Survey: Feds' satisfaction with TSP grows

Tuesday - 5/27/2014, 4:50pm EDT

Nearly nine out of 10 federal employees are satisfied with the Thrift Savings Plan, according to a new survey published by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which manages feds' 401(k)-style retirement accounts.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to the survey said they were satisfied with the TSP, and 58 percent said they would rate the TSP higher than other retirement-savings plans.

"The good news is, generally people like us, and we're very pleased with that," said Kim Weaver, director of external affairs for the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board in an interview In Depth with Francis Rose

The biannual survey, which was conducted by Aon Hewitt, an independent consulting firm, was sent to a random sample of more than 46,700 TSP participants. More than 5,500 responded. There are 4.6 million total TSP participants.

The overall satisfaction rate ticked up a percentage point from the last survey, published in 2012. Since the agency began regularly surveying participants in 2006, satisfaction has never dipped lower than the 80-percent range.

"We're very gratified by that, but we don't take it lightly," Weaver said. "We work for that, and we're looking for ways to continue to improve. And one of the things that people were telling us is they're looking for maybe some more help in the future on how to withdraw their money, a little bit more advice or more in- depth education. And we're considering how we could do that."

For example, when asked how the TSP could be improved, respondents expressed the highest interest in the TSP issuing more guidance on how to optimize TSP withdrawals and on retirement-income planning.

Weaver said the TSP is constantly looking at ways to improve communication with participants, which, given the sheer numbers, can be daunting.

"We have people, as you know, literally around the globe, sometimes up on the space station," she said. "And trying to communicate information to people in a way that they can use it and access it, is really something that we're focusing on and trying to figure out how we can improve."

The survey results suggested the TSP board should consider adopting a broader range of communication methods, such as email, text messaging and mobile communications.

"Consider further leverage of text, mobile and social media channels," the survey concluded. "Mobile access is one of the well-liked elements from other financial institutions. Combining high-tech and high-touch methods have proven to be most effective in driving better behaviors in savings plans in the private sector."

Mutual-fund window decision coming in the fall

Meanwhile, the TSP board is inching forward on a decision on whether to adopt a mutual-fund window.

If the option were added, the five core funds would remain intact, but a participant could take a portion of their TSP funds and "go, as they call it, through the window," Weaver said — invest in mutual funds offered by a third-party provider.

The TSP participant, by law, would have to pay to use the mutual-fund window.

The 2009 TSP Enhancement Fund, which authorized automatic TSP enrollment for new federal hires and established a Roth TSP option, also authorized the board to consider adding a mutual-fund window.

The board has tread cautiously, however. When the board first voted on a resolution in support of adding a mutual-fund window in 2009, the board members deadlocked on a 2-2 vote.

Since then, the board largely tabled the discussion in favor of further study.

At last week's monthly board meeting, the board's executive director, Greg Long, presented a feasibility study of adding the mutual-fund option.

But he said unanswered questions remain, and he isn't in a position to make a decision just yet.

"We remain in data-gathering mode," Long said in a memo to board members. "At this point, we can provide the FRTIB Board Members with arguments both for and against" the mutual-fund window.

The board has also turned to the Employees Thrift Advisory Council, which is made up of 15 federal-employee and manager groups, for advice and suggestions .

In his memo, Long said he plans to provide a recommendation to the board in the fall.

The option has both its benefits and potential drawbacks, Weaver said.

"It is definitely not one of those decisions that you say, 'Oh, absolutely,' one way or the other," she said.

"We know there are people who want additional choices," Weaver said. "We know there are people who are sophisticated investors and would make reasonable, good choices going through the window."

In fact, allowing TSP participants greater access to mutual funds could actually help preserve the TSP as a simple, streamlined plan.

In the past, there have been calls for the board to give participants a wider array of investing options, such as a gold fund or a socially responsible fund.

"If we had a mutual-fund window, that legislation wouldn't be necessary, because people could access almost anything in the world that they would want, but they'd be doing it through the window instead of as part of the five funds."

However, adding the option would add a layer of complexity.

"So, if we struggle communicating five basic plans to people, the mutual-fund window just makes it that much more challenging," she said.

It also would likely lead to higher administrative costs. "And it may paralyze people with the number of choices," she added.

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