“Some” Totals

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

There’s an old tale about a group of men that are blindfolded and then asked to describe an object (in the story, an elephant, though they don’t know what it is), based on their individual observations. In doing so, each one grasps a different part, but only one part, such as the side, the trunk, the tail, the ear, or a tusk.

Following their individual assessments of what is ostensibly the same object, they compare notes―and are puzzled to find their conclusions about the object’s appearance to be in complete disagreement.

A recent EBRI Notes article¹ examined retirement plan participation through the prism of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau to examine Americans’ participation in various government and private-sector programs that relate to their income and well-being.

Now, as the EBRI analysis notes, the SIPP data have the advantage of providing relatively detailed information on workers’ retirement plans, but SIPP is fielded only once every three to five years. By comparison, the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is also conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, provides overall participation levels of workers on an annual basis, but the CPS does not provide information on the specific types of plans in which the workers are participating. Another data source is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) National Compensation Survey, which annually surveys establishments’ offerings of employee benefit programs, including retirement plans―but at an employee level it includes information only on occupation, union status, and part-time/full-time work, and no information on age, gender, or race/ethnicity. Consider also that the CPS collects information about anyone who worked at any point in a previous year, while SIPP and BLS ask only about current workers in the month of interest.

As you can see, each of these national (and widely cited) surveys collects data in a different manner, at different times, and has different questions that can lead to different conclusions. Consider the chart below. The top line shows retirement plan participation rates for all workers from SIPP, and the lower line graphs retirement plan participation, also for all workers, from the CPS. While the trend lines generally move in the same direction, the more frequent CPS data allows us to see the more incremental movements―and to see a drop in participation rates in 2000–2002 following the burst of the tech bubble that would be completely missed looking only at the SIPP results. Moreover, relying strictly on SIPP data, one might well be inclined to see an increase in participation rates, rather than the leveling off that we see based on CPS data.²

That said, each survey provides important data that can’t be found elsewhere: CPS has the annual participation data with a complete set of worker demographics, while SIPP has the complete set of worker demographics plus retirement plan types, and BLS has detailed data on establishment characteristics, along with retirement plan type, although with limited worker demographics.

There was nothing inherently wrong in the individual observations made by the three blind men in the story―other than their examinations focused on one particular attribute, rather than appreciating the reality that a truly accurate assessment required looking at ALL the pieces, rather than each in isolation.

Similarly, and as the EBRI analysis concludes, those who would draw conclusions from individual surveys or datasets are well-advised to benchmark those results against other data, lest they conclude that the elephant(s) in the room are different than they truly are.

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Notes

¹ See “Retirement Plan Participation: Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) Data, 2012,” online here.

² Another potential limitation of these surveys is that they are based on self-reported information, which is to say they rely on respondents’ recollections, rather than actual administrative plan data or IRS tax records. For SIPP specific results, see, for example, Irena Dushi, Howard M. Iams, and Jules Lichtenstein, “Assessment of Retirement Plan Coverage by Firm Size, Using W-2 Tax Records,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 2, 2011, pp. 53–65, online here.

“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. 

The “Big” Picture

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

A recent EBRI Issue Brief examined trends in employment-based retirement plan participation, noting that in 2011, the percentage of all workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan was essentially unchanged from the year before. More specifically, the percentage of all workers (including part-time and self-employed) participating in an employment-based retirement plan¹ stood at 39.7 percent in 2011, compared with 39.8 percent in 2010.² At the same time, the percentage of full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21–64 (those most likely to be offered a retirement plan at work) saw a slight decline, slipping from 54.5 percent in 2010 to 53.7 percent in 2011.

While those movements were very small, the increase in the number of workers participating in 2011 halted a three-year decline. Moreover, it’s not as though this gauge has shown a steady trend, even in recent history. When you take into account all workers, the percentage participating in an employment-based retirement plan reached 44.4 percent in 2000, but declined to 39.7 percent in 2006, before increasing to 41.5 percent in 2007—the highest level since 2004, before then slipping back to 39.6 percent in 2009.³

When you look inside the overall numbers, we find that some categories examined had increases in the probability of workers participating and others showed decreases. Not only does the status as a full-time or part-time worker have a major impact on participation rates, the report notes, so does the demographic characteristics of the individual worker, the type and size of their employer, and even their physical location (workers in the South and West were less likely to participate in a plan than those in other regions of the country, for example).

Looking at the overall percentage of females participating in a plan, you might notice that it was lower than that of males—but when you control for aspects such as work status or earnings, the female participation level actually surpasses that of males. If you look only at the participation rate of Hispanics as a group, they appear to lag other groups significantly in terms of retirement plan participation. However, it turns out that only the nonnative Hispanics actually have participation levels substantially below those of all other workers. In fact, nonnative-born Hispanics had substantially lower participation levels than native-born Hispanics, even when controlling for age and earnings.

In responding to big issues, it’s sometimes tempting to look at data only in the aggregate, and in the press of time, to draw broad conclusions from trend lines over remarkably recent history, trying to get a sense of the “big picture.” But as the data above suggest, a “better” picture is often drawn from an analysis of the component parts that make up that big picture, balanced with an appreciation for longer-term trends.

Notes

¹ The number of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan increased from 60.7 million in 2010 to 61.0 million in 2011, returning to the 2009 level, the second lowest since 1997 and well below the 67.1 million workers who participated in a plan in 2000, the peak year for the number of workers participating in a plan from 1987–2011.

² “All workers” is the broadest work force population group, including those not covered by a retirement plan. A more restrictive definition of the work force, which more closely resembles the types of workers who generally must be covered by a retirement plan in accordance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), is the work force of full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21–64. Under this definition, 60.8 percent of these workers worked for an employer sponsoring a plan, and 53.7 percent of them participated in a retirement plan.

³ An important public-policy topic associated with an analysis of employment-based retirement plan participation is the number of workers who are not participants, as well as the number of those who work for employers/unions that do not sponsor a plan. For example, when taking into account only workers who work full-time, full-year, make $10,000 or more in annual earnings, and work for an employer with 100 or more employees, 15.1 million (or 25.2 percent of the defined population) would be included among those working for an employer that did not sponsor a plan. Another way to look at this last number is that 74.8 percent of workers with those characteristics worked for an employer that did sponsor a retirement plan in 2011. This is explained in more detail on page 30 of the November 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011,” online here.  See also “’Under’ Covered,” online here.

Retirement Plan Participation Stabilizing

As the economy slowly recovered from the recent recession, American workers’ participation in employment-based retirement plans stabilized, according to a new report by EBRI.

In 2011, the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan was essentially unchanged from a year earlier. Specifically, the percentage of all workers (including part-year, part-time, and self-employed) participating in an employment-based retirement plan moved from 39.6 percent in 2009, to 39.8 percent in 2010, to 39.7 percent in 2011.

“The increase in the number of workers participating in 2011 halted the three year decline from 2008–2010,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associated at EBRI and author of the report. “The downturns in the economy and stock market in 2008 and into 2009 showed a two-year decline in both the number and percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan. The 2010 and 2011 participation levels stabilized as the economy recovered.”

As the EBRI report explains, the type of employment has a major impact on participation rates. Among full-time, full-year wage and salary workers ages 21–64 (those with the strongest connection to the work force), 53.7 percent participated. However, this rate varies significantly across various worker characteristics and the characteristics of their employers.

For instance, being nonwhite, younger, female, never married; having lower educational attainment, lower earnings, poorer health status, no health insurance through own employer; not working full time, full year, and working in service occupations or farming, fisheries, and forestry occupations were all associated with a lower level of participation in a retirement plan. Workers in the South and West were less likely to participate in a plan than those in other regions of the country.

The overall percentage of females participating in a plan was lower than that of males, but when controlling for work status or earnings, the female participation level actually surpasses that of males. The retirement plan participation gender gap significantly closed from 1987–2009 before slightly widening in 2010 and 2011.

Full results are published in the November 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, “Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011,” online at www.ebri.org

Wealth Connected?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

A recent EBRI Issue Brief (Individual Account Retirement Plans: An Analysis of the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances) examined trends in individual account retirement plans.

Analyzing the information from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF)1, it was not surprising to find that the median (midpoint) net worth of American families decreased by 38.8 percent from 2007 to 2010, and the median value of family income also decreased during that period (though at a much smaller rate of 7.7 percent).

At the same time, defined contribution retirement plan balances came to represent a larger portion of families’ total financial assets among families with these plans; 61.4 percent in 2010, compared with 58.1 percent in 2007.  Defined contribution and/or IRA/Keogh balances increased their share as well, from 64.1 percent of total family financial assets in 2007 to 65.7 percent in 2010.  And, while regular IRAs account for the largest percentage of IRA ownership, it is perhaps not surprising to find out, as the EBRI analysis reveals, that rollover IRAs had a larger share of assets than regular IRAs in 2010.

The Issue Brief notes, “[t]he employment-based system is generating much of this wealth from individual account retirement plans, because it includes, obviously, all of the defined contribution assets (especially from 401(k)s) as well as approximately 45 percent of IRA wealth,” as well as rollovers of lump sum distributions from defined benefit plans2.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the SCF data show that participation in an employment-based retirement plan was strongly linked to family income and the family head’s educational level and race.  However, in terms of net worth, families within the highest 10 percent of net worth were most likely to have a retirement plan participant in 2010, while the two net worth percentile breaks just below the highest had similar levels of participation to that of the highest net worth families.  As recently as 2007, families in the lower levels of percentile of net worth were more likely to have a participant than those in the highest level.

However, the EBRI Issue Brief also looks at a comparison of the mean and median net worth across family income and age of family head shows that families with ANY type of individual account retirement plan (defined contribution plan from current or previous employer or an IRA/Keogh plan) not only have larger amounts of wealth, but that wealth is substantially larger across each and every income and age of household group (see chart below).  Consider that the median household wealth for a family with annual income of less than $25,000 that had an individual account retirement plan was $118,000, while the median household wealth for a family in the same income category, but with no individual retirement account, was $5,800.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that those with more income or wealth are more likely to have an individual retirement plan account.

However, it’s surely worth noting that the data suggest that those with an individual retirement plan account – any individual retirement plan account – at even the lowest income levels, look to be much better off.

– Notes

1The Survey of Consumer Finances is, as its name suggests, a survey of consumer households “to provide detailed information on the finances of U.S. families.”  It is conducted every three years by the Federal Reserve, and is eagerly awaited and widely used—from analysis at the Federal Reserve and other branches of government to scholarly work at the major economic research centers.  The 2010 version was published in June.

2Lump-sum distributions are increasingly available in DB plans.  For example, in 2010, 46 percent of full-time employees in private-sector DB plans were eligible for a lump-sum distribution (U.S. Department of Labor, 2011c).  That compares with 1997 and 1995, when 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of full-time workers participating in a DB plan in a medium or large establishment were not offered a lump-sum distribution (U.S. Department of Labor, 1999, 1998).  A recent EBRI analysis of the distribution options for more than 33,000 participants in 84 defined benefit/cash balance plans in 2010 found that only about one in five had no lump sum option.  Additional information will be available in a future EBRI publication.

401(k) Ownership Continues to Grow, While IRA Ownership Falls

Although fewer American families are participating in a retirement plan at work, more of those with a plan are in a 401(k). At the same time, ownership of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) is falling, according to a new report by EBRI.

Analyzing the four-year period from 2007‒2010, EBRI finds that the share of American families with a member in any employment-based retirement plan from a current employer increased steadily from 38.8 percent in 1992 to 40.6 percent in 2007, before declining in 2010 to 37.9 percent.

Ownership of 401(k)-type plans among families participating in a retirement plan more than doubled from 31.6 percent in 1992 to 79.5 percent in 2007, and increased again in 2010 to 82.1 percent. But the percentage of families owning an IRA or Keogh retirement plan (for the self-employed) declined from 30.6 percent in 2007 to 28.0 percent in 2010. In addition, the percentage of families with a retirement plan from a current employer, a previous employer’s defined contribution plan, or an IRA/Keogh declined from 66.2 percent in 2007 to 63.8 percent in 2010.

As in the past, EBRI found that retirement plan assets account for a growing majority of most Americans’ financial wealth, outside the value of their home. The median (mid-point) percentage of families’ total financial assets comprised by defined contribution plan assets and/or IRA/Keogh assets (assuming the family had any) increased from 2007 to 2010, and accounted for a clear majority of these assets:

  • Defined contribution plan balances accounted for 58.1 percent of families’ total financial assets in 2007, and that share grew to 61.4 percent in 2010.
  • Defined contribution and/or IRA/Keogh balances increased their share as well, from 64.1 percent of total family financial assets in 2007 to 65.7 percent in 2010. Across all demographic groups, these assets account for a very large share of total financial assets for those who own these accounts.

However, the EBRI report notes that the most recent data, along with other EBRI research, indicate that many people are unlikely to afford a comfortable retirement. “Americans lost a tremendous amount of wealth between 2007 and 2010, and the percentage of families that participated in an employment-based retirement plan and/or owned an IRA decreased as well,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associated and author of the report.

However, he added, the percentage of family heads who were eligible to participate in a defined contribution plan and actually did so remained virtually unchanged during this time. Therefore, despite all the bad news that resulted from this period, one positive factor should be noted: “Those eligible to participate in a retirement plan continued to participate—which may help change the likelihood of a lower retirement standard for many Americans,” Copeland said.

The full report is published in the September 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, available at EBRI’s Web site at www.ebri.org   The press release is online here.