Sunday, February 26, 2012

Goals Tending

The bad news is that times are still tough for many Americans—and surveys suggest that even those with jobs are nervous about their prospects for the future. The good news is that the current level of economic uncertainty seems to have brought about—at least for some—a heightened awareness of the need to set money aside for a rainy day, perhaps even those rainy days in retirement.

That said, the weak economy has certainly constrained the ability of many to save. In fact, a recent national survey found that an increasing number of Americans are having difficulty saving to meet goals ranging from meeting emergencies to affording retirement. The survey—released as part of America Saves Week(1)—noted that over the past three years, there has been a decline in the number of people who spend less than their income and save the difference, are building home equity, have adequate emergency savings, and think they are saving enough for retirement.

However, the survey also revealed that having a savings plan has beneficial financial effects, even for lower-income families. Consider that 85% of those who had a savings plan spent less than their income, (86% of this group felt they had sufficient emergency savings), and 3 in 4 said they were saving enough for retirement.

On the other hand, just 44% of those without a savings plan claimed to be spending less than their income, while 43% said they had sufficient emergency savings. Fewer than 1 in 4 of those with no savings plan said they were saving enough for retirement.

And yet, while those with a plan for savings had significantly better savings behaviors, fewer than half of survey respondents said they had “a savings plan with specific goals.”

It is admittedly simplistic to chasten those truly unable to save because of challenging economic circumstances. On the other hand, there are surely some today better able to weather those economic storms because they chose to set money aside during less tumultuous times.

That first step on that path, and it’s a critical one, is to Choose to Save.® As America Saves Week reminds us—and those trying to help others save—there’s no better time to start on that path to Save For Your Future® than today.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Note: Organizations interested in building/reinforcing a workplace savings campaign can find free resources—and a handy schedule of events around which to construct a program—here courtesy of the American Savings Education Council (ASEC).


(1) America Saves Week is an annual event where hundreds of national and local organizations promote good savings behavior and individuals are encouraged to assess their own saving status. America Saves Week is managed by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). ASEC is a program of the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), which commissioned the survey, undertaken by Opinion Research Corp. You can find out more about America Saves Week here.

(2) Choose to Save® is sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute Education and Research Fund (EBRI-ERF) and one of its programs, the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). The website and materials development have been underwritten through generous grants and additional support from EBRI members and ASEC Partner institutions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“Short” Comings

In this business you are frequently asked “how much should people save for retirement?” Some try to answer that question with a degree of specificity that can be somewhat simplistic.

Let’s face it, even if those close enough to retirement to have a sense of what their pre-retirement income level is (and, flawed as that can be, most projections start from that assumption as a baseline for what you’ll want/need to spend in retirement—see “Replacement” Window ), most struggle to turn that into a real savings figure.

Ultimately, of course, a reliable answer to that retirement savings question requires an understanding of the individual’s goals and/or financial needs—and, predicated on certain assumptions, there are any number of tools that can help individuals set a target and (based on that) establish a savings plan.

However, the planning question that almost never gets asked is: “And how certain do you want to be of achieving that target?”

Asked that question, I suspect most individuals would respond, “100%.” Unfortunately, much of the modeling that is being used to help individuals set those targets is based on averages: things such as average life expectancy, average investment experience, and—in the really in-depth models—average health care expenditures in retirement.(1) As a result, those models (useful as they might be in terms of framing a planning discussion) produce a result that will fall short…50% of the time.

In fairness, some of those shortfalls could be small. After all, if you’re a dollar short, you’re still short a dollar. But in some cases those shortfalls could be larger—much larger, in fact(2).

And that’s a fact worth keeping in mind.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) For more information on these kinds of projections—and EBRI’s Retirement Readiness Rating—see EBRI Issue Brief No. 344

(2) For a more detailed discussion about those projected shortfalls—and how they can vary according to such factors as gender, marital status, and income levels—see the October 2010 EBRI Notes, Vol. 31, No. 10.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Road "Construction"

The Senate Finance Committee is positioned to pass a highway bill, funded at least in part by changing the tax treatment on retirement accounts.

Specifically, the modified chairman’s mark of the proposed Highway Investment, Job Creation and Economic Growth bill would require that age 70-1/2 account distributions be treated, for tax purposes, as distributed within five years of the death of the account holder (unless the beneficiary is the account holder’s age, a child with special needs, or older than 70).

Under current law, holders of IRAs and 401(k)-type accounts are required to begin taking taxable distributions from those accounts once they reach age 70-1/2, though if the account holder dies, the taxation of the account is spread over the life of the beneficiary. According to a Senate Finance Committee press release, this particular provision is estimated to raise $4.648 billion over 10 years.

The bill’s prospects in the Senate remain unclear, and the Wall Street Journal notes that the House version does not contain the retirement account tax change. However, the Senate provision demonstrates how the current budgetary and economic pressures in Congress—particularly in an election year—make the tax treatment of retirement savings a major target for any number of legislative initiatives, including those that have little or nothing to do with retirement.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has long provided a credible and objective source of information for both policymakers and regulators, including recent testimony provided to:

• The Senate Finance Committee on “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security”, and “The Impact of Modifying the Exclusion of Employee Contributions for Retirement Savings Plans From Taxable Income: Results From the 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey.”

• The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on “The Power of Pensions: Building a Strong Middle Class and a Strong Economy,” and

• The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, regarding “Retirement Security: Challenges Confronting Pension Plan Sponsors, Workers, and Retirees.”

The impact of certain tax reform proposals was evaluated in the November 2011 EBRI Issue Brief, and will be updated to include input from the 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey next month.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

The Employee Benefit Research Institute is a private, nonprofit research institute based in Washington, DC, that focuses on health, savings, retirement, and economic security issues. EBRI offers a unique perspective in that we do not lobby nor take policy positions. The work of EBRI is made possible by funding from its members and sponsors, which includes a broad range of organizations involved in benefits issues. For a full list see EBRI’s Members.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Above “Average”

Every so often an industry survey will come out with an “average” 401(k) balance(1). The specific numbers vary, but they are consistently less than even the most optimistic would see as sufficient to provide a financially viable retirement.

Now, in fairness, the validity of an “average,” while mathematically simple, depends heavily on its components. Most are no more than the total of all the balances of those in the 401(k), from those just entering the workforce (and thus, by definition, with negligible balances) – and with decades to go to retirement – to those who are perhaps just days away from that point. Looking at no more than the “average,” you can’t tell how many are in which category. So, while the average can, over time, provide a sense of the direction in which things are moving, it tells you very little about the adequacy of that savings to fund an individual retirement.

One way to help provide a more meaningful measure is to segment those balances by specific age demographics. In fact, EBRI has long provided not only an average 401(k) balance, but also totals for different groups. To give you a sense of the difference that can make, at year-end 2010, while the average 401(k) balance was $60,329, the average 401(k) balance for those in their 60s – at least for those with 20 years of tenure – was $159,654.

In fairness, $159,654 may not look like very much to have saved by someone in their 60s. But even then, there are many things we don’t know about that person’s individual circumstances. We don’t know if they have a defined benefit pension, for one thing, nor do we know if they have savings outside their workplace. Perhaps just as significantly, we don’t know if that average takes into account their accumulated savings in all defined contribution plans, including those savings that might have been rolled into individual retirement accounts (IRAs) along the way.

In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee last fall(2), EBRI Director of Research Jack VanDerhei noted that “[p]articipation in a retirement plan through current employment at a specific moment in time does not tell the full story of a worker’s preparedness for retirement or the availability of some form of retirement income from an employment-based retirement plan.” He went on to caution, “Unfortunately, the ‘success’ of these plans are sometimes measured by metrics that are not at all relevant to the potential for defined contribution plans to provide a significant portion of a worker’s pre‐retirement income. For example, some analysts will merely report the average balance in defined contribution plans (most commonly the 401(k) subset of this universe) and attempt to assess the value of these plans by determining the amount of annual income that this lump sum amount could be converted to at retirement age. Of course, this concept does not adjust for the fact that the vast majority of 401(k) participants are years, if not decades, away from retirement age. Moreover, even if one does look at the average balances for workers near retirement age, it is obviously not correct to look only at the 401(k) balance with the employee’s current employer. For example, an employee age 60 may have very recently changed jobs and rolled over a substantial account balance from his previous employer to an IRA.”

Sure enough, as I sit here today, I have three separate 401(k) accounts at three separate employers, a rollover IRA, and a SEP.

Anyone trying to glean a sense of my retirement prospects while looking only at my current 401(k) balance surely wouldn’t feel very optimistic.

But then, they’d only be looking at part of the picture.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) Including EBRI – see “401(k) Plan Asset Allocation, Account Balances, and Loan Activity In 2010”

(2) A copy of the testimony is available here. See also “Tax Reform Options: Promoting Retirement Security

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Pats or Giants? Your Portfolio May Care

There could be a lot more riding on Sunday’s Super Bowl than you think.

If the results of the Super Bowl exert any influence on the markets – as proponents of the so-called Super Bowl Theory claim – then 2012 could prove to be truly tumultuous.

For the "uninitiated," the theory (invented/popularized by the late New York Times sportswriter Leonard Koppett) says that a win by a team from the old National Football League is a precursor to rising stock values for the year (at least as measured by the S&P 500), but if a team from the old American Football League (AFL) prevails, stocks will fall in the coming year.

This year we have a team from the old NFL (the NY Giants) taking on one from the old AFL (the New England Patriots, who once were the AFL’s Boston Patriots). So, if the Giants prevail, 2012 should be a good year for stocks – and if things go the Patriots’ way, well…

On the Other Hand…

Of course, as even loyal proponents will admit, this theory used to work a lot better than it has in recent years. The most obvious (and recent) proof of that was Super Bowl XLII, where these same two teams met – and the underdog New York Giants pulled off a remarkable victory – but the S&P 500 still shed…well, we don’t really need to relive that here (particularly for Patriots fans).

Last year’s contest brought together two classic NFL teams; the Pittsburgh Steelers (representing the American Football Conference) and the National Football Conference’s Green Bay Packers. Both those teams had some of the oldest, deepest, and yes, most “storied” NFL roots, with the Steelers formed in 1933 (as the Pittsburgh Pirates), and the Packers, founded in 1919. So, according to the Super Bowl Theory, 2011 should have been a good year for stocks (because, regardless of who won, an NFL team would prevail). But, as you may recall, while the Dow gained ground for the year, the S&P 500 was – well, flat.

On the other hand, 2010 turned out pretty well – a year when the New Orleans Saints bested the Indianapolis Colts, though it was, after all, also a Super Bowl featuring two teams with NFL roots. And it was also the case in 2009 when both Super Bowl teams - the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers – had NFL roots (the Arizona Cardinals by way of one time being the St. Louis Cardinals), AND in 2007 when the S&P 500 rose 3.53% as the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17. That also turned out to be the case in 2006 when the Pittsburgh Steelers (yes, again) defeated the Seattle Seahawks in another battle of two legacy NFL clubs. That turned out to be a good year for equities, with the S&P 500 closing up more than 13%.

Except When It Doesn’t…

Of course, as even loyal proponents will admit, this theory used to work a lot better than it has in recent years. The most obvious (and recent) proof of that was the aforementioned Super Bowl XLII where the New York Giants pulled off a remarkable victory – but the S&P 500 still shed…well, we don’t really need to relive that again (particularly for Patriots fans).
Times were better for Patriots fans in 2005 when they bested the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles 24-21. According to the Super Bowl Theory, the markets should have been down for the year. However, in 2005 the S&P 500 climbed 2.55%.

Of course, the 2002 win by those same New England Patriots accurately foretold the continuation of the bear market into a third year (at the time, the first accurate result in five years). But the Patriots 2004 Super Bowl win against the Carolina Panthers failed to anticipate a fall rally that helped push the S&P 500 to a near 9% gain that year, sacking the indicator for another loss.

Consider also that, despite victories by the old AFL Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999, the S&P 500 continued its winning ways, while victories by the NFL legacy St. Louis (by way of Los Angeles) Rams (with the just-retired Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner calling plays) and the Baltimore (by way of NFL legacy Cleveland Browns) Ravens did nothing to dispel the bear markets of 2000 and 2001.

Winning “Streaks”

All in all, the Super Bowl Theory has been on the money more often than not – much more often than not, in fact - but in true sports fashion, has had some winning streaks and some rough patches. Consider that it “worked” 28 times between 1967 and 1997 – then went 0-4 between 1998 and 2001 – only to get back on track from 2002 on (purists still dispute how to interpret Tampa Bay’s victory in 2003, since the Buccaneers spent their first NFL season in the AFC before moving to the NFC).

As for Sunday – the oddsmakers are giving the nod to the Patriots – though not by much.

It looks like it could be a good game – and that, whether you are a proponent of the Super Bowl Theory or not – would be one in which whoever wins, we all will!

Nevin E. Adams, JD


Other exceptions included: 1970, when AFC Kansas City won, and the S&P index gained 0.1%; 1984, when AFC Los Angeles Raiders won, and the S&P rose 1.4%; 1990, when NFC San Francisco prevailed, and the S&P lost 6.56%; and 1994, when NFC Dallas triumphed, but the S&P index fell 1.53%.