Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Fixing Retirement Inequality

Just last week, I suggested that retirement inequality is nearing an apocalypse. It's an awfully strong statement to make as both the US and the world have plenty of problems to deal with. Since this one is US-centric (I have nowhere near sufficient expertise nor do I have the requisite data to offer an informed opinion outside the US), I thought I would step up and make some suggestions.

First, the problem: according to the most optimistic data points I have seen, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of working Americans are "on track" to retire. And, these studies, when they are nice enough to disclose their assumptions use pretty aggressive assumptions, e.g., 7 to 8 percent annual returns on assets (the same people who tout that these are achievable condemn pension plans that make the same assumptions) as well as no leakage (the adverse effects of job loss, plan loans, hardship withdrawals, and deferral or match reductions). The optimists don't make it easy for you by telling you that even their optimistic studies result in 30 to 40 percent of working Americans not being on track to retire (a horrible result). They also tend to pick and choose data to suit their arguments using means when they are advantageous, but medians when they are more so.

Yes, we do have a retirement crisis and as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study was good enough to make clear, it is severely biased against the average worker.

The EPI study presented data on account balances and similar issues. It did not get into interviewing actual workers (if it did, I missed that part and apologize to EPI). But, I did. I surveyed 25 people at random in the airline club at the largest hub airport of a major US-based airline. People who wait in those clubs at rush hour are not your typical American worker; they tend to be far better off. I asked them two questions (the second only if they answered yes to the first):

  • Are you worried about being able to retire some day? 19 answered yes.
  • Would you be more productive at work if you felt that you could retire comfortably? All 19 who answered yes to the first question answered yes to the second as well.
While I didn't ask further questions, many groused about fear of outliving their wealth. Some talked about issues that fall under leakage. A few, completely unprompted remarked that if they only had a pension ...

For at least the last 13 years and probably more than that, retirement policy inside the Beltway has been focused on improving 401(k) plans with the thought that pensions are or should be dead. Even the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) was more about making 401(k)s more attractive than about protecting pensions. Yet, 13 years later with an entire decade of booming equity markets, even the optimists say that one-third of American workers are not on track to retire.

We've given every break that Congress can come up with to make 401(k)s the be all and end all of US retirement policy. They've not succeeded. 

Think back though to when the cornerstone of the US retirement system was the pension plan. The people who had them are often the ones who are on track to retire. 

Yes, I know all the arguments against them and here are a few:

  • Workers don't spend their careers at one company, so they need something account-based and or portable.
  • Companies can't stand volatility in accounting charges and in cash contribution requirements.
  • Nobody understands them.
  • They are difficult to administer.
PPA took a step toward solving all of those problems, but by the time we had regulations to interpret those changes, the "Great Recession" had happened and the world had already changed. Despite now having new pension designs available that address not just one, but all four of the bullet points above, companies have been slow to adopt these solutions. To do so, they need perhaps as many as three pushes:

  • A cry from employees that they want a modern pension in order to provide them with usable lifetime income solutions.
  • A recognition from Congress and from the regulating agencies that such plans will be inherently appropriately funded and therefore (so long as companies do make required contributions on a timely basis) do not pose undue risk to companies, to the government, to employees, or to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) (the governmental corporation that insures corporate pensions) and therefore should be encouraged not discouraged.
  • Recognition from the accounting profession in the form of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) that plans that have an appropriate match between benefit obligations and plan assets do not need to be subjected to volatile swings in profit and loss.

Give us those three things and the pensions sanctioned by the Pension Protection Act can fix retirement for the future. As the EPI study points out, we'll make a huge dent in the retirement crisis and we'll do in a way that makes the problem far less unequal.

It's the right thing to do. It's right for all working Americans.

Friday, December 13, 2019

If Income Inequality is a Crisis, Retirement Inequality is Nearing an Apocalypse

I've likely inflamed just with my title. So be it.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) earlier this week released an article by Monique Morrissey on the State of American Retirement Savings. It's subtitle is "How the shift to 401(k)s has increased gaps in retirement preparedness based on income, race, ethnicity, education, and marital status." It is stunning.

I've been saying for at least this decade that we have a retirement crisis. Despite protestations from those who favor self-sufficiency over employer and government-provided programs, the crisis looms larger. I wrote about this summer. But, as a full-time consultant working with clients who require that I place their needs first, I simply don't have time to do the research that the think tanks do. So, I often rely on the work that they have done. Regardless of the source, my considered opinion is that all of the data are sound whether the think tanks are right-leaning, left-leaning, or centrist. 

What I quibble with are the conclusions. 

More than half of Americans being on track to retire is not a favorable prognosis. It's especially not favorable when the modeling underlying that statement assumes constant, and perhaps unachievable, returns on investments and constant rates of deferral to 401(k) plans. We're asking a populace that is largely under-educated about financial and investment matters to instantly become great investors. We're also asking them to save for their retirement (including retiree health and long-term care) above all else -- no blips allowed. You lose your job? Keep saving. You pay for a child's wedding? Keep saving. You pay for an unexpected medical expense? Keep saving.

Is that practical? Of course it's not.

The EPI study has presented us with 20 charts. Each has a headline which, in my opinion (understanding that yours may be different) fairly depicts the data it shows. Here are a few of the more eye-catching ones (indented notes after the headlines are mine and should not be attributed to or blamed on EPI)::

  • Retirement plan participation declined even as baby boomers approached retirement
    • A smaller percentage of workers are now participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans than were 10 years ago. With the rise of the gig economy, this rates to get worse.
  • The share of families with retirement savings grew in the 1990s but declined after the Great Recession
    • Fewer than 60% have retirement savings. Period. How are the rest to ever retire?
  • Retirement savings have stagnated in the new millennium
    • Despite that savings of those above the age of 55 have increased fairly dramatically, those for the entire working population have barely moved suggesting that the runup in equity markets over the last decade has done little for most of America.
  • Most families—even those approaching retirement—have little or no retirement savings
    • This is frightening. In any age range, median (meaning half are better off and half are worse off) retirement savings are well beneath $50,000 ... in total.
  • More people have 401(k)s, but participation in traditional pensions is more equal
    • We'll return to this later, but this suggests that poorer people and minorities are less likely to make use of 401(k)s. Identifying the root cause is a highly charged issue and cannot be done with certainty, but identifying this as a sign of a problem is clear.
  • High-income families are seven times as likely to have retirement account savings as low-income families
  • Most black and Hispanic families have no retirement account savings
  • Single people have less, but retirement savings are too low across the board
    • The data show that single women, in particular, lack retirement savings. But, even among married couples, levels of retirement savings are abysmal.
  • 401(k)s magnify inequality
    • Those out of the top 20% when stratified by income represent a disproportionately low level of savings account balances.
I said I would return to the statement that participation in traditional pensions is more equal. It seems clear that this is because in most cases, an employee becomes a participant in a pension not through an affirmative decision to do so, but as part of his or her employment. It doesn't require an income disruption. It's not more difficult to participate when you have an unexpected expense.It's not easier for the wealthy to participate, nor for men nor ethnic or racial majorities. 

Yes, pensions have a horrible stigma attached to them right now. Many public pensions are horrifically underfunded and potentially place their sponsors (cities, states, etc.) in grave financial danger. The same could be said about some of what are known as multiemployer plans (that's a story for another day) except that their sponsors are, generally speaking, employers that employ very specific types of employees. 

For the rest of the populace and potential plan sponsors (employers), sponsorship of traditional pensions has waned considerably. About 18 months ago, I explained why. 

Before we write them off completely, however, let's look at what pensions do. According to the EPI study, participation is somewhat equal. They provide lifetime income protection, the single greatest fear of people nearing retirement. They can be part of the employment covenant.

The data in the EPI study and not simply their interpretations absolutely scream that more than income inequality, retirement inequality is the looming personal financial crisis. Congress will bat this around and try to make it a partisan issue. But, it shouldn't be. It's a people crisis. It's a dire crisis. It needs a fix and the fix is available, but it needs to get started.