Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic Proportions

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the now iconic RMS Titanic, at the time the world’s largest ocean liner. Its passengers included some of the wealthiest people in the world, as well as a large number of emigrants seeking a new life in North America. On the ocean liner’s maiden—and only—voyage, it carried 2,244 people, 1,514 of whom would perish as a result of a decision to carry only enough lifeboats to accommodate about half those on board. Despite that, the tale of Titanic’s closing hours is generally one of an orderly, “women and children first” evacuation, with the band playing on while passengers stood in line and waited their turn.

In an NPR report this week titled “Why Didn’t Passengers Panic on the Titanic?” David Savage, an economist and Queensland University in Australia, compared the behavior of the passengers on the Titanic with those on the Lusitania, another ship that also sunk at about the same time. Both involved luxury liners, both had a similar number of passengers and a similar number of survivors. But on the Lusitania, passengers panicked—and the survivors were mostly those who were able to swim and get into the lifeboats. The biggest difference in the reactions in these two similar circumstances, Savage concludes in the report, was time: The Lusitania, struck by a U-Boat torpedo, sank in less than 20 minutes, while the Titanic took approximately two and a half hours. Time enough, in the case of Titanic, according to Savage, for social order to prevail over “instinct.”

I’ve not yet seen anyone link the nation’s retirement prospects to the Titanic, though the importance of starting to save early, establishing a plan, and having a goal all fit within the moral of that example: Act while you have time, as you may not always have all the time you need, or the resources to take advantage of it. But what kind of time do Americans have?
The concept of measuring retirement security—or retirement income adequacy—is an extremely important topic, and EBRI has been working with this type of measurement since the late 1990s. When we modeled the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in 2012, approximately 44 percent of those households were projected to have inadequate retirement income for basic retirement expenses plus uninsured health care costs; so the glass is more than half full, but just a bit. That’s a big percentage, but it’s still an improvement of 5‐8 percentage points over what we found in 2003, when the glass was, indeed, half empty. The improvement occurred despite the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, and the subsequent “great recession.”

In part, that is because the passage of time allowed more funds to be saved, but that improvement is largely due to the fact that in 2003 very few 401(k) sponsors had automatic enrollment (AE) provisions in place, and participation rates among the lower-income workers (those most likely to be at risk) was quite low. However, with the uptick in adoption of AE the past few years after passage of the Pension Protection Act (PPA), participation rates have often increased to the high 80 or low 90 percent—and that stands to make a big difference in shoring up the retirement financial security of many of those who need it the most. In fact, EBRI simulation results show that approximately 60 percent of the AE-eligible workers would immediately be better off in an AE plan than in a plan design relying on voluntary enrollment, and that over time (as automatic escalation provisions took effect for some of the workers) that number would increase to 85 percent.

The tragic loss of life on the Titanic is generally attributed to a shortage of lifeboats, while on the Lusitania, it was the lack of time to get people into the lifeboats available. For many of those looking ahead to retirement, plan design changes such as automatic enrollment and contribution acceleration look to be a real retirement life-saver, as they encourage both early action and the effective use of time.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

While the lack of retirement income adequacy for the lowest-income households is a matter of concern, so is the rate at which they will run “short” of money during retirement. Indeed, as documented in our July 2010 Issue Brief (“The EBRI Retirement Readiness Rating:™ Retirement Income Preparation and Future Prospects,”41 percent of early boomers in the lowest income quartile could run short of money within 10 years after they retire.

More information is included in recent testimony by Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director, before the Senate Banking Committee, on "Retirement (In)security: Examining the Retirement Savings Deficit" (T-171), available online here.

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