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America’s retirement crisis

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Friday, June 22, 2012
Posted: 5 pm ET

Last week, I had the good fortune to attend a Retirement Issues program hosted by the National Press Foundation in Washington D.C. Along with a contingent of fellow journalists, I listened to the thoughts of influential policymakers, financial planners, retirement industry execs and the senior adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury about the state of America's retirement.

A recurring message imparted by the speakers over the course of four days: America is in a retirement crisis. It was enough to set us reporters and editors on edge about our own prospects for a successful retirement. (But I couldn't help notice that most of the male speakers were well into their 60s, and one was either a septuagenarian or an octogenarian. Evidently, retirement experts themselves are in no hurry to retire.)

The first speaker, Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security, began by citing a frightening statistic: 6 out of 10 households within 10 years of retirement have saved the equivalent of one times their salary or less. She is a proponent of traditional pension plans and spoke about the progress that states have made over the past two years to shore up their underfunded pensions. In 2010 and 2011, 41 states have made changes: 26 restructured employee contributions, 24 raised the retirement age and service requirements (in other words, cut benefits), and 18 reduced cost of living adjustments, she said.

So I had to find out her reaction to the Pew report released earlier this week, which my colleague Jennie Phipps blogged about. The report found a $1.38 trillion gap in fiscal year 2010 between states' assets and their obligations for retirement benefits in the public sector. The report cited "serious concerns" about pensions in 32 states, while 7 states were found to "need improvement," and only 11 were "solid performers."

Oakley said the Pew report fails to take into account the recent changes made by the states. "When the Pew report makes a pension-funding diagnosis using just your pulse and blood pressure from two years ago, it would be wise to get a more up-to-date opinion," she says.

For instance, both the Utah and Idaho state pension plans were downgraded from star performers to the "needs improvement" category, she notes. Utah has "made drastic changes" in its plan's benefit structure, yet was still downgraded in the report. Idaho's downgrade is particularly irksome to Oakley because its long-term funding practices have been exemplary. "Idaho is one state that has not made plan changes because they have been doing the right things year in and year out for the decade we looked at their plan."

Oakley's stance on pensions has not wavered since last week, when she said states will continue to take steps toward long-term sustainability of their plans and that these plans will continue to recover.

"Fine tuning may still be needed, but we are making progress that is not reflected -- and Pew acknowledges this -- in the results of the Pew study," she says.

Meanwhile, many of us who don't have pensions are in worse shape. "Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank released its wealth and income data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, and this highlighted to me the broad underfunding of retirement security in America that is not covered in the Pew report," says Oakley. "The median 401(k) account balance was down to only $44,000 and was less than one times the median income level. That account value is nowhere near what is needed to pay bills throughout retirement and remain self-sufficient."

What would be better for your retirement planning -- a regular pension paycheck or a retirement account you can manage for yourself?


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1 Comment
June 26, 2012 at 11:18 am

"What would be better for your retirement planning -- a regular pension paycheck or a retirement account you can manage for yourself?"

As mathematically counterintuitive as this statement is: a retirement account I manage would be better. If I own it, it can't be gacked by someone else who failed to plan... except through taxes, that is, and we can't control for that. Look at how many "safe" pensions are going under, one after another - or are severely at risk of it - because they are underfunded.

I greatly prefer market risk that I take myself to bankruptcy risk that someone else is taking. If I decide I want a steady income stream I can always purchase an annuity with my retirement money... although that means I'm depending on the insurance company to remain healthy and solvent at that point.