Sunday, April 28, 2013

“Gamble” Gambit

This past week PBS’ Frontline ran a segment on retirement titled “The Retirement Gamble.”

During that broadcast several individual cases were profiled—a single mother who lost her job (and a lot of money that she had apparently overinvested in company stock); a middle-aged couple whose husband had lost his job (and a big chunk of their 401(k) investment in the 2008 financial crisis); a couple of teachers who had seen their retirement plan investments do quite well (before the 2008 financial crisis); a 32-year-old teacher who had lost money in the markets and found herself in an annuity investment that she apparently didn’t understand, but was continuing to save; and a 67-year-old semi-retiree who had managed to set aside enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. The current income and/or working status of each was presented, along with their current retirement savings balance.

Much of the promotional materials around the program focused on fees, and doctoral candidate Robert Hiltonsmith featured prominently in the special. Hiltonsmith, as some may recall, was the author of a Demos report on 401(k) fees released about a year ago—one that claimed that “nearly a third” of the investment returns of a medium-income two-earner family was being taken by fees (Demos report online here), according to its model—which, it should be noted, assumed that each fund had trading costs equal to the explicit expense ratio of the fund.

A fair amount of the program was devoted to the trade-offs between active and passive/index investment strategies, and the lower fees generally associated with the latter. Participant savers might not always choose them, but PLANSPONSOR’s 2012 Defined Contribution Survey found that nearly 8 in 10 (77.4 percent) of the nearly 7,000 plans surveyed already include index fund(s) on their menu, and that nearly 9 in 10 of the largest plans do. Similarly, the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 55th Annual Survey lists “indexed domestic equity funds” as one of the fund types most commonly offered to participants (82.8 percent of plans).

“Balance” Perspectives

Hiltonsmith, 31, “had no savings to lose” in the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Frontline report, but after entering the workforce he began saving in his workplace 401(k). However, “even in a relatively good market, he began to sense that something was wrong,” the voiceover notes. Hiltonsmith explained: “I have a 401(k), I save in it, it doesn’t seem to go up… I kept checking the statement and I’d be like, why does this thing never go up?”

For some time now, EBRI has tracked the actual experience in 401(k) accounts of consistent participants, by age and tenure. Looking at the experience of workers age 25–34, with one to four years of tenure, and considering the period Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2013, the average account balance of consistent participants (those who continued to participate in their workplace 401(k) plan during that time period) experienced a nearly 84 percent increase (see graphic, online here). Granted, at that stage in their career, most of that gain is likely attributable to new contributions, not market returns—but it is an increase in that savings balance, and one that Hiltonsmith,(1) as a consistent participant-saver should have seen as well.

Pension Penchant

The framing of the retirement “gamble” was that “it used to be much easier,” in 1972 when, the Frontline report states, “…42 percent of employees had a pension…” But one point the Frontline report ignores (as do many general media reports on this topic) is that there’s a huge difference between working at an employer that offers a pension plan (the apparent source of the Frontline statistic), and actually collecting a pension based on that employment. Consider that only a quarter of those age 65 or older actually had pension income in 1975, the year after ERISA was signed into law (see “The Good Old Days,” online here). Perhaps more telling is that that pension income, vital as it surely has been for some, represented less than 15 percent of all the income received by those 65 and older in 1975.

In explaining the shift to 401(k) plans, the Frontline report notes that, “over the last decade, the rules of the game changed…” and went on to note that people started living longer, there were changes in accounting rules, global competition, and market volatility that affected the availability of defined benefit pension plans. While all those factors certainly did (and still do) come into play, another critical factor—one unmentioned in the report, and one that hasn’t undergone significant change in recent years—is that most Americans in the private sector weren’t working long enough with a single employer to accumulate the service levels required to earn a full pension.

For years,(2) EBRI has reported that median job tenure of the total workforce—how long a worker typically stays at a job—has hovered around four years since the early 1950s, and five years since the early 1980s. Under standard pension accrual formulas, those kind of tenure numbers mean that, even among the minority of private-sector workers who “have” a pension, many would likely receive a negligible amount because they didn’t stay on the job long enough to earn a meaningful benefit from that defined benefit pension.(3) Consequently, one could argue that American private-sector workers have been “gambling” with their pension every time they made a job change.

The Gamble?

It is, of course, difficult to evaluate the individual circumstances portrayed in the Frontline program from a distance, and via the limited prism afforded by the interviews. Nonetheless, even those in difficult financial straits were still drawing on their 401(k): the single mother had apparently managed to hang on to her underwater mortgage by tapping into her 401(k) savings, as had the couple who incurred a surrender charge by prematurely withdrawing funds from what appeared to be some kind of annuity investment. While this “leakage” was described as a problem, it does underline the critical role a 401(k) plan can play in the provision of emergency savings and financial security during every “life-stage.” Moreover, while the report focused on the circumstances of several individuals who had saved in a workplace retirement plan, one can’t help but wonder about the circumstances of those who don’t have that option.

The dictionary defines a gamble is a “bet on an uncertain outcome.” While the characterization might seem crude, retirement planning—with its attendant uncertainties regarding retirement date, longevity risk, inflation risk, investment risk, recession risk, health care expenses, and long-term care needs(4)—could be positioned in that context.

However, the data would also seem to support the conclusion that this retirement “gamble” isn’t new—and that it may be one for which, because of the employment-based retirement plan system, tomorrow’s retirees have some additional cards to play.
Nevin E. Adams, JD

You can watch the Frontline program (along with some additional materials, and expanded transcripts of some of the program interviews) online here.

(1) The Frontline investigation also seemed to represent something of a voyage of discovery for correspondent Martin Smith, who apparently has dipped into his 401(k) several times over the years. In a moment of subtle irony, he notes that he runs a small company with a handful of employees, but was too busy to look at the “fine print” of his own company’s retirement plan, going on to express confusion as to how these funds got into his plan in the first place. Of course, as the business owner, he was likely either the plan sponsor, or hired/designated the person(s) who made that decision.

(2) EBRI provided all of the data referenced here—and much more—to the Frontline producers. In fact, Dallas Salisbury was interviewed on tape for nearly two hours, so we know they had the full picture on tape. That may be what makes the Frontline program the most disappointing, knowing that the program could have presented a balanced picture of “The Retirement Gamble” and the diversity of plans, fees, and outcomes, yet its producers chose not to do so. EBRI’s most recent report on job tenure trends was published in the December 2012 EBRI Notes, online here.

(3) As EBRI has repeatedly noted, the idea of holding a full-career job and retiring with the proverbial “gold watch” is a myth for most people. That’s especially true since so few workers even qualify for a traditional pension anymore (see EBRI’s most recent data on pension trends, online here).

(4) EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) 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 the May 2012 EBRI Notes, “Retirement Income Adequacy for Boomers and Gen Xers: Evidence from the 2012 EBRI Retirement Security Projection Model”).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Charge" Accounts

I was a late convert to the convenience of NetFlix, and while I appreciated the convenience of delivery, when they expanded the offering to include online movie viewing “at no additional charge,” I didn’t really “get” it. Aside from the fact that, at that time, my DVD player wasn’t wireless compatible, the selection (certainly in those early days) was unremarkable at best. In fact, I remember telling a friend once that the online movies were free, and worth every penny.

The quality and breadth of selection improved over time, until of course, there came that fateful decision to charge a fee for that online movie access separate and apart from the home DVD delivery. All of a sudden, a service that had been a nice-to-have “at no additional charge” had to be viewed through a whole new prism―it was now a benefit with a cost.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), group health plans that offer dependent coverage are required to extend coverage to workers’ children until they reach age 26, regardless of student status, marital status or financial support by the employees. It has been estimated that 3.1 million young adults have acquired health coverage as a result of the adult-dependent mandate (ADM) provision, and overall, 31 percent of employers enrolled adult-dependent children as a result of the mandate, according to a recent EBRI report (online here).

However, under PPACA, employers are not allowed to directly charge higher premiums for the cost of this “adult-dependent” coverage. An EBRI analysis of the experience of a single large employer during the period Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2011, found that nearly 700 adult children enrolled in the employer plan in 2011 as a result of the adult dependent mandate―and this group used about $2 million in health care services in 2011 (about 0.2 percent of the over $1 billion in total spending on health care services by that employer that year).

The EBRI report also looked at the claims behaviors of the ADM group compared with a group of dependent children ages 19–25 that were covered prior to Jan. 1, 2011, some 13,000 young adults. Both groups had health coverage for the entire 2011 calendar year through the employer examined in this study. Average spending in the ADM cohort was higher: 15 percent higher than the comparison group, in fact. While the period of review was short, and the experiences associated with that of a single large employer, the ADM group used more inpatient services than the comparison group, and, in what is perhaps the most interesting finding of the analysis, were more likely to incur claims related to mental health, substance abuse, and pregnancy.

So, while this adult-dependent coverage is currently offered “at no additional charge” (certainly for those already carrying family coverage), there are almost certainly additional costs―costs that employers and workers will (and indeed already have begun) to share through claims payments, cost sharing, and worker premiums.

Of course, as a result of this expanded coverage, there also are individuals who might otherwise not have the benefit of the coverage, either because they wouldn’t have access, or would find it to be prohibitively expensive―and this coverage might well be less expensive than the alternative consequences. Little wonder that the debate continues as to whether the provisions of PPACA will serve to increase or decrease long-term health care spending trends.

It will be interesting to see how the health care spending trends of this younger demographic change over time, and how employers respond. It also underlines the importance of ongoing research on these spending and usage patterns as implementation of the PPACA proceeds, even as it serves to remind us that there can be a difference between no additional charge, and no additional cost.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ripple Effects

One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” The story takes place in the future when, having figured out time travel, mankind has found a way to commercialize it by selling safaris back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Not just random dinosaurs, mind you—cognizant of the potential implications that a change in the past can ripple through and affect future events, the safari organizers take care to target only those that are destined to die in short order of natural causes. Further, participants are cautioned to stay on a special artificial path designed to preclude interaction with the local flora and fauna. Until, of course, one of the hunters panics and stumbles off the path—and the group finds that, upon returning to their own time, subtle (and not so subtle) changes have occurred. Apparently because in leaving the path, the hunter stepped on a butterfly—whose untimely demise, magnified by the passage of time produced changes much larger than one might have expected from its modest beginnings.

The recently released White House budget proposal for 2014 included a plan to raise $9 billion over 10 years by imposing a retirement savings cap for tax-preferred accounts. While initial reports focused on the aggregate dollar limit of $3 million included in the text, it soon became clear that that figure was merely a frame of reference for the real limit: the annual annuity equivalent of that sum, $205,000 per year in 2013 for an individual age 62.¹

Of course, there are a number of variables that influence annuity purchase prices. As an EBRI analysis this week outlines, while $3 million might provide that annual annuity today, if interest/discount rates were to move higher, that limit could be even lower. As the EBRI analysis explains, if you look only as far back as late 2006, based on a time series of annuity purchase prices for males age 65, the actuarial equivalent of the $205,000 threshold could be as low as $2.2 million—and a higher interest rate environment could result in an even lower cap threshold.

At the same time, the passage of time, which normally works to the advantage of younger savers by allowing savings to accumulate, tends to increase the probability that younger workers will reach the inflation-adjusted limits by the time they reach age 65, relative to older workers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Retirement Security Projection Model® (RSPM) allows us to estimate what the potential future impact could be. Utilizing a specific set of assumptions,² EBRI finds that 1.2 percent of those ages 26–35 in the sample would be affected by the adjusted $3 million cap by the time they reach age 65, while 4.2 percent of that group would be affected by the cap of $2.2 million derived from the discount rates in 2006 cited above.

While the EBRI analysis offers a sense of how variables such as time, market returns, and discount rates can have, there are other potential “ripples” we aren’t yet able to consider, such as the potential response of individual savers—and of employers that make decisions about sponsoring these retirement savings programs—to such a change in tax policy.

Like the hunters in Bradbury’s tale, the initial focus is understandably on the here-and-now, how today’s decisions affect things today. However, decisions whose impact can be magnified by the passage of time are generally better informed when they also take into account the full impact³ they might have in the future.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ With the publication of the final budget proposal, we also learned that the calculation of the threshold also includes defined benefit accruals. While our current analysis did not contemplate the inclusion of defined benefit accruals, it seems likely that the number of individuals affected will change. The White House budget proposal is online here.

² The specific assumptions involved taking age adjustments into account in asset allocation, real returns of 6 percent on equity investments, and 3 percent on nonequity investments, 1 percent real wage growth, and no job turnover. This particular analysis was focused on participants in the EBRI/ICI 401(k) database with account balances at the end of 2011 and contributions in that year. The assumptions used in modeling a variety of scenarios is outlined online here.

³ As with all budget proposals, most of the instant analysis focuses on the numbers. The objective in this preliminary analysis was simply to answer the immediate question: How many individuals might be affected by imposing such a cap on retirement savings accounts? Of necessity, it does not yet consider the administrative complexities of implementation and monitoring such a cap, nor does it take into account the potential response of individual savers and their employers to such a change in tax policy—all of which could create additional “ripples” of impact. The latter consideration is of particular importance in considering the implications of tax policy changes to the current voluntary retirement savings system.

Sunday, April 07, 2013


Generalizations are often misleading, but I think it’s fair to say that some people (specifically those of the male gender) are notoriously reluctant to ask for directions—even when it’s painfully clear to everyone else traveling in their company that they are “lost.” If you’re not one of those people, I’ll bet you know someone (and probably more than one someone) who is.¹

The rationalizations offered by those refusing to seek help are as varied and variable as the individual circumstances that bring those hesitations to light: a shortage of time; certainty that, however lost they seem, they actually know where they are (or will be shortly); a lack of trust in the reliability of the instructions they might receive; the inconvenience of stopping…this despite the knowledge (frequently even among those reluctant to ask directions) that the modest investment of time to seek assistance will likely be far less than the time (and aggravation) that they will expend trying to find their own way.

When it comes to retirement planning, reluctance to seek help seems even more widespread. In fact, the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey found that fewer than half of workers surveyed have ever tried to calculate what they need to save for a comfortable retirement (see “Guess Work?”)—and that’s not a new finding in a survey that now spans nearly a quarter-century.

The use of retirement planning “help,” in the form of on-line calculators and professional retirement advisors, has been linked to higher levels of retirement confidence—and with justification, according to new EBRI research.³ Turns out that the respondents to the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey² in the lowest-income quartile who had sought the input of a financial advisor cited savings goals that, compared with those who did not, would reduce the risk of running short of money in retirement by anywhere from 9 to nearly 13 percentage points, depending on family status and gender. Those in the lowest-income quartile who used calculators chose savings targets that would, if they achieved those goals, decrease their probability of running short of money in retirement by anywhere from 14 to more than 18 percentage points.

Unfortunately, only about one-fourth of the sample studied (25.6 percent) used either of these two methods.

Why, then, have so few sought direction? Doubtless the reasons for not doing so mirror those above: a lack of time, a lack of confidence in the directions, or in the individual providing that assistance. Perhaps in the case of retirement projection calculators, the tools may be too hard to find, too complicated to use, or simply just one thing too much to do in an already too-busy day. This, it seems fair to say, despite the knowledge that seeking help would surely provide a better outcome.

What about those who didn’t seek help, who “guessed” at those retirement savings targets? Well, there were more in that category in the RCS sampling (44.6 percent)—and, perhaps not surprisingly, they tended to underestimate their savings needs—in effect, citing a goal that would leave them short of their projected financial needs in retirement.

Baseball great Yogi Berra once cautioned that “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” When it comes to retirement, the problem generally isn’t getting there—it’s getting there before you are ready.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

¹ These individuals may be harder to spot these days with the widespread availability of GPS devices, but they can still be found.

² See the 2013 RCS, on-line here.

³ “A Little Help: The Impact of On-line Calculators and Financial Advisors on Setting Adequate Retirement-Savings Targets: Evidence from the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey” on-line here.