Looks Like Open Season On TSP Open Season
By Stephen Barr
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page C02
A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation that would make it easier for federal employees to manage their accounts in the Thrift Savings Plan and to sharpen their retirement planning skills.
The bill, introduced Friday, would eliminate the TSP's twice-a-year "open seasons," the only time employees can change the amount they contribute toward retirement.
It also would direct the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees the TSP, to improve educational services for participants so that they will be better prepared to evaluate and compare investment opportunities offered by the 401(k)-type program.
Many government employees probably will welcome the proposed changes, in part because the TSP seems likely to play an increasingly important role in their financial planning for retirement. In recent months, the TSP has been growing by more than $1 billion a month in new contributions as employees pour in money for retirement.
The TSP is open to civil service, postal and military and other uniformed personnel, making it one of the world's largest retirement programs. It has more than 3.3 million participants and assets of more than $133 billion.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chief sponsor of the bill, said it would complement changes in TSP operations that began last year with the launch of a new record-keeping system that allows for daily, rather than monthly, transactions.
Currently, the TSP open seasons are April 15 through June 30 and Oct. 15 through Dec. 31. Open seasons are especially important to new employees, who have 60 days to sign up after being hired. An employee who doesn't sign up in that period has to wait until the next open season.
In another procedural twist affecting new employees, the automatic 1 percent agency contribution and any matching contributions begin the last month of the second open season after being hired. For some new employees, that means the wait for agency contributions can be almost a year.
Meanwhile, an employee who stops contributions during an open season has to wait until the next open season to resume them. An employee who stops outside of an open season has to wait until the second open season to restart contributions.
"These restrictions can unfairly penalize employees and discourage their participation," Collins, who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Joining Collins in introducing the bill were Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio.)
An effort also is underway in the House to abolish TSP open seasons as part of a federal workforce recruitment bill, sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.).
This year, TSP officials called for elimination of open seasons, in part because it would simplify administration of the program.
The Senate bill, however, breaks ground by including a provision, sought by Akaka, intended to address the difficult issue of improving the investment and retirement planning skills of TSP participants.
The bill would direct the thrift board to "periodically evaluate whether the tools available to participants provide the information needed to understand, evaluate and compare financial products, services and opportunities offered" by the TSP.
The legislation also would require that the thrift board and Office of Personnel Management develop a "financial literacy strategy and education strategy" to help prepare federal employees for retirement.
Thrift board members are looking for ways to help employees, and they recently announced plans to offer "lifecycle funds" to participants who do not have the time or knowledge to manage their accounts. Participants would be asked to predict when they will start withdrawing retirement savings. The investment strategy for employees far from retirement would be heavily weighted toward stocks. The strategy would become more conservative, or tilted toward fixed-income investments, as the "drawdown" date approached.
TSP officials are concerned that many accounts are not sufficiently diversified and that too many participants invest only or largely in a government securities fund, which never loses money but provides a low average return when compared over time with other TSP funds.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company