Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reality “Checks”

A recent opinion piece by Teresa Ghilarducci in the New York Times took on what she termed a “ridiculous approach to retirement,” drawn from what appears to be a series of “ad hoc” dinner conversations with friends about their “retirement plans and prospects.”

Most of the op-ed focused on the perceived shortfalls of the voluntary retirement savings system: People don’t have enough savings, don’t know how much “enough” is, make inaccurate assumptions about the length of their lives and their ability to extend their working careers, and aren’t able to find qualified help to help them make more appropriate savings decisions. In place of the current system, which Ghilarducci maintains “will always fall short,” she proposes “a way out” via mandatory savings in addition to the current Social Security withholding. Consider that, just three sentences into the op-ed, she posits the jaw-dropping statistic that 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.

“You don’t like mandates? Get real,” she declares.

When we looked across the EBRI database of some 2.3 million active1 401(k) participants at the end of 2010 who were between the ages of 56 and 65, inclusive – people who have chosen to supplement Social Security through voluntary savings – we found only about half that number (37 percent) with less than $30,000 in those accounts. Moreover, when looking at those in that group who have more than 30 years of tenure, fewer than 13% are in that circumstance – and neither set of numbers includes retirement assets that those individuals may have accumulated in the plans of their previous employers, or that they may have rolled into Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), as well as pensions or other savings (see Average IRA Balances a Third Higher When Multiple Accounts are Considered).

That’s not to say that the financial challenges outlined in the op-ed won’t be a reality for some. In fact, EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) developed in 2003, updated in 20102, finds that for Early Baby Boomers (individuals born between 1948 and 1954), Late Baby Boomers (born between 1955 and 1964) and Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1974), roughly 44 percent of the simulated lifepaths were projected to lack adequate retirement income for basic retirement expenses plus uninsured health care costs (see “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model”) .

The op-ed declares that a voluntary Social Security system “would have been a disaster.” Indeed, an objective observer might conclude that that is why Congress originally established Social Security as a mandatory system, to provide a base of income for retirees as it still does today. With the underpinnings of that mandatory foundation of Social Security, the current voluntary system was established to allow employers and individuals to supplement that base. In recent decades Social Security’s benefits have been “reduced” by increases in the definition of normal retirement age, and a partial taxation of benefits, despite increases in the mandatory withholding rates, in order to adjust to the realities of rising costs from changing demographics. Even before the recent two-year partial withholding “holiday,” Congress was, and is still today, discussing additional adjustments to that mandatory system.

The voluntary system should be judged as just that, a voluntary system. As noted above, the data makes it clear that voluntary employer-based plans are, in fact, leading to a great deal of real savings accumulated to supplement Social Security. Many in the nation work every day to encourage those savings to be increased (see www.choosetosave.org ).

The “real” questions, certainly as one reflects on the debate over the Affordable Care Act mandate, amidst today’s political and economic turmoil, are whether the Congress and the nation will be willing – and able – to pay the price of an expanded or new retirement savings mandate, and, regardless of that outcome, how can a voluntary system be moved to higher levels of success?

Nevin E. Adams, JD

1 Active in this case is defined as anyone in the database with a positive account balance and a positive total contribution (employee plus employer) for 2010.

2 The RSPM was updated for a variety of 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 to account 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. For more information on the RSPM, check out the May 2012 EBRI Notes, “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model.”

Last June EBRI CEO Dallas Salisbury participated in an “Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman” program discussion with Ghilarducci and Alex Brill from the American Enterprise Institute titled “America’s Retirement Challenge: Should We Ditch 401(k) Plans?” You can view it online here.

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