Recession: The Death of the 401(k) Match?


By David Pitt -- AP Personal Finance Writer

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As if we needed another sign that this may be the Great Recession, it appears some companies suspending their 401(k) match may not restore it completely.

In past downturns, most companies that stopped matching employee contributions to 401(k) accounts simply reinstated the match when the economy recovered. This time might be different. Consultants report that clients are considering options including tying their 401(k) match to profits or using some of that money for other benefits.

Companies have more flexibility than most people think when it comes to their 401(k) plans.

The current average match is 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent of pay. For example, a worker earning $50,000 a year contributes 6 percent, putting $3,000 into the 401(k) account and the company puts in $1,500.

Using that average figure, companies with more than 15,000 employees can save in the neighborhood of $25 million a year by suspending their 401(k) match. When you're talking that kind of money, it's easy to see why it becomes a target in bad economic times.

But potential changes coming from Washington have some companies in limbo. Many companies might not restore the 401(k) match until they find out how much health care will cost them, said Mark Ritter, an executive director at business consultant Grant Thornton LLP.

"Right now there's a lot of fear about what the rules will be and what's the cost," he said. "The thought is, we may have to rob Peter to pay Paul and, depending on how the health care initiative impacts our company, we might have to get the money from the 401(k) match."

For companies thinking about tying the match to profitability, they may simply commit to contributing more to the match in good years and less in bad years, the most flexible option. Another is to promise a certain level of match if the company hits specified profit targets.

That's the option cell phone company Sprint Nextel has chosen.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based company suspended its 401(k) match as of March as part of a broader cost savings plan.

Spokesman James Fisher said restoring the 401(k) match is no certainty. The company will make future contributions on a profit-sharing basis.

"If our performance is above 'X' level, a specified amount of money from the extra performance will go into the 401(k) match," he said. "If we don't meet that level, there won't be any contributions for this year."

Sprint Nextel had been matching dollar-for-dollar an employee's contribution up to 4 percent of pay.

In some cases, depending on the option your company has chosen, you may see a smaller match. In exchange for that, the company may put some of the money into a health savings account, work place improvements, or education and development programs.

"We have a number of conversations going on at this point," said Ginny Olson, a principal with the consulting firm Towers Perrin based in Atlanta. "There is a high level of employer interest in making sure they're spending money for benefits most effectively."

The Pension Rights Center, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, said it's tracking more than 280 companies with suspended or reduced retirement plan company matches. A string of companies began announcing suspensions or reductions in June 2008 and the trend continues.

The list of companies includes widely recognized names such as Sears Holding Corp., Starbucks Corp. and General Motors Corp. It also includes nonprofit groups like Public Broadcasting Service, the Portland Art Museum and the American Red Cross chapter in New York.

The Pension Rights Center is concerned that retirement benefits may become a casualty of the recession as companies look to permanently reduce costs.

"Unfortunately, we've seen this trend over the past 20 years where companies are increasingly getting out of contributing to their employees' long-term well-being plan, whether it's a pension or retirement income or health benefits," said Nancy Hwa, the center's spokeswoman. "So, it might be sort of a consequence of that trend."

So, why are companies changing directions now? They've reaped the savings, why not restore the match once profitability returns?

It appears one lasting effect of this deep recession is that it's changed the mindset of many business executives, said Ritter, the business consultant from Grant Thornton.

"People realize that the floor can fall out from under them now and they want to stay loose," he said. "The discretionary nature of commitments has become a lot more attractive. This time around just reserving the option to change the deal is becoming paramount."

Many companies typically consider the 401(k) match a virtual guarantee for workers. Company officials know it's often the match that motivates workers to contribute. It also ranks high on the list of benefits — frequently right behind health care — prospective workers seek when interviewing for a job.

Some companies, in their original 401(k) plan documents, specified a guaranteed match, while others left the match discretionary.

Regardless of how a company set up its plan, it's not difficult to suspend the match.

For those who set up a discretionary plan, they simply need only to notify workers with a memo that they're cutting or reducing the match. For those with a guarantee specified, they must revise their plan documents, which takes about week to do the paperwork, then they, too, can cut or reduce the match after employee notification.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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