“Some” Totals

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

There’s an old tale about a group of men that are blindfolded and then asked to describe an object (in the story, an elephant, though they don’t know what it is), based on their individual observations. In doing so, each one grasps a different part, but only one part, such as the side, the trunk, the tail, the ear, or a tusk.

Following their individual assessments of what is ostensibly the same object, they compare notes―and are puzzled to find their conclusions about the object’s appearance to be in complete disagreement.

A recent EBRI Notes article¹ examined retirement plan participation through the prism of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to examine Americans’ participation in various government and private-sector programs that relate to their income and well-being.

Now, as the EBRI analysis notes, the SIPP data have the advantage of providing relatively detailed information on workers’ retirement plans, but SIPP is fielded only once every three to five years. By comparison, the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is also conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, provides overall participation levels of workers on an annual basis, but the CPS does not provide information on the specific types of plans in which the workers are participating. Another data source is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) National Compensation Survey, which annually surveys establishments’ offerings of employee benefit programs, including retirement plans―but at an employee level it includes information only on occupation, union status, and part-time/full-time work, and no information on age, gender, or race/ethnicity. Consider also that the CPS collects information about anyone who worked at any point in a previous year, while SIPP and BLS ask only about current workers in the month of interest.

As you can see, each of these national (and widely cited) surveys collects data in a different manner, at different times, and has different questions that can lead to different conclusions. Consider the chart below. The top line shows retirement plan participation rates for all workers from SIPP, and the lower line graphs retirement plan participation, also for all workers, from the CPS. While the trend lines generally move in the same direction, the more frequent CPS data allows us to see the more incremental movements―and to see a drop in participation rates in 2000–2002 following the burst of the tech bubble that would be completely missed looking only at the SIPP results. Moreover, relying strictly on SIPP data, one might well be inclined to see an increase in participation rates, rather than the leveling off that we see based on CPS data.²

That said, each survey provides important data that can’t be found elsewhere: CPS has the annual participation data with a complete set of worker demographics, while SIPP has the complete set of worker demographics plus retirement plan types, and BLS has detailed data on establishment characteristics, along with retirement plan type, although with limited worker demographics.

There was nothing inherently wrong in the individual observations made by the three blind men in the story―other than their examinations focused on one particular attribute, rather than appreciating the reality that a truly accurate assessment required looking at ALL the pieces, rather than each in isolation.

Similarly, and as the EBRI analysis concludes, those who would draw conclusions from individual surveys or datasets are well-advised to benchmark those results against other data, lest they conclude that the elephant(s) in the room are different than they truly are.

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Notes

¹ See “Retirement Plan Participation: Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) Data, 2012,” online here.

² Another potential limitation of these surveys is that they are based on self-reported information, which is to say they rely on respondents’ recollections, rather than actual administrative plan data or IRS tax records. For SIPP specific results, see, for example, Irena Dushi, Howard M. Iams, and Jules Lichtenstein, “Assessment of Retirement Plan Coverage by Firm Size, Using W-2 Tax Records,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 2, 2011, pp. 53–65, online here.

U.S. Job Tenure Ticks Up, But Still Short

Blog.Notes.Dec12-Tenure.Pg1 Americans who have jobs are staying in them longer as overall job tenure in the United States ticked up in 2012, but U.S. job tenure is still shorter than many assume.  The median (mid-point) length of time on the job for American workers in 2012 is just 5.4 years, according to new research from EBRI.

“Career-long jobs never existed for most workers,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associate and author of the report. “Historically, most workers have repeatedly changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future.”

The EBRI report reveals that the historical data show that the U.S. workforce has always had relatively low median tenure: The idea of holding a full-career job and retiring with the proverbial “gold watch” is a myth for most people.

Copeland added that the overall trend of higher job tenure masks a small but significant decrease in median tenure among men (despite its increasing in recent years), which has been offset by an increase in median tenure among women. He added that the once-striking gap between long-tenure public and private sector workers is beginning to narrow.

The full report is published in the December 2012 EBRI Notes, “Employee Tenure Trends, 1983-2012,” online at www.ebri.org

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Retirement Plan Participation Stabilizing

As the economy slowly recovered from the recent recession, American workers’ participation in employment-based retirement plans stabilized, according to a new report by EBRI.

In 2011, the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan was essentially unchanged from a year earlier. Specifically, the percentage of all workers (including part-year, part-time, and self-employed) participating in an employment-based retirement plan moved from 39.6 percent in 2009, to 39.8 percent in 2010, to 39.7 percent in 2011.

“The increase in the number of workers participating in 2011 halted the three year decline from 2008–2010,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associated at EBRI and author of the report. “The downturns in the economy and stock market in 2008 and into 2009 showed a two-year decline in both the number and percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan. The 2010 and 2011 participation levels stabilized as the economy recovered.”

As the EBRI report explains, the type of employment has a major impact on participation rates. Among full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21–64 (those with the strongest connection to the work force), 53.7 percent participated. However, this rate varies significantly across various worker characteristics and the characteristics of their employers.

For instance, being nonwhite, younger, female, never married; having lower educational attainment, lower earnings, poorer health status, no health insurance through own employer; not working full time, full year, and working in service occupations or farming, fisheries, and forestry occupations were all associated with a lower level of participation in a retirement plan. Workers in the South and West were less likely to participate in a plan than those in other regions of the country.

The overall percentage of females participating in a plan was lower than that of males, but when controlling for work status or earnings, the female participation level actually surpasses that of males. The retirement plan participation gender gap significantly closed from 1987–2009 before slightly widening in 2010 and 2011.

Full results are published in the November 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011,” online at www.ebri.org

IRA Allocations Vary By Age, Balance, and Type – But Not Gender

The investment allocation of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) varies by a variety of factors, but the asset allocation differences between genders was minimal, according to a new report by EBRI.

Those older, having higher account balances, or owning a traditional IRA that originated as a rollover had, on average, lower allocations to equities, according to the report, which notes that as account balances increased, the percentages of assets in equities (i.e., direct ownership, mutual funds, etc.) and balanced funds (including target-date funds) combined decreased, while bond (i.e., direct ownership, mutual funds, etc.) and “other” (i.e., real estate, annuities, etc.) assets’ shares increased.

Equity allocations for the youngest IRA owners (under age 35) with small account balances were the lowest across the age groups. However, when balances reached $10,000 or more, younger IRA owners had significant increases in equity allocations, such that those ages 25−34 with the largest account balances had the largest equity allocation.

“Those under age 45 were much more likely to use balanced funds than were older IRA owners, and those under age 35 with balances less than $25,000 had particularly higher allocations to balanced funds,” noted Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associate and author of the report. “This shift follows the standard investing ‘rule of thumb’ that individuals should reduce their allocation to assets with high variability in returns (equities) as they age.”

These and other findings come from the latest update of the EBRI IRA Database, an ongoing project by EBRI that currently contains information on 14.85 million accounts of 11.1 million unique individuals with total assets of $1.002 trillion, as of year-end 2010. The EBRI IRA Database is able to provide a more complete assessment of cumulative IRA investments and activity by virtue of its ability to link the holdings of individual IRA owners both within and across data providers.

The press release is online here. The full report is online here. 

401(k) Ownership Continues to Grow, While IRA Ownership Falls

Although fewer American families are participating in a retirement plan at work, more of those with a plan are in a 401(k). At the same time, ownership of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) is falling, according to a new report by EBRI.

Analyzing the four-year period from 2007‒2010, EBRI finds that the share of American families with a member in any employment-based retirement plan from a current employer increased steadily from 38.8 percent in 1992 to 40.6 percent in 2007, before declining in 2010 to 37.9 percent.

Ownership of 401(k)-type plans among families participating in a retirement plan more than doubled from 31.6 percent in 1992 to 79.5 percent in 2007, and increased again in 2010 to 82.1 percent. But the percentage of families owning an IRA or Keogh retirement plan (for the self-employed) declined from 30.6 percent in 2007 to 28.0 percent in 2010. In addition, the percentage of families with a retirement plan from a current employer, a previous employer’s defined contribution plan, or an IRA/Keogh declined from 66.2 percent in 2007 to 63.8 percent in 2010.

As in the past, EBRI found that retirement plan assets account for a growing majority of most Americans’ financial wealth, outside the value of their home. The median (mid-point) percentage of families’ total financial assets comprised by defined contribution plan assets and/or IRA/Keogh assets (assuming the family had any) increased from 2007 to 2010, and accounted for a clear majority of these assets:

  • Defined contribution plan balances accounted for 58.1 percent of families’ total financial assets in 2007, and that share grew to 61.4 percent in 2010.
  • Defined contribution and/or IRA/Keogh balances increased their share as well, from 64.1 percent of total family financial assets in 2007 to 65.7 percent in 2010. Across all demographic groups, these assets account for a very large share of total financial assets for those who own these accounts.

However, the EBRI report notes that the most recent data, along with other EBRI research, indicate that many people are unlikely to afford a comfortable retirement. “Americans lost a tremendous amount of wealth between 2007 and 2010, and the percentage of families that participated in an employment-based retirement plan and/or owned an IRA decreased as well,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associated and author of the report.

However, he added, the percentage of family heads who were eligible to participate in a defined contribution plan and actually did so remained virtually unchanged during this time. Therefore, despite all the bad news that resulted from this period, one positive factor should be noted: “Those eligible to participate in a retirement plan continued to participate—which may help change the likelihood of a lower retirement standard for many Americans,” Copeland said.

The full report is published in the September 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, available at EBRI’s Web site at www.ebri.org   The press release is online here.

 

Withdrawal “Symptoms”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

I was recently asked about the so-called 4 percent “rule.” That’s the rule of thumb(1) that many financial consultants rely on as a formula for how much money can be withdrawn from retirement savings every year (generally adjusted for inflation) without running out of money. Of course, like so many of the “assumptions” about retirement, certainly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, that withdrawal rule of thumb has drawn additional scrutiny.(2)

At the time, my comment was that the 4 percent guideline is just that—a guideline. What’s not as clear is whether adhering to that guideline produces an income stream in retirement that will be enough to live on.

How much are people actually withdrawing from their retirement accounts? At a recent EBRI policy forum,(3) Craig Copeland, senior research associate at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, explained that the median IRA individual withdrawal rates amounted to 5.5 percent of the account balance in 2010, though he noted that those 71 or older (when required minimum distributions kick in) were much more likely to be withdrawing at a rate of 3–5 percent (in 2008, that group’s median withdrawal rate was 7.2 percent, but in 2010, it was 5.2 percent), based on the activity among the 14.85 million accounts and $1 trillion in assets contained in the EBRI IRA Database.(4) Will these drawdown rates create a problem down the road? Will these individual run short of funds in retirement?

At its core, once you stipulate certain assumptions about the length of retirement, portfolio mix/returns, and inflation, a guideline like the 4 percent “rule” is really just a mathematical exercise.

However, trying to live on the resources you actually have available in retirement is reality—and those post-retirement withdrawal decisions are generally easier to make when you’ve made good decisions pre-retirement.

Notes

(1) Certified financial planner William P. Bengen is frequently credited with the concept, based on his article “Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data,” published in the October 1994 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

(2) It had drawn criticism before the 2008 financial crisis as well: See “The 4% Rule—At What Price?”

(3) The agenda, presentation materials, and a recording of EBRI’s May policy forum are available online here. Dr. Copeland’s presentation is online here.

(4) The results come from 2010 data in the EBRI IRA Database,TM which had 14.85 million accounts, held by 11.1 million individuals, with $1 trillion in assets—roughly one-fifth of both owners and assets in the IRA universe.

Average IRA Balances a Third Higher When Multiple Accounts are Considered

The average IRA balance is about a third higher and the median (mid-point) balance is almost 42 percent larger when multiple individual retirement accounts (IRAs) owned by an individual are taken into account, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

EBRI’s new analysis, based on its unique EBRI IRA Database,™ shows that in 2010 the average IRA individual balance (all accounts from the same person combined) was $91,864, while the median balance was $25,296. By comparison, the average and median account balance of all IRAs was $67,438 and $17,863, respectively. Compared with 2008, the average and median individual balances are up 32 and 26 percent, respectively.

“The results show the importance of being able to look at an aggregation of an individual’s combined account balances to determine the potential total retirement savings he or she has,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI research associate and author of the report. The report provides results for the second year of data available from the EBRI IRA Database.™

The full report is published in the May 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, “Individual Retirement Account Balances, Contributions, and Rollovers, 2010: The EBRI IRA Database,™” online at http://www.ebri.org It analyzes 2010 data from the more than 11 million individuals with more than $1 trillion in the EBRI IRA Database™ and highlights the distribution of IRA owners by IRA types, account balances, rollovers, and contributions to IRAs. A unique aspect of the EBRI IRA Database™ is the ability to link the balances of individuals with more than one account in the database, providing a more complete picture of their IRA-based retirement savings.

The press release is online here. The full report is online here.