“Better” Business?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



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.


(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.

“Control” Group

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



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.”



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.

Spend “Thrift”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



Having now lived in our new home long enough for most of the extraordinary expenses to emerge, and for the costs of living in a different place to become “normal,” my wife and I recently sat down with a financial planner to update our retirement plan(s). Having gathered the requisite documents regarding retirement savings, insurance, wills, and investments, we turned to our current budget and spending patterns.

Retirement remains a relatively distant goal—but we are at a point in our lives where we can see the end of certain expenses (college tuition for the kids, the mortgage on the house), and the need for different, and potentially higher, levels of expenditure on others (insurance, long-term care). And, while we’ve long done budgets, established goals, and set aside funds to meet long-term objectives, retirement planning—as those who have undertaken to do so can attest—takes that focus to a whole new level, as you begin to take into account different sources of income, as well as expenses.

A recent EBRI Issue Brief (see “Income Composition, Income Trends, and Income Shortfalls of Older Households,” online here) examined the trends in income and spending among older American households. Not surprisingly, for all age groups above 65, Social Security remains the primary source of income, and by significant amounts. Consider that in 2009, households ages 65–74 and households with members age 85 or above received 54 percent and 66 percent of their total household incomes, respectively, from Social Security benefits. Moreover, the proportionate importance of Social Security income increases with age.

Additionally, income from pensions and annuities (including distributions from IRAs) is the second-largest source of income for older households. In 2009, households ages 65–74 received 17.1 percent and households above age 85 received 15.3 percent of their incomes from pensions and annuities.

As you might expect, the sources of income, and their proportionate contributions, varied over time—but the report noted that more than half (about 60 percent) of elderly American households do not yet appear to be “decumulating,” in that they spent less than their incomes. On the other hand, there were some—in 2009 more than 14 percent of older households—who spent considerably more than their income: 175 percent, in fact. Of some concern, the EBRI report noted that households that face income shortfalls not only tend to have much lower levels of assets, they spend down their liquid assets at a faster rate than households with no income shortfalls.

We should expect to spend more than we “make” (in the form of new income) in retirement. That’s why reliable “new” income sources in retirement, whether Social Security or pensions, systematic withdrawals from 401(k)s or IRAs, are so important, especially as “old” sources (such as that regular payroll check) fade away—certainly if you don’t want to run out of retirement income before you run out of retirement.

Withdrawal “Symptoms”

By Nevin Adams, EBRI


I was recently asked about the so-called 4 percent “rule.” That’s the rule of thumb(1) that many financial consultants rely on as a formula for how much money can be withdrawn from retirement savings every year (generally adjusted for inflation) without running out of money. Of course, like so many of the “assumptions” about retirement, certainly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, that withdrawal rule of thumb has drawn additional scrutiny.(2)

At the time, my comment was that the 4 percent guideline is just that—a guideline. What’s not as clear is whether adhering to that guideline produces an income stream in retirement that will be enough to live on.

How much are people actually withdrawing from their retirement accounts? At a recent EBRI policy forum,(3) Craig Copeland, senior research associate at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, explained that the median IRA individual withdrawal rates amounted to 5.5 percent of the account balance in 2010, though he noted that those 71 or older (when required minimum distributions kick in) were much more likely to be withdrawing at a rate of 3–5 percent (in 2008, that group’s median withdrawal rate was 7.2 percent, but in 2010, it was 5.2 percent), based on the activity among the 14.85 million accounts and $1 trillion in assets contained in the EBRI IRA Database.(4) Will these drawdown rates create a problem down the road? Will these individual run short of funds in retirement?

At its core, once you stipulate certain assumptions about the length of retirement, portfolio mix/returns, and inflation, a guideline like the 4 percent “rule” is really just a mathematical exercise.

However, trying to live on the resources you actually have available in retirement is reality—and those post-retirement withdrawal decisions are generally easier to make when you’ve made good decisions pre-retirement.


(1) Certified financial planner William P. Bengen is frequently credited with the concept, based on his article “Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data,” published in the October 1994 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

(2) It had drawn criticism before the 2008 financial crisis as well: See “The 4% Rule—At What Price?”

(3) The agenda, presentation materials, and a recording of EBRI’s May policy forum are available online here. Dr. Copeland’s presentation is online here.

(4) The results come from 2010 data in the EBRI IRA Database,TM which had 14.85 million accounts, held by 11.1 million individuals, with $1 trillion in assets—roughly one-fifth of both owners and assets in the IRA universe.

EBRI: Auto-Enrollment Trend Boosts Retirement Readiness Ratings

More than half of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are projected to have adequate retirement income to cover basic expenses and uninsured health care costs, according to the latest projections by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

While roughly 44 percent of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are still projected to be “at risk” of running short of money in retirement, that’s still some 5–8 percentage points better than what was found in 2003, largely due to the increased adoption of auto-enrollment plan design features by 401(k) plan sponsors. “These latest results are a significant improvement,” noted Dr. Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report. The new EBRI projections, based on its proprietary Retirement Income Security Projection Model® (RSPM), update previous estimates from 2003.

According to the RSPM, lower-income households remain at greatest risk of insufficient retirement income: 87 per-cent of retired lowest-income households are projected to be at risk, compared with 13 percent of highest-income households. EBRI’s analysis finds that the aggregate national retirement income deficit number, taking into account current Social Security retirement benefits and the assumption that net housing equity is utilized “as needed,” is currently estimated to be $4.3 trillion for all Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

Eligibility for a workplace defined contribution retirement plan was found to have a significant positive impact on these “at risk” levels: Simulation results show that Gen Xers with no future years of 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 would run this risk.

EBRI’s updated 2012 RSPM looks at Early Baby Boomers (individuals born between 1948–1954), Late Baby Boomers (born between 1955–1964), and Generation Xers (born between 1965–1974), to determine each group’s likelihood of running short of money to cover basic expenses and uninsured health costs in retirement.

EBRI’s analysis also provides Retirement Savings Shortfalls—the additional amount that individuals would have save by age 65 to eliminate their expected deficits in retirement—by age group, family status, and gender for both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. For those on the verge of retirement (Early Boomers), the average cash shortfalls at retirement age range from approximately $22,000 (per individual) for married households, to $34,000 for single males and $65,000 for single females. However, when taking into account only those projected to run short of funds, the average shortfalls at retirement age are higher: approximately $70,000 (per individual) for married households, $95,000 for single males and $105,000 for single females.

The full report is published in the May 2012 EBRI Notes, “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model,®” online at www.ebri.org