Thought Leadership

Insights and announcements from our subject matter experts and Ascensus leadership team

Change is necessary.

All too often, we’re reminded that freedom from racism and injustice is still not universally available to black Americans, along with other diverse communities.

The loss of life and affront to human dignity are unbearable to observe and devastating for those affected. Our hearts go out to all who are grieving and seek justice.

It’s obvious that change is necessary. There is no room for racism or prejudice in our world, and we condemn these divisive tools of hate, the acts they inspire, and the people who wield them as weapons.

It is our obligation to listen with both greater empathy and curiosity, develop a deeper understanding of those different from ourselves, and support those in pain with a pledge that we will try harder to make a real difference – even if we do not know exactly what that looks like today.

As a company, we will continue our efforts to make this a place where all feel welcomed and valued, and the different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives that each of us bring are not only respected, but make us stronger.

Each of us also has the chance and obligation to be a beacon for equality, justice, and compassion in our homes and communities, for choosing to demonstrate care and respect for one another as human beings and citizens is a calling to which we all can aspire.

Let’s embrace the important work ahead of us.


David Musto
President and CEO


How Saver and Employer Behaviors Are Evolving in Response to COVID-19

Proprietary data from Ascensus reveals how U.S. employees shifted their savings behaviors in March 2020, as the COVID-19 outbreak caused major disruption to the U.S. economy and financial markets.

The following insights serve as an early baseline of how contribution and withdrawal behaviors have evolved in response to the pandemic. However, we expect continued shifts and new trends emerge as we see the full impact of the CARES Act, which was signed into law on March 27, begin to flow through the economy and Ascensus’ savings plans.

Retirement Savings1

  • Dollars contributed to retirement plans by employers and employees in March were 26% lower and 19% lower than projected, respectively, based on year-over-year trends.2
  • This decrease in dollar contributions is partially a result of a 5% reduction in plans that contributed in March.2
  • Still, the number of employee distributions and new loans taken from retirement plans fell below monthly projections. Dollars requested per employee distribution and the number of employee hardship withdrawals aligned with monthly projections.3

Education Savings4

  • In the last two weeks of March, the average amount per qualified 529 withdrawal was 15% lower compared to the same period in 2019. This may be attributable to the pandemic’s impact on higher education, as some colleges and universities reduced fees when they transitioned to remote learning.
  • In the last two weeks of March, the average one-time contribution to a 529 account was 20% lower compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Notably, there was no significant change in nonqualified withdrawal activity as of the end of March.

In the face of COVID-19 and its related challenges, many Americans understandably adjusted their contributions to savings plans. However, savers haven’t yet tapped into existing savings and are making efforts to “stay the course” to help ensure financial security.

Additional relief from the government, including the passage of another $320 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), will help small business owners and savings plan sponsors continue to support their employees.

Qualifying employers should connect with a financial advisor to learn how PPP funding can benefit them and their employees. With this funding, employers may be better-positioned to continue to administer plans and, along with their employees, return to regular contribution levels.

To learn more about the latest regulatory updates and coronavirus relief, visit

Methodology and Disclosures

1March 2020 projections are forecasted from a computed index using activity from 2019 through February 2020.

2Retirement contribution analysis is based on plan data history from the Ascensus platform from January 1, 2019, through March 31, 2020. To ensure consistency in year-over-year projections, the plan population included those plans that were active as of January 1, 2019, and still active March 31, 2020. Individual(k) and balance forward retirement plans were excluded.

3Retirement distribution and loan analysis is based on all saver transactions from January 1, 2019, through March 31, 2020.

4Education savings analysis is based on activity from January 1, 2019, through March 31, 2020, for all funded 529 accounts on the Ascensus platform. Per-account averages were used to include activity from 529 accounts that were not on the Ascensus platform at the start of 2019 but were converted during this time frame.

Ascensus Supports Small Businesses

Update: April 27, 2020

President Donald Trump has signed into law a $484 billion relief package that will infuse $320 billion in additional funding into the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Also included in the package is funding for Economic Injury Disaster Loans and the SBA’s Disaster Loans Program Account, along with relief for hospitals dealing with the immediate effects of the pandemic, and, specifically, for enhanced COVID-19 testing.

With $349 billion in funding for the original PPP initiative running out on April 16, the Senate moved to approve the package on April 22. The House of Representatives passed it the next day, leading to the bill’s signing by the President on April 24. We applaud the efforts in Washington, D.C. designed to help the small businesses that are so vital to the U.S. economy.

Also encouraging was the Federal Reserve’s decision on April 9 to inject up to $2.3 trillion in loans to help prop up the economy. The Fed’s efforts (which focused on small businesses and consumers)—combined with those of our Legislative and Executive Branches—demonstrate that our government is committed and willing to support small businesses during these extremely challenging times.

There is still work to be done, and Ascensus will use all of the advocacy tools at our disposal to ensure that small businesses and their workers remain top-of-mind in the eyes of our policymakers.

In the meantime, we continue to thank all of our country’s healthcare professionals, first responders, scientists, and other frontline workers who doing all they can to help our economy survive. You are heroes for all of us in every sense of the word.



March 30, 2020

Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. With these businesses and their workers bearing the brunt of the hardship associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s incumbent on the financial services industry to do whatever we can to support them. Many believe that this support will come mainly through federal relief, and that smart legislation—providing financial stimulus and other appropriate relief—will help right the ship.

But there are three ways that the financial services industry can help, as well.

1. Do all within our power to serve our clients faithfully. In this tumultuous time, our clients—along with their clients—need us more than ever. Although the vast majority of retirement industry teams are now working remotely, we must ensure that employers neither see nor feel any differences regarding the services we provide. That means continuing to fulfill our duties—such as processing payrolls accurately, responding promptly to employer and employee questions, and providing thoughtful plan design guidance—in spite of technological and social obstacles.

2. Speak with one voice to Congress and to regulatory officials, who can help employee benefits plans weather this economic storm. Even with major federal legislation recently being signed into law, we continue to advocate for individual and business relief. We can actively support further legislative and regulatory efforts to make plan operations easier for employers and more beneficial for workers. Some of the provisions we think make sense are:

  • Granting employers funding relief. Both defined contribution plans and defined benefit plans would benefit from delayed deadlines and reduced funding obligations.
  • Extending deadlines for reporting and corrections. The federal government should recognize that small businesses may find it especially difficult to meet deadlines for certain required annual reporting. Deadlines should be extended and penalties for late reports should be lessened, especially in light of recent increases under the SECURE Act.
  • Making hardship and coronavirus-related distributions easier for employers to process. If employers allow their participants to distribute their plan assets on account of hardship or coronavirus expenses, they should be able to expedite the payment—and then gather proof of the expenses later.
  • Advocating for financial relief for workers.
    • Relax loan repayments. Employees who struggle to repay plan loans during this crisis should be given some reprieve to avoid a downward financial spiral.
    • Remove the 10% early distribution penalty. This penalty should be eliminated for hardship distributions and for expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
    • Waive 2020 required minimum distributions (RMDs). Without a waiver, individuals would have to take distributions based on valuations that occurred before the markets declined, resulting in disproportionately high RMDs. Individuals who have already taken 2020 RMDs should be allowed to roll over such distributions in the event that a 2020 RMD waiver is enacted.

Already, our efforts have helped several relief provisions—including the 2020 RMD waiver noted above and an extended plan amendment deadline—become part of a bill that was just enacted. The provisions listed above represent just a few of Ascensus’ advocacy efforts that are intended to assist those employers, employees, and service providers adversely affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

3. Support the long-term success of workplace retirement plans. As we all know, many small business owners have overcome financial and administrative obstacles to offer retirement benefits to employees. Now—of all times—we should help these businesses maintain their plans through this financial downturn. The president has just signed into law a massive relief bill, which includes a number of beneficial retirement plan provisions. But this is just the start of a longer-term effort to guide our clients through the many questions and concerns they will have about implementing all the new rules. We still have a monumental responsibility to push for effective relief from the IRS and other federal agencies that will interpret the new statutes.

Our industry shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of facilitating long-term retirement savings—by serving our constituents faithfully, by pushing for specific federal retirement plan relief, and by giving our clients tools to stay in their plans for the long run.

Our country will eventually emerge from this situation stronger than ever. If historical patterns hold true, financial markets will also rebound. When that happens, businesses that have maintained their plans—and workers who have allowed their retirement savings to go untouched—will be in a position to see that their retirement goals are intact and on the road to recovery.

This is why financial services firms must do their part to reinforce and sustain the employers and workers that have helped keep our economy vital for so long.

Legislative and regulatory information contained in this piece will be refreshed as events continue to unfold. Please check back regularly for updates.

Workplace Benefits for Small Businesses and Non-Traditional Workers

With Small Business Saturday just behind us, we wanted to consider the distinctive challenges that this growing segment of workers faces and the unique opportunity that these challenges present for financial advisors.

Fifty-nine million American workers, 47.5% of the U.S. workforce, are employed in small business. This includes a growing number of professionals in the emerging “gig” economy, where temporary positions are common. These small market workers struggle to receive the same salaries, employer-based benefit plans, and insurance as employees at larger companies.


Public Policy Responds

The government is responding to this workplace challenge with new retirement plan solutions at both the state and federal level.

  • State-facilitated retirement programs—recently initiated in California, Oregon, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, and the City of Seattle—are on track to reduce the nation’s plan coverage deficit by 17%.
  • Congress is considering proposals to loosen membership restrictions for multiple-employer plans (MEPs), which would enable more small businesses to jointly sponsor a retirement plan. MEPs could lessen both costs and the administrative burden for small business owners looking to offer a plan.


Service Providers Offer Additional Solutions for Small Employers

Advisors, plan recordkeepers, and third-party administrators are also using their professional expertise and evolving technologies to close the retirement plan coverage gap. Their services are making it easier for small businesses to sponsor plans and improve employee savings outcomes.


Collaborating with Third-Party Administrators

To address business owners’ concerns about the time and resources required to administer a plan, advisors can partner with a local TPA. TPAs can consult on specialized plan design, translating technical details into more easily understood benefits for both the sponsor and employees


Outsourcing Administrative Functions

More small employers are outsourcing the administrative functions surrounding fiduciary compliance with Section 3(16) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. This ensures that their plan operations are compliant with regulatory mandates.


Choosing Cash Balance Plans

Cash balance plans combine the portability, flexibility, and simplicity of 401(k) plans with the high contribution limits of traditional defined benefit plans. Today’s cash balance plans have more than $1 trillion in assets, an increase of 61% since 2010.


Comparing Pricing Models

Small businesses are collaborating with advisors to determine the best retirement plan pricing structure for their company’s needs: asset-based or flat-dollar, per participant tiers. To demonstrate the impact of these different structures on a plan’s market value, advisors can use our plan comparison tool. It allows them to run a custom illustration for their clients’ plans.


The Essential Role of Purpose-Built Firms

Small employers and their advisors need recordkeepers that build modern best practices into their service model while offering expertise, technology, versatility, and independence. These purpose-built firms create greater efficiency for advisors and provide necessary support as financial services for the changing workplace continue to evolve.

To find out more, download the full whitepaper or contact an Ascensus representative today.

2018 Year in Review: Ascensus’ Marketing and Digital Work Receives Top Honors

At Ascensus, our mission is to help millions of people save for what matters most—retirement, education, and healthcare. This mission is at the core of each project our content, creative, and digital teams undertakes. And, we’re honored each time we receive industry recognition for our efforts.

I’m excited to announce that over the course of 2018, our team received a total of 43 awards for marketing, design, and digital excellence from the following programs:

  • Named Marketing and Public Relations Department of the Year by the Business Intelligence Group;
  • 19 awards from the 24th Annual Communicator Awards program, the leading international awards program “recognizing big ideas in marketing and communications” and sponsored by the Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts;
  • 11 awards from the 2018 ASTRA Awards, sponsored by the New Jersey Communications, Advertising, and Marketing Association;
  • 9 awards from Graphic Design USA’s American Inhouse Design Awards™ (GDUSA) program, the nation’s original and premier showcase for outstanding work done by in-house designers and departments;
  • 2 awards from the STAR Awards, honoring extraordinary marketing communications innovation and education efforts within the investment management industry and presented by the MFEA (Mutual Fund Education Alliance); and
  • Silver award for Public Relations, B2B category from the Financial Communications Society Portfolio Awards.

As we look ahead to 2019, our marketing organization will continue to innovate, refine our expertise, and build talent to help millions achieve their savings goals.