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.

Safety “Net”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

I’m one of those travelers who absolutely dreads cutting it to the last minute. Not that I haven’t been forced to do so, from time to time, but I’m generally the one chomping at the bit to get to the airport, or to hit the highway an hour before anyone else. In my defense, on more than one occasion that “cushion” has been the difference between catching a flight or not. Planning that only considers a “best” or “normal” scenario too often overlooks the unexpected—and sometimes that margin of error is all you have.

For over a decade EBRI has modeled the nation’s potential retirement savings shortfall, and the EBRI Retirement Readiness Ratings™ provide an assessment of how many Americans are at risk of running short of money for needed expenses in retirement. In contemplating expenses, that model considers the regular expenses of living in retirement, as well as uninsured medical expenses, and the potential costs of nursing home care.

However, we have also documented and quantified the role of Social Security, defined benefit and private retirement accounts on retirement income adequacy for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers with an eye toward replacing their preretirement wages and income. While this more traditional focus on income replacement may misstate an individual’s actual post-retirement financial situation, many financial planners work with this goal as a starting point, and it can provide valuable insights particularly when—as is the case with EBRI’s projections—it is able to leverage actual 401(k) data from the unique EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, the largest such repository in the world.

Indeed, based on a recent EBRI analysis, between 83 and 86 percent of workers with more than 30 years of eligibility in a voluntary enrollment 401(k) plan are simulated to have sufficient 401(k) accumulations that, combined with current levels of Social Security retirement benefits, will be able to replace at least 60 percent of their age-64 wages and salary on an inflation-adjusted basis. When the threshold for a financially successful retirement is increased to 70 percent replacement of age-64 income, 73–76 percent of these workers will still meet that threshold, relying only on 401(k) and Social Security combined. At an 80 percent replacement rate, 67 percent of the lowest-income quartile will still meet the threshold; however the percentage of those in the highest-income quartile deemed to be “successful” relying on just these two retirement components slips to 59 percent, reflecting the progressive nature of Social Security.

As positive a result as that seems for many, when the same analysis is conducted for automatic enrollment 401(k) plans (with an annual 1 percent automatic escalation provision and empirically derived opt-outs), the probability of success increases substantially: 88–94 percent at a 60 percent threshold; 81–90 percent at a 70 percent replacement threshold; and 73–85 percent at an 80 percent threshold.

That’s not quite the doomsday crisis scenario portrayed by many of the headlines in vogue today, though EBRI’s projections still show that a large number of Americans—even among those eligible for a 401(k) plan for 30 years—won’t be able to replace that pre-65 salary even at the various levels modeled, based on current savings patterns.

It does, however, illustrate the impact that changes in those current savings behaviors can have—and it underscores the significant role of Social Security as a vital safety net for the nation’s retirement security.

Note

“The Role of Social Security, Defined Benefits, and Private Retirement Accounts in the Face of the Retirement Crisis” is available online here.

“After” Images

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

“Replacement rates”—roughly defined as the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income available in retirement—arguably constitute a poor proxy for retirement readiness.

Embracing that calculation as a retirement readiness measure requires accepting any number of imbedded assumptions, not infrequently that individuals will spend less in retirement. While there is certainly a likelihood that less may be spent on such things as taxes, housing, and various work-related expenses (including saving for retirement), there are also the often-overlooked costs of post-retirement medical expenses and long-term care that are not part of the pre-retirement balance sheet.

That said, replacement rates are relatively easy to understand and communicate, and, as a result, they are widely used by financial planners to facilitate the retirement planning process. They are also frequently employed by policy makers as a gauge in assessing the efficacy of various components of the retirement system in terms of providing income in retirement that is, at some level, comparable to that available to individuals prior to retirement.

A recent EBRI analysis looked at a different type of measure, one focused on the years prior to the traditional retirement age of 65, specifically a post-65 to pre-65 income ratio. The analysis was intended to provide a perspective on household income five and 10 years prior to age 65 compared with that of household income five and 10 years after age 65, specifically for households that didn’t change marital status during those periods. Note that in some households at least one member continues to work after age 65 (part-time in many cases) and may not fully retire until sometime after the traditional retirement age of 65.

Based on that pre- and post-65 income comparison, the EBRI analysis finds that those in the bottom half of income distribution did not experience any drop in income after they reached 65, although the sources of income shifted, with drops in labor income offset by increases in pension/annuity income and Social Security.

That was not, however, the case for those in the top-income quartile, who experienced a drop in income as they crossed 65, with their post-65 income levels only about 60 percent of that in the pre-65 periods.

This is not to suggest that the lower-income households were “well-off” after age 65. Changes in marital status, not considered in this particular analysis, particularly in the years leading up to (and following) retirement age, can have a dramatic impact on household income.

The current analysis does, however, show that Social Security’s progressivity is serving to maintain a level of parity for lower-income households with household income levels in the decade before reaching age 65, and in some cases to improve upon that result—and it helps underline the significance of the program in providing a secure retirement income foundation.

The EBRI report, published in the September EBRI Notes, “How Does Household Income Change in the Ten Years Around Age 65?” is available online here.

“Half” Baked?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

AdamsI’ve never been much good in the kitchen.  I’ve neither the patience/discipline to follow most recipes, nor the innate sense for the right balance of ingredients that those with culinary talent seem to have.  That said, I learned the hard way years ago that if you mix the right items in the wrong order, or the wrong amounts of the right items, leave something to bake too long – or not long enough – the results can be disastrous.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts posed the question, “Are Americans Prepared for Their Golden Years?”  Perhaps not surprisingly, the report indicated that many are not.  What was surprising, however,  was the assertion that Gen-Xers (those born between 1966 and 1975), in the Pew analysis, looked to be in even worse shape than either early or late Boomers.

Previous EBRI research has found that approximately 44 percent of simulated lifepaths for Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer households are projected to run short of money in retirement, assuming they retire at age 65 and retain any net housing equity in retirement until other financial resources are depleted.  However, that 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.  Looking specifically at Gen X, many of which have decades of saving accumulations still ahead of them, nearly one-half (49.1 percent) of the simulated lifepaths of that demographic are projected to have retirement resources that are at least 20 percent more than is simulated to be needed, while approximately one-third (31.4 percent) are projected to have between 80 percent and120 percent of the financial resources necessary to cover retirement expenses and uninsured health care costs (see Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model).

However, in reviewing the Pew report and its associated methodology, several key differences in approach emerge.  On the one hand, the Pew report assumes that workers will receive credit for a full career in the accrual of Social Security benefits, and it also imputes a full-career accrual of defined benefit pension benefits – though many individuals don’t wait till full retirement age to collect on the former (accepting lower benefits), and many don’t accumulate enough service to be entitled to the latter (see “The Good Old Days”, “Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012“).  This assumption likely exaggerates the retirement readiness of older workers, who are more likely to have some defined benefit accrual.

On the other hand, the Pew report appears to assume no further contributions, either by employer or employee, to the defined contribution balances as of 2010.  That’s right, no further contributions beyond the self-reported participant balances of 2010, and no earnings projection on those assumed non-existent contributions, either.  This assumption likely serves to understate the future retirement readiness of younger workers, who have years, and in many cases decades, of savings ahead of them.

Based on the combination of those assumptions and the well-documented trend away from defined benefit plans and toward a greater reliance on defined contribution designs, it’s little wonder that the Pew report concludes that Gen Xers will be worse off than Boomers.

In sum, whether you’re baking a cake or evaluating research conclusions, if it seems a bit “off,” it’s generally a good idea to carefully review the recipe – and double check the ingredients.

Notes

The Pew Charitable Trusts report, “Retirement Security Across Generations” is available online here.

The Good Old Days

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need to fix the “broken” 401(k) plan. Some say it disproportionately benefits higher-paid workers, some claim it can’t provide a level of retirement income sufficient to meet lower-income needs, and still others maintain it can’t provide that level of security for anyone. And, as often as not, those sentiments arise as part of a discussion where folks wistfully talk about the “good old days” when everybody had a defined benefit pension, and people didn’t have to worry about saving for retirement.

Only problem is—those “good old days” never really existed, nor were they as good as we “remember” them.

Consider that only a quarter of those age 65 or older had pension income in 1975, the year after ERISA was signed into law. The highest level ever was the early 1990s, when fewer than 4 in 10 (both public- and private-sector workers) reported pension income, according to EBRI tabulations of the 1976–2011 Current Population Survey (in 2010, 34 percent had pension income).

Perhaps more telling is that that pension income, vital as it surely has been for some, represented just 20 percent of all the income received by those 65 and older in 2010. In the “good old days” of 1975, it was less than 15 percent.

In fact, in 1979, just 28 percent of private-sector workers were covered “only” by a defined benefit (DB) plan (another 10 percent were covered by both a DB and a defined contribution plan), according to Department of Labor Form 5500 Summaries. In other words, even in the “good old days” when “everybody” supposedly had a pension, the reality is that most workers in the private sector did not.

Even among those who did work for an employer that offered a pension, most in the private sector weren’t working long enough with a single employer to accumulate the service levels you need for a full pension. Nor is this a recent phenomenon; median job tenure of the total workforce has hovered about four years since the early 1950s (in fact, as EBRI’s latest research points out, the average median job tenure has now risen, to 5.2 years).¹ For private-sector workers, fewer than 1 in 5 have ever spent 25 years or more with one employer. Under pension accrual formulas, those kind of numbers mean that even among the workers who qualify for a pension, many are likely to receive a negligible amount because their job tenure is so short.

Ultimately what this suggests is that, even when defined benefit pensions were more prevalent than they are today, most Americans still had to worry about retirement income shortfalls.

Indeed, Americans today do have some additional concerns: longer lives and longer retirements to fund, as well as the attendant issues of higher health care costs and long-term care. For most workers—past and present—the more savings options they have, the better; and the easier we make it for them to save, the better. That is the power of payroll deduction, matching contributions, and employer action.

When all is said and done, we’re all still challenged to find the combination of funding—Social Security, personal savings, and employment-based retirement programs—to provide for a financially satisfying retirement.

Just like in the “good old days.”

Notes

See EBRI Notes, December 2010.

“Macro” Management

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Earlier this week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) outlined his overall goals for comprehensive tax reform, noting that he planned to use both the Domenici-Rivlin debt reduction plan and the fiscal recommendations of the president’s Simpson-Bowles Commission¹ as the “starting points for full-scale tax reform,” citing the former in commenting that “‘Everything must be on the table’ when it comes to tax and entitlement reform.” The New York Times on Monday reported a “Push for a Fiscal Pact Picks Up Speed, and Power,” even as other published reports suggested that lawmakers would look to defer those votes until after the November elections.

Those headlines echoed the sense that EBRI CEO and President Dallas Salisbury outlined last month to the EBRI board of trustees at their spring meeting—a sense that broad-based tax reform would be the focus of Congress, with fiscal issues driving a focus on the macro impact of policies rather than the micro outcomes that might result. While there’s an acknowledgement that the “devil’s in the details,” there is also a growing sense that sweeping change is needed, and that—whatever the potential negative effects at the micro level, enacting change would be supported because it was seen as “best for the nation and the economy.”

Salisbury cited a meeting at which a senior congressional staffer noted that when Congress did act, it would include changes in the tax treatment of retirement plans—“we just can’t tell you what.” Later at that same meeting, a more senior official made it even clearer that those issues would be part of the equation, going so far as to outline about a half dozen specific provisions under consideration. Salisbury highlighted as “the most telling words in that senior staffer’s presentation” that “the biggest roadblock to meaningful action toward a rational retirement policy was inter-industry competition”—the competition of firms within the retirement plan industry lobbying for different provisions, all of which carry a cost to the federal government, but with no one willing to suggest ways to pay for their proposals.

“If there is a message,” Salisbury noted, “it is that whatever the government is willing to spend on retirement in the future is less than they are now willing to spend.” Not that there isn’t interest in broader policy objectives, such as increasing the number of individuals covered by retirement programs; however, the sense is that the expense to the government of any new initiatives (such as “automatic” IRAs) would have to come from current tax preferences for other programs. “It’s less than a zero sum game,” Salisbury told the group.

Salisbury cited the comments made by Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico, at another recent event, who spoke of a dynamic of policy and party volatility in the near-term, with, at the extreme, control of at least one house of Congress changing every two years for the next decade. VandeHei noted that with the electorate so polarized, at the margins, he expects the presidential election in a number of states to be decided by extremely narrow margins, such as 1,000 to 4,000 votes. Moreover, because of the primary process, the extremes rule in both political parties. The resulting political polarization means that fiscal constraints dominate all discussions on Capitol Hill.

Salisbury noted that proposals to reduce Social Security, the sole source of retirement income for 37 percent of today’s retirees—or Medicare—will widen the current retirement savings gap, as will any reduction in retirement plan tax preferences, or that of workplace-based healthcare programs. “That diminishes an individual’s ability and/or willingness to retire—and that has an impact on employers, and workforce management,” he noted. That also means less capacity in the retired population to consume goods and services—a potentially critical factor in the nation’s future economic growth as well.

As we approach the end of 2012, there is potential for massive political and economic chaos, Salisbury said, because of the concurrent scheduled expiration of the Bush administration tax cuts, the impact of federal budget sequestration and its automatic spending cuts due to hit at year-end, the end of the (extended) payroll tax “holiday,” and the likely need to approve an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling shortly thereafter. The sense is that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will have less control in the next Congress than the current one, assuming Republicans maintain the majority in that chamber.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, regardless of which political party wins control, “60 is the new 50”—meaning that a super-majority of votes will be needed to break a filibuster and pass major legislation..

Salisbury suggested that “it’s all going to happen during the last breathing moments of the current Congress,” reflecting a sense that lame-duck members of the U.S. House and Senate—those who won’t be part of the next Congress—will be willing to cast otherwise politically risky votes in order to make something meaningful happen. The strategy: Let everything “hit the fan” on December 31, which would, among other things, restore higher tax rates. At that point, ANY change that reduces those “new” rates can be seen as a tax cut, rather than an increase. In effect, that means that the current Congress can vote for things on January 2 that would have been tagged a tax hike on December 31, but that on January 2 will be deemed a tax cut. This would all have to occur in the narrow window the end of the year and the start of the new 113th Congress. Newly elected (but not yet seated) lawmakers would not even have to vote, noted Salisbury. (Incidentally, the New York Times reported on a similar scenario this past week, a month behind Salisbury.)

Salisbury said that the highest probability for this outcome is if the status quo emerges from the 2012 election—the Senate split 50/50, the House remains in GOP control, and President Obama is re-elected—“because all three will have a huge stake in things being solved, since they are going to have to live with it over the next four years.”

On the other hand, he noted, if there is a change in the balance of power—such that one party doesn’t have to live with the consequences of it, that the result can be blamed on the other party—lawmakers might defer action.

In any event, Salisbury noted that if the 2012 elections produce the “status quo” in party alignments, by early January we will not only know what the Supreme Court has decided on health care, we may know what the tax status is of workplace benefit plans and programs like Social Security and Medicare—and then the nation’s employers will know what they’re dealing with. But if action is deferred, there will be no letup from uncertainty.

“The macro, not the micro, is driving policy,” Salisbury noted. “This is about saving the economy.” But with everybody focused on macro, he added, “HR execs will have to deal with the impact on the micro.” And, with trust in employers very high by both current workers and retirees, “individuals are likely to turn to employers even more than they do today to help them achieve health and financial security, including retirement security.”

Notes

¹ EBRI has run multiple simulations on these proposals, and their potential impact on retirement savings. See EBRI Notes, March 2012, “Modifying the Federal Tax Treatment of 401(k) Plan Contributions: Projected Impact on Participant Account Balances;” EBRI Issue Brief #360, July 2011, “Employment-Based Health Benefits and Taxation: Implications of Efforts to Reduce the Deficit and National Debt;”  and EBRI Issue Brief #364, November 2011, “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security.”