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

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