Fine print and refined data took center stage at the Pensions & Investments West Coast Defined Contribution conference, as plan executives learned of ideas and ways to improve participation, increase participant contributions, and protect plans from lawsuits and cyberattacks.
They received advice from fellow executives, service providers, attorneys and researchers during the conference, held Oct. 21-23 in San Diego.
Several speakers encouraged attendees to make greater use of data to improve their plans by better understanding the needs of different segments of their employees and retirees.
"It can't be emphasized enough how important it is to take the pulse" of participants, said Hal Bjornson, client portfolio manager, multiasset solutions for J.P. Morgan Asset Management, during a session on "Using DC Data Analytics to Customize Plan Design."
Detailed data analysis helped dispel some assumptions about participant behavior, said Phillip Blair, manager of deferred compensation for the San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector's Office.
When the county's 457(b) and 401(a) plans exhibited negative cash flow, the county conducted a survey of the plans, which have combined assets of $1.6 billion and 18,065 participants.
Although plan officials had speculated the top reason for the problem would be participants saying they didn't have enough money, the results were quite different. "I didn't know I could" turned out to be the main reason people didn't contribute, Mr. Blair said. "It is too complicated" was the second reason.
As a result, plan executives reworked education communications with a "heavy use of imagery," Mr. Blair said. Since 2014, the percentage of younger employees participating in these supplemental plans has increased substantially.
Mr. Blair found plan information that contained images of county employees, including their names and jobs, spurred greater interest. He noted some employees reported receiving multiple emails from peers, asking about the plans.
Carolyn Wood said she needed to go beyond record-keeping data to get a better idea of how the two defined contribution plans run by Charter Communications Inc. could do a better job for the 90,500 participants.
"How do we help employees with financial wellness" was the reason Charter hired a consultant to help prepare workforce analytics — enabling Charter to identify certain groups of participants so it could conduct pilot projects that, in turn, could lead to broader policies for the plans that have $5 billion in aggregate assets.
The data will help Charter determine, for example, if location or health-care premiums impact retirement savings, she said. Other matters for measurement include hardship withdrawals, the use of health savings accounts and home prices.
"I hope it will result in targeted programs," said Ms. Wood, senior director, retirement benefits, at the Stamford, Conn.-based company.