“Reference” Points

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

We started setting money aside for our children’s college education relatively early, but as they began actually considering their options, it was clear that our savings wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense at some of the schools on their lists. Moreover, while all three wouldn’t all be in college at the same time, there was enough overlap to make it “complicated.”

While we didn’t want to limit our kids’ college choices, we had certain real world constraints—and so we told them how much we could contribute to their college expenses, and that they were free to make up the difference between that figure and the actual expense of the college they chose through their own work, scholarships, and/or debt. As a practical matter, defining our “contribution” may have taken some options off their lists, but, certainly in hindsight, it seemed to give them focus and some real-world context—a reference point—for one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.      

Employers have been interested in and have tried to implement the “defined contribution” concept for health benefits in a number of different ways. The Revenue Act of 1978 started it with Sec. 125 and flexible spending accounts and “cafeteria plans.” A recent EBRI Issue Brief outlines some of the more recent history, the introduction of health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2001, health savings accounts (HSA) in 2004, and the more recent trend toward private health insurance exchanges, where employers provide a fixed amount of money for workers to use toward the cost of health coverage.

However, the primary focus of the report is another defined contribution approach called reference pricing (RP), under which plan sponsors either pay a fixed amount or limit their contributions toward the cost of a specific health care service. If a plan member chooses a health care provider or service that costs more, he or she must pay the difference in price. Reference pricing is receiving more attention and consideration today because of growing plan sponsor interest in managing health care costs, but the approach is still relatively new; in 2012, 11 percent of employers with 500 or more workers were using some type of RP, and another 16 percent were considering it.

How might such an approach impact cost? EBRI’s analysis indicates that the potential aggregate savings could reach $9.4 billion if all employers adopted reference pricing for the health care services examined in the paper, some 1.6 percent of all spending on health care services among the 156 million people under age 65 with employment-based health benefits in 2010.

As the report notes, savings from reference pricing materializes through the combination of 1) patients choosing providers at the reference price, 2) patients paying the difference between the reference price and the allowed charge through cost sharing, and 3) providers reducing their prices to the reference price. Obviously, any increase in prices among providers below the reference price would reduce the potential for savings.

From an employer perspective, the approach establishes a cost threshold for the service(s) selected, but as the EBRI analysis notes, plan sponsors should obviously consider a number of issues as they weigh adopting reference pricing, including how the reference price is determined and how providers may react. Communication to plan members is also key to effective use of reference pricing.

For plan members, it could represent the potential for expanded choice with some pricing context—but, as with my kids’ college selection process, they’ll likely need more data on prices and quality in order to make truly informed decisions.

Notes

The full report is published in the April EBRI Issue Brief, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits” available online here.

Needs “Assessment”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

My eating habits have always tended toward what my mother politely calls “finicky.” Oh, she tried repeatedly over the years to broaden my horizons but without much success. My wife has similarly tried to expand and improve my dietary choices over the years, but even with the admonition of needing to set a good example for my kids, (my) old habits die hard. In exasperation, she’ll frequently say, “Have you ever even tried _____?”

One of the more surprising findings from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey was that fewer than half of respondents indicate they (or their spouse) have EVER tried to calculate how much money they will need to have saved so that they can live comfortably in retirement.

What’s even more surprising, of course, is that that percentage has held fairly consistent for the past decade, “peaking” at 53 percent in 2000, before slipping to 38 percent in 2002.[1] It’s recovered since, of course, but still—in this day and age, with so many free and easy-to-access tools available, despite the pressures of daily life and finances, it’s hard to imagine that so many have still not even bothered to make a single attempt to do so.

As you might expect, some are more likely to do a retirement savings needs calculation than others. Married workers are more likely to have done so than singles, and the likelihood of doing the calculation increases with household income, education, and financial assets. Moreover, workers reporting that they, or their spouse, have an IRA, defined contribution, or defined benefit retirement plan are more than twice as likely as those who do not have these to have done a calculation (56 percent vs. 25 percent).

There do appear to be benefits—both emotional and tangible—to doing a retirement needs calculation. Consistent with prior RCS findings, despite having set higher savings goals,[2] workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement (25 percent vs. 13 percent who have not done a calculation in this year’s survey). In fact, a previous EBRI analysis found that those using an online calculator appeared to set more adequate savings targets, as measured by the probability of not running short of money in retirement.[3]

So, why haven’t more done a retirement needs calculation? Perhaps they’re nervous about the time and energy it might take to do one; maybe they’re worried they don’t know enough to do the calculation; it might even be, particularly if they’ve made no preparations for retirement, that they are afraid to find out the answer.

Whatever their rationale, a great place to start figuring out what they -or you- will need is the BallparkE$timate,® available online at www.choosetosave.org[4]

It’ll be good for you—will likely improve your retirement prospects—and you might even enjoy it.

 

More information from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation, is available in the March 2014 EBRI Issue Brief, “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds—for Those With Retirement Plans,” online here.

Notes

[1] Even among those who have made an attempt, the methods of calculation reported have been quite “varied”—according to the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey, workers often guess at how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic retirement needs calculation. Eighteen percent each indicated they did their own estimate or asked a financial advisor, while 8 percenteach used an online calculator or read or heard how much was needed.

[2] Workers who have done a retirement savings needs calculation tend to report higher savings goals than workers who have not done the calculation. In this year’s RCS, 29 percent of workers who have done a calculation, compared with 15 percent of those who have not, estimate they need to accumulate at least $1 million for retirement. At the other extreme, 17 percent of those who have done a calculation, compared with 37 percent who have not, think they need to save less than $250,000 for retirement.

[3] See “A Little Help: The Impact of On-line Calculators and Financial Advisors on Setting Adequate Retirement-Savings Targets: Evidence from the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey,” online here.

[4] Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find a variety of free resources at www.choosetosave.org, courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, ASEC. The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

“Expected” Values

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Over the past several years, a growing amount of attention has been focused on the decumulations of defined contribution plan balances in retirement. Much of that focus has, of course, been driven by concerns that those individuals won’t have enough resources accumulated to fund those retirements. More recently, there has been a sense that one way to help provide a different perspective on these retirement savings would be to provide participants with an estimate of what their current or projected savings would produce in terms of a retirement income stream.

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) focusing on lifetime income illustrations. Under that proposal, a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance.

As noted in a recent EBRI Notes article[i], there appears to be little empirical evidence on the likely impact of such a lifetime income illustration on defined contribution participant behavior. In an attempt to provide some additional evidence with respect to potential defined contribution participant reaction to lifetime income illustrations similar to those proposed by EBSA, EBRI included a series of questions in the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey that would provide monthly income illustrations similar in many respects to those provided by the EBSA’s online Lifetime Income Calculator.

Of course, any such projection is necessarily required to make a number of critical assumptions—including future contribution activity, future rates of return, future asset allocation, and future annuity purchase prices. Moreover, the estimates we provided were different in several aspects, notably:

  • Rather than using normal retirement age for the calculation, we asked their expected retirement age.
  • Since the age of the spouse was not known for married respondents, only the single life annuity income illustration was used.
  • Given that the information was being provided to the respondent during a phone interview, only the projected monthly income (based on the projected account balance given the respondents’ reporting of their current balances) was provided.

What we found was that fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) of the defined contribution participants said the monthly amount was much less than expected, though another 1 in 5 (19 percent) said it was somewhat less than expected[ii].

However, more than half (58 percent) thought that the illustrated monthly income was in line with their expectations.

Considering those results, it is perhaps not surprising that the vast majority (81 percent) of the respondents indicated that they would continue to contribute what they do now after hearing the projected monthly income amount, while 17 percent replied that hearing this information would lead them to increase the amount they are contributing. Similarly, the vast majority (89 percent) did not believe this information would impact their expected retirement age.

They may not have been much surprised by the results, but the vast majority of respondents said the retirement income projection was useful; more than 1 in 3 (36 percent) respondents thought that it was very useful to hear an estimate of the monthly retirement income they might expect from their plan, and another 49 percent thought it was somewhat useful. Moreover, the utility of the projection appeared to transcend the results; 90 percent of those whose illustrated values were lower than expected found the estimates somewhat or very useful, and nearly as many (86 percent) of those whose values were equal to what they expected also found the estimates somewhat or very useful. Even among those who felt the values were higher than expected, 79 percent found the estimates somewhat or very useful.

I’ve heard from several in the industry since the results were released who were surprised – that the survey respondents weren’t surprised. It is, of course, possible (as the article explains) that these respondents’ current participation in employment-based plans has already provided them the education and information necessary for an appreciation both of the projected total and the monthly income estimate, and thus a greater alignment of those projections with their expectations. It could also be that, having given some thought to the subject of savings and retirement over the course of the interview, they had more realistic expectations.

Of course, whether those expectations about living on those amounts in retirement will turn out to be realistic remains to be seen.

  • Notes

[i] The EBRI March 2014 Notes article, “How Would Defined Contribution Participants React to Lifetime Income Illustrations? Evidence from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey,” is available online here.

[ii] There were some interesting differences by income level; combining the “much less” and “somewhat less” categories, we found that 42 percent of those in the lowest quartile for illustrated monthly income indicated that the value was less than expected, versus only 9 percent of the highest quartile.

 

Bargain Based?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

My father had many admirable personality traits, but he also had his quirks. He was buying in bulk at warehouse stores well before it was “cool” to do so (and before many of the current generation of such stores existed), and he was an earlier adopter of generic food brands. And, yes, sometimes he bought generic food and paper stocks in bulk. While the quality of such offerings has doubtless improved dramatically over the years, I still shudder at the memory of my first sip of generic cola.

My childhood encounters with generic products notwithstanding, I’ve generally not been as particular about generic drugs. Oh, sure, when you have a migraine, there’s still something to be said for the confidence (if not reality) in reaching for the name brand pain reliever. But when it comes to prescription drugs, if there’s a cheaper, generic alternative, I’m generally amenable to the switch.

A greater sensitivity to cost is, in fact, one of the aspects of consumer-directed health plans (CDHP) touted by proponents, who contend that providing participants with an account and subjecting their health insurance claims to high deductibles will induce enrollees who would likely be spending more of their own money (than might be the case with traditional health coverage) to make more cost- and quality-conscious health care decisions. On the other hand, CDHP skeptics caution that these individuals lack the kind of information they need to make good decisions—and, worse, might make cost-centric choices that aren’t the best health care choices, and might even prove to be less cost-efficient (and even more expensive) over the longer term.

Using data from a large employer that implemented a CDHP, fully replacing traditional managed-care health insurance with a health savings account (HSA), new research[i], conducted through the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation (EBRI CRHBI)[ii], found that moving to the HSA-eligible plan reduced the number of brand name prescriptions filled. However, it also found that the move reduced the number of generic prescriptions filled. Previous EBRI research showed that while prescription drug use went down, it also resulted in decreased use of maintenance medications for chronic disease and a worsening of adherence.

As the EBRI report explains, while reductions in prescription-drug utilization can result in pharmacy expenditure savings for employer plan sponsors, increases in downstream medical costs may eclipse those benefits. In view of the potential for these kinds of unintended offsets, it notes that CDHPs and other plan designs that raise patient cost-sharing for prescription drugs might want to consider some alternative strategies that can bolster adherence and mitigate the potential impact.

Sometimes less is more – but only after you take into account all the costs. And sometimes you find that “less” is no bargain.

  • Notes

[i] “Brand-Name and Generic Prescription Drug Use After Adoption of a Full-Replacement, Consumer-Directed Health Plan With a Health Savings Account” was published in the March EBRI Notes, available online here.

[ii] The following organizations provide the funding for EBRI CRHBI: American Express, Ameriprise, Aon Hewitt, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Boeing, Deseret Mutual, Federal Reserve Employee Benefits System, General Mills, Healthways, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Mercer, and Pfizer.

 

Security “Blanket”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

“How do they expect to retire on THAT?”

In the several days since the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey(1)  hit the streets, I think I’ve heard that question more than any other. “That” in this case is the widely cited finding of the survey that 36% of respondents have less than $1,000 (aside from home equity and defined benefit plan) saved – and that’s up from 20 percent in that category in 2009 and 28 percent a year ago(2).

So, how does that group expect to retire?

We can’t know for certain, but there are several things that might offer a better understanding. First, many of those probably AREN’T expecting to retire on that, at least not any time soon; many are young (about half of the 25-34 age group are in this savings range).

Second, they may not be “expecting” to retire; about 16 percent of those with less than $15,000 set aside say they’ll “never” retire, compared with 7 percent of total respondents).

Most of the individuals in this group are, as you might expect, lower-income.  More than 60 percent reported household income of $25,000/year or less.  Little wonder that saving for retirement might be taking a back seat to other matters.

Even if they are expecting to retire some day, they may have concerns about that reality. This group of low/non-savers, for the very most part, had NO retirement account – 80 percent of the 36 percent were in that category. Respondents with no retirement account not only tended to have much lower confidence levels, they were also more likely to think they needed to be saving 50 percent of their current paycheck to achieve a financially comfortable retirement – a perception that might be a reality for this group, based on their reported savings.

Finally, while the trend line for this particular group isn’t encouraging, it’s worth noting that Social Security was cited as a major source of income for nearly two-thirds of the current retiree respondents to the 2014 RCS (as it has been over the history of the RCS), even though current workers tended to have lower expectations for the primacy of Social Security benefits in their retirement income stream. One need only look to the replacement rates that Social Security is projected to provide to appreciate the significance of that program as a retirement income source for many, particularly low- and middle-income workers(3). In fact, a recent EBRI analysis of data from the HRS indicates that Social Security provides more than half the total household income for more than half those ages 65-74, as it does for roughly two-thirds of the households over that age (4).

Indeed, one might well wonder how people expect to live on savings of less than $1,000 in retirement. However, the data suggest that many – already are.

Notes:

(1) The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey is available here.

(2) The RCS is, of course, a snapshot at a point in time. It’s important to keep in mind that the savings reported are not necessarily what those respondents will have a year from now, or certainly a decade hence. It’s also important that projections about future retirement security consider not just where things stand at a static point in time, but, as EBRI’s Retirement Savings Projection Model (RSPM) does, the impact of future events and changes in behavior.  More information on the RSPM is online here

(3) See “Annual Scheduled Benefit Amounts for Retired Workers With Various Pre-Retirement Earnings Patterns Based on Intermediate Assumptions, Calendar Years 1940-2090.”

(4) See “Income Composition, Income Trends, and Income Shortfalls of Older Households” online here.

”Background” Check

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

We’ve never invested in a vacation home, but for a number of years now, my family has made relatively regular trips to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And while we’ve visited many places over the years, Gettysburg remains special, both because there are places that we know, and have visited many times, and because there are (still) things to discover. Over time we’ve also shared that experience with friends and members of our extended family, and their participation adds an additional, fresh perspective, even to sites we have visited many times before.

On March 18, EBRI and Greenwald & Associates will release the results of the 24th annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS). With a perspective longer than many retirements, it’s likely to garner a lot of attention, as well it should. The focus tends to be on retirement confidence (or the lack thereof), specifically at the extremes—those “very” and “not at all” confident in their prospects for a financially comfortable retirement.

Attention will also likely be given to what can be done to improve the levels of confidence. Previous iterations point to some consistent factors: having more retirement savings is perhaps the most obvious connection to retirement confidence, as is participation in a workplace retirement savings plan (which, as you might expect, is linked to having more retirement savings). The RCS has also found that something as fundamental as having taken the time to do a calculation of retirement needs has a positive effect on confidence, even though those who had done such an assessment tend to set higher savings goals.

For this year’s RCS, as we do every year, we make it a point to ask a battery of consistent questions, to develop trend lines that allow us to see how attitudes change over time, throughout a wide variety of market and regulatory cycles, not to mention the advent of transformative technologies such as the Internet. Of course, we also include certain topical questions to get a current sense of worker—and retiree—responses to things such as prospective tax law changes, plan design features like automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration, and the use of various technologies in retirement planning. We’ve asked not only how much they have saved, but how much they think they should have saved, and—more recently—how much they think they should be saving now to provide that financially secure retirement.

Perhaps most importantly, we pose those questions to both current workers and current retirees, so as to gain a unique and informative perspective on the realities of retirement from those already living it, alongside the expectations of those for whom retirement remains a future event.

There’s a particular spot on the Gettysburg battlefield where we always try to take a family picture—the background doesn’t change, but it’s interesting to watch how much we’ve changed over the years.

Similarly, the RCS provides an invaluable and consistent background—along with a fresh and interesting perspective of today’s environment, as well as insights on future trends—that can help us all better prepare for a more financially secure retirement.

Note: The results of the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) will be available at 8 a.m. ET on Tuesday, March 18, at www.ebri.org.  Information and findings from prior surveys are available at www.ebri.org/surveys/rcs.

Pet “Smart?”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

I’ve had both cats and dogs in my family over the years, and while each of our individual pets has had a unique personality, there are some attributes that seem to apply to each species, regardless of the individual animal. One of the most obvious is their approach to food.  For example, you can leave your cat alone in an apartment for a weekend with a supply of food and water sufficient to last for a few days, and odds are when you return home, there will still be some left.  But leave your dog alone in the same apartment with the same additional allotment of food and water, chances are it won’t last 30 minutes.  And in those circumstances, if you have both a cat and a dog in that apartment, odds are the latter will eat the former’s food as well.

Animal psychologists have a variety of explanations for why dogs and cats approach food the way they do, generally citing either a confidence of its future availability, or a concern that if it’s not consumed now, it will disappear.

Experts have long been worried about how quickly individuals would spend through their savings in retirement, whether those rates of spending would too rapidly deplete savings, and if those rates would be sufficient to sustain a reasonable post-retirement lifestyle.

A recent analysis[i] of activity within the EBRI IRA database[ii] found that just over 16 percent of traditional and Roth IRA accounts had a withdrawal in 2011, including 20.5 percent of traditional accounts.  The report notes that this percentage was largely driven by activity among traditional IRAs owned by individuals ages 70½ or older where the individuals were required by law to make withdrawals from their tax qualified accounts or pay significant tax penalties.

Significantly, for those at the RMD age, the withdrawal rates at the median appeared close to the amount required by law to be withdrawn, though some were significantly more. And while the highest 25 percent did appear to be taking out amounts in excess of those required by law, the report notes that some of these accounts could be the focus of the owners’ withdrawals instead of other accounts owned by them.

A separate EBRI analysis[iii] of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS) found that at age 61, only 22.2 percent of households with an individual retirement account (IRA) said that they took a withdrawal from that account, but that the pace slowly increased to 40.5 percent by age 69 before jumping to 77 percent at age 71.  That EBRI analysis also found that the percentage of households with an IRA making a withdrawal from that account not only increased with age, but also spiked around ages 70 and 71, a trend that, the report explains, appears to be a direct result of the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules in the Internal Revenue Code.

IRAs are, of course, a vital component of U.S. retirement savings, holding more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the nation, according a recent EBRI report. A substantial and growing portion of these IRA assets originated in other employment-based tax-qualified retirement plans, such as defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans.

While the median withdrawal rates evident in the proprietary EBRI IRA database suggest that many individuals are highly likely to maintain the IRA as a source of income throughout retirement, further study is needed to see if these rates hold up over time as their owners age further into retirement, and to evaluate whether those rates, in conjunction with other resources, are adequate to provide a reasonable, if not comfortable, post-retirement lifestyle.  In the months ahead, we’ll not only be looking at this withdrawal behavior over time, but, as part of EBRI’s Center for Research on Retirement Income (CRI), we’ll be examining how IRA owners with a 401(k) plan draw down those assets across accounts, leveraging the unique ability of EBRI’s databases to link individuals’ IRAs and 401(k) accounts.

After all, it’s not just pets that consume more wisely when they have confidence in the future of that next meal.

Notes


[i] See “IRA Withdrawals, 2011” online here.

[ii] The EBRI IRA Database, an ongoing project that collects data from IRA plan administrators, contains information for2011 on 20.5 million accounts with total assets of $1.456 trillion.  In this particular analysis, only withdrawals from the accounts identified as traditional or Roth IRAs in the database are examined, a total of 15.3 million accounts with $1.11 trillion in assets.  More information on the database, and EBRI’s research centers is online here.

[iii] See “IRA Withdrawals: How Much, When, and Other Saving Behavior” online here.

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