Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently announced the third round of quantitative easing hoping to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment. The Federal Reserve will expand its holdings of long-term securities by purchasing $40 billion of mortgage debt a month. Critics say the move is the equivalent of printing more money. Chairman Bernanke is hoping the move will keep interest rates low in order to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment. The short-term impact will certainly be to keep interest rates at historic lows.
Low interest rates are good news for borrowers but not those looking to retire and planning to supplement their income by investing in fixed income securities. Recent rates on the 10-year Treasury note were at 1.8%. That is not enough to even cover the rate of inflation over the past 10 years.
Low interest rates present an opportunity for those looking to retire if they have the option of taking a lump-sum distribution from their pension. The amount of the lump sum is calculated based on the present value of the monthly distribution they have earned during employment. The present value calculation uses current interest rates. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 changed the rules for determining this amount by allowing actuaries to use corporate bond rates rather than the lower Treasury bond rates. This was supposed to reduce costs for pension funds. Unfortunately, interest rates for corporate and treasuries have fallen since than resulting in higher payouts for lump sum distributions. A lower interest rate results in a higher lump sum payout to the retiree.
There are two types of distribution options from a pension plan– annuity and lump sum. Hopefully your employer will offer you the choice. All companies are required to offer you an annuity payout in the form of monthly income. These payments will continue for the rest of your life. When considering early retirement, the annuity payouts will be smaller because you have a longer life expectancy.
A lump sum distribution is the payment, within a single tax year, of the present value of all lifetime payments. When choosing the lump sum payment, the employee must elect whether to roll it over to an IRA or not. The employer is required to withhold 20% for taxes if the payment is made direct to the employee. Pension plans are qualified plans funded with pretax contributions. All distributions will be subject to income tax and could be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty if the retiree is not age 55 or older.
Rolling the lump sum over directly to an IRA avoids the 20% withholding and allows the money to continue to grow tax deferred until withdrawn. A retiree could roll over the lump sum to an IRA and then start taking monthly distributions immediately. The payments could be stopped or modified anytime which is not an option available to a retiree who elects the annuity payment. An IRA rollover would also allow the owner to take out a lump sum amount at any time. Those withdrawals would be subject to income tax. Another advantage of the IRA is the ability to name a beneficiary who will receive the balance in the account when you die. Annuity payments usually allow only a spouse to be named as joint beneficiary and the payments stop after the joint owners are gone. IRAs allow multiple beneficiaries to be named. Electing the annuity payment is an irrevocable decision. When rolling over a lump sum into an IRA, the owner could always decide later to set up a guaranteed monthly income by investing the lump sum into an immediate annuity.
The final consideration should be the amount of your monthly pension payments and whether it is covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC). The PBGC covers payments in 2012 up to the maximum of $4,653 per month on a 65-year old single-life pension. Any payment over this amount could be lost if the pension plan goes bankrupt and the PBGC has to step in. A retiree in this situation should take the lump sum rollover and purchase immediate annuities if they still want the guaranteed lifetime income.
- Low interest rates offer an excellent opportunity for anyone that can take a lump sum distribution from their pension.
- All pension plans must offer lifetime annuity payments.
- Lump sum distributions have many advantages over annuity payments including the ability to convert to lifetime payments at a later date.