Are Pensions More Important To Retirement Security Than Data Shows?

Pink Piggy Bank On Top Of A Pile Of One Dollar Bills

Alan L. Gustman, Thomas L. Steinmeier and Nahid Tabatabai have authored a paper exploring the possibility that the importance of pensions, and the financial support they provide retirees, is understated in retirement income data.

The paper, titled “Mismeasurement of Pensions Before and After Retirement”, was published in the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance.

From the paper:

There are a number of reasons why the value of pensions after retirement may be underestimated, especially if evaluation is based on sources of income realized in retirement. First, not all pensions are in pay status, even after the person leaves the pension job. When a pension is not in pay status, it is commonly ignored in questions related to pension incomes. Even when a pension is in pay status, a survey may not include income from the pension. For example, as pointed out by Anguelov, Iams and Purcell (2012), CPS data on pension incomes in retirement count only annuitized income, but not irregular income from pensions, such as periodic withdrawals from 401k accounts. This is an important problem because funds in DC pension accounts often are not claimed until the covered worker reaches age 70, when withdrawals are mandated. Indeed, a disproportionate amount of benefits may not be withdrawn until even later.

The paper provides further reason that survey data may not accurately portray pension benefits received by retirees:

Another factor is that actual benefit payments may be reduced from the pension called for by the simple benefit formula advertised by the firm when an annuity is chosen that differs from the single life annuity emphasized by plan. For example, the annuitized benefit will be reduced when, as required by law, a spouse or survivor benefit is chosen. The reduction will depend on the ages of each spouse and on whether the survivor benefit is half the main benefit, whether it is two thirds as in Social Security, or whether the annual benefit will remain unchanged upon the death of the covered worker. There may be further reductions if the retiree chooses a guaranteed minimum payout period.

To be sure, these differences in payout due to actuarial adjustments do not create actual differences in the present value of benefits. But one must know the details of the respondent’s choice as to spouse and survivor benefits and other characteristics of the annuity, and adjust using appropriate life tables. That is, a proper analysis would not just consider the annual pension payment, but would also consider the value of payments that will be made in future years to the surviving spouse. Typically these details are not available on a survey and no such adjustment is made.

The paper delves much deeper into this issue – read the full paper here.

 

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