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.

Higher Starting Point Would Significantly Increase Retirement Security “Success”

Setting a higher starting point for 401(k) contributions would make a significant difference in improving workers’ likelihood of a financially viable retirement, according to new research by EBRI.

Most private-sector employers that automatically enroll their 401(k) participants do so at a default rate of 3 percent of pay, a level consistent with the starting rate set out in the Pension Protection Act of 2006, but a rate that many financial experts say is far too low to generate sufficient assets for a comfortable retirement. Raising the default saving rate to 6 percent would significantly increase the chances for achieving retirement adequacy “success” for both low- and high-income workers, EBRI found.

Using its proprietary Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM), EBRI evaluated the impact of raising the default contribution rate on younger workers (with 31–40 years of simulated 401(k) eligibility) to see how many would be likely to achieve a to achieve a total income real replacement rate of 80 percent at retirement—within the typical range of replacement rates suggested by many financial consultants.

A key variable in considering the impact of auto-enrollment in 401(k) plans with automatic escalation of contributions is whether workers who change jobs continue to save at their previous (and typically higher) contribution rate, or whether they “start over” in the new job at the typical lower automatic deferral rate of 3 percent.

Jack VanDerhei

Under the EBRI modeling, more than a quarter (25.6 percent) of those in the lowest-income quartile who had previously NOT been modeled to have a financially successful retirement (under the actual default contribution rates) would be successful as a result of the increase in starting deferral rate to 6 percent of compensation. Even workers in the highest-income quartile would benefit, although not as much: Just over 18 percent who would not be successful under the actual default contribution rate would be successful due to the higher 6 percent default rate.

“This study shows that substantial increases in success rates were found for both low- and high-income employees if employers raised the default 401(k) contribution rate to 6 percent of pay,” said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report.

Full results are published in the September EBRI Notes, “Increasing Default Deferral Rates in Automatic Enrollment 401(k) Plans: The Impact on Retirement Savings Success in Plans With Automatic Escalation,” available online at www.ebri.org

Work to Age 70? For Many, That Still Won’t Pay for Retirement

Contrary to some reports that working just a little bit longer—to age 70—will allow between 80 and 90 percent of households to have adequate income in retirement, new research by EBRI shows that for approximately one-third of the households between the ages of 30 and 59 in 2007 that won’t be enough.

The EBRI research, the latest in a series of detailed analysis of retirement income adequacy by the Institute, stems from projections that large numbers of Baby Boomer and Generation X workers are likely to run short of what they need to cover general expenses and uninsured health care expenses in retirement.

“It would be comforting from a public policy standpoint to assume that merely working to age 70 would be a panacea to the significant challenges of assuring retirement income adequacy, but this may be a particularly risky strategy, especially for the vulnerable group of low-income workers,” noted Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report.

Working longer can, however, have a positive impact. The new research, using results from EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model,® shows that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of households aged 50‒59 in 2007 would be considered “ready” for retirement at age 70, compared with 52 percent of those same households if they were to retire at age 65. Moreover, the research indicates that a worker’s participation status in a defined contribution (DC) retirement plan at age 65 will be extremely important due to the multi-year consequences for additional employee and employer contributions to the plan.

Among the key reasons for the differences between EBRI’s estimates and other models is that EBRI’s research is based on data from millions of actual 401(k) participants and its model incorporates longevity risk, investment risk, and the risk of potentially catastrophic health care costs (such as prolonged stays in a nursing home).

“While workers need to make their own decisions on the correct trade-offs of saving today vs. deferring retirement, they should be able to expect that those presenting alternatives be as accurate and complete as possible, avoiding simplistic ’rules of thumb’ that may result in future retirees, through no fault of their own, coming up short,” VanDerhei observed.

The full report is published in the August 2012 EBRI Notes, “Is Working to Age 70 Really the Answer for Retirement Income Adequacy?” online at www.ebri.org