Saturday, November 20, 2010

In a post-pension world, You are richer

What does the world really look like? Is the post-pension times we live in actually a more profitable retirement environment? Are we better off thirty-five years removed? 

Despite the metaphors surrounding what retirement planning is supposed to be: a three legged stool, a three pronged approach, whatever visual cue you need to make sense of the process, your retirement is or at least should be, a lopsided financial affair. It should be something that works as a part of whole but not in any sort of equal sense. Social Security and the state of your financial affairs at the time you decide to quit working is really only supposed to be a small part of the retirement plan. In truth, the most prudent people who plan their retirement do so without any consideration of income from any outside source.

Not so in the years following the Great Recession. The vulnerabilities are now something we have seen first hand and many of us have recoiled in horror. Instead of relearning where we went wrong, we looked for the safest rock to hide under. Perhaps that is why, when the latest report from the Investment Company Institute was released this past November, your defined contribution plan or for most of you, your 401(k) was given equal stature amongst the other two "legs" of the retirement stool.

Social Security was designed to help keep those without from becoming destitute in retirement. Not surprisingly, the report points out this use of the program by those who are the least fortunate, the lower paid worker, as more reliant on those benefits than the higher paid worker. As they look at a post-ERISA world (the 401(k) actually came nto being in 1981), they conclude that this has always been the case and if it has, then so be it.

But the study wasn't designed to be much more than a good-old-boy pat-on-the-back. The ICI sees the distance between the demise of the pension as the sole means for retirement among workers in 1974 as a trip worth traveling. Coming out on the other end of that journey finds the lobby arm of the mutual fund industry rather satisfied. they point out that the median income from a defined contribution plan per person in 2009 was $6,000; in those same 2009 dollars, the same median was $4,500 in 1974.

It is not surprise that many of the remaining firms in the private sector still maintain them. But these plans are not considered a reason to work at these companies when it comes to the younger workforce. Pension breed company loyalty while 401(k)s allow workers to shift jobs when a better offer is available. On the other hand, pensions often leave this same group of workers with no retirement benefits, essentially, at least according to the ICI report, when vesting rules and the timing of benefit accural are used as a rodbloack to getting those benefits for time worked.

But during the time frame they used to conduct the comparisons (1975 to 2009), Social Security now makes up a larger share of retirement income even among those who had assets and other income sources. Based on per capita income at either end of the spectrum, with the lowest income group using just 2% of what the study calls asset income with an 85% reliance on Social Security compared with what the higher income group employs (20% assets and 33% of income from Social Security).

While the ICI celebrates the success of the defined contribution plan that replaced the private sector pension and they point out that those with DC plans are doing better than DB plan recipients in the past, one simple fact remains: we aren't doing enough.

While the answers seem clear: you need to invest more - probably much more than you would be comfortable in making, live smaller now while you are working, and hope that your health, inflation or taxes doesn't take a toll on those accumulated finances. In the face of such daunting news, you could expect a pull back. Instead of increased focus, we would get more ennui. Instead of an emphasis on better educated investment and financial decisions, we should expect more use of what we assume of are set-it-and-forget-it investments such as target date funds.

To answer the question in the title: was your 401(k) intended to be complimentary for retirement? I believe the answer was no. It should have been the investment savior, a Wall Street miracle. Trouble is, now many people. financial professionals included are looking for a way to provide the same guaranteed income that those long-shunned pensions provided. And when they do, we will wish it was 1975 all over again because it will come at a much higher cost than we imagined.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of 

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