Rely-Able?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Last week the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College provided an update on its National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI).¹ The impetus for the update was the triennial release of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF), published in June, reflecting information as of December 2010.

Now, many things have changed since 2007, and in the most recent iteration of the NRRI, the authors note five main changes: the replacement of households from the 2007 SCF with those from the 2010 SCF; the incorporation of 2010 data to predict financial and housing wealth at age 65; a change in the age groups (because a significant number of Baby Boomers have retired, according to the report authors); the impact of lower interest rates on the amounts provided by annuities; and changes in the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) rules that lowered the percentage of house value that borrowers could receive in the form of a reverse mortgage at any given interest rate.

And, when all those changes are taken into account, the CRR analysis concludes that, as of December 2010, anyway, the percentage of households (albeit those from a partially different cohort) at risk of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living in retirement increased by 9 percentage points² between 2007 and 2010 (from 44 percent at risk to 53 percent).

When the baseline for your analysis is updated only every three years, it’s certainly challenging to provide a current assessment of retirement readiness. In previous posts, we’ve covered the limitations of relying solely on the SCF data³and, to some extent, the apparent shortcomings of the NRRI (see “’Last’ Chances”), and retirement projection models, generally (see “’Generation’ Gaps”).

On the other hand, the impact of the decline in housing prices and the stock market were modeled by EBRI in February 2011 (see “A Post-Crisis Assessment of Retirement Income Adequacy for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers”), while the impact of the rising age for full Social Security benefits has been incorporated in EBRI’s Retirement Savings Projection Model (RSPM) since 2003. Moreover, EBRI has also included the potential impact of reverse mortgages in our model for nearly a decade now.

Meanwhile, as a recent EBRI report noted (see “Is Working to Age 70 Really the Answer for Retirement Income Adequacy?”), the NRRI not only assumes that everyone annuitizes at retirement, and continues to ignore the impact of long-term care and nursing home costs (or assumes that they are insured against by everyone), but it also seems to rely on an outdated perspective of 401(k)-plan designs and savings trends, essentially ignoring the impact of automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions, and the diversification impact of qualified default investment alternatives.

It’s one thing to draw conclusions based on an extrapolation of information that, while dated, may be the most reliable available. It’s another altogether to rely on that result in one’s retirement planning, or the formulation of policies designed to facilitate good planning.

Notes

¹ The report, “The National Retirement Risk Index: An Update” is available online here.

² The report notes that, between 2007 and 2010, the NRRI jumped by 9 percentage points due to: the bursting of the housing bubble (4.5 percentage points); falling interest rates (2.2 percentage points); the ongoing rise in Social Security’s Full Retirement Age (1.6 percentage points); and continued low stock prices (0.8 percentage points).

³ As valuable as the SCF information is, it’s important to remember that it contains self-reported information from approximately 6,500 households in 2010, which is to say the results are what individuals told the surveying organizations on a range of household finance issues (typically over a 90-minute interviewing period); of those households, only about 2,100 had defined contribution (401(k)-type) retirement accounts. Also, the SCF does not necessarily include the same households from one survey period to the next. See “Facts and ‘Figures.’”

Means, Tested

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Recently the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College released a paper titled “Can Retirees Base Wealth Withdrawals On the IRS’ Required Minimum Distributions?”¹ The answer to that question, according to CRR, is “yes.” A more complete response might be, “yes, or any number of other random withdrawal methodologies.”

There are some advantages to a drawdown strategy based on the schedule provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for required minimum distributions, or RMDs.² First off, and as the CRR paper notes, it’s relatively straightforward. Secondly, it effectively defers initiating withdrawals until age 70-½, which also provides some additional accumulation opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, it helps avoid the stiff penalties the IRS imposes on those who don’t withdraw funds from these accounts at least as rapidly as the RMD schedule provides. The CRR paper cites as an advantage the reality that those drawdowns are based on the portfolio’s current market value, though surely some people remember how the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on those accounts triggered a more aggressive withdrawal schedule than many found optimal or necessary.

A previous post dealt with another popular drawdown method: the so-called 4 percent rule (see “Withdrawal ‘Symptoms”). As with that 4 percent “rule,” once you stipulate certain assumptions about the length of retirement, portfolio mix/returns, and inflation, those type guidelines are really “just” a mathematical exercise that involves stretching a finite pool of resources over an estimated period of time.

The CRR paper outlines a series of reasons as to why the RMD approach might be superior to alternatives such as the 4 percent rule, but ultimately the biggest shortcoming of the RMD schedule as a basis for withdrawal may be that it fails to take into account how much income is needed, much less when it is needed—and it’s based on a series of assumptions that may or may not apply to an individual’s real-life circumstance.

Of course, in a very real sense, relying on any arbitrary systematic calculation to determine how much, and how fast, to drawdown savings can be seen as a way of living within your means—an approach that can work just fine if you have first made preparations to have adequate means upon which to live.

Notes

¹ The CRR report is online here. 

² Information about required minimum distributions is available at the IRS website, online here. IRS worksheets to calculate the amount of the RMD are online here. 

For some interesting data on actual withdrawal rates from individual retirement accounts, see “Withdrawal Symptoms.”

“Last” Chances

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

While many Americans seem to lack a definitive sense of what living in retirement will be like, how long it will last, or how much it will cost, their sense of when it will begin has been trending older.  The 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) noted that, whereas in 1991, just 11 percent of workers expected to retire after age 65, in 2012, more than three times as many (37 percent) report they expect to wait until after age 65 to retire—and most of those indicated an expected retirement age of 70 or older.1

Those expecting to delay retirement perhaps found solace in a recent report by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College which concluded that by postponing retirement until age 70, the vast majority of households (86 percent) were “…projected to be prepared for retirement.”

That sounds good – but what about the assumptions underlying that conclusion?

In 2003, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) constructed the EBRI-ERF Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM)—the first nationally representative, micro-simulation model based on actual 401(k) participant behavior and a stochastic decumulation model.  And though we have explicitly recognized that many individuals were retiring at earlier ages, a retirement age of 65 was chosen for baseline results, based upon the assumption that most workers would have the flexibility to work until that age, if they so chose.

Last year we modified the RSPM to determine whether just “working a few more years after age 65” would indeed be a feasible financial solution for those determined to be “at risk.”  Unfortunately, for those counting on that as a retirement savings “solution”, the answer is not always “yes.”

Indeed, results from the EBRI modeling indicated that the lowest pre-retirement income quartile would need to defer retirement to age 84 before 90 percent of the households would have even a break-even (50‒50) chance of success.

Working longer does help, of course.  A recent EBRI Notes article titled “Is Working to Age 70 Really the Answer for Retirement Income Adequacy?2” finds that 23 percent of those who would have been at risk of running out money in retirement if they retired at age 65 would be “ready to retire” if they kept working to 70.  Better still, if those individuals are assumed not only to delay retirement, but also to keep participating in a defined contribution plan, a full third of those who would have been at risk of running short of money if they retired at age 65 would be “ready” to retire at age 70.3

What accounts for the difference in the projections?  For a household to be classified as “ready for retirement” under the CRR method, a projected replacement rate is simply compared with a benchmark rate, while the RSPM uses a fully developed stochastic decumulation process to determine whether a family will run short of money in retirement (and, if so, at what age) under each of a thousand alternative, simulated retirement paths.  Unlike the CRR model, EBRI’s RSPM model simultaneously considers the impact of longevity risk, investment risk, and the risk of potentially catastrophic health care costs (such as prolonged stays in a nursing home).5

Which, as it so happens, are the same things that those trying to make sure they have enough money to last through retirement—and those trying to help them do so—need to consider.

Notes

1 see “Is Working to Age 70 Really the Answer for Retirement Income Adequacy?

2 Also from the above article, “It’s worth nothing that a significant portion of the improvement in readiness takes place in the first four years after age 65, but that tends to level off in the early 70s before picking up in the late 70s and early 80s.  Higher-income households would be in a much better situation: 90 percent of the highest-income quartile would already have a 50 percent probability of success by age 65, while those in the next-highest income quartile would need to wait until age 72 for 90 percent of their group to have a 50 percent probability. Those in the second-lowest income quartile would need to wait until age 81 before 90 percent of their group had a 50 percent probability of success. 

3 At the same time, the percentage of workers expecting to retire before age 65 has decreased from 50 percent in 1991 to 24 percent (see this EBRI analysis, online here).  A sizable proportion of retirees report each year that they retired sooner than they had planned (50 percent in 2012). Those who retire early often do so for negative reasons, such as a health problem or disability (51 percent) or company downsizing or closure (21 percent).  The 2011 RCS found that the poor economy (36 percent), lack of faith in Social Security or the government (16 percent) and a change in employment situation (15 percent) were the most frequently cited reasons for postponing retirement.

4. For more on how this modeling works, see “Single Best Answer.”

5 For an explanation of four things that are sometimes overlooked by retirement-needs projection models, see “Generation ‘Gaps,’” online here.