Thought Leadership

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

Change is necessary.

In the past week, disturbing events have once again reminded us 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 ascensus.com.

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.


Defining a Service Culture

Interview with Rick Irace, Chief Operating Officer

How would you describe the Ascensus service philosophy?

Our retirement plan service team rallies around four key concepts:

  1. Trust is the most important factor. Particularly among smaller, start-up plans, our services must be transparent and understandable and delivered through language and concepts that clients readily understand. Many clients chose us because our values resonate with those of their organizations. That’s an expression of trust.
  2. Keep a client-based perspective. While client goals have always been a key aspect of the dialogue, we need to understand client needs today in greater depth than ever before.
  3. Consult with employees on a personal level, considering their complete picture. We recognize that plan participants’ lives also revolve around non-financial factors, such as their family, health, and home. When we help them make decisions about their savings strategy, we need to take a more holistic approach. Our view must be broader than simply the financial returns that our savings plans can provide.
  4. Focus on simple, intuitive interactions. Platforms should focus on the needs of their end users: advisors, plan sponsor clients, and employees. Our digital experiences and approaches to plan design and relationship management are simple by design. It helps that Ascensus has a broad range of investment options, offered through an open architecture platform and via simplified savings tools that help clients to track their progress on the road to retirement readiness through tangible benchmarks.

How does Ascensus present itself to the market? 

It’s a service culture. Every activity is completed with the client in mind. We prioritize quality and integrity as core values. We encourage our team to be bold. From the top down, we are an entrepreneurial culture and our team believes and executes proactively with this in mind.

Of course, we have different levels of service. Our elite advisors and TPAs benefit from additional support and access, just as in any customer loyalty program. These clients get dedicated service teams, additional levels of consultation, greater access to our senior leadership, early access to product roadmaps, and strategic account managers that act as trusted advocates for the advisor or TPA inside of Ascensus.

Describe Ascensus’ expertise servicing startup plans.

We have a broad range of experience, but we do have a “sweet spot” with smaller plans and massive expertise supporting new plans. We offer an attractive price point for startups and we use our scale to deliver quality client service and a solid investment lineup. Startup plans have access to the same open architecture as everyone else.

We are particularly adept at plan establishment and onboarding and we can take many of the administrative burdens off the shoulders of new plans. Small business owners are incredibly busy and we take them through the startup process step-by-step online, working with their advisors and TPAs. Most of what we do is automated, so there is very little paperwork. We use a dedicated service team that stays with new clients throughout their first year, including through discrimination testing and the filing of their Form 5500 with the Department of Labor.

What sets Ascensus apart from other companies that work with start-up plans?

We have deep expertise, onboarding 5,000 plans per year. And recordkeeping isn’t a means to some other end for us. We’re not an investment firm looking to drive investment flows; we take a consultative, educational approach. We help small firms to understand that many goals that they thought might elude them–like providing an employer match to workplace savers–may in fact be achievable.

Connect the dots between technology, expertise, service, and retention.

We use a series of metrics to judge all of these elements. Does the technology work?  Are clients satisfied with our expertise? We measure client satisfaction in several ways and consistently score high on surveys for service, onboarding, and overall satisfaction. As of September 2018, our Net Promoter Scores for these areas hovered around 91%.

Our relationship managers, empowered with custom-built predictive analytics, continuously assess how well we’re serving our plan sponsor clients and what kinds of questions or issues are most prevalent. This enables us to be a step ahead, proactively consulting with our clients, financial advisors, and TPA partners to ensure their plans stay on track.

How do you keep associates positive and engaged?

I truly believe that there is a clear value chain between satisfied employees and satisfied clients. At Ascensus, we put associates first. There is an entrepreneurial spirit inside the company–an opportunity to be bold, think bold, and make changes if one discovers a better way to service clients.

To recognize associates’ expression of our core values, we bestow a peer-to-peer I-Client award every month. From top to bottom, everyone knows what our core goals are.  By helping our clients and their employees to save for life’s most important moments, I believe that our firm serves a noble purpose. And this belief is widely held from the C-suite, throughout the organization.

 


Women in Technology Spotlight: Brandy Blum

Business Integration Lead, TPA Solutions

Tell me a little bit about where you attended school and your work history.

I attended St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. I’ve always enjoyed working. Throughout high school and college, I held a variety of service positions. During my college years I worked at Fingerhut, an online retailer, as a trainer and call center lead.

How did you start your career at Ascensus, and how long have you worked here?

Shortly after college I moved up to Brainerd, MN, took a position with Ascensus, and have been here ever since! I started out in the Client Service call center and quickly transferred to an operations role where I helped with reconciliation and complex operational problems. From there, I continued to move within the company, working as a supervisor of our Participant Call Center and then onto managing our New Business/Transition Services Team. I enjoyed the challenging nature of this roll and appreciated that it involved both service and operations. After a number of years, I transitioned into a Business Development role, where I worked closely with our external sales team by assisting our top tier advisors. I was then asked to take the position of director of Strategic Partners. For the past few years, I have been the director of Digital Programs, primarily working on our plan website. Recently I have been promoted, and am excited to join TPA solutions as Business Integration Lead. At Ascensus, I have had the opportunity to work in service, operations, relationship management, and technology, all at one company.

What made you interested in pursuing a career in technology?

Technology found me. I used to be hesitant of anything technology-related, but I have found through my role, technology is not what it used to be. Technology is heavily intertwined with service and operations. In order to build websites and create self-service on the web, you need to be able to understand user needs. I bring a different aspect to our technology side of the business because I work with our customers to understand their needs and offer web solutions. I help design our website in a simple and easy way to provide our users with the information they need.

Another reason why I like the tech industry is that it’s very fast paced and things are constantly changing. I like to be busy and feel challenged.

What makes working on the IT team at Ascensus different or unique?

We have a very diverse group of individuals, which helps us understand our users better. We have different backgrounds and think about a user perspective differently, which allows us to build items with a more diverse group of people in mind. The culture at Ascensus is great, we all come together and act in the best interest of our clients.

Looking back five or ten years, what career advice would you give your younger self?

Take the chances, learn new things, and continue to learn. For me, I wish I wouldn’t have been so intimidated by technology years ago. I think you should put yourself in uncomfortable positions to learn and grow personally and professionally.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge women face in the technology industry?

I think many woman feel similar to how I felt, technology is intimidating. I had a different perception of what technology was, I think many females feel that same way. This perception that myself and many other females have is what technology used to be many years ago. Technology today has evolved, it’s about customer interaction, having empathy for our users, and being able to understand them and their needs.

It’s great to see the push in STEM and mathematics for girls and young women, it’s important that they are exposed to technology early on.

Are there any current technology trends that emerging technologists need to know about?

I think the trend is really listening to your users’ wants and need. Users want to be given information that they need, they don’t want to try and find it. Technology is no longer in the background and separated from the rest of the business, it’s now a front-end client service role.

Who is your biggest role model and how did they inspire you?

I have a number of role models for various reasons. Growing up, my mother was by far the most patient and open-minded person I have ever known, and my father is very driven, detailed, and organized. I feel like I was able to learn and grow from both of them for very different reasons. I’m very fortunate to have very supportive, driven, and wonderful people in my life. My husband and mother-in-law are two people that have inspired me to be the best person that I can be. They have given me the confidence to move into different aspects of the business, including technology.

Why do you like working for a company that helps people save for life’s most important events?

There are many reasons why I like working for Ascensus–the tools that we’re building are made to help educate and help individuals prepare for life’s most important things. We’re helping over 8 million Americans currently, and are growing that number all the time.