Saturday, October 11, 2014

Moving Targets

Before target-date funds were “cool” (or widely available), I had steered my mother toward an asset-allocation fund as a good place to invest her retirement plan rollover balance.

The logic was, I thought, impeccable: A professional money manager would be keeping an eye on and rebalancing those investments on a regular basis. The fee was reasonable, and the portfolio was split about 60/40 between stocks and bonds, which also seemed reasonable in view of her investment horizon. From time to time Mom would call and ask if we needed to rebalance that investment — and I confidently assured her that there was no need to do so, that the fund’s design took that into account.

Then at some point (though definitely between 2006 and 2008) that professional manager decided that a “better” allocation was to shift the asset allocation to be invested nearly entirely in stocks. Now, knowing how such things work, I can’t imagine that a shift that dramatic wasn’t clearly and concisely communicated to holders on a timely basis — or at least in a manner that the legal profession deemed sufficient. But by the time we realized what had happened — well, that reasonably priced professional fund management wound up feeling more like someone had decided to bet it all on “red.”

With that experience under my belt, and a wary eye on recent market movements, I couldn’t help but notice a Reuters report this week which noted that within the last year, several large target-date fund providers had increased the equity allocations of their TDFs. Now, honestly, I don’t know what their previous allocations were, much less where they currently stand, nor am I privy to the rationale behind these moves. I don't know if it's a broad-based shift across their entire family, or specifically focused on those with longer time horizons.

The Reuters piece is cautionary in tone — basically intimating that these moves might be underway at a time when the markets have peaked, with an undertow of concern that the timing could be problematic. Doubtless the headline will draw clicks, if not concern — after all, you don’t have to be very old or in this business very long, to remember that just prior to the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, several performance-lagging TDF managers made what seemed, at least in hindsight, to be a badly timed equity shift in their portfolios. Nor was it that long ago that we heard concerns expressed by participants, particularly older ones (and subsequently regulators on their behalf) who were, in the aftermath of that crisis, surprised to find just how much exposure their TDF investments had to those equity markets.  

Despite these concerns, TDFs have continued to gain prominence in retirement plans, and in retirement plan participant balances. Consider that nearly three-quarters (72%) of 401(k) plans in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database included TDFs in their investment lineup at year-end 2012, and 41% of the roughly 24 million 401(k) participants in that database held TDFs. Consider as well that at year-end 2012, 43% of the account balances of recently hired participants in their 20s were invested in TDFs. Older workers have not been as inclined to invest in those options, though it may simply be that, as older workers, they aren’t as likely to have been defaulted there.

Whether or not this time will be different in result, only time will tell. But we can all hope that the communications about such shifts are understood and appreciated by plan participants and plan sponsors before the results make it too late to do so.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Crisis "Centered"

Is there a retirement crisis or not? 

Though you may have missed it, last week a Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required) claimed that there was an “imaginary” retirement income crisis that was being pushed by some who want to boost Social Security benefits and reduce tax incentives for saving (such as those available to 401(k) plan participants). In fact, authors Andrew Biggs and Syl Schieber claimed that the statistics relied on by the crisis were “vast overstatements, generated by methods that range from flawed to bogus.”

Within a day, New School economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci responded, claiming in an opinion piece on the Huffington Post website that “The Retirement Crisis Is Real,” referring to the WSJ op-ed as making “startling and misleading claims.”

Ultimately, those who believe (or who want to believe) that there is no retirement crisis will likely draw comfort from the assertions of Biggs and Schieber, who have made similar points before. Similarly, those who are inclined to see a retirement crisis looming will likely be reassured by Ghilarducci’s quick and pointed response. Unfortunately, those who have not yet made up their minds are not likely to find much in either article to shed much light on the discussion.

If indeed a “crisis” looms, it’s one that we’ve seen (and been cautioned about) for a very long time. What seems likely is that at some point in the future, some will run short of money in retirement, though they may very well be able to replicate a respectable portion of their pre-retirement income levels, certainly if the support of Social Security is maintained at current levels. In fact, a recent analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that current levels of Social Security benefits, coupled with at least 30 years of 401(k) savings eligibility, could provide most workers — between 83% and 86% of them, in fact — with an annual income of at least 60% of their preretirement pay on an inflation-adjusted basis. Even at an 80% replacement rate, 67% of the lowest-income quartile would still meet that threshold — and that’s making no assumptions about the impact of plan design features like automatic enrollment and annual contribution acceleration.

That is, of course, for workers who have had a full career of retirement plan eligibility at work, and while tens of millions of workers do, many do not yet. That’s a missed opportunity to forestall a potential crisis, since we know that the primary factor in determining whether or not a middle-income worker is saving for retirement is whether or not they have a retirement plan at work. It’s also probably a factor in how individuals feel about their retirement readiness, a point emphasized in findings from the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey where there was a clear distinctions, not only in confidence, but in preparations that might support those sentiments (see "The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds — for Those With Retirement Plans").

At the end of Ghilarducci’s op-ed, she cites the concerns about retirement expressed in a recent Gallup poll. “If things are as rosy as Mr. Biggs and Mr. Schieber state, why is everyone so afraid?” she asks.

At least part of the answer, it seems to me, is that they keep reading headlines like hers.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Left" Overs?

I’ve never been big on leftovers. Now, I know that many relish the taste of cold pizza for breakfast, while others swear that a desirable marinating takes place during storage. As for me, no matter how good the original dish, and despite the wonders of microwaving, I have a hard time getting excited about sitting down to a meal comprised of things that (at least in some cases) weren’t good enough to finish the first time.

When it comes to retirement savings, most still seem to “begin” with whatever is “left over” — after bills, living expenses, food and the like.

Not that we’re comfortable with that approach. A recent Wells Fargo/Gallup survey found that, taking their savings and Social Security income into consideration, more than two-thirds (69%) of investors say they are “highly” or “somewhat” confident they will have enough money to maintain their desired lifestyle throughout their retirement years. However, nearly half (46%) are still “very” or “somewhat” worried about outliving their savings, including 50% of non-retirees and 36% of retirees.

Nor is it a uniquely American issue; the Towers Watson Global Benefit Attitudes Survey found that in developed economies typically two-thirds of respondents believe their financial resources will support 15 years of retirement, but less than half are confident when considering 25 years into retirement.

So, how are we dealing with this worry about running out of money? Well, surveys are beginning to indicate that this uncertainty is already translating into extended work lives — or at least some expectation of being able to do so. Simply stated, for some, the “answer” to not having enough saved to retire is simply to work longer. Mathematically, those assumptions can produce a satisfying projected outcome. Unfortunately, like an assumption that your retirement investments will return 12% annually for the next 30 years, the data suggests that the reality of working longer is often undermined by circumstances beyond the individual’s control.

On the path toward more realistic assumptions, a growing number of providers now make available a projection as to how much monthly income a participant’s retirement savings would produce, and in May 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has proposed that a participant’s pension benefit statement (including his or her 401(k) statement) would show his or her current account balance and an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on that balance. These efforts will doubtless make it easier for today’s workers to anticipate how much retirement income they will have available, based on certain assumptions.

As for those already in retirement — and unable to adjust assumptions— some studies have shown that retirees are adjusting to their income realities — though arguably those are the kind of reality adjustments most would rather not be forced to make.

For those with time to prepare ahead, while we know that the requirements of the “here and now” frequently intrude on our preparations for the “there and then,” there’s something to be said for taking the time now to think about what those retirement savings “leftovers” could taste like — and how small the portions could be.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Working" Capital

In response to concerns that tomorrow’s retirees will run short of money, we are often told to save more, to work longer, or — as often as not these days — to work longer and save more. Certainly working and saving longer can do wonders in terms of stretching your retirement nest egg.

It should probably come as no surprise that American workers are expecting to work longer. The Retirement Confidence Survey notes that in 1991, just 11% of workers expected to retire after age 65. This year that was up to 33% of workers, and another 10% who said they don’t plan to retire at all.

However, the timing of the retirement decision is often not within an individual’s control. A recent survey conducted by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that a majority of retirees surveyed (55%) say they retired earlier than they had expected — just 7% later than they expected. Similar trends were found in EBRI’s 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS), where while more than one-in-five (22%) of workers say they plan to wait at least until age 70 to retire, only 9% of current retirees actually did so. In fact, going back to 1991, the RCS has found that the median (midpoint) age at which retirees report they retired has remained at age 62 throughout this time.

In fact, the RCS has consistently found not only that a large percentage of retirees leave the work force earlier than planned (49% in 2014), but that many retirees who retired earlier than planned cite negative reasons for leaving the work force when they did, including:
  • health problems or disability (61%);
  • changes at their company (such as downsizing or closure (18%); or 
  • having to care for a spouse or another family member (18%). 
The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey cautions that while early retirement used to be equated with financial success, today’s retirees say that health problems are now the top reason for their early retirement (37%). In fact, the surveys indicate that the issues that seem to be triggering earlier-than-expected retirements not only serve to cut short working (and savings) careers, but bring with them additional expense.

Retirement planning requires a lot of assumptions — things like how much we’ll need to live, the return(s) on our investments, how long we’ll live in retirement, and when that retirement will begin.

However, the data also suggest that the assumption that we’ll be able to work to — much less through — the traditional retirement age of 65 may be one of the more optimistic.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Friday, September 05, 2014

Under Covered

Have you heard this one? “Only about half of working Americans are covered by a workplace retirement plan.”

Sure you have. It’s a statistic that is widely cited and reported, both in the mainstream press and on Capitol Hill. It comes from a reliable, objective source (the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey) and conjures up a compelling need for action by advisors (and others) hoping and working to expand the availability of workplace retirement plans.

In reviewing the Census Bureau data, the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently noted that, in 2011, 78.5 million workers worked for an employer or union that did not sponsor a retirement plan. That is the “less than half” number cited, and reported, with such vigor.

However, when you look at the data underlying that aggregate number, you find it includes:
  • 8.9 million people who were self-employed (and thus arguably are prevented from being covered by their own inaction);
  • 6.2 million who were under the age of 21 (who, being under ERISA’s mandated age coverage level, would logically not be “covered”);
  • 3.9 million who were age 65 or older (and beyond “normal” retirement age);
  • just over 31 million who were not full-time, full-year workers; and
  • 16.8 million who had annual earnings of less than $10,000.
When you take those factors into account, it’s pretty easy to see logical reasons why so many workers are not “covered.” When you filter out the overlap between those categories — situations where workers fall into several of those categories simultaneously (for example, workers who are under age 21, have less than $10,000 in annual earnings and are not full-time, full-year workers) — there are about 42.4 million workers whose lack of coverage might logically be attributed to being in one or more of those categories. And yes, that’s more than half of the “uncovered” workers in the CPS analysis.

Not that there isn’t a gap in coverage — unpublished estimates from EBRI drawn from the March 2013 Current Population Survey suggest that approximately 20 million private sector workers earning between $30,000 and $100,000 per year don’t have access to a retirement plan at work. That’s a gap that needs to be filled, and advisors, working with plan sponsors and providers, are working to do so every day.

So yes, claiming that “fewer than half of working Americans have access to a workplace retirement plan” is technically accurate. But while it makes for a compelling headline, it represents a gap in news coverage of the issue that hinders our understanding of the real factors underlying the data, and in the process undermines our ability to address it.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"Class" of '74

Pensions were not on my mind in 1974, certainly not on Labor Day of that year.  While I was pondering my new college textbooks, President Gerald Ford, less than a month in that role, signed into law the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 – better known to most of us as ERISA. Little did I know at the time that that law – and the structure it provided to the nation’s private pension system – would, in the years to follow, play such an integral role in my life.
ERISA did not create pensions, of course; they existed in significant numbers prior to 1974.  Rather, it was designed to regulate what was there and would yet come to be – to protect the funds invested in those plans for the benefit of participants and beneficiaries with a consistent set of federal standards.  And, as part of that protection, to establish the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).  As President Ford said at the time, “It is essential to bring some order and humanity into this welter of different and sometimes inequitable retirement plans within private industry.”

Has ERISA “worked”?  Well, in signing that legislation, President Ford noted that from 1960 to 1970, private pension coverage increased from 21.2 million employees to approximately 30 million workers, while during that same period, assets of these private plans increased from $52 billion to $138 billion, acknowledging that “[i]t will not be long before such assets become the largest source of capital in our economy.”  Today that system has grown to exceed $17 trillion, covering more than 85 million workers in more than 700,000 plans.
The composition of the plans, like the composition of the workforce those plans cover, has changed over time.  While much is made about the perceived shortcomings in coverage of the current system, the projections of multi-trillion dollar shortfalls of retirement income, the pining for the “good old days” when everyone had a pension (that never really existed for most), the reality is that ERISA—and its progeny—have unquestionably allowed more Americans to be better financially prepared for a longer retirement. 
Forty years on, ERISA – and the nation’s retirement challenges – may yet be a work in progress.  But, by any measure, this “class of 74” has done the nation a great service.

-          Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Working" It Out

It is routinely reported that 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring every day, and yet surveys continue to indicate that Americans plan to postpone retirement.

This raises the question: are more older Americans working?

A recent Wall Street Journal article notes (subscription required) that one of the biggest changes in the U.S. labor market over the past two decades has been the increasing number of people working over the age of 55. As recently as 1993, only 29% of people that age were in the labor force, but by 2012 more than 41% of that age group were still in the labor force, the highest since the early 1960s.

It’s hard to find a workplace survey these days that doesn’t find workers planning to work past the traditional retirement age of 65. For example, a recent survey by the Federal Reserve found that fewer than one in five workers age 55 to 64 planned to follow the traditional retirement model of working full time until a set date and then stop working altogether.

A recent report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) noted that the percentage of civilian, noninstitutionalized Americans near or at retirement age (age 55 or older) in the labor force declined from 34.7% in 1975 to 29.4% in 1993. However, since then the overall labor-force participation rate of this group has increased steadily, reaching 40.5% in 2012 — the highest level over the 1975-2013 period — before decreasing to 40.3% in 2013.

Venus and Mars?
The labor-force participation rate for men ages 55 and older followed the same pattern through 2010, falling from 49.4% in 1975 to 37.7% in 1993 before increasing to 46.4% in 2010, roughly where it stood in 2013. On the other hand, the labor-force participation rate of women in this age group was essentially flat from 1975 to 1993 (23.1% and 22.8%, respectively). But after 1993, the women’s rate also increased, reaching its highest level in 2010 (35.1%), where it remained though 2013.

The increase in labor-force participation for the age groups below age 65 was primarily driven by the increases in female labor-force participation rates, as the male labor-force participation rates of those ages 55-59 and 60-64 were lower in 2013 than they were in 1975. In contrast, female labor-force participation rates for those ages 55-59 and 60-64 increased sharply from 1975 to 2013, despite some leveling off in 2010-2013.

The Journal article draws on some Department of Labor data that show that while there are fewer men working at every age, at any given age, more men were working in 2013 than in 2000. By way of example, the article notes that at the turn of the century, about 66% of 60-year-old men and 20% of 70-year-old men were still in the labor force — participation rates that stand today at 72% and 25%, respectively.

So, while there are clearly more people retiring, and thus more not working, there also appear to be more older individuals (on a percentage of workforce basis) working today — though perhaps not as many as once thought they might.