of workers who change jobs several times throughout their careers.
Moreover, by the time a worker retires, inflation may have significantly eroded the
value of pensions earned from past employers.5 In contrast, retirement savings
accrued in a DC plan are fully portable. These assets can continue to increase in
value even after an employee moves on to another job because they can be “rolled
over” into another employer-sponsored 401(k) or into an Individual Retirement
Account (IRA) that will earn interest, dividends, and/or capital gains on a taxdeferred basis until retirement. At retirement, the money can be paid as a lump-sum,
in a series of payments over a period of years, or as a life-long annuity purchased
from an insurance company.6
The Cash-Balance Plan: A “Hybrid” Pension Plan
In recent years, several hundred, predominantly large, firms have converted their
traditional pension plans into hybrid plans that have characteristics of both defined
benefit and defined contribution plans.7 The most popular of these has been the
cash-balance plan.8 A cash balance plan looks like a DC plan in that the accrued
benefit is defined in terms of an account balance. Every year, the employer credits
each employee’s “account” with a fixed percentage of employee salary — typically
5% or 6% of pay — and pays interest on the accumulated account balance. However,
in a cash balance plan, these account balances are merely bookkeeping devices that
show the amount that each employee has earned under the plan. They are not
individual accounts that are owned by the plan’s participants.
The Internal Revenue Code designates plans that provide individual accounts
for each participant and that pay benefits based solely on the contributions to the
Take, for example, a 30 year-old employee who separates this year from a firm after five
years of service at a final average annual salary of $25,000. Assuming that benefits were
accrued under the plan at 1.5% per year and that the employee is fully vested after five
years, he or she will be entitled to a retirement benefit of $156 per month beginning at age
65. If inflation averages 3.0% per year over the 35 years until the employee reaches age 65,
the real value of this benefit will be equivalent to just $56 per month in current dollars.
A “single life annuity” pays benefits until the retiree dies. A “joint and survivor annuity”
guarantees a benefit (at a reduced monthly amount) until the death of the retiree or the death
of his or her spouse, whichever comes later.
Data collected by the Internal Revenue Service indicate that there are about 7 million
participants in cash balance plans. See pages 5 and 6 of the Pension Insurance Data Book
2002, at [http://www.pbgc.gov/publications/databook/databook02.pdf].
There are a number of other so-called “hybrid plans” besides cash-balance plans. Among
them are “pension equity plans,” “floor-offset plans,” “age-weighted profit-sharing plans,”
and “target benefit plans.” Cash balance and pension equity plans are legally classified as
DB plans. Age-weighted profit-sharing plans and target-benefit plans are treated in the tax
law as DC plans. Floor-offset plans consist of two associated plans: a DB plan and a DC
plan. For a description of each, see Sharyn Campbell, Hybrid Retirement Plans: The
Retirement Income System Continues to Evolve, Employee Benefit Research Institute, EBRI
Issue Brief 171, Mar. 1996.
accounts and subsequent investment gains or losses as defined contribution plans.
Any plan that does not fit this definition is a defined benefit plan.9 All of the assets
in a cash-balance plan are commingled in a pension trust managed by the employer
or the plan’s trustee. The individual accounts in a cash balance plan are merely
hypothetical accounts used to describe an employee’s accrued benefit. They are not
employee-owned individual accounts. Legally, therefore, a cash balance plan is a
defined benefit plan.
Reasons for Converting to a Cash Balance Plan. Cash balance plans
have become popular both among employers seeking to reduce their pension-related
expenses and among those who wish to spread current pension expenditures more
evenly over their work force. Because benefits in a traditional defined benefit plan
typically are based on final average pay, the cost to an employer of funding these
benefits rises steeply as an employee approaches the plan’s normal retirement age.
In contrast, benefits in a cash balance plan accrue more evenly throughout an
employee’s tenure because they are based on career-average pay rather than finalaverage pay. Consequently, the cost of funding a cash balance plan does not rise
steeply as an employee approaches retirement age. Converting a traditional pension
to a cash balance plan will not necessarily reduce a firm’s pension expense, but a
conversion can be designed to achieve this result if it is among the plan sponsor’s
objectives. In a cash balance plan, the employer promises only to make regular pay
and interest credits to the plan rather than to replace a specific percentage of final
pay. An employer therefore could set the pay and interest credits at levels that
reduces its total expenses compared to the traditional defined benefit pension plan.
Another reason that cash balance plans have become popular is an increasing
concern among employers that traditional pensions, designed mainly to benefit
employees who spend 25 or 30 years with one employer, are ill-suited to, and not
sufficiently valued by, younger employees in a highly mobile workforce. Cash
balance plans can be attractive to younger workers because the benefit is described
as an account balance — similar to a defined contribution plan like a 401(k) — and
because employers usually pay departing employees their accrued benefit as a lumpsum distribution. Moreover, a larger proportion of total lifetime benefits accrue early
in one’s career under a cash balance plan than under a traditional pension based on
final average pay. Younger workers often prefer the “front loaded” benefit of a cash
balance plan to a traditional pension in which the bulk of benefits accrue in the years
just before retirement.
Key Characteristics of Cash-Balance Plans. Cash-balance plans
combine employer ownership of pension assets with the more predictable financial
liability typical of defined contribution plans.
The Employer Owns Any Excess Plan Assets. Although an individual
account is attributed to each employee in a cash-balance plan, these are only
“hypothetical” accounts used for accounting purposes. While in a cash-balance plan,
a vested employee has the legal right to receive retirement benefits from the plan, it
is the employer who decides how the plan’s assets will be invested. The employer
26 USC §§ 414(i) and 414(j).
also decides the interest rate (or index of rates) that will be credited to the accounts.
Many firms peg their interest credits to the average yield on one-year U.S. Treasury
Bills or the interest rate paid by 10-year Treasury Notes. In a defined contribution
plan, on the other hand, the employee (once vested) owns all of the assets in his or
her account.10 Furthermore, in most defined contribution plans, the employee has a
choice of investment options, ranging from low-yielding but very safe U.S. Treasury
securities to higher-yielding but riskier common-stock mutual funds.
If the assets held by a cash balance plan exceed the amount needed to pay
benefits that have been earned under the plan, the excess belongs to the employer.
Therefore, if the assets in the pension fund appreciate at a rate greater than the
interest rate credited to employee accounts, the employer can use these gains as a
source from which to make future pay credits and interest credits to employee
accounts. However, if the interest rate that the employer promises to pay to
employees in a cash-balance plan turns out to be higher than the rate of return
actually earned by the assets in the pension fund, the employer is liable for any
additional payments necessary to keep the plan fully funded. Because the employer
owns any excess assets in the pension plan, it can take assets out of the plan and use
them for other purposes; however, to discourage plan sponsors from “raiding”
pension funds in this way, Congress has made such asset reversions subject to an
excise tax of up to 50% in addition to any corporate income taxes that may apply.11
Employer’s Financial Liability Is More Predictable. Funding a cashbalance plan is more like funding a defined contribution plan than a traditional
defined benefit plan. In most traditional DB plans, the employer promises to replace
a proportion of the employee’s final average pay and is legally obligated to set aside
sufficient funds to pay the promised benefits. Under a cash-balance plan, the
employer promises only to make regular pay and interest credits to the plan rather
than to provide a specific amount of retirement income. Moreover, because the
benefits in a cash-balance plan accrue based on career-average pay rather than finalaverage pay, the employer will not face steeply rising pension costs as an employee
approaches the plan’s normal retirement age. Some employers who have converted
traditional defined benefit plans to cash-balance plans have been able to suspend their
contributions to the pension plan, making the required pay and interest credits from
excess pension fund assets. Administrative costs also can be lower in a cash-balance
plan than in a traditional DB plan because contributions are based on simple percentof-pay and interest-rate formulas, and also because most employers offer departing
employees the opportunity to take their accrued benefit as a lump-sum rather than as
an annuity. This relieves the employer of the long-term financial liability of funding
the employees’ benefits, the obligation to pay insurance premiums to the Pension
Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) for these former employees, and ongoing
administrative and record-keeping expenses for employees who have departed.
An employee is immediately vested in his or her contributions to a DC plan and in the
earnings on those contributions. The employee must be fully vested in employer
contributions and earnings on those contributions no more than three years after joining the
employer if “cliff” vesting is used or after no more than six years if graded vesting is used.
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-508).
Interest Credits. In a cash-balance plan, the value of the benefit accrued by
each employee depends crucially on the rate of interest the employer credits to the
plan and the number of years over which the interest credits are compounded. This
contrasts with a traditional DB pension, in which interest rates play no role in
determining the amount of an employee’s pension at the plan’s normal retirement
age. In a cash balance plan, the rate of interest that the employer credits to the plan
and the number of years over which these interest credits are compounded have the
greatest weight in determining the value of an employee’s retirement benefit. One
reason that long-service workers may not fare as well as more junior employees when
an employer converts a traditional DB plan to a cash balance plan is that the more
senior workers will have fewer years during which additional interest payments will
be credited to their cash balance accounts. For this reason, some employers allow
workers with long periods of service to remain under the old plan.
Converting a Traditional Pension to a Cash Balance Plan
Setting the Initial Account Balance. An employer that converts a
traditional defined benefit pension plan to a cash balance plan first will have to
choose a method for establishing the initial account balance for each participant. An
employer can set the initial value of a cash balance account at any amount. Some
employers choose to set the initial account balance equal to the present value of the
pension benefit that each participant had accrued under the traditional pension plan.
Some employers set the initial account balance at zero, while others set the initial
balance somewhere between zero and the present value of benefits accrued under the
old plan. Regardless, employees who separate from the employer and choose to take
a lump-sum distribution must be paid the greater of the present value of their accrued
benefit under the old plan or the value of the cash balance account.
There are at least two reasons why an employer might establish the opening
value of the cash balance plan at less than the value of the benefit that had been
accrued under the old plan: first, it allows the employer to apply pay and interest
credits to the cash-balance account from money that is already in the pension fund.
In such cases, an employer might be able to go several years without making
additional contributions to the plan. Second, by establishing cash-balance accounts
with low initial values, the employer can realize gains from rising interest rates and
limit the costs it incurs from falling interest rates.12
For example, if an employee had accrued benefits under the old plan with a present value
of $30,000, and the cash-balance account is established with an initial value of $25,000, the
employer must pay the greater of these two amounts if the employee leaves the company and
elects to take a lump-sum. If interest rates rise, and the present value of the old benefit falls
to less than $30,000, the employer would be obliged to pay the departing employee only the
lower amount. If the opening value of the cash-balance account had been set at $30,000 the
employer would have lost the chance to benefit from an increase in interest rates. If interest
rates fall after the cash-balance account is established, the present value of the employee’s
accrued benefits under the old plan will rise, and the employer must pay a departing
employee the higher amount. For employees who stay with the firm, falling interest rates
will lengthen the period during which they are earn no new benefits. The value of the old
plan will rise, so it will take longer for the value of the cash-balance plan to catch up.
“Wear Away” or the “Benefit Plateau”. If the initial value of a cash
balance plan is established at less than the present value of the employee’s accrued
benefit under the old plan, the employee ceases to earn new pension benefits until
subsequent pay and interest credits equalize the value of the two plans. Pension
analysts call this period when no new benefits accrue a “benefit plateau” or “wearaway” because even if the employer begins to apply pay and interest credits to the
cash balance account immediately, the employee must “wear away” the difference
between the starting account balance and the value of their benefit under the old plan
before new benefits begin to accrue.
If an employer sets the opening balance of an employee’s hypothetical cash
balance account equal to (or greater than) the present value of benefits accrued under
the traditional plan, there is no “wear away”period and the employee begins to accrue
new pension benefits immediately. Employees also can accrue new benefits
immediately if they are all given an initial cash balance account of zero and the
employer stipulates that the employee’s total benefit is the sum of the benefit accrued
under the old plan and the value of the cash balance account. Some firms that have
followed this method have put the benefits that employees accrued under the old plan
into an interest-bearing account so that these benefits will continue to increase in
Older Workers and Cash Balance Conversions. Because benefits
accrue more evenly over a career in a cash-balance plan than under a traditional
defined benefit pension, employees with long periods of service under traditional
pension plans sometimes find that their future benefit accruals will be substantially
reduced after a conversion to a cash balance plan. For example, if the employer has
established the opening value of the cash-balance plan at less than the present value
of the benefits accrued under the old plan, these employees may face several years
of work during which they will accrue no new pension benefits. Even without this
so-called “wear away” period, however, employees may earn substantially smaller
future pension benefits under a cash balance plan than they would have earned if the
traditional defined benefit plan had remained in place. This can happen because
benefits do not grow rapidly during the last few years before retirement under a cash
balance plan as they do under many traditional defined benefit pensions.
Consider, for example, a 45-year-old employee with 10 years of service in a
traditional defined benefit plan in which benefits accrue at 1.5% per year and the
benefit is based on average pay in the final five years of work. Assuming that the
worker’s average salary in the previous five years was $45,000, he or she would
already have accrued a benefit worth $563 per month, beginning at the plan’s normal
retirement age.13 If the employee were to continue working for another 20 years and
received annual raises of 3.0% per year, the accrued benefit would reach $3,195 per
month by age 65. Expressed as a lump sum, this is equivalent to receiving $435,500
at age 65.14 Now, assume instead that the employer converted to a cash balance plan
when the employee was age 45. If the employer set the opening balance equal to the
(.015 * 10 * 45,000) = $6,750. $6,750/12 = $562.5.
In Jan. 2005, a balance of $435,500 in the Thrift Savings Plan would purchase a level,
single-life annuity of $3,151 per month at age 65,at an annuity interest rate of 4.125%.
present value of benefits accrued under the traditional plan, and paid an annual wage
credit of 7% and an annual interest credit of 5.5%, this employee would accrue a total
benefit with a present value of $249,900 by age 65. This is a reduction of $185,600
(42.6%) compared to what he or she would have earned under the traditional pension.
Choosing an Interest Rate. When choosing the rate at which interest will
be credited to employee accounts in a cash-balance plan, an employer will likely
consider several factors:
A low interest rate will directly reduce the cost of interest credited
to employee accounts.
A low interest rate will increase the potential “interest-rate spread”
between the rate paid on employee accounts and the rate at which the
fund’s assets actually appreciate.
A low interest rate decreases the likelihood that the firm will have
to pay an employee who separates before retirement a lump-sum
distribution that is more than the face-value of the employee’s cash
balance account. (This outcome — called “whipsaw” — occurs if
the plan credits interest to employee accounts at a higher rate than it
must use to calculate lump-sum distributions.)
(1) Determining the Value of Lump-Sum Distributions. Employers
converting traditional pensions to cash balance plans have done so both to reduce
costs and to make their pension plans more easily understood by employees. Cash
balance plans offer employers continued ownership of pension fund assets and more
limited financial risk than traditional defined benefit pensions. Because many
employers pay accrued benefits under a cash-balance plan as a lump sum to
employees who separate before retirement, the benefit is portable and offers
employees who change jobs the opportunity to re-invest their accumulated benefits.
This characteristic is not unique to cash-balance plans, however. Accrued benefits
can be paid to departing employees as a lump-sum under traditional pension plans,
too; however, in either a traditional DB plan or a cash-balance plan, the written
consent of both the employee and his or her spouse is required for lump-sum
distributions of more than $5,000.
Because cash balance plans are not individual accounts owned by the employee,
the IRS has based federal regulations for determining the value of a vested
employee’s accrued benefit — and the amount of a lump-sum distribution from the
plan — on the sections of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code that govern defined
benefit plans. The difficulty in valuing lump-sum distributions from cash balance
plans is that the federal statutes governing these plans describe the accrued benefit
in very different terms than the plans themselves use. Whereas cash balance plans
describe accrued benefits in terms of an “account balance,” the relevant federal
statutes describe accrued benefits in all defined benefit plans in terms of an “annual
benefit commencing at normal retirement age.”15 The law requires that any other
form of payment must be “the actuarial equivalent of such benefit.”16 Therefore,
determining the value of a lump-sum distribution from a cash balance plan in
compliance with ERISA and the tax code depends on the meaning of the terms
“accrued benefit” and “actuarial equivalent of such benefit” as they apply to cash
ERISA protects departing employees who receive lump-sum distributions from
being paid less than the present value of the benefit that would be payable at the
plan’s normal retirement age. Federal regulations prescribe the methods for valuing
lump-sum distributions from traditional DB plans, and the IRS has published
regulatory guidance for valuing lump-sum distributions from cash balance plans.17
Under the regulatory guidance published by the IRS, the employer must project the
cash balance account forward to the plan’s normal retirement age using the interest
rate or index of rates set forth in the plan documents. This amount must then be
discounted to the present, using the interest rate paid by 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds
in the month prior to the distribution.18 A departing employee must be paid the
greater of the present value of the cash balance account as determined by this method
or the present value of benefit that he or she had accrued under the old plan.
If the interest rate credited to a cash balance plan by an employer differs from
the 30-year Treasury bond rate, then the present value of an employee’s accrued
benefit could be more or less than the nominal value of the employee’s cash balance
account. If the employer credits interest to a cash balance plan at a higher interest
rate than the plan is required to be used for valuing lump-sum distributions, then the
present value of the accrued benefit will be greater than the nominal account balance.
The plan must pay the greater of these two amounts if a departing employee takes
a lump-sum distribution. If interest is credited to the plan at a lower rate than is used
for calculating lump-sum distributions, then the present value of the accrued benefit
will be less than the nominal value of the account, and the employer can legally pay
the lesser amount as a lump-sum distribution. A pre-retirement lump-sum
distribution from a cash balance plan will need to be the same as the nominal value
of an employee’s cash balance account only if these two interest rates are equal.
Three Federal Circuit Courts have ruled that lump-sum distributions from cash
balance plans must be equivalent to the present value of an annuity beginning at the
plan’s normal retirement age, calculated in accordance with regulatory guidance
issued by the Treasury Department.19
26 USC § 411(a)(7)
26 USC § 411(c)(3)
26 CFR 1.411(a), 26 CFR 1.417(e), and IRS Notice 96-8 (Bulletin 1996-6).
Using the interest rate on 30-year Treasury bonds to value lump-sum distributions is
prescribed by Sec. 767 of the Retirement Protection Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-465). In Oct.
2001, Treasury announced that it would suspend issuance of 30-year bonds. H.R. 3108
(108th Cong.) would replace the 30-year Treasury bond as the interest rate used in
calculating lump-sum distributions with a rate based on investment-grade corporate bonds.
Esden v. The Retirement Plan of the First National Bank of Boston, (2nd Circuit, No. 99(continued...)
IRS Notice 96-8. The Internal Revenue Service has addressed the issue of
lump-sum distributions from cash-balance plans in “proposed guidance” published
as Notice 96-8 in February 1996.20 The notice states that the accrued benefit under
a cash-balance plan includes the value of interest credits up to the plan’s normal
retirement age. As interpreted by the IRS, future interest credits comprise part of the
nonforfeitable portion of the present value of the employee’s accrued benefit. In
other words, when determining the present value of an employee’s accrued benefit,
the employer must project the account balance forward to the plan’s normal
retirement age, including the regular interest credits that have been promised to plan
participants.21 The present value of the accrued benefit will be same as the nominal
value of the cash balance plan only if the same interest rate is used to project the
account forward to normal retirement age and to discount it back to the present. The
interest rate credited to employee accounts is chosen by the employer, but the
discount rate is prescribed by federal law.22 Consequently, there may be many
instances in which the two rates differ.
The practical effect of the IRS guidance on the method for valuing lump-sum
distributions from cash balance plans is that any employer who credits interest to a
cash balance plan at a rate higher than the rate paid by 30-year Treasury bonds will
be legally obligated to pay a pre-retirement lump-sum distribution that is more than
the nominal value of an employee’s cash balance account, a circumstance sometimes
referred to as “whipsaw.” Conversely, an employer who credits interest to a cash
balance plan at a rate lower than the rate paid by 30-year Treasury bonds could
legally pay a pre-retirement lump-sum distribution that is less than the nominal value
of an employee’s cash balance account. The nominal value of a cash balance account
will differ from the value of a lump-sum distribution from the account whenever the
interest rate credited to participants by the employer differs from the rate at which
employers are required by law to calculate the present value of an employee’s
(2) Age Discrimination. ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code, and the Age
Discrimination in Employment Act (P.L. 90-202) all prohibit reductions in benefit
accrual rates that result directly from an employee’s advancing age.23 Some pension
analysts have questioned whether cash-balance plans discriminate against older
7210, Sept. 12, 2000), Lyons v. Georgia-Pacific Corporation Salaried Employees
Retirement Plan, (11th Circuit, No. 99-10640, Aug. 11, 2000), and Berger v. Xerox Corp.
Retirement Income Guarantee Plan, (7th Circuit, No. 02-3674, Aug. 1, 2003).
26 CFR §1.411(a), 26 CFR §1.417(e), and IRS Notice 96-8 (Bulletin No. 1996-6).
Some employers have avoided — temporarily — the necessity of projecting interest
credits into the future and then discounting them to the present by establishing the “normal
retirement age” as age 65 or after five years of employment, whichever comes first. The IRS
reportedly has yet to issue a favorable determination of compliance with the Internal
Revenue Code for any plan that has adopted this definition of “normal retirement age.”
26 USC §417(e)(3).
These prohibitions on age discrimination in employee benefits are codified at 29 U.S.C.
§ 1054(b)(1)(H)(i), 26 U.S.C. § 411(b)(1)(H)(i), and 29 U.S.C. § 623(i), respectively.
employees because interest credits compound over fewer years for these workers,
resulting in a lower benefit at retirement compared to younger employees with the
same initial account balance.
In a traditional defined benefit pension plan, the employee’s accrued benefit
typically is based on years of service, final average salary, and a benefit accrual rate.
ADEA, ERISA, and the IRC prohibit defined benefit plans from reducing “the rate
of an employee’s benefit accrual” either “because of age” (ADEA) or “because of the
attainment of any age” (ERISA, IRC). With respect to traditional defined benefit
plans, the meaning of these terms is unambiguous. For example, it would be
unlawful for the plan to specify an accrual rate of 1.5% per year for employees under
age 40 and an accrual rate of less than 1.5% per year for employees age 40 or older.
Likewise, it would be unlawful for the plan to specify a reduction in benefit accruals
that is indirectly conditioned on an employee’s age. This means that a plan may not
legally provide for a reduction in the benefit accrual rate based on an employee’s
eligibility to receive a retirement annuity from the plan or based on an employee’s
eligibility for Social Security retired worker benefits. In the first instance, the
reduction in the rate of benefit accrual would be conditioned on the employee having
reached the plan’s early retirement age, which is a prohibited practice.24 In the
second instance, the reduction in the benefit accrual rate would be based on the
employee having attained age 62 (the minimum age at which a worker can apply for
Social Security retirement benefits), which also is prohibited.
Reductions in Accrual Rates that are Permissible under Federal
Law. Although federal law prohibits reductions in benefit accrual rates that are
directly or indirectly conditioned on the employee’s age, it does not prohibit all
reductions in accrual rates that in practice are more likely to affect older employees
rather than younger employees, provided that the reduction is made with reference
to something other than age. It is, for example, permissible for a reduction in the
benefit accrual rate to be based on years of service. A plan might specify that the
benefit accrual rate for the first 20 years of service is 1.5% per year and the accrual
rate for years 21 and above is 1.0%. Although employees with more than 20 years
of service would tend to be older than employees with fewer than 20 years of service,
this would not always be the case.25 Since the reduction is not directly or indirectly
conditioned on the employee’s age, it would not be a prohibited practice. A plan
also may limit either the number of years over which benefits accrue or the total
benefit amount. Thus, a plan could specify that no benefits will accrue after the 30th
year of service (or some other number of years), or that the accrued benefit cannot
exceed some specified percentage of final average pay or a specified dollar amount.
Again, while such limitations will naturally be correlated with employee age, they
are not conditioned on employee age, and thus they would not be prohibited under
Benefits need not accrue beyond the plan’s normal retirement age, provided that the plan
makes an adjustment to the employee’s benefit to reflect a delayed retirement credit.
For example, a 40-year-old employee with 20 years of service would accrue additional
benefits at the rate of 1.0% per year while a 45-year-old employee with 10 years of service
would accrue benefits at 1.5% per year for up to 10 more years.
The Case of Cash Balance Plans. If two employees covered by a cash
balance plan both earn the same pay and have the same percentage of pay credited
to their accounts, it is inevitable that the pension benefit earned for a year of work
will be smaller for the older of the two employees. This will be so regardless of
whether the accrued benefit is expressed as an annuity payable at the plan’s normal
retirement age or as the present value of such an annuity. This result occurs because
the older employee will reach the plan’s normal retirement age in fewer years. For
example, assume that Employee A is 40 years old and Employee B is 50 years old.
Each earns $40,000 per year and their employer contributes wage credits equal to 5%
of pay to a cash balance plan and pays interest on their account balances at a rate of
6% per year. The plan has a normal retirement age of 65. Each will receive a pay
credit of $2,000 this year; however, the benefit accrued by Employee A for the year
will be worth more at retirement than the benefit accrued by Employee B.
If Employee A and Employee B both receive annual salaries of $40,000 and
each receives a pay credit of $2,000 this year, have they not both accrued benefits of
equal value? No. Although each has received a credit toward his cash balance
account that is equal to 5% of pay, when this amount is expressed in terms of its
annuity value at the plan’s normal retirement age or as the actuarial equivalent of
such an annuity, the $2,000 received this year is worth more to 40-year-old Employee
A than to 50-year-old Employee B. Assuming an interest rate of 6%, Employee A’s
$2,000 pay credit this year will grow to $8,583 by the time he or she reaches age 65,
25 years from now. For 50-year-old Employee B, a $2,000 pay credit this year will
grow to just $4,793 by the time he or she reaches the plan’s normal retirement age
of 65 (assuming a 6% annual rate of interest). Thus, in a typical cash balance plan,
the annual rate of benefit accrual will be lower for an older employee than for a
younger employee with the same salary. For the same reason, it also is possible that
the rate of benefit accrual will decline as an employee ages, because there will be
fewer years over which each additional pay credit will earn interest.26 Some
employers apply higher pay credits to long-service employees to make up for the
smaller number of years during which further interest credits will accrue before they
retire. Nevertheless, higher pay credits for greater length of service may not
necessarily be sufficient to prevent the declining rate at which benefits accrue under
a cash balance plan as the employee approaches the plan’s normal retirement age.
Defining the “Accrued Benefit” in a Cash Balance Plan. According
to the Internal Revenue Code, the term “accrued benefit” means “... the employee’s
accrued benefit determined under the plan ... expressed in the form of an annual
benefit commencing at normal retirement age ....”27 The Code further states that “...
if an employee’s accrued benefit is to be determined as an amount other than an
annual benefit commencing at normal retirement age, ... the employee’s accrued
The benefit accrual rate for an individual also will be affected by any changes in the
percentage of pay credited to the plan, changes in interest rates, and changes in an
employee’s annual pay.
26 U.S.C. § 411(a)(7).
benefit shall be the actuarial equivalent of such benefit or amount....”28 The
“actuarial equivalent” of an annuity starting at the plan’s normal retirement age is the
present value of such benefit. A “present value” is a means of expressing a stream
of future payments as a lump sum. The present value of a stream of payments is
inversely related to both the amount of time until the payments commence and to the
rate of interest.
Statutory Definition of Age Discrimination. ERISA and the Internal
Revenue Code state that a reduction in the rate of benefit accrual is prohibited if a
plan reduces the rate of an employee’s benefit accrual “because of the attainment of
any age.” In practice, a plan is likely to be found in violation of these statutes if a
declining benefit accrual rate is conditioned on employee age, but not if the declining
accrual rate is merely correlated with employee age. In regulatory guidance, the IRS
has stated that a plan will not be disqualified from favorable tax treatment “... solely
because of a positive correlation between increased age and a reduction or
discontinuation of benefit accruals or account allocations under a plan.”
In a cash balance plan, it generally will be the case that the present value of the
retirement benefit accrued in a given year by an older employee will be less than the
present value of the benefit accrued by a younger employee earning the same salary.
This is an inherent — and legally permissible — characteristic of many defined
contribution plans, such as those authorized under Section 401(k) of the IRC. The
basis for claims of age discrimination with respect to cash balance plans lies in their
status as defined benefit plans.29 Cash-balance plans are sometimes popularly
referred to as “hybrid” plans because, regardless of their legal status as defined
benefit plans, they have some characteristics of both defined benefit and defined
contribution plans. If a cash balance plan were to be tested for discrimination against
older employers as if it were a defined contribution plan, it would be in compliance
with the relevant statutes, provided that “the rate at which amounts are allocated to
the employee’s account is not reduced, because of the attainment of any age.”30 In
a defined contribution plan, therefore, if there is no age-related trigger that reduces
the percentage of pay that an employer contributes to an employee’s account, the plan
is considered non-discriminatory with respect to age.
The Internal Revenue Service has generally maintained that cash balance plans
must be held to the same regulatory standards that apply to defined benefit plans, but
there have been exceptions to this rule. In its regulatory guidance on the valuation
of lump-sum distributions from cash-balance plans, for instance, the IRS has held
cash balance plans strictly to the regulatory standards applicable to defined benefit
plans.31 On the other hand, the IRS has issued regulations that permit cash balance
plans that meet certain conditions to be tested for another form of discrimination (in
26 U.S.C. § 411(c)(3).
Any plan that does not consist of employee-owned individual accounts is legally a defined
benefit plan (26 U.S.C. §§ 414(i) and 414(j)).
26 U.S.C. § 411(b)(2)(A).
IRS Notice 96-8 (Bulletin No. 1996-6).
favor of highly-compensated employees) as if they were defined contribution plans.32
The proposed regulation published by the IRS in December 2002 also would test cash
balance plans for discrimination on the basis of age that is similar to the test applied
to defined contribution plans.
Disagreements among federal courts that have ruled on this issue suggest that
Congress may have to amend the relevant statutes to clarify the manner in which cash
balance plans are to be evaluated for age discrimination. In a case decided by the
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the court ruled that a cash
balance pension plan does not violate federal prohibitions on age discrimination
merely because the rate of benefit accrual can be construed to decline with age.33 In
a case argued before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois,
however, the court ruled that IBM Corporation violated the Employee Retirement
Income Security Act’s prohibition against age discrimination when it adopted a cash
balance pension plan because when benefits under the plan are measured as a
monthly pension at the plan’s normal retirement age, the rate of benefit accrual
declines as the participant’s age rises.34
Proposed IRS Regulation Issued in December 2002. In December
2002 the Treasury Department issued proposed regulations for applying agediscrimination rules to cash balance plans.35 Specifically, the proposed regulations
address Internal Revenue Code sections 411(b)(1)(H) and 411(b)(2)(A), both of
which were enacted in 1986, as they apply to cash balance plans.36
Section 411(b)(1)(H) of the Internal Revenue Code states that the rate of benefit
accrual under a defined benefit plan cannot be reduced “because of the attainment of
any age.” Section 411(b)(2)(A) states that the rate of allocation in a defined
contribution plan cannot be reduced “because of the attainment of any age.” Both
ERISA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) have similar
provisions that prohibit discrimination in employee benefit plans on the basis of age.
The Internal Revenue Service has stated that “the new proposed regulations are
meant to be consistent with the requirements of ERISA and ADEA.”37
26 C.F.R. 1.401(a)(4)-8. Not all plans opt for this safe-harbor test, choosing instead to be
tested under a regulation that applies to career-average pay defined benefit plans.
Eaton v. Onan Corporation (S.D. Indiana, No. IP 97-814-C H/G, September 29, 2000).
A settlement was reached between the parties to this case in 2001 in which Onan
Corporation agreed to pay $23 million to plan participants. (“Onan to Pay $23 Million to
Settle Cash Balance Plan Suit,” Employee Benefit Plan Review, v. 56 (8), Feb. 2002.)
Cooper v. IBM Personal Pension Plan, Southern District of Illinois, No. 99-829-GPM,
July 31, 2003. IBM has appealed the verdict.
“Reductions of Accruals and Allocations Because of the Attainment of Any Age;
Application of Nondiscrimination Cross-Testing Rules to Cash Balance Plans,” Federal
Register, vol. 67 no. 238, Dec. 11, 2002, pp. 76123-76142
P.L. 99-509, (October 21, 1986), Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986.
Internal Revenue Service, “New Regulations Address Cash Balance Plans,” Employee
Plans News, vol. 2, Winter 2003.
The major provisions of the proposed regulations are that:
Reductions - both direct and indirect - in benefit accruals or
allocations because of age are prohibited;
In testing for age discrimination, the IRS will look at what the
benefit accrual or allocation would be if the plan participant were
younger. A plan on which the accrual or allocation would be higher
if the participant were younger (and all other factors were constant)
will be considered discriminatory;
For a “traditional” defined benefit plan, the rate of benefit accrual is
defined as the increase in the accrued benefit in the form of a singlelife annuity at the plan’s normal retirement age. For a cash balance
plan, the rate of accrual is the hypothetical pay credit and any
interest credit not already accrued;
In a cash balance plan conversion in which the benefit under the
traditional defined benefit plan is frozen, and all new accruals occur
under a cash balance formula, the plan will satisfy the age
discrimination test unless the pay credit for an older participant is
less than it would be if the participant were younger;
In a cash balance plan conversion in which the benefit under the
traditional defined benefit plan is converted to an opening account
balance, the plan will generally satisfy the age discrimination test if
the opening account balance is computed using “reasonable”
actuarial assumptions and if the pay credits are not reduced based on
the participant’s age;
If a defined benefit plan has both traditional and cash balance
formulas, each benefit formula can be tested for age discrimination
The regulation revises the rules applicable to traditional defined
benefit plans for accruals after the plan’s normal retirement age,
including the effect of any benefit distributions.
Treasury Department Withdraws Proposed Regulation.
Announcement 2003-22, issued April 7, 2003, the Treasury Department announced
that it would withdraw the proposed regulation it had published in December 2002
under Code §401(a)(4) with respect to nondiscrimination in favor of highly
compensated employees. The withdrawal of the nondiscrimination regulations will
not affect the proposed age discrimination regulations for cash balance plans and
cash balance conversions, which were the subject of a public hearing held on April
In a press release, the Treasury Department stated that “the proposed
nondiscrimination regulations would have had the unintended effect of making it
more difficult for employers to provide workers with transition relief in cash balance
conversions. When the effect was identified, Treasury and IRS decided to withdraw
the proposed nondiscrimination regulations immediately so they do not prevent
employers from reducing the impact of cash balance conversions on their
employees.” Comments received by the Treasury had raised questions about the
viability under the proposed nondiscrimination regulations of some transition rules
used by plans that convert from traditional benefit formulas to cash balance formulas.
Examples of these transition rules include (1) giving participants who meet certain
age or service criteria a choice between the old and new formula, (2) providing
certain participants the greater of the benefit under the traditional formula or the
benefit under the cash balance formula, (3) “grandfathering” certain participants
under the traditional formula, and (4) providing transition credits to certain
participants. The Treasury said it did not intend the regulations to negatively impact
On June 15, 2004, the Treasury Department announced the withdrawal of the
proposed cash balance plan regulations in their entirety. In Announcement 2004-57,
the Treasury Department said this would “provide Congress an opportunity to review
and consider the Administration’s legislative proposal and to address cash balance
and other hybrid plan issues through legislation.”
Notice Requirement for Reductions in Future Benefit Accruals.
Section 204(h) of ERISA requires pension plans to notify participants of any
amendment that will result in a significant reduction in the rate of future benefit
accrual at least 15 days before the amendment takes effect. Section 659 of the
Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-16) amended
§4980(f) of the Internal Revenue Code to impose an excise tax of $100 per
participant per day on any employer that fails to provide notice to plan participants
of an amendment that would significantly reduce future benefit accruals. The notice
must be written in such a manner that it can be understood by the average plan
participant and provide sufficient information so that the effect of the amendment is
clear. The notice does not have to disclose the specific reduction in benefit accruals
for any individual plan participant. The Secretary of the Treasury may issue a
simplified notice requirement for plans with fewer than 100 participants or that allow
participants to choose between the old plans and the new plan. The notice must be
provided “within a reasonable time before the effective date of the amendment,” as
defined in regulations to be issued by the Secretary of the Treasury.
Bills in the 108th Congress. H.R. 1677 (Sanders) and S. 825 (Harkin) of
the 108th Congress would have amended ERISA and the IRC to require companies
converting to cash balance plans to allow workers who are age 40 older or who have
completed at least 10 years of service to choose the benefit provided by the
traditional plan benefit formula or to accept the benefit under the cash balance plan.
The bills also would have amended ERISA and the IRC to assure that workers
continue to accrue new benefits after a traditional pension is converted to a cash
balance plan, thus effectively prohibiting “wear away” periods during which
employees accrue no new pension benefits.
President’s Budget Proposal for FY2005. The President’s Budget for
FY2005 included proposed legislation that would have clarified the legal status of
cash balance plans and established protections for workers in the event a traditional
pension is converted to a cash balance plan. In announcing the proposal, the Treasury
Department indicated that the legislation was intended to achieve three objectives:
To clarify the legals status of cash balance plans under ERISA, the
Internal Revenue Code, and the Age Discrimination in Employment
To establish specific protections for older workers in cash balance
To eliminate the “whipsaw” effect that sometimes requires lumpsum distributions in excess of the nominal value of a participant’s
cash balance plan.
The proposal would have clarified that a cash balance plan does not discriminate
against older workers if the plan provides pay credits for older and longer-service
employees that are equal to or greater than the pay credits for younger employees and
if the interest credits are not discriminatory. It also would have clarified that certain
transition practices do not violate the age-discrimination rules or other applicable
statutes. This would allow companies that convert to cash balance plans to preserve
the value of early retirement subsidies without violating the law.
The proposal would have imposed a five-year “hold harmless” period after a
traditional pension is converted to a cash balance plan. During this period, the
benefits earned by any worker under the cash balance plan would have to be at least
as valuable as the benefits the worker would have earned under the traditional plan
if the conversion had not occurred. The proposal also would have banned any
“wear-away” of retirement benefits. This means that all workers would earn new
retirement benefits immediately after the conversion. Treasury states that, together,
the ban on wear-away and the five-year hold-harmless period “will ensure a fair
transition for older and longer-service employees to the cash balance formula.” The
pension protections would have been enforced through a 100% excise tax. The tax
would not have applied if a company gave workers a choice between the traditional
plan and the cash balance plan or if the cash balance conversion grandfathered
current workers so that they remain in the old plan.
The proposal also would have eliminated the “whipsaw” effect, which can
require companies to pay lump-sum distributions to departing employees that are
greater than the nominal value of those participant’s cash balance accounts. This can
happen if a plan pays interest credits that are based on an interest rate higher than the
rate that the law requires it to use in determining the present value of a participant’s
cash balance account. The whipsaw effect can effectively limit the interest rate that
employers are willing to credit to workers’ cash balance accounts. Eliminating
whipsaw could encourage companies to pay higher interest credits, which would
result in larger retirement accumulations for workers.
All of the proposed changes would have been effective prospectively from the
date of enactment. The legislative history would state that there would be no
inference as to the status of cash balance plans or cash balance conversions under
current law. Conversions that occurred before the date of enactment would not have
been affected by the legislation, and all pending litigation would be decided under the
law that was in effect at the time those conversions occurred. Congress took no
action on the Administration’s proposal.
Potential Retirement Income: Comparing Traditional
Pensions and Cash-Balance Plans
How do the pension benefits that accrue over a full career under a cash balance
plan compare to benefits earned under a traditional defined benefit pension? The
answer depends on both the design of the plans and the behavior of the covered
workers. Some characteristics of pension plans are governed by federal statute.
These include the maximum number of years before a covered worker is fully vested,
the distribution of retirement benefits between highly compensated employees and
other workers, the proportion of benefits that can accrue late in a worker’s career,
and other requirements intended to preserve and protect employees’ pension benefits.
Even with these constraints on pension plan design, however, defined benefit plans
may vary in the rate at which benefits accrue, the maximum number of years over
which benefits accrue, and the method for determining the amount of salary on which
the employee’s pension benefit is based.
The most direct way to compare benefits under a cash-balance plan with those
provided by a traditional defined benefit plan is to do so for two hypothetical
employees whose yearly salaries and tenure with each employer are the same, but
who differ in the type of retirement plan by which they are covered. Of course, any
retirement plan can be amended to make it more or less generous, depending on the
employer’s willingness and ability to contribute to the plan and employees’
preferences for pension benefits relative to cash compensation and other benefits.
Furthermore, many employees also participate in a defined contribution plan, such
as a 401(k), so that the defined benefit pension may not be their only source of
employment-related retirement income.
The value of accrued pension benefits can be calculated at any point during a
worker’s career under both a traditional defined benefit plan and a cash-balance plan,
provided that a few key characteristics of the plan and the employee are known. In
a traditional defined benefit plan, the characteristics that typically determine benefits
the salary base (typically average pay in the final five years of
the benefit accrual rate,
the number of years of service that are counted to calculate the
the normal retirement age,
the early retirement age (if any), and
the reduction in benefits for early retirement.38
The following examples assume retirement at age 65.
The characteristics of a cash-balance plan that affect a worker’s retirement
the employee’s salary each year that they participate in the plan,
the percentage of pay credited to the plan,
the interest rate credited to the plan, and
the number of years over which pay and interest credits are earned.
In the following tables, retirement benefits are compared under a traditional
defined benefit pension and under a cash-balance plan for workers with identical
annual earnings and lengths-of-service with their employers. The illustrative plans
are “typical” in that they incorporate common characteristics of these plans. The
tables show the pension benefits accrued under each plan by two pairs of workers,
with one worker in each pair covered by a traditional defined benefit plan and the
other covered by a cash-balance plan. The two pairs of hypothetical employees are
two workers who each spend 30 years with one employer and retire
at the plans’ normal retirement age (65 in these examples), and
two workers who each have three employers over 30 years and who
retire at the normal retirement age (65).
Assumptions Underlying the Estimates. In each case, the employees are
first covered by an employer-sponsored retirement plan at age 35, when they earn an
annual salary of $30,000. The employees receive annual pay increases of 5% for
years 2 through 5, 4% for years 6 through 10, and 3% for each year after that. In the
traditional defined benefit plan, benefits accrue at a rate of 1.50% per year for each
year of service, and the pension is based on average salary during the final 5 years of
employment. In the cash-balance plan, employees receive pay credits equal to 5.0%
of pay for each of their first 10 years, 6.0% of pay for each of the second 10 years,
and 7.0% of pay for each year after that. Interest is credited monthly at a 5.0%
annual rate. Pay and interest credits continue to accrue until the worker retires
(Table 2), or until the employee quits and takes a lump-sum distribution (Table 3).
In each example, the present value of accrued benefits is based on a discount rate of
5.0%.39 Employees are assumed to retire at age 65 with a remaining weighted
average (“unisex”) life expectancy of 21.0 years, based on tables published by the
Internal Revenue Service.40
First Example: Full Career with One Employer. The estimates
displayed in Table 2 show the pension benefits accrued at various ages by two
hypothetical workers who each spend a full 30-year career covered by either a
traditional pension plan or a cash-balance plan. In this example, the nominal value
of the cash-balance plan and the present value of the cash-balance plan are equal
because the same interest rate is used to credit the plan and to value lump-sum
distributions. The employee covered by the traditional defined benefit plan is entitled
See I.R.C. §417(e) for a description of the required interest rate for discounting.
“Required Distributions from Retirement Plans: Final Rule,” Federal Register, vol. 67
(74), April 17, 2002, ‘Single Life Table,’ page 19012.
to receive a monthly pension of $2,835 ($34,020 per year) beginning at age 65.
Given a remaining life expectancy of 21.0 years and a discount rate of 5.0%, the
present value of this pension at age 65 would be $443,595. Under the cash balance
plan described above, an employee with the same salary history would have
accumulated an account balance at age 65 of $195,050. Assuming a discount rate of
5.0% and a remaining life expectancy of 21.0 years, this is equivalent to a pension
of $1,246 per month ($14,952 annually). In this example, the cash balance plan
produces a benefit that is worth only 44% of the benefit produced by the traditional
pension at age 65.
Varying the assumptions about benefit accruals under the traditional plan and
the pay and interest credits under the cash-balance plan would alter these results. For
example, if benefits accrued under the traditional plan at 1.25% per year rather than
1.50%, it would result in a monthly pension of $2,362 at age 65. This would increase
the ratio of benefits in cash balance plan to the benefit under the traditional plan
from 44% to 53%. Likewise, more generous pay and interest credits under the cashbalance plan would increase the benefit payable at retirement. If the employer
contributed 7% of pay during for each year a worker participated in the plan, the
balance at age 65 would be $232,000. This would generate a monthly income of
$1,481, given the interest rate and mortality assumptions used here. Alternatively,
the firm could contribute the same pay credits as in the base case, but pay higher
interest. Assuming a 1% increase in the interest credits to 6.0%, the cash-balance
plan would be worth $227,000 at age 65, enough to generate a lifetime monthly
annuity of $1,578.
The Effect of a Conversion. Subsequent to a conversion, benefit accruals
will no longer rise steeply as an employee approaches the plan’s normal retirement
age, as they would in a traditional pension plan with a benefit based on final average
pay. As a result, workers who are converted to a cash-balance plan often will end up
with a smaller accrued benefit than if they had spent a full career covered by a
traditional pension. In Table 2, the employee covered by the traditional plan has
accrued pension benefits with a present value of $68,479 by age 50. Assuming that
he or she works for another 15 years and receives pay raises of 3.0%, this employee
would accrue benefits equal to $443,000 by age 65 under the traditional plan. If
converted at age 50 to a cash-balance plan with an opening balance equal to the
present value of benefits accrued under the old plan, the benefit at age 65 would have
a present value of $238,000, assuming pay and interest credits of 7.0% and 5.0%,
respectively. This is $205,000 less than the employee would have accrued under the
traditional plan, resulting in a benefit reduction of 46%.
Table 2. Worker Spending 30 years with One Employer,
Retiring at Age 65
Present Value of Benefit or
of Account Balance
Monthly Income Beginning at
Source: Estimates prepared by the Congressional Research Service.
Assumptions underlying the estimates:
Life expectancy in years at age 65 (unisex):
Final-5 average salary:
Benefit accrual rate, traditional plan:
Average annual raise, first 5 years:
Average annual raise, years 6 through 10:
Average annual raise, years 11 and up:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 1 - 10:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 11 - 20:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 21 & up:
Interest rate credited to cash-balance plan:
Second Example: Three Employers Over a Career. Table 3 shows the
estimated pension benefits accrued under typical traditional and cash-balance pension
plans by two workers who each have three employers between the ages of 35 and 65.
Both workers spend 10 years with each employer and both are fully vested in their
pension plans at the time they separate from each employer. They make the same
annual salaries, and both retire at age 65. They differ only in the kind of pension
plans in which they participate. It is assumed that the employee covered by the cashbalance plan receives lump-sum distributions from each employer upon separation
and that the full amount of each distribution is re-invested in a tax-deferred
retirement savings account. All re-invested lump-sums are assumed to earn an
average annual return of 8.0%. The employee covered by the traditional pension
does not receive lump-sum distributions, but is entitled to receive an annuity from
each former employer beginning at age 65.
In this example, the worker covered by the traditional pension plans has accrued
pension benefits with a present value of $338,000 at age 65. Note that this is less
than the amount accrued by the employee who was covered by a single traditional
pension in Table 2. This reduction occurs because the pension annuities earned from
all but the most recent employer are based on salaries earned many years earlier that
were much lower than the worker’s salary in the five years before retirement. In
contrast, the employee covered throughout his or her career by four cash-balance
plans has accrued benefits totaling $265,000 by age 65. This is more than the
employee covered by a single cash-balance plan in Table 2. This result occurs
because the employee who changes jobs has the opportunity to re-invest the lumpsum distributions in assets that have a higher average yield than employers typically
pay on cash-balance plans.
Employees who receive accrued pension benefits as a lump-sum years before
they plan to retire often use some of the money for immediate consumption, thereby
reducing the amount of funds available for retirement. Any “leakage” of lump-sum
distributions into current consumption will reduce the total assets available at
retirement.41 The effect of these leakages on retirement income is especially adverse
when they occur early in a worker’s career or if they occur several times as a result
of frequent job changes. For example, a $5,000 lump-sum received at age 30 will
grow to $38,430 by age 65 if invested at 6.0%. By itself, this amount would be
sufficient to produce an income of $278 per month for the reminder of the retiree’s
life, if used to purchase an annuity at age 65.42 Lump-sum distributions received
early in one’s working life that are spent rather than saved result in disproportionately
large reductions in assets available at retirement.
For more information, see CRS Report RL30496, Pension Issues: Lump-Sum
Distributions and Retirement Income Security, by Patrick J. Purcell
Based on purchase of a single-life annuity at age 65 at an interest rate of 4.125%.
Table 3. Worker Spending 30 Years with Three Employers,
Retiring at Age 65
Present Value of Benefit or
of Account Balance
Monthly Income Beginning at
Source: Estimates prepared by the Congressional Research Service.
Assumptions underlying the estimates:
Life expectancy in years at age 65 (unisex):
Final-5 average salary:
Benefit accrual rate, traditional plan:
Average annual raise, first 5 years:
Average annual raise, years 6 through 10:
Average annual raise, years 11 and up:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 1 - 10:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 11 - 20:
Pay credit, cash-balance plan, years 21 & up:
Interest rate credited to cash-balance plan:
Average annual return on re-invested lump-sums:
Cannon, Coleman J. “Cash Balance Pension Plans: Background, Issues, and Recent
Developments.” Journal of Pension Planning and Compliance, vol. 27 no.3
Motzenbecker, Douglas E. “Recent Case Law Developments Affecting Cash
Balance Pension Plans.” The Labor Lawyer, vol. 17, no. 2 (Fall 2001).
U.S. General Accounting Office. Private Pensions: Implications of Conversions to
Cash Balance Plans. GAO/HEHS-00-185. September 2000.
U.S. General Accounting Office. Cash Balance Plans: Implications for Retirement
Income. GAO/HEHS-00-207. September 2000.