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.

Hind “Sleights”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

In recent days, we have commemorated both the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Occasions such as these are natural opportunities for us to look back and reflect on the past—to consider what has happened since—and to consider what might have been.

As imperfect as our perception of current events can be, so-called 20/20 hindsight isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, either. Even for those who were “there,” memories can be shaped or influenced by the passage of time, the perspectives of others, media coverage, and the like.

In the world of employee benefits, if you’ve ever said (or intimated) that traditional pension plans in the private sector were once widespread,¹ that health care insurance exchanges are a new concept,² or that 401(k)s were a legislative “accident” discovered (and promoted) by a single “father”—well then, you’re likely contributing to the confusion about the realities of the past that can obscure an appreciation of the present, and a clearer vision for the future.

Next month we’ll be commemorating EBRI’s 35th anniversary,³ and on Dec. 12 we’ll also be conducting our 73rd policy forum. A series of expert panels will be considering the state of employee benefits—as it was, as it is, and as it is likely to be. We’ll have the perspectives of those who have been directly involved in the development and execution of policies at the dawn of ERISA, who have both negotiated and navigated the subsequent regulatory, operational, and legislative shifts, and futurists who are helping anticipate (and perhaps shape) the next generation of employee benefit plan designs.

Hindsight—insights—foresight. It’s a unique combination. You’ll want to be “there.”

Join us.

The agenda for EBRI’s 73rd policy forum (and registration details) are online here. Attendance is free but space is limited.

Notes

¹ See “The Good Old Days,” online here.

² See “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online here.

³ For additional insights, see the Fall 2013 EBRI President’s Report from Dallas Salisbury, online here.

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.

“Control” Group

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

Last week I was speaking at a conference on the West Coast when a weather pattern emerged that threatened both my connecting flight, and my arrival at home. Alerted to the potential problem, I began seeking alternatives. Eventually, I was able to reroute my connecting flight—though doing so meant a later arrival at my home airport and, based on the trajectory of the storm, that later arrival increased the likelihood of running into problems there.

I continued to check in back home during the day—trying to gauge the storm’s progress, and to (re)evaluate my alternatives. As I boarded that final leg of the trip home, I knew a couple of things: The flight was (still) departing on time, and while it wasn’t snowing at home (yet) the forecast was now for more snow, starting later. The trip home wasn’t exactly restful (despite the hour), but having done what I could to minimize the impact of the storm on my travel, having attended to the things I could control, I boarded the plane, hopeful that the combination of my new route home, the pilot’s skill, and the storm’s track would result in a satisfactory, if somewhat stressful, conclusion.

Earlier this year EBRI was approached by Money Magazine to use the EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM)¹ to evaluate a number of potential retirement preparation scenarios, taking into account varying levels of household income, debt, marital status, retirement plan participation, health, etc. Selected results from that analysis, published in the March issue (see “Dream Big, Act Now: Six Secrets of Retirement” online here),  showed the impact that various factors could have on the chances of running short of money in retirement.

Real as those factors are, many of life’s circumstances are completely beyond our control. However, some of the most important factors—including the decision to participate in a workplace retirement plan, or the amount we choose to save—are not. Consider a 45-year-old female worker who is currently making $50,000/year, with a current retirement savings balance of $50,000. Applying the RSPM model,² we find that if she contributes 1 percent of pay to her retirement savings each year, there is a 61 percent chance that she’ll run short of money in retirement. On the other hand, a 10 percent annual contribution rate (which could be her’s along with an employer match) reduces that probability to 38 percent, while a 15 percent annual contribution rate reduces that risk to just 1 in 4 (see chart below).

My flight home from the conference was never risk-free, even before Mother Nature decided to throw a wrench into my carefully designed itinerary. That said, having the potential problem highlighted early enough allowed me to take steps to avoid the worst of what surely would have been a very long and arduous flight home, arriving home two hours later than I had originally planned, but well ahead of my likely arrival had I stayed on my original flights.

Much of today’s retirement planning tends to focus on things over which we, as individual retirement savers, have no control—things like investment returns. Perhaps those looking for true retirement serenity might, like those who invoke the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” be better advised to seek “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Blog.062.8Mar13.Fig

Notes

¹ RSPM grew out of a multi-year project to analyze the future economic well-being of the retired population at the state level. After conducting studies for Oregon, Kansas, and Massachusetts, a national model—the EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM)—was developed in 2003, and by 2010 it has been updated to incorporate several significant changes, including the impacts of defined benefit plan freezes, automatic enrollment provisions for 401(k) plans, and the recent crises in the financial and housing markets. EBRI has recently updated RSPM for changes in financial and real estate market conditions as well as underlying demographic changes and changes in 401(k) participant behavior since January 1, 2010 (based on a database of 23 million 401(k) participants).More information, and a chronology of the RSPM is available online here.

² This application of the RSPM assumed stochastic returns with an average of 8.9 percent for stocks and 6.3 percent for bonds.

Puzzle Picture

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

One of my favorite memories of visiting my grandparents over the holidays was working on jigsaw puzzles. These were generally large, complicated affairs—whose construction was spread over days, as various family members would stop by to work on a section, to build on a border, or sometimes contribute a single piece they would spot as they drifted by on their way to another activity. Perched in a prominent place throughout would be the puzzle lid with that all-important picture of what we were working toward to help keep all those individual, and sometimes fleeting, efforts in the proper perspective, that made it possible to differentiate the blue of what would appear to be sky from what would turn out to be an important, but obscure section of mountain stream.

In retirement plans, one of the more intransigent concerns for policy makers, providers, and plan sponsors alike is what has been called the “annuity puzzle”—the reluctance of American workers to embrace annuities as a distribution option for their retirement savings. What economists call “rational choice theory”(1) suggests that at the onset of retirement individuals will be drawn to annuities, because they provide a steady stream of income, and address the risk of outliving their income. And yet, given a choice, the vast majority don’t.

Over the years, a number of explanations have been put forth to try and explain this reluctance: the fear of losing control of finances; a desire to leave something to heirs; discomfort with entrusting so much to a single insurer;, concern about fees; the difficulty of understanding a complex financial product; or simple risk aversion—all have been studied, acknowledged, and, in many cases, addressed, both in education and in product design, with little impact on take-up rates.

As defined contribution programs have grown, those frustrated with the tepid rate of annuity adoption have sought to bring employers into the mix by providing them (and the plans they sponsor) with a range of alternatives: so-called “in- plan” retirement income options, qualified default investment alternatives that incorporate retirement income guarantees, and expanded access to annuities as part of a distribution platform. In recent years, regulators have also entered the mix, among other things issuing a Request for Information (RFI) regarding the “desirability and availability of lifetime income alternatives in retirement plans,” conducting a two-day hearing on the topic, and (as recently as last year) issuing both final and proposed regulatory guidance.

Yet today the annuity “puzzle” remains largely unsolved. And, amidst growing concerns about workers outliving their retirement savings, a key question—both as a matter of national retirement policy and understanding the potential role of plan design and education in influencing individual decision-making—is how many retiring workers actually choose to take a stream of lifetime income, vs. opting for a lump sum.

As outlined in a new EBRI Issue Brief,(2) the evidence on annuitization in workplace pension plans has been mixed. But the EBRI report provides an important new perspective to a 2011 paper titled “Annuitization Puzzles” by Shlomo Benartzi, Alessandro Previtero, and Richard H. Thaler.(3)  In that paper, they analyzed 112 different DB plans provided by a large plan administrator and, focusing on those who retired between ages 50 and 75 with at least five years of job tenure and a minimum account balance of $5,000, and noted that “…virtually half of the participants (49 percent) selected annuities over the lump sum,” further observing that “When an annuity is a readily available option, many participants who have non-trivial account balances choose it.”

The study’s authors went on state that “The notion that consumers are simply not interested in annuities is clearly false,” explaining that “…the common view that there is little demand for annuities even in defined benefit plans is largely driven by looking at the overall population of participants, including young and terminated employees and others with small account balances who are either required to take a lump-sum distribution or simply decide to take the money.”

Mixed Behaviors?

In essence, Benartzi’s “Annuitization Puzzles” study says that much of the existing research draws inaccurate conclusions by mixing the behaviors of younger workers with smaller balances with those who might, based on their age and financial status, be expected to choose an annuity. However, as noted in the EBRI Issue Brief, that study failed to take into consideration what has long been known to be a key element in retirement plan behaviors: retirement plan design. In effect, the Benartzi study blends the behaviors of participants who have the ability to choose an annuity with those who have either no choice, or one restricted by their plan.

What kind of difference might this make? Well, taking into account the same types of filter on tenure, balance, and age employed by the Benartzi study, as well as a series of plan design restrictions, EBRI found that for traditional defined benefit plans(4) that imposed no restriction on doing so, fewer than a third of those with balances greater than $25,000 opted for an annuity, as did only about 1 in 5 whose balances were between $10,000 and $25,000. Those with balances between $5,000 and $10,000 were even less likely to do so.(5)  In sum, even filtering to focus on the behaviors of individuals seen as most likely to choose an annuity distribution, we found that, given an unfettered choice, the vast majority do not.

Ultimately, the EBRI analysis shows that, to a large extent, plan design drives annuitization decisions.(6)  We know that plan design changes have been successful in influencing participant behavior in DC plans via auto-enrollment and auto-escalation, and the new EBRI study suggests that plan design can also play a critical role in influencing distribution choices.

It also shows the importance of taking into account the whole picture when you’re trying to solve a puzzle.

Notes

(1) “Annuitization Puzzles,” by Shlomo Benartzi, Alessandro Previtero and Richard H. Thaler is online here.

(2) According to Investopedia, it is “…an economic principle that assumes that individuals always make prudent and logical decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit or satisfaction and that are in their highest self-interest.”

(3) See the January 2013 EBRI Issue Brief, no. 381, “Annuity and Lump-Sum Decisions in Defined Benefit Plans: The Role of Plan Rules,” online here.

(4) Participants in cash balance plans were even less likely to choose annuities than those in “traditional” final-average-pay defined benefit plans.

(5) The Benartzi study filtered only on individuals with a balance greater than $5,000.

(6) The EBRI analysis also found that annuitization rates increase steadily with account balance for older workers (but not for younger workers), and that annuitization rates also increase with tenure. See “Annuity and Lump-Sum Decisions in Defined Benefit Plans: The Role of Plan Rules,” online here.

“Next” Step

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

On December 13, EBRI will hold its 71st biannual policy forum, “’Post’ Script: What’s Next for Employment-Based Health Benefits?” It is a question that has been on the mind of employers, lawmakers and policymakers alike for some time now. It predates the time that the structure for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) was put in place, has evolved, but not been resolved, as regulations were, and continue to be issued subsequent to its passage. It has remained on the minds of employers, providers, and policymakers following the various courts’ assessment of the various challenges to the constitutionality of the law, and even as the nation went to the polls last month.

Today we know more than we once did about certain aspects of the law, its provisions and applications.¹And yet there is much yet to know about its broader implementation: How the insurance exchanges might work,² for example, or how their presence might affect or influence cost, access, or employer plan designs. Will employers step away from their traditional role in providing these benefits, or will these changes lead to an environment in which employers find them to be of even greater value to their retention programs and strategies? In addition, an overarching concern at present—not just for health benefits, but workplace benefits overall—is the potential impact that changes in tax policy³ could have on these programs, both direct and indirect.

Our next policy forum will bring together a wide range of national experts on U.S. healthcare policy to share a post-election perspective on fiscal impacts from the federal budget, findings from the EBRI Center for Research on Health Benefits Innovation, and a sense of how employment-based health benefits might evolve as a result of the changes set to come.

In a field as complex and sensitive as healthcare policy, we may not always know “what’s next”—but it’s our hope that the information, and interaction, at the EBRI policy forum will provide insights and clarity that can help.

EBRI’s 71st biannual Policy Forum will be held on Thursday, Dec. 13, from 9:00 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 1330 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. The agenda and registration information are available online here. For those not able to attend in person, a free live webcast of the policy forum will be provided by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, online here.

Notes

¹ A summary of EBRI Research on PPACA and its Potential Impact on Private-Sector Health Benefits is available online here.  Of specific topical interest are:

² For insights on the topic of health insurance exchanges, see “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” online here.

³ See “Employment-Based Health Benefits and Taxation: Implications of Efforts to Reduce the Deficit and National Debt,” online here.

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.’”