As assets grow, TSP resists calls for change from Congress

Monday - 6/23/2014, 4:07pm EDT

Boosted by a recovering economy and a booming Wall Street, assets in the Thrift Savings Plan have continued to climb. Since reaching $400 billion in February — the highest amount ever recorded — assets under TSP management grew to more than $412 billion by the end of last month.

That's according to new data presented Monday at a monthly board meeting of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

But as total assets have increased, so have calls to tweak the program that's provided federal employees with 401(k)-style retirement accounts since 1987.

"You can bet the interest in the TSP will continue to grow," the board's director of external affairs, Kim Weaver, told board members, after recapping some of the recent attempts to overhaul the program.

"Since the beginning, there have been efforts to add funds or to restrict investments in the TSP," she said.

They include calls for the TSP to both disinvest from companies — such as those doing business in Northern Ireland during the long conflict with the United Kingdom and in South Africa during apartheid — as well as prodding the board to add specialty funds, such as a mortgage-backed securities fund, a corporate-responsibility fund and a real-estate investment trust, or REIT fund.

"Some of these disputes became fairly heated," she said.

Senate committee to vote on making L Funds default option

But the TSP has held firm that tweaking the TSP's tried-and-true structure "may not be the best course of action," she added.

The TSP board opposed those past efforts because they didn't fit with TSP structure or policy, Weaver said.

And while the aims of socially responsible funds or efforts to disinvest may be rooted in noble aims and aren't necessarily bad investments, the TSP's main operating principle is to act as a fiduciary for all participants. Excluding certain companies under a program of divestment, for example, would have added extra administrative costs.

"Our evaluating criteria will continue to be what's in the best interest of our beneficiaries," Weaver said.

But the TSP isn't looking askance at all legislative efforts

As it stands now, the board is considering offering a mutual-fund window to participants that could make moot the legislative push for more customized investment options.

If adopted by the board, the TSP five core funds would remain intact, but a participant could, for a fee, invest in mutual funds offered by a third-party provider. In fact, allowing TSP participants greater access to mutual funds could actually help preserve the TSP as a simple, streamlined plan, because participants could use the window to access a range of funds not available through the regular TSP.

The 2009 TSP Enhancement Fund, which authorized established a Roth TSP option, also allowed the board to consider adding a mutual-fund window. But the board has moved cautiously. TSP Executive Director Greg Long has said he plans to offer a recommendation to the board in the fall.

Another legislative change the TSP board is welcoming is making an age-appropriate L Fund the default investment option for new federal hires. Currently, new employees are slotted into the lower-risk, lower-reward government-securities G Fund. The board approved the switch in December, but it requires legislation to take effect.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans to vote Wednesday on the Smart Savings Act, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved its version of the bill, sponsored by committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in March.

There is no word yet on when the full House plans to vote on the measure.

TSP growth by the numbers

Total assets under TSP management grew to more than $412 billion by the end of May, a 1.5 percent increase over the previous month. The participation rate for workers under the Federal Employee Retirement System ticked up to 87.4 percent,

The average TSP account balance also rose, now standing at more than $111,000. That compares favorably to the average private-sector 401(k) balance of about $89,300, according to a February 2014 CNN report.

"I think it does tell us that we're doing a little bit better than the private sector," said Tom Emswiler, the board's director of participant operations and policy.

But there's one figure that's bucking the trend line. Even as total assets have grown, more TSP participants are taking all or some of their money out of the TSP when they separate from federal service.

Post-separation withdrawals, as they're called, are currently running $2 billion higher than this point last year.

"So that's something we're keeping an eye on," Emswiler said.

He cited the aging federal workforce for the uptick in withdrawals, pointing to the rise in federal retirement applications processed by the Office of Personnel Management.

"If OPM is processing retirements, it stands to reason we're processing more post- separation withdrawals," he said.

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