GAO Report on Retirement Savings: Overall Gaps Identified, but the Focus of Retirement Security Reform Should be on the Uncovered Population

VanDerhei

VanDerhei

By Jack VanDerhei, EBRI

The Government Accountability Office’s new retirement analysis reviewed nine studies conducted between 2006 and 2015 by a variety of organizations and concluded that generally one-third to two-thirds of workers are at risk of falling short of their retirement savings targets.

However, many of these studies use a “replacement rate” standard: Most commonly, this analysis concludes that you need to replace 70–80 percent of your preretirement income to be assured of a successful retirement. This is a convenient metric to use to convey retirement targets to individuals—and no doubt provides useful information to many workers who are attempting to determine whether they are “on-track” with respect to their retirement savings and/or what their future savings rates should be. However, replacement rates are NOT appropriate in large-scale policy models for determining whether an individual will run short of money in retirement. Why?

Because simply setting a target replacement rate at retirement age and suggesting that anyone above that threshold will have a “successful” retirement completely ignores:

  1. Longevity risk.
  2. Post-retirement investment risk.
  3. Long-term care risk.

In fact, looking at just the first two risks above, if you use a replacement rate threshold based on average longevity and average rate of return, you will, in essence, have a savings target that will prove to be insufficient about 50 percent of the time. Of course, this would not be a problem if retirees annuitized all or a large percentage of their defined contribution and IRA balances at retirement age; but the data suggest that only a small percentage of retirees do this.

In contrast, EBRI has been working for the last 14 years to develop a far more inclusive, sophisticated, realistic—and, yes, complex—model that deals with all these risks. It’s our Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM), and produces a Retirement Readiness Rating (basically, the probability that a household will NOT run short of money in retirement).

Blog.JV.GAO-rpt.June15.Fig1Our most recent Retirement Readiness Ratings by age are shown in Figure 1 (left). Our baseline results do include long term care costs (the red bars), but we also run the numbers assuming that these costs are NEVER paid by the retirees (the green bars). This latter assumption is not likely to be realistic for many retirees, but we include it to show how important it is to include these costs (unlike many other models).

Even more important is Fig. 2 (right), which shows Retirement Readiness Ratings as a function of preretirement income AND the number of future years of eligibility for a defined contribution plan for Gen Xers.

Blog.JV.GAO-rpt.June15.Fig2Even controlling for the impact of income on the probability of a successful retirement, the number of future years that a Gen Xer works for an employer that sponsors a defined contribution plan will make a tremendous difference in their Retirement Readiness Ratings (even with long-term care costs included).

The evidence from EBRI’s simulation modeling certainly agrees with the GAO that a significant percentage of households will likely run short of money in retirement if coverage is not increased. However this is because we model all the major risks in retirement and do not simply assume some ad-hoc replacement rate threshold.

Moreover, using an aggregate number to portray the percentage of workers at risk for inadequate retirement income is really missing the bigger picture. The retirement security landscape for today’s workers can be bifurcated into those fortunate enough to work for employers that sponsor retirement plans for a majority of their careers vs. those who do not. In general, those who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan for most of their working careers appear to be well on their way to a secure retirement.

Perhaps the focus of any retirement security reform going forward needs to be on those who do not work for employers offering retirement plans and those in the lowest-income quartile.

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Jack VanDerhei is research director at the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

The Status Quo

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

While the prospects for “comprehensive tax reform” may seem remote in this highly charged election year, the current tax preferences accorded employee benefits continue to be a focus of much discussion among policymakers and academics.

The most recent entry was a report by the Urban Institute which simulated the short- and long-term effect of three policy options for “flattening tax incentives and increasing retirement savings for low- and middle-income workers.”  The report concluded that “reducing 401(k) contribution limits increases taxes for high-income taxpayers; expanding the saver’s credit raises saving incentives and lowers taxes for low- and middle-income taxpayers; and replacing the exclusion for retirement saving contributions with a 25 percent refundable credit benefits primarily low- and middle-income taxpayers, and raises taxes and reduces retirement assets for high-income taxpayers.”

However, and to the authors’ credit, the report also noted that “the behavioral responses by both employers and employees will affect the final savings outcomes achieved under reform but are beyond the scope of our estimates[i].”

In previous posts, we’ve highlighted the dangers attendant with relying on simplistic retirement modeling assumptions, the application of dated plan design information to future accumulations, and the choice of adequacy thresholds that, while mathematically accurate, seem unlikely to provide a retirement lifestyle that would, in reality, feel “adequate.”

However, one of the more pervasive assumptions, particularly when it comes to modeling the impact of policy and/or tax reform changes, is that, regardless of the size and scope of the changes proposed, workers – and employers – will generally continue to do what they are currently doing, and at the current rate(s), for both contributions and/or plan offerings.  Consequently, there is talk of restricting participant access to their retirement savings until retirement, with little if any discussion as to how that might affect future contribution levels, by both workers and employers, and there are debate about modifying retirement plan tax preferences as though those changes would have no impact at all on the calculus of those making decisions to offer and support these programs with matching contributions.  Ultimately, these behavioral responses might not only impact the projected budget “savings” associated with the proposals, but the retirement savings accumulations themselves.

EBRI research has previously been able to leverage its extensive databases and survey data (including the long-running Retirement Confidence Survey) to both capture  potential responses to these types of proposals and, more significantly, to quantify their potential impact on retirement security today and over the extended time periods over which their influence extends.  In recent months, that research has provided insights on the full breadth of:

  • A retirement savings cap[ii],
  • The proportionality of savings account balances with incomes[iii], and
  • The impact of permanently modifying the exclusion of employer and employee contributions for retirement savings from taxable income, among other proposals[iv].

While we can’t be certain what the future brings, considering the likely responses to policy changes is a critical element in any comprehensive impact assessment – not only because the status quo is rarely a dependable outcome, but because, after all, those who assume the status quo are generally looking to change it.

  • Notes

[i] From Urban Institute and Brookings Institution:  Flattening Tax Incentives for Retirement Saving“Our findings should be interpreted with caution. Actual legislation for flattening tax incentives requires more than the simple adjustments discussed here. For instance, if a credit-based approach is used, then the laws would need to ensure some recapture of those benefits for those who made contributions one year and withdrew them soon thereafter.

Additionally, the behavioral responses by both employers and employees will affect the final savings outcomes achieved under reform but are beyond the scope of our estimates. For instance, employees may save more in response to improved incentives, in which case the benefits to low lifetime income households would be greater than we find. On the other hand, employers might reduce their contributions in response to some of the policy changes outlined. In this case, the tax and savings benefits we find would be overstated.  While our policy simulations are illustrative, addressing these behavioral responses would be a chief concern in tailoring specific policies to create the best incentives.”

[ii] See “The Impact of a Retirement Savings Account Cap

[iii] See “Upside” Potential

[iv] See “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security”, and “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances

“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.

 

“Whether” Forecasts

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

This is the time of year where, in many parts of the county, the weather—and weather forecasters—dominate the nightly news coverage, certainly when the predictions are dire.  Indeed, having had the opportunity to live in several different parts of the country, I can assure you that the bigger the projected snowfall, the more hyped the coverage.

Several weeks back, the local meteorologists were all agog about an impending snowfall in the Washington, DC area—a snowfall  initially projected at 2–4 inches of accumulation, but that was quickly revised to 3–5 inches, and then to 4–7 inches.  The local mass transportation systems sprang into action, announcing alternative schedules, state officials advised those who didn’t need to be on the roads to stay home, non-emergency federal employees in the area were granted an excused absence, while others were directed to telecommute.

As it turned out, it did snow—but not much, and certainly not in the amounts that had garnered all the attention.  Afterwards, meteorologists were quick to point out that accumulations had matched projections in some areas, although those areas were relatively small and generally far removed from major metropolitan centers.  Ultimately, more were affected by the weather forecast than the weather itself.

Dire predictions are also common about the retirement prospects for Americans.  A recent headline proclaims “Americans Are $6.8 Trillion Short On Retirement Savings,” a figure that the article proceeds to tell us amounts to $113,000 per household “for those on the eve of retirement” —that is, those ages 55 to 64.

Actually, that $6.8 trillion is the low end of a range published by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) about six months ago,[1] and is close to the $6.6 trillion estimate of the Center for Retirement Research (CRR), which we have commented on previously (see “Rely-Able?”)  The NIRS projections were largely derived by looking at self-reported retirement account balances, financial assets and net worth from the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances, incorporating some assumptions about defined benefit assets, and extrapolating target retirement savings needs based on a set of age-based income multipliers—income multipliers, it should be noted, that have no apparent connection with actual income, or with actual spending needs in retirement.

For public policy purposes, EBRI has long defined adequate retirement income as having the financial resources to cover basic expenses plus uninsured medical costs in retirement. Working from that definition as a starting point, along with an assumption that retirement represents the cessation of paid employment and begins at age 65[2], we have projected that approximately 44 percent of Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer households are simulated to be at risk of running short of money in retirement, assuming they retain any net housing equity until other financial resources are depleted.  Our most recent assessment of that total aggregate gap between needs and available resources is $4.6 trillion, with an individual average of approximately $48,000.[3]

That is, of course, still a large gap, though one considerably smaller than that highlighted in the article.  While it represents a lot of households—it also includes a wide range of personal circumstances, from individuals projected to run short by as little as a dollar to those projected to fall short by tens of thousands of dollars.[4]  For those seeking to understand, and perhaps craft solutions for, the current projected shortfalls, this is an important distinction, and one given short shrift by a headline’s focus on the aggregate.

A lot of science goes into making weather projections, and yet a temperature difference of a mere degree or two can be the difference between a modest rainfall or a blizzard of epic proportion.  Beyond those reality variables, imprecise modeling assumptions can distort forecasts, producing their own disruptions.

When it comes to effective retirement policy, it is, of course, important to be able to quantify just how big the nation’s retirement savings shortfall is.  It is, however, perhaps even more important to remember that whether an individual shortfall exists will be a combination of individual circumstances, as well as varying degrees of preparation, access, and needs.

Notes


[1] The NIRS report, “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse than We Think?” is available online here.

[2] EBRI has also performed analysis on retirement ages other than 65. 

[3] EBRI recently submitted congressional testimony on “The Role of Social Security, Defined Benefits, and Private Retirement Accounts in the Face of the Retirement Crisis.”  Included in that testimony was an analysis of the probabilities of successful retirement by income quartile for both voluntary and automatic enrollment 401(k) plans.   You can read it online here.   

[4] Nearly one-half (49.1 percent) of Gen Xers are projected to have at least 20 percent more than is simulated to be needed, for example, while about 1 in 5 (19.4 percent) are projected to have less than 80 percent of what is needed. See “All or Nothing? An Expanded Perspective on Retirement Readiness,” online here

How Much Would You Pay?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

Growing up, I remember late night television being broken up by commercials touting a series of interesting products, everything from a rod-and-reel contraption that would fit in your pocket to a special set of knives that would, apparently, slice through any substance in the known universe without ever being sharpened. But unlike the commercials that ran during prime time, having made the pitch, the announcer lead viewers through a series of additional product extensions, generally with the admonition, “but wait, there’s more…”

Even with all that buildup, as the commercial closed viewers were reminded of the features of the product, and then asked, “Now, how much would you pay?” as several possible prices were suggested, then crossed off before being informed of the actual price (“plus shipping and handling”). And then, to close the deal, viewers were frequently told that they could have a SECOND version of the product for the same price (“just pay shipping and handling”).

I’m happy to say that I considered buying more of those offerings than I actually bought (albeit somewhat embarrassed to admit to how many I HAVE purchased over the years). The lessons I learned early on were that the product never worked nearly as well at home as it did on television, that you almost never had a good use for the second “at no additional charge” copy, and that when you added up ALL the costs, you frequently found out a sizeable gap between what you thought you were paying, and the actual bill.

Earlier this year, as part of its 2014 budget proposal, the Obama administration included a cap on tax-deferred retirement savings that would limit the amounts that could be accumulated in specified retirement accounts―which covers most of the ERISA-qualified plan universe (401(a), 401(k), 403(b), certain 457(b), as well as individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and―to the surprise of many―defined benefit pension plan accruals, as well.

The proposal would limit the amount(s) accumulated in these accounts to that necessary to provide the maximum annuity permitted for a tax-qualified defined benefit plan under current law, currently an annual benefit of $205,000 payable in the form of a joint and 100 percent survivor benefit commencing at age 62. This, in turn, translates into a maximum permitted accumulation for an individual age 62 of approximately $3.4 million (a number that many of the initial media reports carried) at the interest rates prevailing when the proposal was released. And, certainly initially, most of the analysis of the proposal’s impact―including that from EBRI’s own unique and extensive databases―was focused on how many individuals had accumulated account balances in excess of that $3.4 million today.

But, taking a longer view, and using our proprietary Retirement Security Projection Model,® EBRI’s simulation results for 401(k) participants (assuming no defined benefit accruals and no job turnover) show that more than 1 in 10 current 401(k) participants are likely to hit the proposed cap sometime prior to age 65―even at today’s historically low discount rates. If you assume discount rates closer to historical averages, the percentage likely to be affected increases substantially.

As part of the analysis published in the August 2013 Issue Brief,¹ EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei also looked at the potential impact of the proposed cap based on two stylized, final-average defined benefit plans and a stylized cash balance plan, along with a number of different discount rate assumptions. As an example, assuming coverage by a defined benefit plan providing 2 percent, three-year, final-average pay benefits, with a subsidized early retirement at 62, and assuming an 8 percent discount rate, nearly a third are projected to be affected by the proposed limit.

VanDerhei also looked at the potential response of plan sponsors, specifically smaller 401(k) plans (those with less than 100 participants), whose owners might reconsider the relative advantages of continuing the plans, particularly in situations where that owner of the firm believes that the relative cost/value of offering the plan is significantly altered such that the benefit to the owner is reduced. Since these owners (and their personal circumstances) can’t be gleaned directly from the data, some assumptions had to be made. But, depending on plan size, the EBRI analysis indicates this could involve as few as 18 percent of the small firms (at a 4 percent discount rate) or as many as 75 percent of the small firms (at an 8 percent discount rate).

The administration’s budget proposal estimated that the retirement savings cap would generate an additional $9 billion in revenue. But the question―and one that the EBRI analysis helps policy makers answer, and for a wide range of possible outcomes―is “how much would it cost?”

Notes

¹ See “The Impact of a Retirement Savings Account Cap,” online here.

“Upside” Potential

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

I once spent a very uncomfortable period of time stuck in one of those carnival rides that, for brief periods of time, spins riders in a circle as the cab you are in also twirls. As uncomfortable as the ride was, the “stuck” part came while my cab was high in the air—and turned upside down. In no time at all, it was obvious that this extended “upside down” state wasn’t contemplated by those who designed the seating compartment (nor, apparently, had they considered that my compartment “mate” would find it exciting to rock our stuck cab during our brief “internment”).

One of the comments you hear from time to time is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down,” that they go primarily to those at higher income levels, those who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. And from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes.

Indeed, if those “upside-down incentives” were the only forces at work, one might reasonably expect to find that the higher the individual’s salary, the higher the overall account balance would be, as a multiple of salary. However, drawing on the actual administrative data from the massive EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), those ratios hold relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000.

In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes—and not “upside down.”

082.2Aug13.Fig

(click to enlarge)

As those who work with these programs know, what keeps these potential disparities in check is the series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Internal Revenue Code Secs. 402(g) and 415(c), combined with ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time to do just that—to maintain a certain parity between highly compensated and non-highly compensated workers in the benefits available from these programs. The data suggest they are having exactly that impact.

And that’s why focusing only on the incentives—and not also on the limits—can leave you “stuck” with only part of the answer.

Foregone “Conclusions”

By Nevin Adams and Jack VanDerhei, EBRI

Adams

Adams

VanDerhei

Behavioral finance drives much of the discussion around retirement plan design innovations these days, for the very simple reason that it seems to help explain what might otherwise be viewed as irrational behaviors. For example, human beings are prone to something that behaviorists call “confirmation bias,” a tendency to favor information that confirms what we already believe. While doing so generally contributes to quicker assessments of information, there are some obvious shortcomings to that approach in terms of critically evaluating new information, particularly information that contradicts what we have already chosen (rightly or wrongly) to accept as reality.

Last month EBRI published an analysis of a direct comparison of the likely benefits under specific types of 401(k) plans and defined benefit (DB) pension plans.(1) As anyone who has worked with employment-based retirement plans knows, individual participant outcomes can vary widely based on a complex combination of decisions by both those that sponsor the plans and the individual workers who are eligible to participate in them, as well as a host of external factors (notably the investment markets) that lie outside their control.

The EBRI report took pains to not only select but to explain the key assumptions in our analysis. As it turns out, the analysis highlighted a number of circumstances in which traditional pensions (where offered) could produce a higher benefit at retirement—and some in which 401(k)s were superior in that regard.

However, some of the reporting and commentary that followed its publication suggest that some either did not read with care the entire analysis, or chose to ignore the totality of the report. Here, in a Q&A format, we deal with most of the mischaracterizations(2) we’ve seen thus far:

  • Did the report conclude that 401(k) benefits were better for almost every age and income cohort?

♦ No. While an analysis of just the median results for just the baseline assumptions might suggest this conclusion, the EBRI Issue Brief followed with seven different sensitivity analyses with different assumptions that produce different results. Moreover, the entire analysis was restricted to employees currently ages 25–29, because those individuals would have the opportunity for a full working career with those 401(k)s, as well as the modeled defined benefit results.

  • Did the study make assumptions that are biased toward 401(k)s?

♦ Quite the contrary. The baseline used historical averages and ran many sensitivity analyses that were biased AWAY from 401(k)s to test how robust the results were.

  • Why did you exclude automatic enrollment designs in 401(k) plans from the analysis?

♦ While a great many employers have adopted automatic enrollment with automatic escalation provisions in recent years, sufficient time has not yet passed since the establishment of most of these escalation features to know how long, and to what levels, participants will allow the escalation provisions to continue before they opt out.

  • How does excluding those automatic enrollment plan designs from the analysis impact the results?

♦ Some have argued that automatic enrollment is actually bad for retirement savings because, in some cases, the AVERAGE rate of deferral—when computed only for those who make a contribution—initially decreases.(3) However—and as previous EBRI research has documented—the decline in average deferrals masks the reality that while some individuals initially save at lower rates (certainly in the absence of provisions to increase those initial rates automatically), many lower-income workers become savers under an automatic plan design who would not contribute anything had they been eligible for a voluntary-enrollment 401(k) plan instead.

♦ The June 2013 Issue Brief(4) specifically treats these individuals as making zero contributions and does NOT simply exclude them. This is the major reason why low-income employees do not do as well as high-income employees under THIS TYPE of 401(k) plan. EBRI has done previous analysis(5) showing the difference between automatic-enrollment and voluntary-enrollment types of 401(k) plans and specifically documents how much better automatic enrollment was for the retirement savings of lower-income cohorts.

  • Aren’t workers today changing jobs more frequently than they did during the heyday of defined benefit pensions?

♦ Actually, no. While it was not an explicit part of this report, a recent EBRI Notes article points out that the data on employee tenure (the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer) show that so-called “career jobs” NEVER existed for most workers. Indeed, over the past nearly 30 years, the median tenure of all wage and salary workers age 20 or older has held steady, at approximately five years. While the new analysis focused on the outcomes for younger workers, including the implications of their tenure trends on DB accumulations, the historical turnover trends suggest that this would have been problematic for full DB accumulations among previous generations of workers as well.

  •  Were the rates-of-return scenarios “realistic” for 401(k) participants?

♦ The EBRI analysis presented baseline results under historical return assumptions that were adjusted for expenses by reducing the gross return by 78 basis points. Additionally, sensitivity analysis was also conducted in this study by reducing the returns by 200 basis points to determine the robustness of the findings.

  • What about the fact that private-sector pensions are largely funded exclusively by employers, while much of that burden falls on individual workers in 401(k) plans?

♦ The report acknowledges this difference, but as the title of the Issue Brief specifically states, this is a comparative analysis of future benefits from private-sector voluntary enrollment plans vs. two stylized types of defined benefit plans—not the financial impact on the individual participants during the accumulation period, or how he/she might deploy assets not committed to retirement savings. However, as both the academic papers cited in the Issue Brief state, a comparison of ALL aspects of this difference would likely need to incorporate the assumption that more costly employer contributions to a plan (whether defined benefit or 401(k)) will be at least partially offset by lower wages over the long run, everything else equal.

  • Is it reasonable to compare defined benefit and 401(k) plan benefits?

♦ Retirement income adequacy studies have been undertaken in several reports by other organizations with the implicit assumption that 401(k) plans are unable to generate the same amount of retirement income (regardless of the source of financing). One of the primary objectives of the June EBRI Issue Brief was to actually test whether these implicit assumptions were correct.

So, which is “better”—a defined benefit plan or a 401(k)?

Well, as was noted in the Issue Brief, there is no single answer because a multitude of factors affect the ultimate outcome: interest rates and investment returns; the level and length of time a worker participates in a retirement plan; an individual’s age, job tenure, and remaining length of time in the work force; and the purchase price of an annuity, among other things.

The best answer depends on an incorporation of all the relevant factors, the tools to provide a thorough analysis, and an open mind with which to consider the results.

Notes

(1) Jack VanDerhei, “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans,” online here.

(2) For example, see “Claim that 401(k)s Beat Defined Benefit Plans Stirs Controversy,” online here.

(3) This is the same type of mistake made in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article. See the EBRI blog “What Do You Call a Glass That is 60−85% Full?” as well as  “More or Less?”

(4) “Reality Checks: A Comparative Analysis of Future Benefits from Private-Sector, Voluntary-Enrollment 401(k) Plans vs. Stylized, Final-Average-Pay Defined Benefit and Cash Balance Plans,” online here.

(5) See Jack VanDerhei and Craig Copeland, “The Impact of PPA on Retirement Savings for 401(k) Participants.” Washington, DC: EBRI Issue Brief, no. 318, June 2008, online here.