Data ‘Minding’

Just when you thought retirement plan projections couldn’t get any worse…

Last week the National Institute on Retirement Security released a report – “Retirement in America | Out of Reach for Most Americans?” that claimed that the median retirement account balance among all working individuals is… $0.00. Moreover, that same report claims that “57 percent (more than 100 million) of working age individuals do not own any retirement account assets in an employer-sponsored 401(k)-type plan, individual account or pension.”

It’s not the first time the NIRS has produced reports finding significant problems with the nation’s private retirement system. Indeed, this report “builds on previous NIRS research published in 2015,” though the conclusions presented here seem unusually stark.

Then, as now, the NIRS conclusions rely heavily on self-reported numbers from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The report’s authors acknowledge that the latter “oversamples” lower-income household which, as the report notes, are less likely to be covered by, or to participate in, an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

‘Self’ Sufficient?

The issues with self-reporting have been well-documented – so much so that even the report’s authors acknowledge (albeit in a footnote) that it “…can be problematic for the reporting of account balances and participation in particular types of retirement plans, such as DB pension plans.” In fact, previous research by Irena Dushi, Howard M. Iams and Jules Lichtenstein using SIPP data matched to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) W-2 records found that the DC pension participation rate was about 11 percentage points higher when using W-2 tax records compared with respondent survey reports, “suggesting that respondents either do not understand the survey questions about participation or they do not recall making a decision to participate in a DC plan.” Those authors also found inconsistencies between the survey report and the W-2 record regarding contribution amounts to DC plans. In fact, those researchers found that about 14% of workers who self-reported nonparticipation in a defined contribution (DC) plan had, in fact, contributed (per W-2 records), while 9% of workers self-reported participation in a DC plan when W-2 records indicated no contributions.

Supplementing SIPP survey reports with actual information on tax-deferred contributions in W-2 records, the researchers found that the percentage of employees who were offered a retirement plan increased from 72% in 2006 to 75% in 2012, whereas the participation rate in any retirement plan among all private-sector workers increased from 58% to 61% over this period (a difference that may seem small, but is statistically significant at the 5% level).

Participation, Rated

Compounding the issues, for participation data, the NIRS draws on the Current Population Survey (CPS), even though the report’s own footnotes acknowledge that “the 2014 redesign of CPS produced much lower participation rates for working Americans in years after 2014 (participation in 2014 was at 40.1% but at 31.7% in 2017), which has not been fully explained.” They aren’t the only ones to take note of this aberration (see CPS Needs a New GPS and Commonly Cited Participation Gauge Misses the Mark, Study Says), but decide, for reasons not fully explained, to rely on the data there anyway. Indeed, a June 2018 report on the impact of the changes in the CPS by the nonpartisan Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) cautions that “the estimates from the most recent surveys could easily be misconstrued as erosions in coverage, as opposed to an issue with the design of the survey.”

Moreover, when it comes to assessing retirement readiness, the NIRS analysis extrapolates target retirement savings needs based on a set of age-based income multipliers – income multipliers, it should be noted, that have no apparent connection with actual income, or with actual spending needs in retirement, although this year the report’s authors acknowledge that those are “rule-of-thumb multipliers and are not based on detailed projections of the income needs of individuals,” all of which, in the authors’ words means that their “analysis in aggregate terms, is broadly suggestive rather than definitive.”

Median, Well…

However, much of the data – and key elements, such as wealth, income, participation and retirement savings – that underlie the conclusions is “self-reported” which, as noted above, even the report’s authors acknowledge “…can be problematic…”. It is perhaps a necessary “evil” when seeking to draw broad-based conclusions from limited samplings, but – particularly when sweeping generalizations are posited based on the medians of such samplings, when labels like “typical” are affixed and assumed without explanation – well, let’s just say that caution in applying the conclusions seems well-advised.

Not that the report is completely off the mark; it points out that those with access to retirement plans are significantly better off than those who lack that access, but also that retirement plan coverage has languished at about the 40% level in the private sector for some time now. Clearly solutions that help work to close this coverage gap, and provide more workers with an easier opportunity to save (let’s face it, nothing stops folks from walking down to their local financial services institution and opening an IRA, but the data suggests that those with access to a plan at work are 12 times more likely to do so) are needed.

Ultimately, the recommendations put forth by the NIRS report authors – to strengthen social security, expand access to workplace retirement plans, and expand the saver’s credit – should serve to narrow the gaps in retirement plan access and adequacy.

Even if the data that outlines the situation – and purports to justify those actions – leaves something to be desired.

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