Saturday, April 14, 2007

“Self-Fulfilling” Prophecies


The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Matthew Greenwald & Associates published the 17th Annual Retirement Confidence Index last week – and, for the very most part, it’s probably safe to say it didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

More than half (52%) expect to be comfortable, another third categorize their post-retirement income status as “adequate,” and 6% are looking forward to being “well-off” – at least in the first five years after retirement. Just 10% say they will be “struggling.”

While they are apparently less confident than they once were in terms of a traditional pension benefit, they remain largely complacent about their overall prospects for a comfortable retirement – more than a quarter are VERY confident, and another 43% are somewhat confident, in fact. Still, only 18% are much less confident about receiving that traditional pension. (Oddly, and perhaps proving that confidence is a relative term, “only” 29% of those who do not expect to receive a pension are less confident. Can one truly be less confident of receiving something that you don’t expect to receive?) And while 62% say that they expect to see that traditional pension someday, only 41% say they are currently covered by such a program.

The survey, well-regarded for its breadth and depth of analysis, also revealed that almost half of the workers who are saving for retirement (bear in mind that only about 60% are at present) have accumulated…less than $25,000. Seven in 10 of these workers have less than $10,000 saved (including more than a quarter of those older than 55). They also continue to misjudge the age at which they will be eligible for full Social Security benefits (it’s no longer 65, by the way), appear to overestimate the existence of long-term health coverage (they think they have it, though only 10% of the population does), and – at least based on current trends – seem to be more optimistic about the availability of employer-provided health care in retirement.

“Agree” Mien?

But what I found most intriguing about the RCS results from the perspective of advisers – was how survey participants responded to the notion of advice. There have been any number of surveys done in recent months about participants and the need for help in making investment decisions, and they consistently indicate a strong desire on the part of participants for help. Setting aside for a minute the fact that many of those surveys are underwritten by firms interested in providing that help, I’ve heard that exact message from both plan sponsors and advisers in the field (although, more recently, the call hasn’t been for help in making the decision, it has been an interest in having someone just take care of it).

However, in the RCS, fewer than two in 10 workers said they would be very likely to take advantage of investment advice at a modest cost (“modest cost” was not defined for them), and only about a third (35%) said they would be somewhat likely to do so (the rest broke nearly evenly between would not likely, and would definitely not take advantage). However, advisers might take some comfort in knowing that those who had used an adviser previously, those who were under the age of 55, and those with higher household incomes were more favorably disposed toward the service.

But even among those interested in investment advice, only about one in five (21%) said they would implement all of the recommendations – if they trusted the adviser. A full 11% said they wouldn’t implement any of the recommendations, and two-thirds said they would implement only the recommendations that were in line with their own thinking.

All of this would, unfortunately, seem to portend a rough road ahead for advisers who are trying to get across the importance of retirement savings. After all, if people are feeling this “confident” about their prospects, no wonder the nation’s savings rate continues to languish. And if participants are only interested in recommendations that match their own thinking – and their thinking is grounded in these feelings of relative optimism – how are they going to be able to ready themselves for what may be a very rough future reality? Ultimately, of course, it will take more than confidence to ensure retirement security: It will take awareness, planning, and action. The RCS should, IMHO, be a wake-up call for us all.

- Nevin Adams

Note: The good news in the RCS is that workers who are saving for retirement, who have taken the time to do a retirement needs calculation (and who have higher incomes) – tend to be more confident than others about their prospects.

For more about the Retirement Confidence Survey, see Workers’ Confidence in Traditional Benefits Slip

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