What do we learn from this? It's difficult to know for sure, but as is my wont on my blog, I'm going to take a shot at working it out.
Why are average account balances up? Well, the equity markets have performed pretty well over the last few years. Combine that with the fact that there has been time for additional contributions to those accounts and this makes sense. When we combine this, however, with my rationale for the prevalence of accounts decreasing, it may look troubling.
That the number of families with individual account retirement plans is decreasing suggests underlying issues with the economy. What I suspect is that many long-term unemployed or under-employed have had to liquidate accounts that they had a few years ago in order to survive. People laid off from jobs have taken distributions rather than rollovers to live on. I suspect that more often than not, these have been total distributions from smaller accounts. By eliminating some of the smaller account balances, the average and median accounts have grown in size.
That only about 50% of families have individual retirement accounts and only about 65% have any retirement plan at all is not good news for our future economy. How will the remaining 35% live? Moreover, among those 65%, will they have enough to survive in retirement?
The way it looks to me is that for people who are able to fully utilize their 401(k) or other retirement program for their entire working lifetimes, retirement may be comfortable. But this data suggests that this will be a substantial minority. For the rest, the retirement system is failing us.
30 years ago, defined benefit (DB) plans were the bulwark of the corporate retirement system. After years of Congressional meddling, many employers consider DB plans to be impractical. At the same time with further emphasis on individual responsibility, the burden of providing a retirement benefit has been shifted largely to employees.
If you are good at Googling or Binging, you can easily find projections from lots of smart people showing that a good 401(k) plan will be sufficient for responsible employees to retire on. In my opinion, most of these projections are deficient. You just don't see projections that consider leakage including:
- Unemployment for a meaningful period of time
- The necessity to take a job for a short or long time that does not have a savings plan
- Increased cost-shifting of all benefits to the employee which may reduce an employee's ability to save
- High-deductible health plans which force employees in many cases to pay significant amounts out-of-pocket for health care
This data is frightening. The retirement system is severely broken. Too many times, the public policy behind the retirement system has been abused by tax policy. We are left with retirement plans being a toy for Congress to make bills seemingly budget neutral.
The ability to retire is part of the 21st century American Dream. This data suggests that the retirement part of the dream may be just that -- a dream.
Not pretty ...