Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Bigger Picture

Over the weekend, my daughter shared with us an insurance quote she’d received.  It had been a while since I had focused on such things, but I was struck first by how much it was.  It was for insurance in a different state, so we worked through the particulars, trying to be certain that we understood what was covered, matched that against her needs.  Ultimately, while much of the quote made sense, there were a couple of items that seemed too high.

As we probed those items, my daughter explained that the agent had made an effort to match those levels against her current coverage.  A logical enough inquiry and starting point, but one that (apparently) failed to take into account that her current coverage – as part of our family policy – would be quite different from what she needed on her own.  The agent got an accurate response to the question he asked – but it wasn’t the right question.

Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs, hold more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the United States, which makes them a vital component of the nation’s retirement savings.  In fact, as an account type, IRAs currently hold the largest single share of U.S. retirement plan assets.  There are, however, different types of IRAs, and, according to a recent EBRI analysis[i], they differ in a number of ways.

For example, in the EBRI IRA Database[ii], which contains data collected from various IRA plan administrators on 20.5 million accounts, with total assets of $1.456 trillion, most of the new IRA contributions go into Roth IRAs, but most of the assets are held in traditional IRAs, where, as noted above, the money frequently originated from a rollover from other tax-qualified retirement plans (such as 401(k) plans).  In fact, the latest report from the EBRI IRA Database finds that 26 percent of Roth IRA owners contributed to their accounts in 2011, compared with just 6 percent of traditional IRA owners.

On the other hand, individuals with a traditional IRA originating from rollovers had the highest average and median (mid-point) balances ($110,918 and $31,944, respectively, compared with Roth average and median balances at $25,228 and $11,344) – and in the 2011 EBRI IRA Database, almost 13 times the amount of dollars were added to IRAs through rollovers as from new contributions.

Roth IRAs had a higher percentage of younger individuals contribute to them: 23.8 percent of the Roth accounts receiving contributions were owned by individuals ages 25–34, compared with 8.9 percent for traditional IRAs.  Moreover, Roth IRA owners were both more likely to contribute to their IRA and more likely to contribute in subsequent years – and those who are younger and own a Roth IRA were more likely to contribute to it than older Roth IRA owners.

While they account for nearly one in five of the accounts in the EBRI IRA Database, Roth IRAs represented only 7 percent of the $1.456 trillion in assets at year-end 2011.  Still, it’s easy to imagine how the trend differences highlighted above could, over time, impact key trends in terms of contributions, asset allocation, and withdrawal patterns[iii].

Research sometimes suffers from a tendency to extrapolate big conclusions from remarkably small samples.

On the other hand, the EBRI IRA database, with millions of individual account records drawn from multiple account providers, allows us to see the big picture, as well as the details that underlie, and perhaps shape, the longer-term trends.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

[ii] The EBRI IRA Database contains data collected from various IRA plan administrators on 20.5 million accounts owned by 16.6 million unique individuals with total assets of $1.456 trillion. EBRI is building a database that will allow it to track the flow of retirement assets saved in 401(k) plans and other tax-qualified plans and transferred to IRAs and spent in retirement as people leave the work force.

[iii] The EBRI IRA Database is also unique in its ability to track people who own multiple IRAs, providing a measure of individuals’ consolidated IRA holdings. For instance, it shows that the overall cumulative IRA average balance was 24 percent larger than the unique account balance, providing a far more accurate picture of the assets held in these accounts by individuals.

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