Saturday, June 16, 2018

(Re) Solving the Retirement Crisis

Several weeks back, I was invited to participate in a group conversation on retirement and the future.

The group of 15 (they’re listed at the end of the document that summarized the conclusions) that Politico pulled together was diverse, both in background and philosophies, and included academics, think tanks, advocacy groups, and the Hill. It was conducted under Chatham House rules, which means that while our comments might be shared, they wouldn’t be specifically attributed. That latter point was helpful to the openness of the discussion, where several individuals had opinions that they acknowledged wouldn’t be supported by the groups they represent.

The conversation touched on a wide range of topics, everything from the key challenges to the current system, the private sector’s role in addressing these problems, the individual’s role (and responsibility) for securing their own retirement, government’s role and the potential for current congressional proposals to have an impact.

In view of the diversity of the group – the complexity of the topics – and the 90-minute window of time we had to thrash things about – you might well expect that we didn’t get very far. And, at least in terms of new ideas, you’d be hard-pressed to say that we discussed anything that hadn’t come up somewhere, sometime, previously. But then, this was a group that – individually, anyway – has spent a lot of time thinking about the issues. And there were some new and interesting perspectives.

The Challenges

It seems that you can never have a discussion about the future of retirement without spending time bemoaning the past, specifically the move away from defined benefit plans, and this group was no exception. There remains in many circles a pervasive sense that the defined contribution system is inferior to the defined benefit approach – a sense that seems driven not by what the latter actually produced in terms of benefits, but in terms of what it promised. Even now, it seems that you have to remind folks that the “less than half” covered by a workplace retirement plan was true even in the “good old days” before the 401(k), at least within the private sector. And while you can wrest an acknowledgement from those familiar with the data, almost no one talks about how few of even those covered by those DB plans put in the time to get their full pension.

Beyond that. there was a clear and consistent understanding in the group that health care costs and concerns were a big impediment to retirement savings, both on the part of employers and workers alike. People still make job decisions based on health care – on retirement plan designs, not so much. And when it comes to deciding whether to fund health care or retirement – well, health care wins hands down.

College debt was another impediment discussed. Oh, individuals have long graduated from college owing money – but never so many, and likely never so much (though you might be surprised what an inflation-adjusted figure from 20 years ago looks like). It is, for many, an enormous draw on current income – and one that has a due date that falls well before when retirement’s bill is presented for payment.

Women have a unique set of challenges. For many, the pay gap while they are working is exacerbated by the time out of the workplace raising children. They live longer, invest more conservatively, and ultimately bear higher health care costs – and increasingly find themselves in the role of caregiver, rather than bringing home a paycheck.

For many in the group, financial literacy still holds sway as a great hope to turn things around. There are plenty of individual examples of its impact, though the current research casts doubt on its widespread efficacy. Surely a basic understanding of key financial concepts couldn’t hurt (though don’t even get me started on the criteria that purports to establish “literacy”) – but it’s a solution that is surely at least a generation removed from the ability to have a widespread impact.

On a related note, the group was generally optimistic about the impact that the growing emphasis on financial wellness could have, both in terms of encouraging better behaviors, and a heightened awareness of key financial concepts. The involvement of employers, and employment-based programs seems likely to enhance the impact beyond financial literacy alone.

Resolving Recommendations

Ultimately, the group coalesced around four key recommendations:

The significance of Social Security in underpinning America’s retirement future – and the critical need to shore up the finances of that system sooner rather than later. The solution(s) here are simple; cut benefits (push back eligibility or means-testing) or raise FICA taxes. The mix, of course, is anything but simple politically – but time isn’t in our favor on a solution.

The formation of a national commission to study and recommend solutions. I’ll put myself in the “what harm could it do?” camp, particularly in that, to my recollection, nothing like this has been attempted since the Carter administration. We routinely chastise Americans for not taking the time to formulate a financial plan – perhaps it’s time we undertook that discipline for the system as a whole.

Requirements matter – but don’t call it a mandate. Since it’s been established that workers are much more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a plan at work (12 times as likely), but you’re concerned that not enough workers have access to a retirement savings plan at work, there was little doubt that a government mandate could make a big difference. There was even less doubt that a mandate would be a massive lift politically. And not much stomach in the group for going down that path at the present.

Expanded access to retirement accounts. While the group was hardly of one mind in terms of what kind of retirement account(s) this should be, there was a clear and energetic majority that agreed with the premise that expanding access is an, and perhaps the – integral component to “securing retirement” for future generations.

And maybe even this one.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

p.s. I'm on the left, towards the top of the picture above.  Right next to Teresa Ghilarducci!

Saturday, June 09, 2018

So, How Much Should a 35-Year-Old Have Saved?

You may have missed it, but there was a bit of a “twitter storm” regarding retirement last week.

More specifically, a relatively innocuous post about how much a 30-year-old should have saved toward retirement got a lot of 35-year-olds stirred up. The CBSMarketwatch article quoted Fidelity as saying that you should have a year’s worth of salary saved by the time you’re 30 – but the real point of controversy appears to have been driven by the premise that by the time you’re 35, you were supposed to have twice your salary saved.1

The point, of course, is that it’s easier if you start early. But honestly, devoting 15% of your pay to retirement savings at any age is a daunting prospect, much less at a point when college debt and the prospects of a mortgage, kids and setting aside money for the kids’ college savings loom large. If this is “easy,” imagine what hard looks like!

I’ve been a consistent saver over my working career – never missed an opportunity to save in a workplace retirement plan, never worked for an employer that didn’t offer one, and always contributed at least enough to warrant the full employer match. And yet, I went a long time in my working career before I was able – having, among other expenses, law school debt, a mortgage, and three kids to help get through college – to set aside 15% for retirement (sadly, by the time I could afford to save at that level in my 401(k), the IRS “intervened”).

I don’t know how my 35-year-old self would have reacted to the article, or the twitter post, though I suspect I, like many of those who responded to the “tweet,” would have been a tad incredulous.

Ultimately, of course, the answer to how much you “should” set aside for retirement – regardless of your age – is largely dependent on what kind of retirement you plan to have, and when you plan to start having it. And, regardless of age, taking the time to do even a rough estimate on what you might need to quit working (or start retiring) is going to be time well spent.

Because while it’s possible to “catch up” later – it can be hazardous to count on it.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Footnote

Controversial as this premise clearly was to those in the targeted demographic, it’s really just math. To get there, Fidelity assumed that a individual starts saving a total of 15% of income every year starting at age 25, invests more than 50% of it in stocks on average over his or her lifetime, and retires at age 67, with an eye toward maintaining their preretirement lifestyle – but you might be surprised at what even these arguably aggressive goals produced in terms of a replacement ratio at age 67.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Life's Lessons

Life has many lessons to teach us, some more painful than others – and some we’d just as soon be spared. But as graduates everywhere look ahead to the next chapter in their lives, it seems a good time to reflect on some of the lessons we’ve learned.

Here are some nuggets I’ve picked up along the way….
  1. Be willing to take all the blame – and to share the credit.
  2. There actually are stupid questions.
  3. Shun those who are cruel – and don’t laugh at their “jokes.”
  4. Never say you’ll never.
  5. Be on time.
  6. “Bad” people eventually get what’s coming to them. But you may not be there to see it.
  7. Always sleep on big decisions.
  8. Sometimes the grass looks greener because of the amount of fertilizer.
  9. Never email in anger – or frustration. And be extra careful when using the “Reply All” button.
  10. If your current boss doesn’t want to hear the truth, it may be time to look for a new one.
  11. Never pass up a chance to say “thank you.”
  12. If you wouldn’t want your mother to learn about it, don’t do it.
  13. Never assume that your employer (or your boss) is looking out for your best interests.
  14. Bad news doesn’t generally age well.
  15. There can be a “bad” time even for good ideas.
  16. Your work attitude often affects your career altitude.
  17. When you don’t have an opinion, “what do you think?” is a good response. And sometimes even when you do.
  18. You can be liked and respected.
  19. Comments that begin “with all due respect” generally don’t include much.
  20. Sometimes the questions are complicated, but the answer isn’t.
Remember as well that that 401(k) match isn’t really “free” money – but it won’t cost you a thing.
And don’t forget that you’ll want to plan for your future now – because retirement, like graduation, seems a long way off – until it isn’t.

Got some to add? Feel free to add in the comments.

Congratulations to all the graduates out there. We’re proud of you!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, May 26, 2018

First Hand Experience

Picture of a view inside Super Bowl XLVII
Our view during Super Bowl XLVII.
There are some things in life that have to be experienced first-hand.
Several years back, my daughter won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Super Bowl for two – and, to my delight, she chose to invite me to go with her.

Now, I’m sure some of you have been to a Super Bowl, but it was my first (and, considering ticket prices, I’m guessing my last). And while I’m sure the view from the comfort of home and a big screen TV offered a “better” view of Beyonce’s halftime show, there are things (and people) you see when you are at the event that don’t make a TV producer’s selection (particularly when you happen to be at the Super Bowl where the field lights went out for 34 minutes). Let’s face it, it’s one thing to say you watched the Super Bowl – and something else altogether to say you were there!

Photo of tickets to Super Bowl XLVIIYou wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but there’s actually a lot going on here in our nation’s capital. Like a smoldering ember, in no time at all, and with little warning, things can go from (apparent) nothingness to regulation or legislation that can have a dramatic impact on our lives and livelihoods (remember Rothification?). It’s a dynamic that’s easy to miss when you “swing by” for a visit – but one that our Government Affairs team works very hard all year long to keep up – and to keep NAPA members up-to-date and informed.

We’re fast approaching our sixth annual DC Fly-In Forum. I remember attending the first one as a “special guest,” and being struck even then by the quality of the program and speakers. More importantly, the room was full then – as it continues to be – of the nation’s leading retirement plan advisors, networking and engaging not only with each other, but with some of the most influential voices in Washington.
This year – with the ink not quite dry on the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest proposal, and with the status of the Labor Department’s fiduciary proposal unresolved (for the moment), we are slated to have SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce, and have invited Assistant Secretary of Labor Preston Rutledge to join us. We’ve lined up a special session on advisor-focused litigation with the Wagner Law Group’s Tom Clark. And Rep. Richie Neal (D-MA) – a long-time proponent of retirement savings, ranking member of and a potential Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (should the House “flip”), and author of a “game-changing” retirement plan proposal – will also be part of this year’s Fly-In. We’ll also have what promises to be a highly interactive and engaging discussion about a new proposal to shore up retirement security via mandatory add-on savings accounts.

And that’s not all.

The 2018 mid-term elections are just around the corner — and the keynote speaker at the NAPA DC Fly-In Forum will help approved delegates understand what it might bring. We’re talking about CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, anchor of “Inside Politics.”

And that’s (still) not all.

For me – and for dozens of advisors who have participated over the past five years – the most impressive aspect of our Fly-In Forum is the second day, where delegate-advisors have an opportunity, assisted (and prepped) by the NAPA GAC team, to meet with legislators and their staff on Capitol Hill, to share your perspectives, ideas and concerns, based on your front-line, real-life experiences working with retirement plans, plan sponsors and participants.

Whether you’ve done this a dozen times, or have never had the opportunity, the NAPA DC Fly-In Forum is an amazing “first-hand” experience. For those ready to get off the sidelines and contribute to a real difference in retirement policy, you won’t find a better “ticket” than the NAPA DC Fly-In Forum.

I can’t promise it will be quite like going to the Super Bowl – but then, you never know.

p.s.: Seats are filling up fast for the NAPA DC Fly-In Forum, July 24-25.
PLEASE NOTE: Delegates to the Forum must:
  • be a NAPA member;
  • be responsible for $100M+ in plan assets, 10+ plans and 2,000+ participants; and
  • have 5+ years of experience servicing retirement plans.
You can apply today at http://napadcflyin.org.


- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Crisis "Management"

Rarely a week goes by that a headline, survey or academic paper doesn’t proclaim the reality of a retirement crisis with the certainty generally reserved for topics like the existence of gravity, or the notion that the sun will rise in the east.

And certainly based on the data cited, there would seem to be a compelling case that trouble lies ahead for many. That said – as was pointed out by Andrew Biggs at the recent Plan Sponsor Council of America conference – the reality is that good, reliable data is hard to come by. Indeed, many of the reports cited in those headlines rely on what you would expect to be a reliable source; the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, or CPS.1 Unfortunately, that reliable source turns out to be not-quite-so-reliable. It suffers from relying on what people tell the survey takers, but perhaps more significantly, Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the survey only counts as income in retirement funds that are paid regularly – like a pension. “Irregular” withdrawals from retirement accounts – like IRAs and 401(k)s – aren’t included.

In fact, when you compare what retirees report to the IRS with what they report to the Census Bureau, only 58% of private retirement benefits are picked up, according to Biggs. Now, who do you suppose gets a more accurate read; the IRS2 or the Census Bureau? And yet, the CPS data serves as the basis for a huge swath of academic research on retirement savings.

Social ‘Security’

Biggs noted that IRS data also draws into question some of the “common wisdom” on things such as dependence on Social Security. Consider that the Social Security Administration – who arguably has “skin” in the game – claim that a third of retirees are heavily dependent – to the tune of 90% or more of their income – on Social Security. However, a study based on IRS data found that only 18% of retiree households are heavily dependent on Social Security, and just one in eight retirees receive 90% or more of their income from Social Security. Don’t get me wrong – Social Security is clearly a vital and essential component of our nation’s retirement security – but the IRS data indicates that, for most, it isn’t a primary source at present.

Pundits have long worried that retirees wouldn’t have accumulated enough to live on in retirement, but data suggests that most retirees aren’t exactly burning through their retirement savings. Not that some aren’t drawing down too rapidly, mind you – and that’s a valid concern. But many, perhaps most – aren’t.

Data suggests that today’s retirees are actually in pretty good shape. In addition to the IRS data cited above, that sentiment is borne out by any number of surveys (perhaps most notably the Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald Associates) that continue to find that those already in retirement express a good deal more confidence about their financial prospects than those yet to cross that threshold. And certainly, the objective data available to us suggests that today’s retirees are better off than previous generations, though their retirement – and potential health issues – may at some point take a toll.

Still, in 2014, EBRI found that current levels of Social Security benefits, coupled with at least 30 years of 401(k) savings eligibility, could provide most workers — between 83% and 86% of them, in fact — with an annual income of at least 60% of their preretirement pay on an inflation-adjusted basis. Even at an 80% replacement rate, 67% of the lowest-income quartile would still meet that threshold — and that’s making no assumptions about the positive impact of plan design features like automatic enrollment and annual contribution acceleration.

Not that there isn’t plenty to worry about; reports of individuals who claim to have no money set aside for financial emergencies, the sheer number of workers entering their career saddled with huge amounts of college debt, the enormous percentage of working Americans who (still) don’t have access to a retirement plan at work (though not as enormous as some claim)…

That said, I shudder every time I hear an industry leader or advisor stand up in front of an audience and proclaim that there is a retirement crisis – because, however well-intentioned – they are almost certainly providing “aid and comfort” to those who would like to do away with the current private system as a failure, not a work in process.

What seems likely is that at some point in the future, some will run short of money in retirement, though they may very well be able to replicate a respectable portion of their pre-retirement income levels, certainly if the support of Social Security is maintained at current levels.

However, what seems even more likely is that those who do run short will be those who didn’t have access to a retirement plan at work.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD
 
Footnotes
  1. Nor is that the only shortcoming in that widely utilized source. The nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has pointed out that a change in survey methodology in 2014 has produced some questionable plan participation results from the CPS – a finding subsequently validated by the Investment Company Institute.
  2. Not that IRS data can’t be misapplied.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Means 'Tested'

Pundits have long worried that retirees wouldn’t have accumulated enough to live on in retirement, but the data suggests that most retirees aren’t exactly burning through their retirement savings.

I remember my one and only conversation with my father about retirement income. He had already decided to quit working, and had gathered his assorted papers regarding his savings, insurance, etc. for me to review. Determined to “dazzle” Dad with my years of accumulated financial acumen, I proceeded to outline an impressive array of options that offered different degrees of security and opportunities for growth, the pros and cons of annuities, and how best to integrate it all with his Social Security.

And when I was all done, he looked over all the materials I had spread out before him, then turned to me and said – “so how much will I have to live on each month?”

See, my dad, like many in his generation, were accustomed to living within their means. And, according to new research, he isn’t the only one.

The study shows that retirees generally exhibit very slow decumulation of assets. More specifically, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that within the first 18 years of retirement, individuals with less than $200,000 in non-housing assets immediately before retirement had spent down (at the median) about one-quarter of their assets; those with between $200,000 and $500,000 immediately before retirement had spent down just 27.2%. Retirees with at least $500,000 immediately before retirement had spent down only 11.8% within the first 20 years of retirement at the median.

Those with pensions were much less likely to have spent down their assets than non-pensioners. During the first 18 years of retirement, the median non-housing assets of pensioners (who started retirement with much higher levels of assets) had declined just 4%, compared with a 34% decline for non-pensioners.

The median ratio of household spending to household income for retirees of all ages hovered around 1:1, inching slowly upward with age – a finding that the EBRI researchers said suggests that majority of retirees had limited their spending to their regular flow of income and had avoided drawing down assets, which explains why pensioners, who had higher levels of regular income, were able to avoid asset drawdowns better than others.

Not that that’s necessarily a heartening result, since those pensioners, arguably having guaranteed income for life, such as a pension, doesn’t lead them to spend down their assets. Indeed, of all the subgroups studied, pensioners have the lowest asset spend-down rates – though one might well expect that, with that pension “cushion” they might be more inclined to dip into their savings and “splurge.”

Why are retirees not spending down their assets? The EBRI report offers a number of reasons:
  • People don’t know how long they are going to live or how long they have to fund their retirement from these assets.
  • Uncertain medical expenses that could be catastrophic if someone has to stay in a long-term care facility for a prolonged period.
  • A desire to pass along assets to heirs.
  • A lack of financial sophistication – people don’t know what is a safe rate for spending down their assets, and are thus erring on the side of caution.
  • A behavioral impediment – after building a saving habit throughout their working lives, people find it challenging to shift into spending mode.
Now, the EBRI research was based on government data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study to track retirees born between 1931 and 1941 with assets ranging from stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate and CDs to savings and checking accounts (individual homes were excluded). That’s “greatest generation” territory – retirees who were, as my father, accustomed to living within their means. Even then, it’s not all sunshine and unicorns; some retirees are indeed running out of money in retirement – though, at the same time, instead of spending down, a large – and to my ears, largely unacknowledged ­– number of retirees are continuing to accumulate assets throughout retirement.

But I’d still argue that the question “how much will I have to live on each month” winds up being a lot easier to answer at retirement – if you’ve been thinking about it pre-retirement.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The Chicken or the Egg?

It is a question that has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries: which came first – the chicken or the egg? Similarly, an updated version of a classic survey of retirement confidence finds some interesting attributes among those who are more confident about their prospects – but are those attributes a result of that confidence, or is it the confidence that preceded them?

The 28th annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) from the non-partisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and Greenwald Associates found that Americans are feeling a bit better about their retirement prospects.
However, the RCS also found – as it has in previous years – that certain factors are tied to higher confidence, specifically if they have access to a defined contribution plan, are relatively free from debt, are already retired – or, in a new finding from this year’s RCS – that they are healthy.

Now, the connection between access to a retirement plan and savings is well established. An updated analysis by EBRI finds that even those with modest incomes – those making between $30,000 and $50,000 – are nonetheless a dozen times more likely to save if they have access to a retirement plan at work.

More intuitive is the negative impact that debt, particularly heavy debt, can have on retirement savings, not to mention the impact on confidence about that savings, or more precisely, the lack thereof.

As for the new finding in this year’s RCS, 6 in 10 workers who are confident about their retirement prospects say they are in excellent or good health. As for those who are not confident about retirement, only 28% report such good health. The same is true for retirees: 46% of confident retirees are in good health, compared to just 14% who are not confident. What’s less clear is whether they are confident because they are healthy, or healthy because they are confident (or have a reason to be).

In fact, those of us still looking ahead to retirement can draw some comfort that those in retirement are – and have consistently been – more confident about retirement. Indeed, in this year’s RCS, a full three-quarters of retirees are very or somewhat confident they will have enough money for retirement – and that’s as high as that metric has been going all the way back to 1994 (except for last year, when 79% were that confident).

Of course, retirees were also more than twice as likely (39% versus 19%) as workers to have tried to calculate how much money they would need to cover health care costs in retirement – and those who had were less likely to have experienced higher-than-expected health costs and are more likely to say that costs are in line with their expectations.

Ultimately, there’s nothing like actually living in retirement to provide a solid sense of what it costs to live in retirement. When it comes to retirement confidence, it may not always be obvious as to whether the chicken or the (nest) egg came first.

But it seems to me that a "bird" in the hand is nearly always worth two in the bush…