Opinion

The Great Debate

Should the U.S. force citizens to save?

Americans aren’t saving enough to retire. This gap poses a problem for everyone, not just people who will face near-poverty when they can’t work anymore. Does that merit forcing people to save more?

Retirement in America is supposed to be financed by three sources: Social Security, employer pensions, and additional saving. Social Security in America makes up the foundation and serves two roles: it’s a forced saving plan by making everyone contribute 12.4 percent (the employer and employee contribution) of their income (up to the first $113,700 they earn) in exchange for the promise of income in retirement. It’s also social insurance because the lower your income, the larger your benefit will be relative to what you paid in. But for most people, it is not intended to finance all of retirement.

The problem is the other two sources are falling short. Employer pensions, for those who had them in the private sector, have been replaced by private accounts like a 401(k) plan. With these accounts, the individual is left to save enough and bear investment risk. Alas, most people don’t contribute enough. That’s apparent with baby boomers, the first generation to have these accounts for decades, who are nearing retirement with meager savings. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances collected by the Federal Reserve Board, the median value of financial assets (non-housing saving) of working Americans between age 55 to 65 was just $67,000 in 2010. That means many people will retire almost entirely dependent on Social Security and take a big cut in their living standard.

A big drop in consumption is not only a problem for the individual. Collectively it creates a drop in demand, which can devastate economic growth. Plus without any wealth, more retirees will qualify for Medicaid, in addition to Medicare, to finance end-of-life care. Projections of elder healthcare costs assume seniors will for pay the expenses Medicare doesn’t cover, especially long-term care. But if people run out of money, the burden falls on the state.

Does that justify forcing people to save more? Some, like economist Teresa Ghilarducci and Senator Elizabeth Warren reckon so. It is not a new idea. Countries like Australia and Chile already force their citizens to contribute to retirement accounts. I’ve written before how they, and other countries, finance retirement. We know from their experience that forced saving changes the government’s role in our lives and, potentially, its relationship with financial markets.

Aging Americans have a new companion: higher debt

I like to joke about the fact that I have a ten-year-old boy at the age when my mother was not only an empty nester, but also an empty nester with a son-in-law. (That would be my husband.)

What I don’t like to contemplate as much? That I will almost certainly have just finished paying for the college education of the same adorable ten-year-old when the law permits me to claim a monthly Social Security check.

In a society infatuated with youth, the message is that you are only as old as you feel.

The real reasons America’s pensions are hurting

State and local pension plans are underfunded, in many cases dramatically. Enough so that, in the next decade, many states will have to cut benefits or services, raise taxes, or receive some form of a bailout. Matt Taibbi’s latest in Rolling Stone blames the situation on a convenient villain — Wall Street. But it’s far more complicated than that. State and local plans are underfunded because of terrible accounting standards, local governments who underfunded their plans, and plan trustees who gave away sweeteners that robbed plans of their assets. That is the inherent problem with traditional pensions, or any type of compensation that is back-loaded (payments pledged for the future). It’s too easy to over-promise today and not set enough money aside, but either retirees or taxpayers eventually have to pay up. It’s tempting to blame Wall Street, but that does not solve the problem. It enables public employees to lobby against their own long-term interests.

Traditional pensions, called Defined Benefit (DB) plans, are supposed to protect workers. Workers are promised that a fraction of their highest salary will be paid to them upon retirement and for the remainder of their lives. Around their peak of popularity, in 1980, about 38 percent of private sector workers had a DB pension, but today fewer than 15 percent do. Nearly all public sector employees still have a DB pension.

By contrast, most people in the private sector finance their retirement with an account they manage themselves. They decide how much to contribute and bear the investment losses. If their account is up when they retire, they get a richer retirement. If it is down, they get a poorer one. The advantage of DB plans is that they spread investment risk across different cohorts. High-return cohorts subsidize the low-return ones. Everyone is protected from a poorer retirement by giving up the upside. If you adequately fund the plans it can be an efficient form of risk sharing.

The biggest unanswered question about retiring in America

America has moved to a system where nearly everyone is expected to save and invest for their retirement. Yet remarkably little attention has been paid to the big question: what should people do with their money when they actually retire? Neither the government nor the financial industry has any good answers. This leaves individuals ill-equipped to figure it out for themselves. Before the bulk of baby boomers reach retirement they will need a better solution. That will require the government and the financial industry to define their role in how people finance their retirement.

Starting in the 1980s many countries (America, Chile and later Australia, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore and other Latin American and Nordic countries) moved to a regime where individuals had to save and invest to finance their retirement. Prior to this, pensions from the government or employers provided stable, predictable, and often inflation-adjusted income. As the typical retirement lengthened and populations aged, the old way looked unsustainable. Personal accounts, which shift the burden to individuals, became more popular. The individual account solution has well-known problems associated with the saving stage: people don’t save enough, pay too much for investment funds, and do not understand investment risk they are exposed to, as the recent economic crisis revealed. As these programs evolved, so have solutions and better regulation. Countries like Australia, Switzerland and Chile require people to save a large fraction of their income. Sensible and reasonably priced default investment options and savings rates help people make better decisions. Some countries, like Switzerland, provide a minimum return on the accounts’ assets. But even with best practices for the saving phase, major questions remain: When people arrive at retirement, what are they supposed to do with their life savings? How much can they spend each year and how should they invest their assets?

Those questions don’t have easy answers. If you over-spend you might run out of money. If you spend too little you needlessly scrimp. The cost of investment risk is bigger post-retirement because you don’t have years of future returns and income ahead of you. It’s further complicated by uncertainty. Most people don’t know how long they and their spouse will live. Aging diminishes ability to manage money and increases vulnerability to fraud. Research by economists James Poterba, Steven Venti and David Wise found many American retirees barely spend their wealth beyond what’s required. But they liquidate their assets, often selling their home, once they or their spouse has a significant health event and dies. Many people die with almost no assets left over.

The real student loan crisis

A month has passed since Congress allowed interest rates on federal student loans to double for some borrowers, increasing the cost of their college educations by as much as $4,500. While the debate continues to focus on the interest rate for future borrowers, it is ignoring the larger problem with student debt: the more than $1 trillion that had already been borrowed before the interest rate debate. This existing debt will continue to drag down borrowers’ financial security, which in turn drags down the entire economy. By how much? Demos, the public policy group where I work, has just released a study that estimates the economic impact of the existing student debt burden, and finds that it may cost the country more than $4 trillion in lost economic activity.

This economic drag happens because student loan payments take a significant bite out of many borrowers’ incomes, causing them to delay or forego important purchases or investments. A recent study by the American Institute of CPAs found that 75 percent of student debtors had made personal or financial sacrifices because of their student loan payments. Forty-one percent have postponed contributions to retirement plans, 40 percent have delayed car purchases, and 29 percent have put off buying a house. The effects of delaying making these crucial investments early in borrowers’ lives, in turn, are magnified because of the amount that the lost home equity and investment returns would have compounded over their entire working lifetimes.

Our study tries to estimate just how much delaying saving for retirement or purchasing a home will cost borrowers over their lifetimes. We use data from the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) to determine the average salary, retirement savings, and liquid savings of an average, young, dual-headed, college-educated household both with and without education debt. We then project their salary and assets over a lifetime using generally-accepted values for salary growth, savings rates, investment returns, etc. We reduce the savings of the indebted household by their monthly student loan payment while they are repaying their loan, and observe the difference in net worth between the debt-free and indebted households as they approach retirement.

Social Security as solution, not problem

Social Security is not the problem – it is the solution.

Washington is filled with talk of a looming “retirement crisis.” The discussion focuses on funding Social Security and usually includes calls to cut benefits – either by changing payout formulas or raising the retirement age.

But the real problem is not the long-term solvency of Social Security. Rather, it is the fact that millions of Americans are facing an insecure and underfunded retirement.

The best way to address this retirement issue would not be to cut Social Security but to expand it, as Michael Lind, Steven Hill, Robert Hiltonsmith and I argue in a new paper released Wednesday. By increasing the public portion of the American retirement system, we can spend the same or less on retirement as a share of the economy while making the system as a whole much more progressive and stable.

from Reuters Money:

Retirement investors suffer as economy catches up to Wall Street

Retirement investors have struggled with a Jekyll and Hyde economy these past two years, where Dr. Jekyll lives very well on Wall Street while Mr. Hyde runs roughshod over a terrified Main Street.

On Main Street, the jobless rate tops 9 percent and 14 million residential mortgages are underwater – a figure Deutsche Bank thinks will hit 25 million, or 48 percent of all home loans, before the housing bust ends.

On Main Street, the economy hasn't respond to ultra-accommodative monetary policy. Near-zero interest rates don't matter because because there's so little demand for credit to hire people or to buy post-bubble real estate.

Public shareholders should wield their power

David H. Webber, courtesy BU Photo Services - David H. Webber is a Boston University School of Law professor. The opinions expressed here are his own -

Like a well-armed, well-trained army standing idly by while the citizens it is supposed to protect get crushed, public pension funds have done little to protect public employees from the well-financed corporate attack on their rights.  It’s time they join the fight.

Public pension funds invest the retirement savings of public workers, with total assets of around $2.7 trillion.  One out of 10 U.S. corporate securities is owned by public pension funds — in other words, owned by public employees.  Skillful use of this shareholder power could swiftly and decisively push back the power of corporate lobbies and help fend off attacks on workers.

from Reuters Money:

Deficit cutting need not be cruel

SPAIN-ECONOMY/Congress needn't be cruel to be kind in cutting the U.S. budget deficit while saving popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

That's not to say that taxes don't need to rise, deductions pared and giveaways to corporations eliminated. That all needs to be considered, although the recent deficit commission report doesn't do the dirty work in an equitable manner. It places far too much emphasis on paring Social Security benefits, a system that works and won't be in deficit mode for several decades.

There's plenty of pain to go around in the deficit commission's proposal. The most compelling trade-off is based on the idea that lowering personal income-tax rates will achieve some long-term economic stimulus. That thinking hasn't worked in the past and won't work now.

from DealZone:

Should Ken Lewis get his payday?

Ken Lewis started at Bank of America 40 years ago, working his way up from junior credit analyst to the CEO suite. His employment contract at the nation's largest banks obviously predates the government's bailout of Bank of America. Yet pay czar Kenneth Feinberg may have a say on whether he cashes in on retirement benefits and accumulated compensation worth $125 million.

Some argue it is simply inappropriate for Feinberg to try to tackle Lewis' retirement package.

"A fair reading of the situation would be he is getting what he is entitled to and game over," said Alan Johnson, a Wall Street compensation consultant.

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