I was inspired to write this by an excellent piece that I read in Investment News this morning. The theme was that Vanguard's data shows that the average combined savings rate (employee plus employer) has increased since 2004 from 10.4% of pay to 10.6% of pay. To understand this better, let's look at what else has happened during this period.
The Pension Protection Act (PPA) of 2006 became law. Many defined benefit (DB) pension plans were frozen and or terminated. The new in vogue terms in the 401(k) world all suddenly started with auto: auto-enrollment, auto-escalation, auto-pilot. At the same time, the new fear became that of outliving your savings.
That's right, people are living longer. People know that people are living longer. This frightens many. From a retirement perspective, they don't know how to deal with this. So, the old normal (2019) cannot continue to be the new normal (beyond 2019).
Why do I say that? What's wrong with the analysis from pundits?
Suppose I told you that 55% of Americans are "on track to retire," whatever that means (every recordkeeping firm who puts out data like that has their own basis for what that does mean). Is that good news or bad news? Most who think that the 401(k)-only system is as close to nirvana as one can get would tell you it's great news. They say so on social media. They go out of their way to bash those who disagree.
Well, I disagree and here is why. I'm going to reword what they are saying taking what they say as factual. Suppose I told you that 45% of Americans are not on track to retire. How would you react to that? My intuition says that you would think that is a horrible thing. Yet, it is exactly the same thing as 55% of Americans being on track to retire.
Further, the data being used often assumes that Americans will take their 401(k) balances and draw them down ratably and prudently. Which Americans are those? They're not the Americans of 2019. They're not the ones who want the latest gadget. They're not the ones that love their Amazon Prime accounts. They're not the ones from the instant gratification world of today.
For most Americans, being able to guarantee a level of lifetime income protection is of nearly paramount importance. It's not easy in a 401(k) world. In-plan annuity options are rare and expensive. Taking a distribution to buy an annuity is even more expensive and requires an education in an industry that few Americans have access to.
Look at the generation that retired over the 25 years or so from roughly 1980 to 2005. They often have lifetime income. They may also have account-based savings. They, because they did not live in a 401(k)-only world, were able to get it right.
DB plans of the past had problems. Smart people designed better solutions, but the really [not so] smart people conspired to make us think that 401(k) only is the best solution.
It's time to visit those better solutions.
- Cost stability and predictable cost for plan sponsors.
- Lifetime income availability at actuarially fair prices for participants.
- Account growth through professionally managed assets, but with a guaranteed return of principal.
- The ability to take your account with you.
And, you can still have your 401(k) on the side to supplement it.
Doesn't this feel closer to nirvana. Isn't this a way to truly move the needle and get us out of the retirement crisis?