Many current Reserve and National Guard members, particularly those who are younger and have fewer years of service, are likely next year to face a difficult choice of retirement plans.
It will be a decision as complex as the one being prepared by Congress for their active duty counterparts. More details of that choice are emerging as architects of the new plan answer questions being posed by military associations, veterans groups, congressional staffs and individual reservists.
Some reserve component advocacy groups are delighted by the prospect that their members will be given the choice: to stay under their current retirement plan or accept a reduced defined benefit at age 60 in return for participating immediately in a 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan.
The TSP would have government matching of contributions up to five percent of basic pay to include monthly drill pay. Also, at the 12-year mark, new plan participants, including Reserve and Guard, would be offered a continuation payment in return for obligating to serve four more years.
For Reserve and Guard personnel, the minimum one-time continuation payment would be set equal to a half month of active duty pay for their grade and years of service. That’s one-fifth the minimum of two-and-a-half months’ basic pay for their active duty counterparts.
“It’s insulting,” said retired Army Col. Robert F. Norton, deputy director of government relations for Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), who along with 21 other associations and veterans groups have urged Congress not to shift future military forces to the proposed “blended” retirement system if the cost is a 20 percent cut in annuities, also called the “defined benefit.”
The concern is that TSP with government matching and vesting of account balances after only two years could create a future retention crisis, particularly in periods of sustained operations. The continuation payment, even if enhanced as needed, might be no match for the pull of civilian life when members are armed with portable TSP and face the prospect of lower annuities if they stay.
Other groups, including Reserve Officers Association (ROA) and the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), support the retirement changes now moving through Congress as more fair and flexible with the potential to benefit even full-term careerists.
The House next week will begin floor debate on the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill (HR 1735) including the new blended retirement plan. Most features are identical to the replacement plan recommended in January by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
Next week the Senate Armed Services Committee is to begin marking up its own version of the defense bill. Its chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), signaled this week he largely supports retirement changes endorsed by the House committee and chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
Commissioners are proud that their proposal to modernize retirement would more closely align active and reserve plans. But they join critics in emphasizing that its most compelling feature, TSP, will not grow enough to make up for reduced annuities unless members receive enhanced financial education, commit to investing appropriately for their age, which would mean comfort with faster-growing stock index funds, and do so with enough discipline to take advantage of both time and government matching.
For example, under current reserve retirement, a typical senior enlisted (grade E-7) with 20 “good” years, including four on active duty and an average of 78 retirement points earned yearly, would draw annuities from age 60 to age 85 with total current value of $630,035.
That same reservist under the blended plan would see their defined benefit fall 20 percent to $504,028. But at 12 years, he or she would get taxable continuation pay of $1464, which could be rolled into TSP. Also, as a TSP participant the reservist would see a minimum government contribution of one percent of basic pay, or drill pay, annually. They also would see the government match member contributions of up five percent drill or base pay.
The 7.3 percent represents average returns on TSP accounts from year 2001 if invested 85 percent in stock index funds and 15 percent in less volatile options of government bonds and fixed income securities.
If the reservist contributed less than three percent or saw a return below 7.3 percent, TSP values of course would fall. For example, a 5.3 percent average return with three percent matching would wipe out the net gain in lifetime earnings and leave the reservist with almost $81,000 less than the accumulated value of annuities under their current retirement plan.
Proponents tout the flexibility of having a portion of retirement in funds that can be withdrawn without penalty starting at age 59-and-a-half to pay off a mortgage or invest in a business. The commission sought even more flexibility with an option at retirement for active duty or reserve retirees to get a lump-sum payment if they elect to defer any military annuity until age 67. The House committee rejected that as too risky.
Jeffrey E. Phillips, executive director of ROA, said he still finds a lot to like in the proposed plan, including more choice for members and a plan that forces their introduction “to the investment world” but without “unreasonable risk” to their portfolios. The riskiest investment options under TSP are stock index funds that reflect broad market changes in the U.S. or overseas.
“I believe that if a service member makes good use of TSP matching, they can come out ahead on their retirement funds,” said Phillips. Both Phillips and Scott Bousum, legislative director of EANGUS, said the lump sum option wasn’t critical to their group’s endorsement.
“We’ve very supportive that 100 percent of future service members – reserve and active components – will have government-matched retirement contributions” from the time they enter service, said Bousum.
Because everyone now in would be grandfathered from retirement changes unless they opt in to the new plan, “we’re not breaking faith…No one is giving up anything. You can’t break a contract with a young person who frankly is in high school right now.”
Bousum said he accepts the commission’s argument that it set reserve continuation pay so low based on results of a sophisticated force retention model developed by the think tank RAND, which indicated a higher amount was unneeded to sustain current force profiles, a priority for service leaders.
“If at some point that needs to be readdressed, there will be opportunities,” Bousum said.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, president of MOAA, questioned whether a 401(k)-like TSP should be a priority for Congress with active duty members and activated reservists already leaving service today with valuable training and GI Bill benefits worth more than $80,000.
In MOAA’s view the real driver of retirement reform, though denied by commissioners, is to save the government more than $5 billion annually in future retirement costs, at the expense of the future careerists who will serve 20 years and more and remain the backbone of the volunteer force.
Defense officials told military associations last week they don’t oppose the blended plan, Bousum said, but need until July to decide whether to seek changes and how to implement by the targeted start date of Oct. 1, 2017.
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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.