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.

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