The biggest potential changes out of Washington for 2018 were still being written in the final days of 2017, when Senate and House Republican leaders passed, and the president signed, an ambitious tax reform package.
That means the first months of the new year will be spent figuring out whether retirement plan sponsors and investors came out ahead, or at least untouched.
As tax rates dip, "one thing to think about is, people will have more in their take-home checks and they could contribute more" to their 401(k) plans and health savings accounts, said Robyn Credico, defined contribution practice leader for Willis Tower Watson PLC in Washington. "There's a much bigger push around the country to try" to link income gains with higher contributions. "The standard deduction just went up, and I think our (plan sponsor) communications should change."
Getting tax reform done also frees up attention spans in Congress and the White House to deal with retirement issues, with the potential for bipartisanship.
At the top of the bipartisan-supported list are revised regulations that would make it easier for smaller employers to sponsor retirement plans through open multiple-employer plans. The concept gained some traction in the 114th Congress, which ended Jan. 3, 2017, when the Senate Finance Committee approved the proposed Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act.
The legislation, which continues to gain supporters, calls for tax credits for small employers that start a plan or add automatic enrollment, higher caps on auto escalation of employee deferrals and other measures.
The idea lived on in the 115th Congress in 2017, when Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a similar bill and a group of senators urged the Department of Labor to see what it could do administratively to encourage more MEPs. While that stalled this year, the confirmation in late December of Preston Rutledge as assistant secretary for the Employee Benefits Security Administration is expected to ease a regulatory vacuum.
Two more retirement savings bills introduced in December by Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., House Ways and Means Committee ranking member, would require most employers to offer a defined contribution plan, increase auto enrollment and auto escalation and make it easier for small businesses to use multiple-employer plans.
"That helped set the table for 2018," said Geoff Manville, principal, government relations at Mercer LLC in Washington. Mr. Neal's bills are "a really common sense, broad range of practical ways to improve the system."