An Evolving Pension System: Trends in Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans

61 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2002

See all articles by David Rajnes

David Rajnes

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This Issue Brief examines trends in employment-based defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) pension plans since 1975. The analysis relies extensively on Form 5500 reports submitted by plan sponsors and published by the Department of Labor, although other sources of information are used.

The Issue Brief goes beyond a general description of trends in the number of qualified private-sector plans, participants, and plan contributions and assets to examine why DB plans have steadily lost ground as the preferred plan type in recent decades. It explores several explanations for the increased use of DC plans and cites the research and lines of reasoning used to support them. These reasons include government regulation; changes in the work place; business environment and risk associated with funding and managing pension plans; firm size; increased global competition; and the successful marketing efforts of consultants and DC plan service providers. Developments in the public sector--on the federal and state and local levels--are discussed.

The report addresses public policy implications raised by the movement away from DB toward DC (and hybrid) plan designs. Important issues in this context include possible sources of future retirement income; the impact of job stability on the portability of retirement benefits as well as benefit preservation and decumulation; and the extent to which alternative retirement plan designs satisfy the needs of both employer and employee. A closing section examines two topics of importance to retirement plans: changes in the tax code resulting from the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA) of 2001 and recent developments in corporate governance reform and financial disclosure.

The report updates information contained in a 1997 EBRI analysis of the same subject, and includes sections on plan design and operational issues that are combined into an appendix to provide basic background on how retirement plans work.

Keywords: 401(k) Plans, Defined Benefit Plans, Defined Contribution Plans, Employment-based Benefits

JEL Classification: J32

Suggested Citation

Rajnes, David, An Evolving Pension System: Trends in Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans. Available at SSRN:

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