Rely-Able?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Last week the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College provided an update on its National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI).¹ The impetus for the update was the triennial release of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF), published in June, reflecting information as of December 2010.

Now, many things have changed since 2007, and in the most recent iteration of the NRRI, the authors note five main changes: the replacement of households from the 2007 SCF with those from the 2010 SCF; the incorporation of 2010 data to predict financial and housing wealth at age 65; a change in the age groups (because a significant number of Baby Boomers have retired, according to the report authors); the impact of lower interest rates on the amounts provided by annuities; and changes in the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) rules that lowered the percentage of house value that borrowers could receive in the form of a reverse mortgage at any given interest rate.

And, when all those changes are taken into account, the CRR analysis concludes that, as of December 2010, anyway, the percentage of households (albeit those from a partially different cohort) at risk of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living in retirement increased by 9 percentage points² between 2007 and 2010 (from 44 percent at risk to 53 percent).

When the baseline for your analysis is updated only every three years, it’s certainly challenging to provide a current assessment of retirement readiness. In previous posts, we’ve covered the limitations of relying solely on the SCF data³and, to some extent, the apparent shortcomings of the NRRI (see “’Last’ Chances”), and retirement projection models, generally (see “’Generation’ Gaps”).

On the other hand, the impact of the decline in housing prices and the stock market were modeled by EBRI in February 2011 (see “A Post-Crisis Assessment of Retirement Income Adequacy for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers”), while the impact of the rising age for full Social Security benefits has been incorporated in EBRI’s Retirement Savings Projection Model (RSPM) since 2003. Moreover, EBRI has also included the potential impact of reverse mortgages in our model for nearly a decade now.

Meanwhile, as a recent EBRI report noted (see “Is Working to Age 70 Really the Answer for Retirement Income Adequacy?”), the NRRI not only assumes that everyone annuitizes at retirement, and continues to ignore the impact of long-term care and nursing home costs (or assumes that they are insured against by everyone), but it also seems to rely on an outdated perspective of 401(k)-plan designs and savings trends, essentially ignoring the impact of automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions, and the diversification impact of qualified default investment alternatives.

It’s one thing to draw conclusions based on an extrapolation of information that, while dated, may be the most reliable available. It’s another altogether to rely on that result in one’s retirement planning, or the formulation of policies designed to facilitate good planning.

Notes

¹ The report, “The National Retirement Risk Index: An Update” is available online here.

² The report notes that, between 2007 and 2010, the NRRI jumped by 9 percentage points due to: the bursting of the housing bubble (4.5 percentage points); falling interest rates (2.2 percentage points); the ongoing rise in Social Security’s Full Retirement Age (1.6 percentage points); and continued low stock prices (0.8 percentage points).

³ As valuable as the SCF information is, it’s important to remember that it contains self-reported information from approximately 6,500 households in 2010, which is to say the results are what individuals told the surveying organizations on a range of household finance issues (typically over a 90-minute interviewing period); of those households, only about 2,100 had defined contribution (401(k)-type) retirement accounts. Also, the SCF does not necessarily include the same households from one survey period to the next. See “Facts and ‘Figures.’”

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