“Repeat” Performance

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

A few months back, I was intrigued to catch several episodes of “Cosmos,” an updated version of the classic 1980 Carl Sagan series.  Along with the significantly expanded and enhanced visuals and (to me, anyway, generally annoying) animations, the series recounted the work, travails and accomplishments of Edmond Halley, who, even today, is probably best remembered for the comet whose 75-year cycle he identified and which still, as Halley’s Comet, bears his name.

Halley wasn’t the first to see the comet, of course – in fact, it had been recorded by Chinese astronomers as far back as 240 BC, noted subsequently in Babylonian records, and perhaps most famously shortly before the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror (who claimed the comet’s appearance foretold his success).  Halley noted appearances by the comet in 1531, 1607 and 1682, and based on those prior observations – and the application of the work and mathematical formulas of his friend Isaac Newton – predicted the return of the comet in 1758, which it did, albeit 16 years after his death in 1742.

Of course, the importance of repeated, measured observations isn’t restricted to celestial phenomena.  Consider that individual retirement accounts (IRAs) currently represent about a quarter of the nation’s retirement assets; and yet, despite an ongoing focus on the accumulations in defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans that have, via rollovers, fueled a significant amount of this growth, a detailed understanding as to how these funds are actually used during retirement has, to date, not been as well understood.

To address this knowledge shortfall, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has developed the EBRI IRA Database, which includes a wealth of data on IRAs including withdrawals or distributions, both by calendar year and longitudinally, which provides a unique ability to analyze a large cross-sectional segment of this vital retirement savings component, both at a point in time and as the individual ages and either changes jobs or retires.  Indeed, as a recent EBRI publication notes, the rate of withdrawals from these IRAs is important in determining the likelihood of having sufficient funds for the duration of an individual’s life, certainly where these balances are a primary source of post-retirement income.

Previous EBRI reports[i] have explored this activity for particular points in time, but a recent EBRI analysis[ii] looked for trends in the withdrawal patterns of a longitudinal three-year sample of individual post-retirement withdrawal activity, specifically those age 70 or older (in 2010), the point at which individuals are required by law to begin withdrawing money from their IRAS.

The EBRI analysis concluded that, when looking at the withdrawal rates for those ages 70 or older, the median of the average withdrawal rates over a three-year period indicated that most individuals are withdrawing at a rate that not only approximates what they are required by law to withdraw, but at a rate that is likely to be able to sustain some level of post-retirement income from IRAs as the individual continues to age.

Furthermore, the report notes that an examination of these trends over this period suggests that, based on the resulting distribution of average withdrawal rates over time as a function of the initial-year withdrawal rate, the initial withdrawal rate for those in this age group appeared to be one that these individuals are likely to continue to make the next year.

Of course, while the median withdrawal rates suggest many individuals would be able to maintain the IRA as an ongoing source of income throughout retirement, further study is needed to see if these individuals are maintaining those withdrawal rates over longer periods of time.  Moreover, the integration of IRA data with data from employment-based defined contribution retirement accounts currently underway as part of initiatives associated with EBRI’s Center for Research on Retirement Income (CRI) will allow for an even more comprehensive picture of what those who may have multiple types of retirement accounts do as they age through retirement.

And we won’t have to wait 75 years to see how it turns out.

  • Notes

[i] See “IRA Withdrawals, 2011” online here.   See also ““Take it or Leave it? The Disposition of DC Accounts: Who Rolls Over into an IRA? Who Leaves Money in the Plan and Who Withdraws Cash?” online here

[ii] See “IRA Withdrawals in 2012 and Longitudinal Results, 2010–2012” online here

The Hassle Factor

Nevin AdamsBy Nevin Adams, EBRI

Much is made these days of the application of behavioral finance and the implications for plan design, as well as the role of choice architecture in helping workers make “better” (if not more informed) benefit decisions.  Valuable as these insights have been, I think much of human behavior (or lack thereof) in these matters can be more simply explained.

What’s at work is a concept a friend of mine described to me more than 20 years ago – something he called “the hassle factor.”  It was a philosophy he routinely applied in many aspects of his personal and professional life.  Simply stated, presented with a choice between doing something that is hard, time-consuming, complicated, or even inconvenient, and doing something else, my friend – and, in fairness, human beings generally seem to be – inclined to opt for the latter.

Of course, the “hassle factor” CAN be trumped by exterior needs or forces, as anyone who has endured the long lines at the DMV or sat through the background music on an interminably long customer service line can attest.  That said, things like an unduly complicated 401(k) enrollment form/process can certainly serve as a barrier to plan entry, and there’s every reason to expect that the same might apply when it comes time to exit the plan.

Job change is a point in time at which a lot of important decisions are made—some voluntary and some forced upon us—and the disposition of one’s retirement savings account certainly looms large among them.  A recent EBRI Notes article examined what workers age 50 and above did with their defined contribution account balances at the point of job change, looking at data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with individuals age 50 and over.  EBRI analyzed responses from 2008 and 2010 for this study.

In terms of demographic characteristics, no significant difference was found between men and women in terms of their DC account balances and what they chose to do with them at job change.  And while married or partnered individuals were less likely to withdraw their assets and more likely to roll them over into an IRA than singles, the differences were small.

The EBRI analysis did find that a decision to take a withdrawal in cash declined with higher account balances, higher incomes, existing ownership of an IRA, and higher financial wealth. Not surprisingly, the decision to cash out rose with individual debt levels.

However, among those who left their employer but remained in the workforce, the most common outcome was to leave their retirement account balance with their prior employer’s plan.  The EBRI report notes that, unlike the outcomes detailed above, there was no clear trend between the financial variables, and the decision to leave those DC balances in the prior employer plans.

As for what might explain that outcome, the report noted that it might simply be a decision to postpone taking the money until it was needed, or that there “may be behavioral factors, such as inertia, driving what might be seen as a ‘non-decision.’”

Or, as my friend might have been inclined to say, a non-decision based on the “hassle factor.”

  • Notes

“Take it or Leave it? The Disposition of DC Accounts: Who Rolls Over into an IRA? Who Leaves Money in the Plan and Who Withdraws Cash?” is published in the EBRI May Notes, available here.