Friday, September 25, 2015

Some Retirement Savings Numbers of Note

If ever there was an enterprise inextricably tied to numbers and statistics, it is our retirement industry.  Numbers are the bedrock of retirement plan operations and recordkeeping.  We continually analyze rates of worker access to retirement savings options.  We compare the U.S. savings rate with our counterparts around the world (sometimes unfavorably, at least by recent history).  We try to quantify such subjective things as worker confidence in a secure retirement.  Some federal agency number crunchers even think they can calculate how much retirement savers lose as a result of investment advisor conflicts of interest.  Stats and numbers: they are part and parcel of our business.

I recently came across a thought-provoking study compiled by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, entitled Retirement Readiness Survey 2015.  The Center is a division of Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation funded by Transamerica Life Insurance Company and other third party funders.  This 15th annual survey is one of the longest-running of its kind, and polls American workers and their employers to explore attitudes and behaviors on retirement benefits and security.  Many of its queries were measured by level of interviewee education, which – like it or not – is often a predictor of both income and financial literacy.

One of the questions commonly asked in such studies concerns having a retirement strategy, generally meaning whether an effort has been made to calculate how much will be needed in order to have a reasonably comfortable retirement.  There are lots of variables affecting retirement security that can’t be fully known.  They include the ups and downs of securities markets, the general state of our U.S. economy, inflation rates, our health, or the age when we choose or are forced to leave the workforce.  But, in order to set savings goals, it’s imperative to have some idea of what the target is.

The Transamerica study may be overly generous in measuring the share of the U.S. population that has a retirement strategy.  It counts both written and unwritten strategies.   An “unwritten” strategy seems almost a contradiction in terms, and I’m inclined to discount its value in any serious effort to measure Americans’ self-assessment of their retirement preparedness. 

Only a small minority have made an attempt to create a tangible, written retirement plan.  Among those who have, a notable predictor is the education level of the survey subject.  Generally speaking, the higher the level of educational attainment, the more likely that the individual has made a serious attempt to develop a savings strategy.    

This may be the result of several factors that often intertwine.   Higher education levels commonly translate to higher lifetime earnings.  Higher earnings may not only lead to more disposable income that can be saved, but may also mean being employed where there is a retirement plan in place.  Access to a retirement plan generally brings with it at least basic information on investing, as well as encouragement to save through that employer’s plan.  Such individuals are the most likely to think about their future retirement security, and take action.

Among workers with a high school education, or less, only seven (7) percent had a written retirement strategy or plan.  In sharp contrast, 24 percent of those with post-graduate college attendance or a post-graduate degree had a written plan.  College graduates with a basic bachelor’s degree were found to have a written plan in 18 percent of interviews.  Among those with trade school or non-degreed college attendance, 13 percent could point to a written plan they had created.  Assuming similar numbers of interviewees in the four groups, an average of just 15 percent had a written plan or strategy.

There are other statistics in the Transamerica study that are worth sharing.  The use of a professional financial advisor to help with investment decisions and planning for future retirement security also showed a great disparity when measured against the education of the interviewee.  Forty seven percent of those with advanced degrees or graduate school exposure had used a financial advisor, while 25 percent of those whose education was limited to high school level did so.  In between were college graduates at 49 percent and “trade school/some college” interviewees at 33 percent. 

Asset allocation on the spectrum from conservative to aggressive also varied markedly by education.  Seventy-nine percent of those with a post-graduate degree were invested either in stocks or in a balanced mix of stocks, bonds and other investments.  Only 49 percent of those with high school level education were invested this aggressively.  College grads and trade school/some college folks were positioned in between; the higher the education level, the more aggressive the investing.  Rather alarming, Transamerica interviewers found that 35 percent of those with high school level education were unsure of what they were invested in.  One need look no farther than this to support the contention that Investment education is critically important, apparently more so for those with less formal education.
Participation rates for those who are actually offered such an opportunity varied similarly across educational lines.  Eighty-seven (87) percent of those with graduate school exposure – and those with bachelor’s degrees as well – participated when they were given the opportunity, while only 67 percent of those educated through high school or less education took advantage of the opportunity.  Those with trade school or less-than-degreed college exposure accepted a participation offer 79 percent of the time.

It should not be a great surprise that contribution rates of those more highly educated would be greater, given the generally reliable likelihood that higher education leads to higher lifetime income.  Obviously there are exceptions, but they mostly prove the rule.  The average plan participant with a post-graduate degree – and those with a bachelor’s degree, as well – contributed 10 percent of income to retirement saving.  Both those high school-level-educated and having trade school or non-degreed college exposure contributed six percent of income, on average. 

There are many other statistics of interest in Transamerica’s Retirement Readiness Survey 2015; these are among those that stand out.  Certainly there are facts and circumstances that make saving more difficult for some workers than for others.  Balancing basic financial needs against income is an obvious one; these needs differ at different stages of life.  But basic investment education and savings habit formation, with access to some kind of formal retirement savings, can have a positive impact on saving outcomes, even if the first steps are small ones.  For that reason it is critical that we preserve and expand access to retirement savings options, as well as to meaningful investment education and advice.