Friday, October 1, 2010

Playing Worry: Approaching Retirement with Dread

Baby Boomers and those that follow you age-wise through the workforce all seem to very concerned about a single thing. You can't escape it.  You are having your choices about retirement and your plan diced and splayed and discussed in any number of forums.  None of the outcomes from these conversations are suggesting what you want to hear. So here's a flash: you're worried.

Insured Retirement Institute President and CEO Cathy Weatherford recently wrote "Unfortunately, as the promise of Social Security continues to be on unsure footing, working Americans are coming to realize that they will need more than just that paycheck to sustain them throughout their retirement." Even when the Employee Benefits Research Institute released its most recent report, concerns about retirement were, as they could only be expected to be, were the top concern.
And with that comes the numbers.  Now I tend to agree with Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell and the author of "The Calculus of Friendship when he suggests that although we are easily duped by words, numbers "brook no argument," he writes suggesting that they "are the best kind of facts."  he describes them as cold, hard, and objective. So when the EBRI reports that 69% of those recently surveyed believed that retirement accounts were extremely important, most of us agreed. Three out five the EBRI concludes from their question don't believe in Social Security and almost two-thirds say they lack confidence in the program enough to begin saving more.

Now to Ms. Weatherford's defense, she sells annuities.  So when she adds that "Increasingly, they [the working folks] are looking for ways of securing their retirement income through annuities, retirement savings accounts and other insured retirement strategies. Employers can play an important role in helping to connect employees with available benefits that can lead to a financially sound future."  I am left to ask the question: wasn't it the employers who got us to this point?

Although as the report, which was commissioned by Project 2010 suggests that 94% of the employers offer a plan of some sort, the less than surprising number is the actual participation.  With three-quarters of the employees that have access us them, it is the fourth that don't is the more troublesome number. And tucked inside these numbers is the fiduciary fib that these employers have done everything they could do to get their employees involved.

Employers are directly responsible for encouraging their employees to invest for their own futures.  Some incentivize their plans with matching contributions. Matching contributions do not have to be high in order to get their workers to participate in the plan.  In fact, studies have shown that a more modest matching contribution might actually spur the employee to put additional funds into their accounts. In the latest economic downturn, companies dropped or greatly reduced their matching contributions and are slow in returning to them.

The matching contribution does a great deal in getting the employee to do right by their own future.  But more important is the period of time between initially beginning the job and the actual beginning of their participation in the plan.  Some employers hold their matching contributions for a longer (than is necessary or even in some cases, realistic) vesting period giving the employee less incentive to invest if they feel as though they don't expect to remain at the job that long.

Some employers do offer plans that are both robust but well-supported with information and educational materials. But no plan is the be-a;;-to-end-all offering that would create the perfect scenario for everyone: employers, employees or the plan administrators. And also included in the report was the fact that 17% of the plans now offered annuities. Is this just an attempt at getting to that perfect "everything" plan?

This lack of what the investment industry refers to as a holistic approach, or decumulation, has professionals practically drooling in anticipation of of what these products can hold for their industry.  I don't really worry that my opinion about annuities will alter simply because this product has begun to emerge as the next big element in your retirement plan.  An annuity will always be an annuity and because of that, will always have more unanswered questions that concrete evidence that it is a better product as a whole instead of its parts.

Annuities are hybrids, born in the insurance industry as part insurance and part investment.  They are costly and unwieldy, ripe with fees and special ta situations for your heirs, hard to get rid of if you change your mind and don't necessarily do for women the way they provide for men.  That last part about women versus men is an actuarial adjustment for the longer lives women have. No other "investment" makes such a distinction.

Then there are the idea of guarantees. Annuities make certain promises, the largest of which is that they will never go out of business. Never is a really long time. And depending on the potential you might have for living longer than you anticipated, it would be nice to think that a company could never falter, never be affected from some unforetold expectation and never consider closing its doors for good. But it happens. It doesn't happen with your equity mutual funds and some bonds might default in your bond funds, but insurers are not forever. This is risk that is grossly understated.

What makes people so fearful about Social Security is the very thing that makes it work.  Whenever you can pool risk, you eliminate more than you create.  The fixes to Social Security are rather simple and even if you are decades from retirement, the program has the legs to continue on even in the face of the Boome onslaught (a wave that may effectively be not much more than swell in this post-recession economy). Annuities can't do what Social Security does and for good reason: there is no money to made.

In the name of fiduciary responsibility, plan sponsors will be begin to offer this sort of product with questions on cost, viability and suitability all left unanswered.  Even a simple CD could do the same sort of thing an annuity would, come with FDIC insurance and promise to never lose a penny.  A well paid CD tucked inside a retirement portfolio but outside the tax-deferred plan would help ease those fears just as well.

But the biggest fear is that when they do become available in your 401(k), they won't be one annuity, but a succession of small, mini-products, each with differing contracts. So far, no retirement plan has been able to answer the question of liquidity and security. Until those can be answered with any certainty the annuity will languish as an option, even with government support.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer

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