Take it or Leave it?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI
Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

While each situation is different, in my experience leaving a job brings with it nearly as much paperwork as joining a new employer. Granted, you’re not asked to wade through a kit of enrollment materials, and the number of options are generally fewer, but you do have to make certain benefits-related decisions, including the determination of what to do with your retirement plan distribution(s).

Unfortunately, even in the most amicable of partings, workers have traditionally lacked the particulars to facilitate a rollover to either an individual retirement account (IRA) or a subsequent employer’s retirement plan—and thus, the easiest thing to do was simply to request that distribution be paid to him or her in cash.

Over the years, a number of changes have been made to discourage the “leakage” of retirement savings at job change: Legal thresholds for mandatory distributions have been set; a requirement established that distributions between $1,000 and $5,000 on which instructions are not received either be rolled over into an IRA or left in the plan; and even the requirement that a 20 percent tax withholding would be applied to an eligible rollover distribution—unless the recipient elected to have the distribution paid in a direct rollover to an eligible retirement plan, including an IRA. All these have doubtless served to at least give pause to that individual distribution “calculus” at job change.

Indeed, a recent EBRI analysis¹ indicates that workers now taking a retirement plan distribution are doing a better job at holding on to those retirement savings than had those in the past. Among those who reported in 2012 ever having received a distribution, 48.1 percent reported rolling over at least some of their most recent distribution into another tax-qualified savings vehicle, and among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, the percentage who used any portion of it for consumption was also lower, at 15.7 percent (compared with 25.2 percent of those whose most recent distribution was received through 2003, and 38.3 percent through 1993).

As you might expect with the struggling economy, there was an uptick in the percentage of recipients through 2012 who used their lump sum for debts, business, and home expenses, and a decrease in the percentage saving in nontax-qualified vehicles relative to distributions through 2006. However, the EBRI analysis found that the percentage of lump-sum recipients who used the entire amount of their most recent distribution for tax-qualified savings has increased sharply since 1993: Well over 4 in 10 (45.2 percent) of those who received their most recent distribution through 2012 did so, compared with 19.3 percent of those who received their most recent distribution through 1993.

The EBRI report also notes that an important factor in the change in the relative percentages between the 1993 and 2012 data is the percentage of lump sums that were used for a single purpose. Consider that among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, nearly all (94.0 percent) of those who rolled over at least some² of their most recent distribution did so for the entire amount.

There is both encouraging and disappointing news in the EBRI report findings: The data show that improvement has been made in the percentage of employment-based retirement plan participants rolling over all of their LSDs on job change, along with less frequent pure-consumption use of any of the distributions. However, the data also show that approximately 55 percent of those who took a lump-sum payment did not roll all of it into tax-qualified savings.

In common parlance, “Take it or leave it” is an ultimatum—an “either/or” proposition that frequently comes at the end, not the beginning, of a decision process. However, as the EBRI analysis indicates, for retirement plan participants it is a decision that can (certainly for younger workers, or those with significant balances) have a dramatic impact on their financial futures.

Notes
¹ The November 2013 EBRI Notes article, “Lump-Sum Distributions at Job Change, Distributions Through 2012,” is online here. 
² Two important factors in whether a lump-sum distribution is used exclusively for tax-qualified savings appear to be the age of the recipient and the size of the distribution. The likelihood of the distribution being rolled over entirely to tax-qualified savings increased with the age of the recipient at the time of receipt until age 64. Similarly, the larger the distribution, the more likely it was kept entirely in tax-qualified savings.

“Better” Business?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

It has become something of a truism in our industry that defined benefit plans are “better” than defined contribution plans. We’re told that returns are higher(1) and fees lower in the former, that employees are better served by having the investment decisions made by professionals, and that many individuals don’t save enough on their own to provide the level of retirement income that they could expect from a defined benefit pension plan. Even the recent (arguably positive) changes in defined contribution design—automatic enrollment, qualified default investment alternatives, and the expanding availability of retirement income options(2)—are often said to represent the “DB-ification” of DC plans.

However, a recent analysis by EBRI reveals that DB is not always “better,” at least not defined as providing financial resources in retirement. In fact, if historical rates of return are assumed, as well as annuity purchase prices reflecting average bond rates over the last 27 years, the median comparisons show a strong outcome advantage for voluntary-enrollment (VE) 401(k) plans over both stylized, final-average DB plan and cash balance plan designs.(3)

Admittedly, those findings are based on a number of assumptions, not the least of which include the specific benefit formulae of the DB plans, and the performance of the markets. Indeed, the analysis in the June EBRI Issue Brief takes pains not only to outline and explain those assumptions,(4) but, using EBRI’s unique Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) to produce a wide range of simulations, provides a direct comparison of the likely benefits in a number of possible scenarios, some of which produce different comparative outcomes. While the results do reflect the projected cumulative effects of job changes and things like loans, as well as the real-life 401(k) plan design parameters in several hundred different plans, they do not yet incorporate the potentially positive impact that automatic enrollment might have, particularly for lower-income individuals.

Significantly, the EBRI report does take into account another real-world factor that is frequently overlooked in the DB-to-DC comparisons: the actual job tenure experience of those in the private sector. In fact, as a recent EBRI Notes article(5) points out, 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. Even with today’s accelerated vesting schedules, that kind of turnover represents a kind of tenure “leakage” that can have a significant impact on pension benefits—even when they work for an employer that offers that benefit, they simply don’t work for one employer long enough to qualify for a meaningful benefit.

So, which type of retirement plan is “better”? As the EBRI analysis illustrates, there is no single right answer—but the data suggests that ignoring how often people actually change employers can be as misleading as ignoring how much they actually save.

Notes

(1) In the days following publication of the EBRI Issue Brief, (“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),  a number of individuals commented specifically on the chronicled difference in return in DB and DC plans; outside of some exceptions in the public sector, DB investment performance generally has no effect on the benefits paid.

(2) A recent EBRI analysis indicates that, even in DB plans, the rate of annuitization varies directly with the degree to which plan rules restrict the ability to choose a partial or lump-sum distribution. See “Annuity and Lump-Sum Decisions in Defined Benefit Plans: The Role of Plan Rules,” online here.

(3) While the DC plans modeled in this analysis draw from the actual design experience of several hundred VE 401(k) plans, in the interest of clarity it was decided to limit the comparisons for DB plans to only two stylized representative plan designs: a high-three-year, final-average DB plan and a cash balance plan. Median generosity parameters are used for baseline purposes but comparisons are also re-run with more generous provisions (the 75th percentile) as part of the sensitivity analysis.

(4) The report notes that a multitude of factors affect the ultimate outcome: interest rates and investment returns; the level and length of participation; 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.

(5) The EBRI report highlights several implications of these tenure trends: the effect on DB accruals (even for workers still covered by those programs), the impact of the lump-sum distributions that often accompany job change, and the implications for social programs and workplace stability. “See Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012,” online here.

“Gamble” Gambit

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

This past week PBS’ Frontline ran a segment on retirement titled “The Retirement Gamble.”

During that broadcast several individual cases were profiled—a single mother who lost her job (and a lot of money that she had apparently overinvested in company stock); a middle-aged couple whose husband had lost his job (and a big chunk of their 401(k) investment in the 2008 financial crisis); a couple of teachers who had seen their retirement plan investments do quite well (before the 2008 financial crisis); a 32-year-old teacher who had lost money in the markets and found herself in an annuity investment that she apparently didn’t understand, but was continuing to save; and a 67-year-old semi-retiree who had managed to set aside enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. The current income and/or working status of each was presented, along with their current retirement savings balance.

Much of the promotional materials around the program focused on fees, and doctoral candidate Robert Hiltonsmith featured prominently in the special. Hiltonsmith, as some may recall, was the author of a Demos report on 401(k) fees released about a year ago—one that claimed that “nearly a third” of the investment returns of a medium-income two-earner family was being taken by fees (Demos report online here), according to its model—which, it should be noted, assumed that each fund had trading costs equal to the explicit expense ratio of the fund.

A fair amount of the program was devoted to the trade-offs between active and passive/index investment strategies, and the lower fees generally associated with the latter. Participant savers might not always choose them, but PLANSPONSOR’s 2012 Defined Contribution Survey found that nearly 8 in 10 (77.4 percent) of the nearly 7,000 plans surveyed already include index fund(s) on their menu, and that nearly 9 in 10 of the largest plans do. Similarly, the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 55th Annual Survey lists “indexed domestic equity funds” as one of the fund types most commonly offered to participants (82.8 percent of plans).

“Balance” Perspectives

Hiltonsmith, 31, “had no savings to lose” in the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Frontline report, but after entering the workforce he began saving in his workplace 401(k). However, “even in a relatively good market, he began to sense that something was wrong,” the voiceover notes. Hiltonsmith explained: “I have a 401(k), I save in it, it doesn’t seem to go up… I kept checking the statement and I’d be like, why does this thing never go up?”

For some time now, EBRI has tracked the actual experience in 401(k) accounts of consistent participants, by age and tenure. Looking at the experience of workers age 25–34, with one to four years of tenure, and considering the period Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2013, the average account balance of consistent participants (those who continued to participate in their workplace 401(k) plan during that time period) experienced a nearly 84 percent increase (see graphic, online here).  Granted, at that stage in their career, most of that gain is likely attributable to new contributions, not market returns—but it is an increase in that savings balance, and one that Hiltonsmith,(1) as a consistent participant-saver should have seen as well.

Pension Penchant

The framing of the retirement “gamble” was that “it used to be much easier,” in 1972 when, the Frontline report states, “…42 percent of employees had a pension…” But one point the Frontline report ignores (as do many general media reports on this topic) is that there’s a huge difference between working at an employer that offers a pension plan (the apparent source of the Frontline statistic), and actually collecting a pension based on that employment. Consider that only a quarter of those age 65 or older actually had pension income in 1975, the year after ERISA was signed into law (see “The Good Old Days,” online here).  Perhaps more telling is that that pension income, vital as it surely has been for some, represented less than 15 percent of all the income received by those 65 and older in 1975.

In explaining the shift to 401(k) plans, the Frontline report notes that, “over the last decade, the rules of the game changed…” and went on to note that people started living longer, there were changes in accounting rules, global competition, and market volatility that affected the availability of defined benefit pension plans. While all those factors certainly did (and still do) come into play, another critical factor—one unmentioned in the report, and one that hasn’t undergone significant change in recent years—is that most Americans in the private sector weren’t working long enough with a single employer to accumulate the service levels required to earn a full pension.

For years,(2) EBRI has reported that median job tenure of the total workforce—how long a worker typically stays at a job—has hovered around four years since the early 1950s, and five years since the early 1980s. Under standard pension accrual formulas, those kind of tenure numbers mean that, even among the minority of private-sector workers who “have” a pension, many would likely receive a negligible amount because they didn’t stay on the job long enough to earn a meaningful benefit from that defined benefit pension.(3) Consequently, one could argue that American private-sector workers have been “gambling” with their pension every time they made a job change.

The Gamble?

It is, of course, difficult to evaluate the individual circumstances portrayed in the Frontline program from a distance, and via the limited prism afforded by the interviews. Nonetheless, even those in difficult financial straits were still drawing on their 401(k): the single mother had apparently managed to hang on to her underwater mortgage by tapping into her 401(k) savings, as had the couple who incurred a surrender charge by prematurely withdrawing funds from what appeared to be some kind of annuity investment. While this “leakage” was described as a problem, it does underline the critical role a 401(k) plan can play in the provision of emergency savings and financial security during every “life-stage.” Moreover, while the report focused on the circumstances of several individuals who had saved in a workplace retirement plan, one can’t help but wonder about the circumstances of those who don’t have that option.

The dictionary defines a gamble is a “bet on an uncertain outcome.” While the characterization might seem crude, retirement planning—with its attendant uncertainties regarding retirement date, longevity risk, inflation risk, investment risk, recession risk, health care expenses, and long-term care needs(4)—could be positioned in that context.

However, the data would also seem to support the conclusion that this retirement “gamble” isn’t new—and that it may be one for which, because of the employment-based retirement plan system, tomorrow’s retirees have some additional cards to play.

 Notes

You can watch the Frontline program (along with some additional materials, and expanded transcripts of some of the program interviews) online here.

(1) The Frontline investigation also seemed to represent something of a voyage of discovery for correspondent Martin Smith, who apparently has dipped into his 401(k) several times over the years. In a moment of subtle irony, he notes that he runs a small company with a handful of employees, but was too busy to look at the “fine print” of his own company’s retirement plan, going on to express confusion as to how these funds got into his plan in the first place. Of course, as the business owner, he was likely either the plan sponsor, or hired/designated the person(s) who made that decision.

(2) EBRI provided all of the data referenced here—and much more—to the Frontline producers. In fact, Dallas Salisbury was interviewed on tape for nearly two hours, so we know they had the full picture on tape. That may be what makes the Frontline program the most disappointing, knowing that the program could have presented a balanced picture of “The Retirement Gamble” and the diversity of plans, fees, and outcomes, yet its producers chose not to do so. EBRI’s most recent report on job tenure trends was published in the December 2012 EBRI Notes, online here.

(3) As EBRI has repeatedly noted, the idea of holding a full-career job and retiring with the proverbial “gold watch” is a myth for most people. That’s especially true since so few workers even qualify for a traditional pension anymore (see EBRI’s most recent data on pension trends, online here).

(4) EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) finds that for Early Baby Boomers (individuals born between 1948 and 1954), Late Baby Boomers (born between 1955 and 1964) and Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1974), roughly 44 percent of the simulated lifepaths were projected to lack adequate retirement income for basic retirement expenses plus uninsured health care costs (see the May 2012 EBRI Notes,Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model”).

Confidence Builders

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

AdamsI’ll never forget my first day of driver’s ed class.  This was at a time when it was still part of the “regular” school curriculum, and we were placed in groups based on whether or not we had actually driven a car before.  Now, at the time, the extent of my driving was no more than backing the family car up and down our short driveway.  But driving looked easy enough, and my friends were in the “having driven” group, so I confidently “fudged” the extent of my experience and shortly found myself behind the wheel of the driver’s ed class car, along with my high school basketball coach/instructor and a couple of my friends in back.

To make a long story short, there was quite a bit of difference between backing a car up and down a driveway and navigating a car on the open road.  And, but for the extra brake on the instructor’s side of the vehicle, I might have spent my first driver’s ed class waiting to be pulled out of a ditch, my confidence notwithstanding.

The recent release of the 23rd annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) got a LOT of attention.1  The headlines were mostly about Americans’ lack of confidence in their prospects for a financially secure retirement; indeed, the percentage “not at all confident” hit an all-time high for the RCS, while the percentage “very confident” remained at the all-time low it notched a year ago.  A striking number of inquiries about the report focused on what could be done about retirement confidence.

As it turns out, there are several things that the study linked to higher confidence: having more retirement savings is perhaps the most obvious connection, and so is participation in a workplace retirement savings plan (which was also linked to larger savings balances2).  However, the RCS also found that something as fundamental as having taken the time to do a retirement needs assessment made a positive difference in confidence3 – even though those who had done such an assessment tended to set higher savings goals.4  However, fewer than half of workers responding to the RCS have completed this assessment, and many of those who have made an attempt to figure out how much they might need – guess.5

Still, asked how much they need to save each year from now until they retire so they can live comfortably in retirement, one in five put that figure at between 20 percent and 29 percent, and nearly one-quarter (23 percent) cited a target of 30 percent or more.  Those targets are larger than one might expect, and larger than the savings reported by RCS respondents would indicate.  They do, however, suggest that some are beginning to grasp the realities of their situation – a realization that could be weighing on their confidence in the future, even as it lays the foundation for change.

Because, what really matters is not how confident you feel, but whether you have a reason to feel confident.

Notes

1 See The 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey: Perceived Savings Needs Outpace Reality for Many

2 According to the 2013 RCS , workers who participate in a retirement savings plan at work (45 percent) are considerably more likely than those who are offered a plan but choose not to participate (22 percent) or are not offered a plan (18 percent) to have saved at least $50,000. These participants are much less likely than others to report having saved less than $10,000 (20 percent vs. 46 percent who choose not to participate and 50 percent who are not offered a plan).

3 A great place to start figuring out what you’ll need is the BallparkE$timate®, available online at www.choosetosave.org.  Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find a variety of free resources there, courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC).  Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI Members and ASEC Partner institutions.

4 The RCS found that 31 percent who have done a calculation, compared with 14 percent who have not, say they are very confident that they will be able to accumulate the amount they need, while 12 percent who have not done a calculation, compared with 3 percent who have, report they are not at all confident in their ability to save the needed amount.

5 Workers often guess at how much they will need to accumulate (45 percent), rather than doing a systematic, retirement needs calculation, according to the RCS, while 18 percent indicated they did their own estimate, another 18 percent asked a financial advisor, 8 percent used an on-line calculator, and another 8 percent read or heard how much was needed.

Impact “Ed”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

Last month, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing titled “Pension Savings: Are Workers Saving Enough for Retirement?” The answer to that question is, of course, about as varied as the individual circumstances it contemplates, but certainly at a high level, the best answer is, “it depends.”

It depends on your definition of “enough,” for one thing—and it might well depend on your definition of retirement, certainly as to when retirement begins, not to mention your assumptions about saving and/or working during that period.(1) While those are individual choices (sometimes “choices” imposed on us), they can obviously make a big difference in terms of result.

For public policy purposes, EBRI has 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, 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. That’s a lot of households, to be sure, but as an EBRI report noted last year, it 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.(2)

However, the focus of the recent Senate HELP hearing quickly turned from an acknowledgement that many workers aren’t saving enough to what to do about it. In a recent response to questions posed at the hearing,(3) EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei compiled a list of alternatives that EBRI research has modeled in recent years, some mentioned at the hearing, along with the impact each is projected to have on that cumulative savings shortfall.

Specifically, the impacts quantified on retirement readiness included in EBRI’s response were:

  • The availability of defined benefit (pension) plans.
  • Future eligibility for a defined contribution (401(k)-type) plan.
  • Increasing the 401(k) default deferral rate to 6 percent.
  • Job changes and default deferral rate restarts.
  • 401(k0 Loans and pre-retirement withdrawals.

The impacts of these factors vary, of course. Consider that, overall, the presence of a defined benefit accrual at age 65 reduces the “at-risk” percentage by about 12 percentage points. On the other hand, merely being eligible for participation in a DC plan makes a big difference as well: Gen Xers with no future years of DC plan eligibility would run short of money in retirement 60.7 percent of the time, whereas fewer than 1 in 5 (18.2 percent) of those with 20 or more years of future eligibility are simulated to run short of money in retirement.(4)

Ultimately, if you’re looking to solve a problem, it helps to know what problem you’re trying to solve. And you don’t just want to know that a solution will make a difference, you want to know how much of a difference that solution will make.

Notes

(1) Many other projections overlook, implicitly or explicitly, uninsured medical costs in retirement, and many simply publish a projected average result that will be correct only 50 percent of the time, without acknowledging these limitations. Moreover, while various estimates have been put forth for the aggregate retirement income deficit number, when taking into account current Social Security retirement benefits and the assumption that net housing equity is utilized “as needed,” as well as uninsured health care costs, the EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model (RSPM) indicates the aggregate national retirement income deficit to be $4.3 trillion for all Baby Boomers and Gen.

(2) 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.

(3) The EBRI response to the Senate HELP hearing questions is available online here.

(4) See “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model,” online here.

Tax Incentives for Retirement Plans: Lessons from Denmark?

Notes.Jan13.FinalFlow.TxIncns.Pg1A recent study found that tax incentives for retirement savings in Denmark had virtually no impact on increasing total savings But are those findings relevant to the United States?

Maybe not, according to a new report by EBRI: The two retirement systems have some similarities but also major differences—mainly that, unlike in the United States, in Denmark the availability of employment-based, tax-deferred retirement plans is not tied to the tax-deferred status of the accounts.

At issue are so-called “tax expenditures” in the United States—preferential tax treatment for public policy goals such as retirement, health insurance, home ownership, and a variety of other issues—that currently are under heavy scrutiny in the debate over the federal debt, taxes, and spending.

The authors of the study on Danish savings behaviors offered statistical evidence that changes in tax preferences for Danish work place retirement savings plans had virtually no effect on total savings of those affected by the change. This has drawn the attention of those interested in considering a modification of the long-standing tax preferences for employment-based retirement savings plans in this country.

However, aside from the differences in incentive structures between the two countries, the EBRI report notes that study of Danish workers examined only the impact that changes in tax incentives for work place retirement plans might have on worker savings behaviors—but did not address how employers might react to changes in retirement savings tax incentives.

The EBRI report notes recent surveys have found many American private-sector plan sponsors have expressed a desire to offer no plans at all in the absence of tax incentives for workers. If this happened, low-wage workers—who are generally less prepared for retirement—would suffer on several counts, said Sudipto Banerjee, EBRI research associate and co-author of the report.

“The Danish study provided insight into the savings behavior of Danes, conditioned by the culture and influences of public policies and programs of Denmark,” Banerjee said. “But the ‘success’ of work place retirement plans in the United States depends on the behavior of two parties: workers who voluntarily elect to defer compensation, and employers that sponsor and, in many cases, contribute to them.”

“While the study of Danish savings behaviors presented the impact of tax-incentives and the ‘nudges’ of automatic mandatory savings as an ‘either/or’ solution, the optimal solution—certainly for a voluntary system such as the one currently in place in the U.S.—may well be a combination of the two,” noted Nevin Adams, co-director of the EBRI Center for Research on Retirement Income, and co-author of the report.

The full report is published in the January 2013 EBRI Notes, “Tax Preferences and Mandates: Is the Danish Savings Experience Relevant to America?” online at www.ebri.org

“Breaching” Out?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

“401(k) breaches undermining retirement security for millions,” was the headline of a recent article in the Washington Post.(1) No, we’re not talking about some kind of data hacking scandal, nor some new identity theft breach. Rather, those “breaches” are loans and withdrawals from 401(k)s.

Providing the impetus for the article is a new report by HelloWallet(2) that indicates that “more than one in four workers dip into retirement funds to pay their mortgages, credit card debt or other bills.”

While the article primarily deals with the potentially negative aspects of loans and withdrawals, it also touches on some broader concerns—and does so with some factual inaccuracies. For example, the article incorrectly states that “in 1980, four out of five private-sector workers were covered by traditional pensions;” in fact, only about half that many actually were at that point (a correct statement would be that 4 out of 5 covered by a plan at that time were in a traditional pension, which works out to about 2 in 5 of all private-sector workers—which puts the article’s “now, just one in five workers has a pension” statement in a far more accurate context).

The article notes that the “most common way Americans tap their retirement funds is through loans,” although U.S. Department of Labor data indicate that loan amounts tend to be a negligible portion of plan assets and that very little is converted into deemed distributions in any given year. That finding is supported by hard data from the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, the largest micro-database of its kind: Among participants with outstanding 401(k) loans in the EBRI/ICI database at the end of 2011, the average unpaid balance was $7,027, while the median loan balance outstanding was $3,785.(3) The Washington Post article cautions that these loans “must be repaid with interest,” but fails to mention that the 401(k) participant is paying interest to his/her own account: Those repayments represent a restoration of the retirement account balance by the participant, as well as a return on that investment. Sure, that interest payment is coming from the participant’s own pocket, but it’s generally being deposited into their own retirement account, and (if it was being used to pay down debt) likely at a much more favorable rate of interest.

The article also notes that those who withdraw money from their 401(k) early (before the authorized age) face “hefty” penalties, and certainly there is a financial price. However, those penalties consist of the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty (that was put in place long ago to discourage casual withdrawals by those under age 59 -½), and the income taxes they would be expected to pay on the receipt of money on which they had not yet paid taxes (which they would likely pay eventually).(4)

The HelloWallet report describes defined contribution (DC) retirement plans as a “marginal contributor to the actual retirement needs of U.S. workers.” However, an EBRI analysis of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF) data, looking at workers who are already retired, finds that DC balances plus IRAs—which for many retired individuals were funded by rollovers from their DC/401(k) plans when they left work—represent nearly 15 percent of their total assets (which includes things like houses, but does not include Social Security and defined benefit annuity payments, although DB rollovers are included), and nearly a third of their total financial assets, as defined in the SCF.

The dictionary describes a “breach” as an “infraction or violation of a law, obligation, tie, or standard.” The article quotes the HelloWallet author as noting that “What you have is 401(k) participants voting with their wallets saying they would much rather use this money for other purposes.” However, these reports can’t always know, and thus don’t consider, how many participants and their families have been spared true financial hardship in the “here-and-now” by virtue of access to funds they set aside in these programs(5) (an AonHewitt study,(6) cited both in the article and in the HelloWallet report, notes that just over half of the hardship withdrawal requests were to avoid home eviction or foreclosure).

It’s hard to know how many of these “breachers” would have committed to saving at the amounts they chose, or to saving at all, if they (particularly the young with decades to go until retirement) had to balance that choice against a realization that the funds they set aside now would be unavailable until retirement. We don’t know that individuals who chose to save in their 401(k) plan did so specifically for retirement, rather than for interim (but important) savings goals—such as home ownership or college tuition—that, sooner or later, make their own contributions to retirement security. Indeed, what appears to a be a short-term decision that might adversely affect retirement preparation may actually be a long-term decision to enhance retirement security with a mortgage paid off or higher earnings potential.

In sum, we don’t know that these decisions represent a “breach” of retirement security—or a down payment.

Notes

(1) The Washington Post article is online here. 

(2) You can request a copy of the HelloWallet report here.

(3) For an updated report on participant loan activity from the EBRI/ICI database, see “401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances, and Loan Activity in 2011,” online here. 

(4) While the Post article states that these taxes would be paid at capital gains rates, in fact, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income.

(5) See “’Premature’ Conclusions,” online here. 

(6) See “Leakage of Participants’ DC Assets: How Loans, Withdrawals, and Cashouts Are Eroding Retirement Income 2011,” online here.