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3 (More) Pervasive Retirement Myths — an Academic Perspective

Last week I highlighted three “myths” about the retirement system that will not die — all the more distressing because they are perpetuated by retirement industry pundits. Here are three more that (mostly) aren’t perpetuated by those who actually work with retirement plans, but by academics.

Academics who, sadly, are often listened to, and cited by those who regulate and legislate these programs. 

The Match Doesn’t Matter

This doubtless comes as a surprise to those of us who work with retirement plans and retirement plan participants. More precisely, there are a few studies out there that suggest that a matching contribution doesn’t have a very strong impact on participation. The study that is cited most often in support of this one is one conducted several years ago in conjunction with H&R Block, where individuals were offered a financial incentive to take their tax refund and deposit it in an IRA. Most didn’t — and thus the notion that the promise of the match doesn’t produce (much) in the way of participation. 

Now, if you find yourself saying, “But that’s not really an analogous situation to 401(k) saving” — well, you wouldn’t be the only one to think so.

But even if it has only a modest impact on the decision to participate, the data clearly suggests that it has a big impact on the rate of savings — and on the savings accumulations itself.

You Can Plug the Leakage Problem by Limiting Loans

Preventing “leakage” has become a constant drumbeat of many in our industry, their passion fueled by estimates of the enormity of the problem that seem limited only by the imaginations of those clamoring to solve it. As recently as a week ago, I was at a conference where a respected researcher went so far as to suggest that we are losing as much as $1 in leakage for every $2 contributed into the system. I kid you not.

Now, the “out” for these wild exaggerations is that nobody knows for sure, and so — if you’re looking for them — you see those estimates footnoted with disclaimers like “author’s calculations.” Or sometimes they come right out and admit that it’s based on a “host of simplifying assumptions.” 

Don’t get me wrong — “leakage” can be a threat to an individual’s retirement security. But when the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) looked into the matter in testimony provided to the ERISA Advisory Council last year, it was cashouts — not loans or hardship withdrawals (even including the impact of a six-month suspension of contributions) — that turned out to be approximately two-thirds of the leakage impact. 

So, if you want to solve the real leakage problem, you might want to start by accurately assessing the size of the problem, rather than just making numbers up. And then you might look for ways to make it easier for folks to keep their savings in the system at job change.

And let’s not forget — locking people’s money up with no access until retirement may solve the leakage problem. But it could also lead to a reduction in the amount of money people save in the first place.

The 401(k)’s Tax Incentives Are ‘Upside Down’

One of the comments you hear from time to time is that the tax incentives for 401(k)s are “upside down” (or as it has been more colorfully described, “out of whack”) — that is, they go primarily to those at higher income levels, who perhaps don’t need the encouragement to save. And from a pure financial economics perspective, those who pay taxes at higher rates might reasonably be seen as receiving a greater benefit from the deferral of those taxes.

Indeed, if those “upside-down incentives” were the only forces at work, one might reasonably expect to find that the higher the individual’s salary, the higher the overall account balance would be, as a multiple of salary. However, drawing on the actual administrative data from the massive EBRI/ICI 401(k) database, and specifically focusing on workers in their 60s (broken down by tenure and salary), EBRI Research Director Jack VanDerhei has found that those ratios hold relatively steady. In fact, those ratios are relatively flat for salaries between $30,000 and $100,000, before dropping substantially for those with salaries in excess of $100,000.  

In other words, while higher-income individuals have higher account balances, those balances are in rough proportion to their incomes. They are not “upside down.” Now this is the outcome — the balances — not just focused on the contributions, the amount(s) going in, which is what most of the criticism focuses on. 

As retirement plan advisors are well aware, these programs are subject to a series of limits and nondiscrimination test requirements: the boundaries established by Code Sections 402(g) and 415(c), combined with the ADP and ACP nondiscrimination tests. Those plan constraints were, of course, specifically designed (and refined) over time to maintain a certain parity between highly compensated and non-highly compensated workers in the benefits available from these programs. The data suggest they are having exactly that impact.

More recently, the “fairness” of these incentives has been questioned since they “only” go to workers who are covered by workplace retirement plans (though, as I pointed out last week, those numbers are often distorted as well). A better solution might be to expand those covered by such plans, rather than to undermine the diligence of those who are saving.

You’re less likely to hear these statements in your earshot — they tend to show up in academic forums, and sometimes in legislative hearings — forums where “decorum” might suggest avoiding confrontation.

But this is not just an academic exercise. And no one is well served — even the often well meaning academics who are trying to help improve the current system — by perpetuating misunderstandings.