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Could Employer Contributions Actually Lead to Leakage?

Practice Management

I recently stumbled across an academic study that claimed to find a correlation between higher employer contribution rates and leakage.

I will confess to a certain skepticism at that finding. There are, after all, a well-established series of things that contribute to leakage, broadly defined as distribution of retirement savings prior to retirement — but employer matching contributions — and certainly more generous matching contributions — have never been on that list.

The study — innocuously titled “Cashing Out Retirement Savings at Job Separation” — spends most of its 20-odd pages talking about leakage, its impacts on retirement security, and some possible solutions.  That said, one needs read no further than the abstract of this paper to find its surprising conclusion regarding one such underlying cause; its authors “estimate that a 50% increase in employer/employee match rate increases leakage probability by 6.3% at job termination.” More specifically, “The higher the proportion of one’s 401(k) balance contributed by the employer, the more likely employees are to cash out, holding constant balance and covariates.”

Proportion ‘Ate?’


That latter part is significant, since we know that participants with lower balances are more likely to have their balances distributed at job separation (so-called “force-outs” being typical at $1,000 or less). In fact, the paper acknowledges that “A higher balance discourages leakage holding all else constant.” Even so, a 6.3% increased probability might be “statistically significant,” but it most assuredly isn’t significant in economic terms. But to see any kind of connection between a more generous employer match and leakage just seemed — unusual. Particularly since – and as the study’s authors acknowledge — “Employers with more generous matches care about their employees’ well-being in retirement, but unintentionally nudge employees to cash out when they change jobs.”

The research cites a relatively robust sample (162,360 employees terminating from 28 retirement plans form 2014-2016 from a recordkeeper “that covers 15% of the U.S. workforce”), from a variety of industries. They acknowledge that the cash-out percentage (41.4% of employees cashing out at job separation) in this sampling is “strikingly high,” although in this group[1] — though interestingly “only 27.4% of terminating employees ever carried a loan, and only 3% of those defaulted.” The latter data point stands out because previous studies have found that outstanding loans defaulted at job separation are a significant cause of leakage. And — while averages are notoriously unreliable datapoints, the terminating participants in this sample had an average account balance of $46,556.[2]

Reasons Able?


Of course, these researchers were looking for a connection between employer contributions and leakage — and, having found one — held out four possible rationales for that connection. First, they considered a scenario where workers, cognizant of the higher match actively planned to “leak” — basically “over-saving” to obtain the match, cutting into the income they actually needed for current expenses, and then needing the leakage to fill that hole. Secondly, they opined that a higher employer contribution rate during employment might engender a higher level of job security, and a correspondingly higher spending rate by the worker — that, upon termination, might then need to be funded by higher rate of withdrawal/leakage. Thirdly, they thought that workers might retain a sense of mental accounting that compartmentalized the employer match as “free” money, rather than sums set aside specifically for retirement (though the leakage impacted more than that account). Finally — and this is the rationale they landed upon to explain this “account composition” effect — that individuals who contributed a smaller proportion of their 401(k) balance (relative to the match) may be prone to think of their accounts at job separation as a readily spendable pile of cash (less so if one contributed more).

All of this felt to me like they were trying (too hard?) to rationalize behavior that wasn’t “rational.” That said, the researchers nonetheless conclude that “exiting one’s firm and being told that a sum is available can transform a perceptually illiquid source of long-term retirement security into a psychologically liquid pile of cash. Terminating employees spend the money when, arguably even for the minority of employees involuntarily terminated, there are good options of reducing household spending, adding gig forms of employment, or leveraging home equity lines of credit to supplement unemployment benefits until back in the workforce.”

Ultimately, it was impossible to really get inside the numbers and assumptions presented to ascertain how much of this conclusion was data-based versus “extrapolation.” The contributions labeled as matching looked to be more than just standard matching, perhaps including QNECs or safe harbor contributions as well, but there wasn’t enough detail in the paper’s tables to confirm that. As noted above, the withdrawal rates were high, and the “average” account balance presented clearly covered a wide variety of possibilities. And let’s not forget that, even with those considerations, the additional rate of leakage attributed to these generous employer contributions was pretty small.

There is, however, at least one conclusion worth drawing from this. And that’s that if the worker considers these accounts “free” money — and goodness knows, the employer match has long been positioned as such — they might well not realize the price they will pay, both at the point of distribution (taxes and penalties) and ultimately at retirement for spending those retirement savings…now.


[1] Another aspect of this group that struck me as odd — only about two-thirds of this group took a one-time total cashout, whereas another 21% depleted their 401(k)balances in two or more withdrawals within eight months.  One would normally expect traditional leakage patterns to be tied to a single withdrawal, rather than a series.

[2] With an understandably large standard deviation of more than $97,000 — I say understandably because individuals with that size account balance tend to stay with the plan (an easy default) or rollover to an IRA or other plan). As the authors acknowledge, “A higher balance discourages leakage holding all else constant.”