Why do I get the feeling that the government is trying to ‘ignore’ some issues that will spell a catastrophic doom to millions of Americans if nothing is done about it right now. Lets face it, the Social Security is in serious trouble, but no one seems to want to come near that topic, leave alone touch it. I understand that everyone is concentrating on how to get jobs to millions of Americans who are looking for a regular paycheck, but I thought we said that one lesson we have learnt from all this financial crisis, is that we should avoid another financial meltdown. Well, Social Security is a financial disaster waiting to happen. Robert Powell discusses in the following article, some other issues, apart from Social Security, that are plaguing Retirement in America.
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union speech, didn’t really touch on the subject near and dear to the hearts of millions of Americans — the State of Retirement in the U.S.
No doubt he had other pressing matters to address. So allow us the pleasure of issuing — thanks in large part to a many experts on the topic — our State of Retirement column.
In short: Things are bad and, in the absence of action or in the presence of the ill-advised action, could get much worse.
“I think the state of retirement in America is endangered as the ‘Great Recession’ has taken a toll on the financial status of many and as retirement savings were not adequate for many prior to the ‘Great Recession,’” said Matthew Greenwald, the president of Matthew Greenwald & Associates, a leading retirement research firm. “There are several things that need to be fixed, including addressing Social Security and helping people feel confident in the viability of the system, more effective defined-contribution plans that do a better job of encouraging participants to defer more of their income and more effective advice to retirees that helps them use their financial assets most effectively when they retire.”
Others are in the same camp. “There are many challenges,” said Anna Rappaport, the president of Anna Rappaport Consulting and chair of the Society of Actuary’s Committee on Post-Retirement Needs and Risks. But Rappaport also said there’s a lot of opportunity to fix those challenges.
Here’s a look at the challenges and some ways to respond.
The combined Social Security trust funds will be exhausted in 2036 and at that point there will only be enough income coming in to pay for 77% of scheduled benefits.
Now 24 years might seem like plenty of time to fix that problem but there doesn’t seem to be the political will to do so. Elected officials are seemingly afraid to tackle the issue; they would rather a greater fool put their bid to be re-elected at risk than address an issue that will affect some 78.1 million Americans a generation from now, which we should note is twice the number of Americans age 65 and older today.
But the truth of the matter is that it’s time that President Obama (or someone) take a page from President Ronald Reagan’s book when, in 1981, he established a commission led by Alan Greenspan to reform Social Security.
Some two years later, as a result of that commission’s work, amendments to Social Security included a provision for raising the full retirement age from age 65 to 67, phased in over time. At the time, the Congress cited improvements in the health of older people and increases in average life expectancy as primary reasons for increasing the normal retirement age.
Given the current and predicted future state of Social Security, it’s time to once again raise the full retirement age, according to Bob Reynolds, the president and CEO of Putnam Investments. This time, Reynolds suggests, we might peg the full retirement age to life expectancy so as to adjust for improvements in the health of older people and increases in average life expectancy.
In 1940, for instance, the average 65-year-old male in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 77.7. In 1990, it was 80.3. And by 2006, it was 81.6. “You have to adjust for that,” Reynolds said. “It’s just too costly.”
FYI: Using 1940 as the benchmark ratio, the full retirement age could be raised, by my calculations, to 70¾.
Of course, you would phase the increase in over a period of time so that people have time to prepare for it, Reynolds said. And you might leave the full retirement age for people over age 55 as is, while adjusting it upward for those under age 55.
Reynolds also favors increasing the amount of earnings subject to taxation for a given year. For 2012, the annual limit, the contribution and benefit base for Social Security, is $110,100. He suggests that the contribution and benefit base be increased to “somewhere around” $150,000. “That would provide the base for a stable system long-term,” Reynolds said. He noted, for instance that there’s no limit on the amount one’s taxed to pay for Medicare.
What’s more, Reynolds is in favor of examining a needs-based system that would reduce one’s Social Security benefit one based on income or assets. “It’s something that should be looked at,” he said.
Others also see the need to shore up Social Security. For instance, Cynthia Egan, president of T. Rowe Price Retirement Plan Services, said: “Lower income earners, those who are not covered by a defined contribution plan, as well as ‘weak savers’ are going to be highly reliant on Social Security. It is what it is. So we must ensure the stability and reliability of the Social Security program for the future.”
On average, workers — at least those who have such a plan — contribute about 7% of their compensation into their 401(k) plan and that, many experts say, is too low. According to Reynolds, one would need to save at least 10% to replace, when combined with Social Security benefits, 80% of one’s final pay in retirement. Others say contributions rates have to be even higher the longer one waits to save and the less one has socked away.
Maybe the time has come to put in place plans that would automatically escalate the amount one contributes to a 401(k) to a minimum of 10%, not just the 3% which is the norm. Others agreed. “People need to save more — and we need to figure out how to make that happen,” Rappaport said.
To be fair, not all experts are worried about contribution rates or the shortcomings of 401(k) plans.
For instance, Kevin Crain, head of Institutional Retirement & Benefit Services for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, offered the following: “We believe that privately sponsored corporate retirement systems are structured to be successful, and can be even more successful with employer’s continued focus on enhancements to their financial benefit plans and services. More specifically, within 401(k)s, we continue to see significant increases in employee engagement and utilization of these plans through such tools as auto enrollment and advice services.”
And Linda Wolohan, a spokeswoman for the Vanguard Group, said: “The U.S. retirement system, while rocked like any investment-based program during the severe market downturn of a few years ago, has shown great resilience.”
For instance, she noted that retirement wealth for the typical 401(k) plan participant grew over the past five years even in the face of the substantial market and economic shocks. What’s more, she said, while account balances have sometimes been cited as too low to be helpful in retirement, it’s important to note that the typical participant is a 46-year-old male who is saving 8.8%, with 20 to 25 more years to work and grow his account. “His retirement plan assets will be complemented by Social Security benefits and other savings, perhaps assets in other employer plans or a spouse’s plan, or personal savings,” she said. “Even though we always encourage people to save more — ideally at least 12% to 15% of their income — the reality is that more participants than you think may be on target for retirement.”
Another issue plaguing the U.S. today is this: Just half of the 150 million or so working Americans have an employer-sponsored retirement plan at work. And the 75 million workers who don’t have a retirement plan at work aren’t saving anything at all for their golden years. But studies suggest that those workers might save if they did have a plan at work. So, Reynolds is in favor of creating what’s been called a universal, or automatic, IRA.
According to the Heritage Foundation, universal or automatic IRAs would provide a relatively simple, cost-effective way to increase retirement security for the millions of workers without plan coverage. The universal or automatic IRA, said the Heritage Foundation, is a way that employees of smaller businesses can choose to save for retirement by allowing their employers regularly transfer an amount from their paycheck to an IRA.
For her part, Egan said there’s no need for another retirement plan, just incentives. “Small employers should be offered incentives to provide coverage,” she said. “We don’t need another vehicle. There are many, many providers who support small- and micro-plan services. We simply need to incent the smaller employer to make it happen and keep it simple for them.”
By the way, one big risk looming is the possibility that those folks who did the right thing and saved for retirement, might end up paying in one way or another for those who didn’t.
Literacy and confidence
Sometime in March, the Employee Benefit Research Institute will release the 22nd annual Retirement Confidence Survey and will likely show that only a few Americans are very confident about having enough money for retirement. In 2011, just 13% were very confident.
Reynolds suggests that there’s a correlation between financial literacy and confidence. To solve the confidence problem, we must solve the literacy problem. According to Reynolds, it’s time to provide the education and tools required to help people understand how much to save and how to invest, how much they will need to accumulate for retirement, and how to make their money last a lifetime once in retirement. Knowledge will lead to action, and action will lead to confidence.
Others agree. “Financial literacy and awareness are key components in helping Americans prepare for retirement,” said Suzanna de Baca, the vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial. “Any American looking ahead to retirement can benefit from a written financial plan that will help them define their retirement goals and objectives, and guide them in creating a realistic plan to create a more confident financial future.”
Rachel McTague, a spokeswoman for the Investment Company Institute (ICI), also said education is needed. “ICI research finds that the system of saving for retirement in 401(k) plans and IRAs is a success, based on such survey data and modeling of potential savings over a full career with 401(k) plans,” she said. “Nonetheless, we believe there is room for improvement. Among other priorities, we support efforts to provide retirement savers with information and tools to help them use the system to accumulate assets and understand and navigate the distribution phase as well.”
In the absence of such education and planning, however, there are those who say policies that force people to save on their own for retirement hurt more than help. “Too much responsibility has been shifted to individuals, and they are not well prepared to handle them,” said Rappaport. “Financial literacy creates major challenges and we need systems that work without people having initiative.”
Outliving one’s assets
Right now, there’s much ado about outliving one’s assets. Experts are worried that average Americans don’t understand longevity risk and might draw down their assets too quickly during retirement. According to experts, many Americans should consider adding investments that insure against the risk of outliving one’s assets. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Most Americans are distrustful of such products. Nonetheless, it’s worth adding this opinion to the mix.
“Striking the right balance between growth and income to keep from outliving one’s retirement savings is an even more daunting task than it was before the current period of market volatility and low interest rates,” said Chris Winans, a spokesman for AXA Equitable. “The problem is that 401(k)s and plain-vanilla savings accounts without downside protection are exposed to the vagaries of the market. You wouldn’t think of not spending whatever it costs to insure from losing your house in a fire. Why wouldn’t you want protection on a portion of your retirement nest egg, too? Our challenge is to help people understand this value for themselves and their families. You hope your savings appreciate and nothing bad happens, but a lifetime income guarantee reduces some of the risk. That’s worth something.”
Tax breaks and retirement
Efforts to eliminate the so-called tax breaks Americans get for saving money in a 401(k) or other plans where they can to save on a pre-tax basis could affect adversely the state of retirement in the U.S.
According to Reynolds, 401(k) plans and the like are not tax breaks. Rather they are tax-deferred plans. At some point in the future, Americans will pay ordinary income taxes on the money distributed from those plans. Efforts to eliminate or reduce incentives to save might backfire and reduce further the poor state of retirement in the U.S., not improve it.
Egan is of the same opinion. “Tax incentives must be preserved for retirement savings,” she said. “Our defined contribution system reflects ‘the American way.’ There’s a balance among government endorsement and oversight, corporate and plan sponsor fiduciary responsibility, individual responsibility, and free market competition among service providers.”
The good news — sort of
“As more and more baby boomers retire, the discussion on retirement, on retirement income, will become a national topic,” said Reynolds. “And I think it will spark the interest of retirement to all age groups.”
Let’s hope that’s the case because the problem is real. “America is facing an unprecedented retirement challenge as the U.S. population undergoes a radical demographic shift,” said Michael Falcon, head of retirement at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. “Twenty percent of the population will be over 65 years old by 2020 and, despite impressive aggregate asset growth, many Americans are still significantly short of the savings they will need for a dignified retirement and are unprepared for the complex financial choices they will need to make.”