All Teachers Deserve Adequate Retirement Benefits. It’s Harder Than You Think To Get Them

Chad Aldeman is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a former policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. This post was originally published on TeacherPensions.org.

How many teachers should be eligible for adequate retirement benefits?

My answer is all of them: For every year they work, teachers should accumulate benefits toward a secure retirement.

A reasonable person might say only those who stay for at least three or five years. That would require teachers to show some amount of commitment to the profession, and it would reward teachers for getting through the most challenging early years.

But that’s not the way current teacher retirement systems are designed. Most states require teachers to stay 20, 25, or even 30 years before they qualify for adequate retirement benefits. (The Urban Institute’s Rich Johnson and I calculated these “break-even” points across the country. Find info on your particular state here.)

In other words, today’s teacher pension systems only provide adequate benefits to teachers with extreme longevity. You don’t have to take my word for it. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) hired Nari Rhee and William B. Fornia to study whether California teachers were better off under the existing pension system or alternative retirement plans.

The chart below comes directly from their paper. It shows how benefits accumulate for newly hired, 25-year-old females under the current pension system (blue line), a defined contribution plan (red line), a defined contribution plan with no employer contributions (dotted blue line), and a cash balance plan (dotted green line). There are legitimate questions about whether these are perfectly fair comparisons—Rhee and Fornia ignore the large debts accumulated under traditional pension plans—but even in this analysis, it’s clear that the pension system is the most back-loaded benefit structure. Some teachers do better under this arrangement, but most don’t. Depending on the comparison, this group of teachers must stay two or three decades before the pension system offers a better deal.

Rhee and Fornia make a valid point that not all teachers enter the profession at age 25, and their paper also includes the graph below showing the actual distribution of California teachers by the age at which they began teaching. The most common entry ages are 23 and 24, just after candidates complete college (California requires most new teachers to go through a Master’s program before earning a license). The median entry age for current teachers is 29 (meaning half of all teachers enter at age 29 or younger), and the average is 33.

Rhee and Fornia’s point here is that people who begin teaching at older ages have shorter break-even points, and that teachers with shorter break-even points are more likely to benefit. This has a kernel of truth but obscures some key points.

First, it is true pension plans are better for workers who begin their careers at later ages. Pensions are based on a worker’s salary when she leaves the profession, and they don’t adjust for inflation during the interim. If a 35-year-old leaves teaching this year, she may qualify for a pension, but it will be based on her current salary right now. By the time she finally becomes eligible to begin drawing her pension, say in the year 2046, every $1 in pension wealth will be worth far less than it is today. Teachers who go straight from teaching into retirement don’t have this problem.

Consequently, it’s also true that teachers who begin their careers at later ages are comparatively better off than teachers who began at younger ages. They don’t have to wait as long, so the break-even points fall from 31 years for a 25-year-old entrant to just 7 years for a 45-year-old entrant.

But their argument starts to suffer when compared to teacher mobility patterns. Like other states, California sees much higher turnover in early-career teachers than mid- or late-career teachers. The result is that, even for a 45-year-old teacher with a relatively short break-even period of 7 years, only about half will actually reach that point.

The table below pulls together these two data points for teachers of various ages. The middle row illustrates how long the teacher would be required to stay until her pension would finally be worth more than a cash balance plan (Rhee and Fornia calculate slightly shorter break-even points for their defined contribution plans). The last column uses the state’s turnover assumptions to estimate how many California teachers will remain long enough to break even. Remember, the median teacher in California began teaching at age 29. The table below suggests this typical teacher would have had a break-even point of more than 25 years, and the state assumes that only 40.6 percent of this group of teachers will make it that far. Across the entire workforce, the majority of California teachers would be better off in a cash balance plan than the state’s current pension plan.

Age at which the teacher begins teaching How many years does it take for the teacher to break even on her pension plan? What percentage of teachers like her will break even?

25

31

34.6

30

25

40.6

35

19

43.7

40

13

46.6

45

7

54.2

California is a bit of an outlier here compared to other states—it’s a big state and seems to have lower teacher turnover than other states—but it’s still worth asking if this system is working well enough for all teachers. Rhee and Fornia’s main point seems to be that, once you exclude short- and medium-term workers,  the remaining teachers tend to do pretty well under the current system. But that excludes lots of people!

I personally don’t think that’s the right way to look at things. I think it’s worth fighting for retirement systems that treat ALL teachers fairly and equitably. After all, teachers might not know how long they’ll stay in the profession. They might not like teaching as much as they thought, or life might take them on another path. And once we account for this uncertainty, the break-even points become less about raw numbers (do I have to stay 19 or 22 years?) and more about probability (what’s my realistic chance of teaching in this state for 31 years?). Looked at from that perspective, it becomes harder and harder to support pension systems with such extreme back-loading.

Photo by cybrarian77 via Flickr CC License

The Pension vs. 401k Debate Harms Teachers

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This post originally appeared on TeacherPensions.org.

Each year, around 150,000 new teachers are hired to work in American public schools. Those teachers might not pay much attention to their retirement except to note that they’re enrolled in their state’s pension plan. A “pension plan” sounds good, safe, and secure, much better than “risky” 401k plans typically offered in the private sector.

This is a dangerous and flawed misperception. Of the 150,000 new teachers, slightly more than half won’t stick around long enough to qualify for the pension they were promised. They’ll get their own contributions back, but in most states, they won’t earn any interest on those contributions, and they won’t be eligible for any of the sizable contributions their employers made on their behalf.

These teachers are worse off than if they had been in a 401k plan. The federal government has laws governing private-sector retirement plans to ensure that workers start earning retirement benefits early in their careers, but those laws do not cover state and local governments. Teachers are left exposed to the whims of state legislators, and during tight budget times, states cut benefits for new teachers. Today, nearly every state makes teachers wait longer to qualify for their pension than private-sector workers wait for employer benefits from 401k plans. Four states require seven- or eight-year waiting periods (called “vesting” requirements) and 15 states, including populous ones like Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, withhold all employer contributions for teachers until 10 years of service. In these states, teachers could work up to nine years without any form of employer-provided retirement savings. This would be illegal in the private sector.

Teachers are often told they’re trading lower salaries while they work for higher job security and more generous benefits. But that trade only works well for teachers who actually stick around until retirement. Most don’t. Most teachers get the worst of both worlds—they earn lower salaries while they work and they forfeit thousands of dollars in lost retirement savings when they leave. Check out our report, Hidden Penalties, to see how many teachers are affected in your state and how much they’re losing.

 

Photo by gfpeck via Flickr CC License

CEOs Rack Up Retirement Benefits: Study

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The CEOs of the largest companies in America have accumulated retirement savings – through pension benefits, 401k accounts and more – that equal the savings of 50 million Americans, according to a new study.

The study, carried out by the Center for Effective Government and the Institute for Policy Studies, analyzed the retirement packages of 100 CEOs by looking at compensation disclosures filed with the SEC, as well as Federal Reserve data.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Based on their math, the 100 CEOs are entitled to $4.9 billion in retirement benefits. That’s an average of $49.3 million each, or enough to provide a monthly check of $277,686 for the rest of their lives. (The paycheck estimate is based on an annuity calculator at www.immediateannuities.com.)

“The CEO-worker retirement divide turns our country’s already extreme income divide into an even wider economic chasm,” the report states.

The 10 CEOs with the biggest retirement accounts are all white males whose retirement benefits total $1.4 billion. The 10 female CEOs with the most lucrative retirement benefits are only entitled to $280 million collectively, while the total for the 10 largest CEOs of color is $196 million.

[…]

The two groups have some ideas for closing the retirement pay gap, including ending the ability of executives to contribute as much as they want to tax-deferred compensation plans. The plans work like 401(k) accounts and include money contributed by the executive and their company.

They’d also like to eliminate tax deductions that companies enjoy for pension and retirement costs — if the companies have frozen worker pension plans, closed pension plans to new hires or have pension plans that are not at least 90 percent funded.

View the study here.

San Diego Pension-to-401(k) Reform Goes to Court

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Reporter Ed Mendel covered the California Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.

A San Diego pension reform approved by voters nearly four years ago, regarded as a model by some, is headed for a court test — but not because all new hires, except police, receive a private sector-style 401(k) retirement plan rather than a public pension.

A powerful state labor board ordered San Diego to restore pensions after finding that state labor law was violated when former Mayor Jerry Sanders, one of the leaders of the reform drive, failed to bargain the proposed initiative with public employee unions.

With the unanimous approval of the city council, San Diego filed a court appeal Jan. 25 to overturn the board decision, calling it an “inappropriate evisceration of the citizens’ right to bring an initiative” and listing 21 legal errors in the ruling.

San Diego has become California’s test of what many public pension advocates fear: a switch to 401(k) plans that frees governments from future retirement debt critics say is unsustainable, but also shifts unpredictable investment risk to employees.

It’s a private-sector trend with voter support. Switching new public employees to a 401(k) plan was favored by 70 percent of likely voters in a Public Policy Institute of California poll last year, similar to the 66 percent vote for the San Diego initiative.

Whether 401(k) plans that can be risky, skimpy and mismanaged provide an adequate retirement is an ongoing debate, particularly when compared to the tax-backed public pension guarantee of lifetime payments that can’t be cut outside of bankruptcy.

Opponents often argue that governments do not save money by switching to 401(k) plans, as Gov. Brown found when he unsuccessfully proposed a federal-style hybrid plan combining a smaller pension with a 401(k)-style plan.

“When I read the PERS analysis they say if you close the system of defined benefit (pensions) and don’t let any more people in, then the system would become shaky — well, that tells you you’ve got a Ponzi scheme,” Brown told legislators in 2011.

In San Diego, pension officials said switching new hires to 401(k) plans would reduce the flow of employer-employee contributions into the pension fund, requiring a shorter time period to pay off pension debt and increasing city pension costs.

Sanders
The ballot pamphlet analysis for the pension reform initiative (Proposition B in June 2012) said switching new hires to a 401(k) plan would actually increase city pension costs over the next 30 years by $13 million, or if adjusted for inflation $56 million.

But big savings for the city, the ballot analysis said, would come from the initiative’s five-year freeze on the amount of pay used to calculate pension amounts: $963 million over the next 30 years or $581 million if adjusted for inflation.

The freeze can be lifted by a two-thirds vote of the city council. But after the initiative passed, the city negotiated new labor contracts with pay increases not used to calculate pensions: health care, uniform allowances, and other benefits.

The group backing the initiative, Comprehensive Pension Reform, disagreed with the ballot pamphlet analysis. In a June 2011 news release, the group’s actuarial analysis estimated that pension savings over 27 years would be $1.2 billion to $2.1 billion.

Opponents of a switch to 401(k) plans also often argue that the lack of a pension makes government employers less competitive in the job market, harming recruitment and retention.

One of the initiative leaders, former Councilman Carl DeMaio, said the city has not had a single unfilled job due to the lack of a pension. He said San Diego may be the only California city that offers firefighters a 401(k) plan instead of a pension.

DeMaio
“We always have 700 to 800 applicants for 40 (firefighter) slots,” DeMaio said of the argument that a lack of pensions harms recruitment. “It’s laughable. Those are the most coveted jobs that we have.”

Two of the four unions that filed a failure-to-bargain complaint with the state labor board, San Diego Firefighters Local 145 and San Diego Municipal Employees Association, did not respond to a request for comment last week.

The city twice asked for bids to provide new-hire disability coverage, formerly provided through the pension system, but received no acceptable replies. The city hired a consultant to analyze options and is negotiating with firefighters.

Meanwhile, a city spokesman said, work-related disability is covered through state workers’ compensation and a city industrial leave plan that provides 100 percent of gross take-home pay during the first year.

The San Diego switch to a 401(k) plan with a five-year pay freeze was the model for a Ventura County pension reform initiative (with the exception that deputy sheriffs were included) that was briefly placed on the November 2014 ballot.

A superior court judge, ruling in a union suit, removed the initiative from the ballot before the election, finding that a 1937 act covering 20 county pension systems only allows the Legislature or a statewide vote to terminate a county retirement system.

A suit by the state labor board to block a vote on the San Diego pension reform was rejected by a superior court. After voters approved the initiative, a state appeals court allowed the Public Employment Relations Board to hold hearings on the bargaining issue.

A board decision issued Dec. 29 came down hard on the city, ordering that employees be “made whole” for lost pension benefits, plus 7 percent annual interest, and that the city pay union legal fees for “pursuing complete relief in the courts.”

The unions do not have “carte blanche to pursue frivolous litigation” at taxpayer expense as “a way to punish the city,” the board said, because the courts can remedy that if necessary.

The board said its decision was made in the absence of “appellate authority” that bargaining is preempted by a citizens’ initiative. The city was invited to “seek redress in the courts” if it believes constitutional rights are violated.

Now the appeals court that allowed the labor board hearing on the bargaining issue is being asked by the city to overturn the board decision. The board concluded that the mayor, Sanders, was as an agent of the city when he led the initiative drive.

Some board points: San Diego has a “strong mayor” system in which the mayor gives unions the city bargaining position, Sanders used city e-mail and the prestige of his office to advance the initiative, a former city attorney memo said a mayor sponsoring a pension initiative would require bargaining.

Some city points: Invalidating an initiative because of its impetus or support is unprecedented and erroneous, Sanders was not acting as an agent of the city, elected officials have the right to advocate issues, the board found no evidence for the allegation that the initiative was a “sham device” backed by “strawmen.”

DeMaio said a class-action lawsuit is being considered, possibly involving elected officials and citizens who signed the initiative petition, to establish new case law that might overturn some previous PERB decisions.

“We are going to load this up like a Christmas tree,” DeMaio said. “We want to establish case law to spank PERB. They stepped out of bounds. They brought this on themselves.”

 

Photo by  Lee Haywood via Flickr CC License

Matt Bevin Wins Kentucky Governorship; Here’s His Stance on Public Pensions

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Republican Matt Bevin won the Kentucky governorship on Tuesday, and one of the most pressing issues he’ll face is his state’s pension funding crisis.

State workers were watching this election closely, because the candidates had significantly different views on retirement policy.

What can they expect now that Bevin sits behind the Governor’s desk?

Here’s Bevin’s official pension platform, straight from his own website:

Our plan will fix our public retirement system while ensuring that we meet the existing obligations we have made to retired state workers. This starts with instituting an immediate freeze on the expansion of participants in our current pension plans and implementing a 401(k) style defined contribution plan for new employees.

That’s a stark difference from Democratic candidate Jack Conway, who preferred to leave the state’s defined-benefit system intact.

In this clip, below, Bevin further discusses his views on the state’s pension crisis:

Finally, a nice summary of Bevin’s stances from WFPL, which notes Bevin’s aversion to pension obligation bonds:

Neither of the major party candidates for governor support plans to issue bonds to shore up the pension funds. Issuing a $3.3 billion bond was the favorite solution of state Democrats last year, but a bill authorizing the bond past the state House but was blocked by the Senate.

Republican candidate Matt Bevin’s pension plan calls for putting new state employees on a 401K-style defined contribution plan and having current state employees make increased pension contributions.

The plan is aimed at decreasing the systems’ liability to future pension-holders by moving their retirement savings into quasi-independent accounts.

[…]

Bevin wants to give existing employees the option to transfer to the 401K plan.

 

“Ky With HP Background” by Original uploader was HiB2Bornot2B at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Vini 175.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Four Views on DB vs DC Plans?

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Leo Kolivakis is a blogger, trader and independent senior pension and investment analyst. This post was originally published at Pension Pulse.

Nick Thornton of Benefitpro reports, DC vs DB: 4 views on new EBRI data (h/t, Pension Tsunami):

This week’s new data from the Employee Benefits Research Institute adds a new dimension to the vital question of the country’s retirement readiness.

In the report, researchers show that often, 401(k) plans can do a better job of replacing income in retirement than defined benefit plans can.

The report simulates savings outcomes for workers currently age 25 to 29, with at least 30 years of eligibility in a 401(k) plan.

It measures how often replacement rates of 60, 70, and 80 percent can be achieved by workers in four income quartiles if they participate in a 401(k) plan, compared to those levels of income replacement rates for participants in defined benefit plans.

When measured against a 60 percent income replacement rate, traditional pensions beat 401(k) for all workers, except those in the highest income quartile.

But as replacement rates are increased, 401(k) participants fare better, according EBRI.

Under the 70 percent replacement rate, workers in the top two income quartiles do resoundingly better than their counterparts in defined benefit pension plans.

Only 46 percent of workers in the second-highest income quartile can expect to replace 70 percent of income from a defined benefit plan, compared to 75 percent who contribute to a 401(k) plan.

When benchmarking against an 80 percent income replacement rate, workers in the top two income quartiles stand little chance of replacing as much income with traditional pension benefits, whereas 61 percent of workers in the second highest income quartile will be able to do so with distributions from a 401(k), and 59 percent of the best-paid workers will be able to do so through 401(k) savings, according to the modeling.

The take away: traditional defined benefit plans seem better for lowest income workers, especially the lower the income replacement rate.

Many 401(k) proponents will no doubt see the new data as supportive of their core argument: that participating in a defined contribution plan throughout the lion’s share of one’s working life will reap sufficient savings for a secure retirement.

Of course, others will disagree. Here is a look at four stakeholder views on the question of 401(k)’s efficacy, or inadequacy, in preparing the country for retirement.

Daniel Bennett, Managing Director, Advanced Pension Strategies

Bennett’s Southern California-based advisory provides specialized pension and tax-advantaged solutions for small employers.

He has real issues with EBRI’s new report. For starters, he says it’s based on generous return assumptions—the study uses an average annual return of 10.9 percent in 401(k) plans, which the institute tracked in plans between 2007 and 2013.

He also questions the validity of a 401(k) assessment that assumes 30 years of contributions, as EBRI’s report does.

Bennett tells BenefitsPro he is not partial to a defined benefit option to a 401(k), or vice versa, but he does admit to having a bias for small businesses.

“My field experience strongly indicates that 401(k)s are very deficient in providing positive retirement outcomes for anyone, owner and worker alike, in all but the largest firms and even then typically only for the higher wage earners,” said Bennett.

Selling 401(k) plans to the small business market is a “loss leader” for firms like Bennett’s.

He says providers are not incentivized to service the market, given the thin margins. He thinks the Department of Labor’s “draconian” fiduciary proposal will only make matters worse.

Defined contribution plans are part of the solution, he says, but don’t expect him to be in the camp that says 401(k)’s superiority is an open and shut case.

“Retirement Income outcomes are really the only thing that matters,” believes Bennett. “So when I read studies assuming 30 years of contributions and 10.9 percent growth rates, I can only sit there and scratch my head wondering what these guys are smoking.”

“They need to get out of the ivory tower and down in the trenches with me to see what is really happening,” he added.

Tony James, President and COO, Blackstone

A leader of one of world’s biggest private equity firms went on CNBC this week and said that the retirement crisis facing savers in their 20s and 30s will ultimately lead to a breakdown of the country’s financial structure.

“If we don’t do something, we’re going to have tens of millions of poor people and poverty rates not seen since the Great Depression,” James told CNBC.

He advocated a government-mandated Guaranteed Retirement Account system, of the kind famously recommended by labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci almost a decade ago.

Private equity firms like Blackstone have been trying to break into the 401(k) market for several years, with little documented success to date.

While James’ comments to CNBC were made outside the context of the EBRI report, he clearly would take issue with its assumptions.

He said 401(k)s typically earn 3 to 4 percent, while pension plans, which James said have an average allocation of 25 percent to alternative investments such as ones his firm manages, yield closer to 7 and 8 percent.

“The trick is to have these accounts invested like pension plans, so the money compounds over decades at 7 to 8 percent, not at 3 to 4,” said James.

Economic Policy Institute

The self-described non-partisan think tank advocates on economic issues affecting low- and moderate-income Americans (Teresa Ghilarducci sits on its board, as do several of the country’s largest labor leaders).

This week it published its own report, claiming in 2014, “distributions from 401(k)s and similar accounts (including Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA), which are mostly rolled over from 401(k)s) came to less than $1,000 per year per person aged 65 and older.”

“On the other hand, seniors received nearly $6,000 annually on average from traditional pensions,” according to EPI’s blog post.

Its post was also independent of EBRI’s new study.

“Though 401(k) and IRA distributions will grow in importance in coming years, the amounts saved to date are inadequate and unequally distributed, and it is unlikely that distributions from these accounts will be enough to replace bygone pensions for most retirees, who will continue to rely on Social Security for the bulk of their incomes,” according to the institute.

Peter Brady, Senior Economist, Investment Company Institute (ICI)

The ICI, a trade group representing the interests of the mutual fund industry (Blackstone is a member), also works with EBRI to coordinate data on 401(k) savings rates.

Brady published a post, also independent of EBRI, calling to question the Economic Policy Institute’s defense of defined benefit plans.

“EPI has it wrong,” writes Brady. Its analysis is “highly misleading” for the following reasons, he argues.

  • It’s using unreliable data. Its source, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey (CPS), has consistently undercounted the income that retirees receive from employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs.
  • It’s backward looking. The people whose income it’s measuring, today’s retirees, haven’t enjoyed the benefits of today’s well-developed 401(k) system.
  • It’s gotten the math wrong. EPI’s analysts simply mishandled the data in ways that minimized the value of 401(k) plan and IRA distributions.

Unlike Peter Brady who represents the mutual fund industry, I don’t question the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute or its findings that 401(k)s are a negligible source of retirement income for seniors.

In fact, maybe Brady is right for the wrong reasons. I would reckon the EPI has gotten the math wrong by overestimating the retirement income from 401(k)s which have been a monumental failure contributing to the ongoing retirement woes of millions of Americans getting crushed by pension poverty.

That is where I agree with Blackstone’s Tony James. 401(k)s are not the solution to America’s retirement crisis but neither is his idea of a government-mandated Guaranteed Retirement Account system which invests like U.S. pension funds getting eaten alive by hedge fund, private equity fund and real estate fund fees. James’s solution is great for the Blackstones of this world and Wall Street, but it won’t bolster America’s retirement system, which is why I ripped into it in my last comment.

Moreover, Daniel Bennett, Managing Director of Advanced Pension Strategies is right to question the new data from the Employee Benefits Research Institute. It’s based on unrealistic return assumptions which are even worse than the ones U.S. public pension funds use as they chase their rate-of-return fantasy foolishly believing they will achieve a 7-8% bogey in a deflationary supercycle which won’t end any time soon.

Let me add a fifth and sobering view to this debate between DB vs DC plans, one which I’ve already covered in a previous comment of mine on the brutal truth on DC plans. In that comment, I noted the following:

Take the time to read the research report by the Canadian Public Pension Leadership Council. The research paper, Shifting Public Sector DB Plans to DC – The Experience so far and Implications for Canada, examines the claim that converting public sector DB plans to DC is in the best interests of taxpayers and other stakeholders by studying the experience of other jurisdictions, including Australia, Michigan, Nebraska, New York City, Saskatchewan and Texas and applying those lessons here in Canada. I thank Brad Underwood for bringing this paper to my attention.

I’m glad Canada’s large public pension funds got together to fund this new initiative to properly inform the public on why converting public sector defined-benefit plans to private sector defined-contribution plans is a more costly option.

Skeptics will claim that this new association is biased and the findings of this paper support the continuing activities of their organizations. But if you ask me, it’s high time we put a nail in the coffin of defined-contribution plans once and for all. The overwhelming evidence on the benefits of defined-benefit plans is irrefutable, which is why I keep harping on enhancing the CPP for all Canadians regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector.

And while shifting to defined-contribution plans might make perfect rational sense for a private company, the state ends up paying the higher social costs of such a shift. As I recently discussed, trouble is brewing at Canada’s private DB plans, and with the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield sinking to a 16-month low today, I expect public and private pension deficits to swell (if the market crashes, it will be a disaster for all pensions!).

Folks, the next ten years will be very rough. Historic low rates, record inflows into hedge funds, the real possibility of global deflation emanating from Europe, will all impact the returns of public and private assets. In this environment, I can’t underscore how important it will be to be properly diversified and to manage assets and liabilities much more closely.

And if you think defined-contribution plans are the solution, think again. Why? Apart from the fact that they’re more costly because they don’t pool resources and lower fees —  or pool investment risk and longevity risk — they are also subject to the vagaries of public markets, which will be very volatile in the decade(s) ahead and won’t offer anything close to the returns of the last 30 years. That much I can guarantee you (just look at the starting point with 10-year U.S. treasury yield at 2.3%, pensions will be lucky to achieve 5 or 6% rate of return objective).

Public pension funds are far from perfect, especially in the United States where the governance is awful and constrains states from properly compensating their public pension fund managers. But if countries are going to get serious about tackling pension poverty once and for all, they will bolster public pensions for all their citizens and introduce proper reforms to ensure the long-term sustainability of these plans.

Finally, if you think shifting public sector DB plans into DC plans will help lower public debt, think again. The social welfare costs of such a shift will completely swamp the short-term reduction in public debt. Only economic imbeciles at right-wing “think tanks” will argue against this but they’re completely and utterly clueless on what we need to improve pension policy for all our citizens.

The brutal truth on defined-contribution plans is they’re more costly and not properly diversified across public and private assets. More importantly, they will exacerbate pension poverty which is why we have to enhance the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) for all Canadians allowing more people to retire in dignity and security. These people will have a guaranteed income during their golden years and thus contribute more to sales taxes, reducing public debt.   

In short, I believe that now is the time to introduce real change to Canada’s retirement system and enhance the CPP for all Canadians.

I’m also a big believer that the same thing needs to happen in the United States by enhancing the Social Security for all Americans, provided they get the governance right, pay their public pension fund managers properly to manage the bulk of the assets internally and introduce a shared risk pension model in their public pensions.

It’s high time the United States of America goes Dutch on pensions and follows the Canadian model of pension governance. Now more than ever, the U.S. needs to enhance Social Security for all Americans and implement the governance model that has worked so well in Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden (and even improve on it).

And some final thoughts for all of you confused between defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans. Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to a well-governed defined-benefit plan. The very essence of the pension promise is based on what DB, not DC, plans offer. Only a well-governed public DB plan can offer retirees a guaranteed income for the rest of their life.  

What are the main advantages of well-governed DB plans? They pool investment risk, longevity risk, and they significantly lower costs by bringing public and private investments and absolute return strategies internally to be managed by properly compensated pension fund managers. DB plans also offer huge benefits to the overall economy, ones that will bolster the economy in tough times and reduce long-term debt.

In short, there shouldn’t be four, five or more views on DB vs DC plans. The sooner policymakers accept the brutal truth on DC plans, the better off hard working people and the entire country will be over the very long run.

 

Photo  jjMustang_79 via Flickr CC License

Would You Sell Your Future Pension For a Lump Sum of Cash? These Businesses Are Banking On It

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

You’ve heard of payday advances. But pension advances?

Believe it or not, businesses are popping up that allow retirees to do just that: “sell” a portion (or all) of their future retirement income in exchange for a lump sum of cash today.

The owners of these businesses admit that their service isn’t for everyone. But if you need to pay bills now, they say, then why not sell a portion of your pension for cash? More from Today:

Their pitch, aimed at military and government retirees with generous pension benefits and those with bad credit, is mighty appealing: cash now to pay today’s bills.

Of course, to get tomorrow’s money today, you have to sign over your future pension payments for a specified number of years.  

Mark Corbett runs the website Buy Your Pension, which helps facilitate pension sales. He told TODAY that a pension advance is not for everyone, but he believes it can be beneficial for some people.

“You should not sell your pension unless it saves you money,” he said. “For example, you are using it to pay off bills.”

Four years ago, Corbett got an advance on his private pension — selling a $237,000 nest egg for $89,000 — to pay off his mounting bills. He called it “a godsend” that reduced his stress and probably added years to his life.

But critics say pension advance services are dangerous and financially unwise. The Federal Trade Commission, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and other consumer protection agencies are already cautioning people to be know the implications of selling your pension. Today writes:

“There are serious financial consequences down the road for taking the money in a lump sum now,” said Gerri Walsh, FINRA’s senior vice president of investor education. “You are getting less money than if you waited and got those monthly pension payments.”

Unlike a traditional loan, you can’t get out of the deal early. If you signed up for a six-year payout, the company gets your pension for a full six years.

“A pension advance is unlike any other type of financing, because you’re required to sign over part of your future income stream,” said Leah Frazier, an attorney for the FTC.

“You could find yourself in a situation down the road where you need money for your basic expenses, but you don’t have it because you took it as an advance.”

And remember: Getting a lump sum pension payment is likely to have some serious tax implications.

“It could push you into a higher tax bracket,” said Lisa Greene-Lewis, lead CPA at TurboTax. “I could see people doing this and getting shocked by the additional taxes they now have to pay.”

The Government Accountability Office (GOA) recently did some secret shopping at nearly 40 pension advance businesses. Based on their experiences, they released a report indicating that they’d found numerous “questionable business practices”.

Last month, Missouri banned pension advances for public employees. They are the only state thus far to do so.

 

Photo by: www.SeniorLiving.Org

Gen X Retirements At Risk? Not So Fast, Says EBRI

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Even smart people can disagree with each other. Who knew?

A great example of that sentiment is playing out right now, as a handful of nationally renowned retirement research groups have found each other at odds with the other’s conclusions about the retirement security of the next few waves of retirees.

Retirement savings (or a lack there-of) have been getting a lot of press lately. The Federal Reserve recently released data that suggested 20 percent of people aged 55-64 had zero money saved for retirement. All in all, 31 percent of people surveyed said they had no retirement savings at all.

Two other recent studies make similarly striking claims—a 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts study found that newer retirees would have far less income during retirement than their baby boomer predecessors. Likewise, a 2012 study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) found nearly half of households in their 50’s were “at risk” for a rocky retirement.

But the Employee Benefit Research Institute doesn’t think the situation is so dire. In fact, the EBRI has gone so far as to rebuff the findings of those latter two studies. From ThinkAdvisor:

EBRI recently challenged a pair of studies that concluded Gen Xers’ retirement prospects were in worse shape than boomers’ prospects, pointing out also that the oldest Gen Xers are only 49, with many earnings years left before they reach traditional retirement age.

EBRI charges that some studies used flawed assumptions or bad methodologies to reach their conclusion that investors born between 1965 and 1974 had a smaller likelihood of saving enough for retirement than older investors born between 1948 and 1964.

“Calculating retirement income adequacy is very complex, and it’s important to use reasonable assumptions and current data if you want credible results,” Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director and author of the report, said in a statement.

More on the “flawed assumptions” used in the Pew and CRR studies:

EBRI took issue with a 2013 study by Pew Charitable Trusts that found the median replacement rate for Gen Xers who retire at 65 would be 32 percentage points lower than early boomers’ and nine points lower than later boomers’.

However, that finding “explicitly ignores future contributions,” EBRI argued. “EBRI’s analysis concludes that ignoring decades of potential future contributions (as the Pew study does) exaggerates the percentage of Gen X workers simulated to run short of money in retirement by roughly 10 to 12 percentage points among all but the lowest-income group,” according to the report.

An earlier study, conducted in 2012 by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, found 44% of households in their 50s were “at risk,” compared with 55% of those in their 40s and 62% of those in their 30s.

In that report, CRR failed to consider the effect of automatic enrollment and escalation features, which were widely adopted following the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Gen X is the first generation to have a full working career in a defined contribution environment, EBRI noted.

EBRI says all its recent research points to very different conclusions than other studies: Generation Xers are facing approximately the same retirement prospects as the Boomers’.

EBRI concludes that 60 percent of Generation X won’t run out of money in retirement.

Is the Retirement Savings Crisis Too “Hyped”? These Researchers Think So.

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A seemingly routine Capitol Hill hearing got very interesting very fast late last month. The hearing was held by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and focused on the state of retirement savings in the U.S.

Why was it so interesting? Two of the witnesses, Sylvester J. Schieber and Andrew G. Biggs, insisted that the retirement savings “crisis” in the U.S. is over-hyped. (They were referencing, among other things, the recent government statistics claiming that 20 percent of Americans aged 55-64 had zero retirement savings).

An outpouring of criticism followed, led by Christian Weller, who wrote:

Launched by Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX), the hearing announcement made reference to retirement income being underreported, implying that families are better off than the data show. Moreover, the witness list included crisis deniers, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs, making claims that the number of households inadequately prepared for retirement is largely overstated. Some testimony turned to calls for Social Security benefit cuts. Because, after all, cutting Social Security would theoretically inflict little harm if families are already well prepared for retirement. In reality, families would suffer tremendously from Social Security cuts. Why? Because as a long-standing body of economic research has repeatedly shown, there is indeed a growing crisis.

Schieber and Biggs (who, by the way, are no slouches–you can read their bios at the bottom of this post) quickly took to the blogosphere to explain their position.

First, they tackled why they disputed the government data, released last week, that suggested one in five Americans nearing retirement had no money at all saved for retirement. From Sheiber and Biggs (S + B):

These [Social Security Administration] publications rely on data from the Current Population Survey, which omits the vast majority of income that seniors receive from IRA and 401(k) accounts and thus makes seniors appear significantly poorer and less prepared for retirement than they actually are.

IRS tax data, which include all forms of pension withdrawals, show that true incomes for middle class retirees receiving Social Security benefits are substantially higher than is believed. The fact that these faulty SSA statistics were cited by the Social Security Subcommittee’s ranking member, apparently without knowledge of the limitations of these data, is evidence that even policymakers’ understanding of retirement security can be improved.

What about National Retirement Research Index’s findings that 6 in 10 Americans are at risk of an insecure retirement? S + B write:

With due respect to the NRRI’s authors, we have already detailed how the NRRI sets a higher bar for retirement income adequacy than most financial advisors and how it ignores the ways that family size and structure play into retirement saving patterns. In addition, the NRRI projects current workers’ future incomes using a one-size-fits-all pattern that ignores the dispersion in earnings that takes place from middle age onward.

This assumption erroneously reduces the “replacement rates” that low earners will receive from Social Security. The NRRI also predicts that traditional defined benefit pension plans will continue to contract, but assumes that future retirees will have no larger IRA or 401(k)s accumulations than those of people who retired prior to 2010. Together, these factors substantially – but erroneously, in our view – increase the share of workers considered to be “at risk” of an insecure retirement.

So who are these people anyway?

Sylvester J. Schieber:

Sylvester J. Schieber is Chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) and a private consultant on retirement and health issues. He retired from Watson Wyatt Worldwide in September 2006 where had served as Vice President/U.S. Director of Benefit Consulting and Director of Research and Information. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame in 1974. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Pension Research Council at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania since 1985. Dr. Schieber was a member of the 1994-1996 Social Security Advisory Council. In January 1998 he was appointed to a six-year term on the Social Security Advisory Board.

Andrew Biggs:

Andrew G. Biggs is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Social Security reform, state and local government pensions, and public sector pay and benefits.

Before joining AEI, Biggs was the principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), where he oversaw SSA’s policy research efforts. In 2005, as an associate director of the White House National Economic Council, he worked on Social Security reform. In 2001, he joined the staff of the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security.

You can read their entire blog post here.

You can also read the initial blog post, “Yes, There Is A Retirement Crisis”.

It’s a fascinating discussion, although at this moment, it seems to be two men standing alone against a world of data.

 

Federal Reserve: One In Five People Nearing Retirement Have No Retirement Savings

4882451716_79e3857261_oThe Federal Reserve released its Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households last week, and one statistic stood out starkly from the rest: 19 percent of people between the ages of 55 and 64 have no retirement savings and don’t have a pension lined up.

The Federal Reserve surveyed 4,100 people last year and retirement savings were one of the major topics. The report shed light on the dire state of retirement savings in the United States.

Across all age groups, 31 percent said they had zero retirement savings. When asked how they planned to get by after retirement, 45 percent said they would have to rely on social security. Eighteen percent plan to get a part-time job during “retirement”, and 25 percent of respondents said they “don’t know” how they will pay the bills during retirement.

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Source: The Federal Reserve

Pension360 has previously covered how income inequality rears its head when retirement approaches, and this report provided further evidence: 54% of people with incomes under $25,000 reported having zero retirement savings and no pension. Meanwhile, only 90% of those earning $100,000 or more had either retirement savings or a pension, or both.

As 24/7 Wall St. points out, these trends could have a broader affect on the economy. What’s certain, however, is that retirement is no longer a certainty for many people:

This is no simple report to ignore, and this can affect the future of many things in America. It can affect Social Security, it can affect the financial markets via contributions and withdrawals of retirement funds, and it can affect the future workforce demographics in that older workers may simply not be removing themselves from the workforce, making it impossible for younger workers to graduate or move up.

Another retirement scare is a tale you have heard, but this quantifies it. The Fed showed that although the long-term shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution (from pension to 401(K) and IRA) plans places significant responsibilities on individuals to plan for their own retirement, only about one-fourth appear to be actively doing so.

The researched that conducted the survey noted that the lack of retirement savings is due partially to poor planning. But many of those surveyed said they “simply have few or no financial resources available for retirement”.

Photo by RambergMediaImages via Flickr CC License