Pension News: You’re on Your Own For Retirement

By Todd TresidderAdvertising Disclosure

Nobody Wants Responsibility For Your Retirement So They’re Passing The Buck To You. Do You Know How To Benefit?

Key Ideas

  1. The reason retirement planning changed from socialized to personalized.
  2. How underfunded pensions might impact you.
  3. 3 simple steps for securing your retirement.

Eliminating poverty and providing security for the elderly used to be part of the American Dream.

It began with Social Security and gathered momentum after World War II with corporate pension plans.

The implied promise was that decades of service bought you a financial safety net during retirement.

But not anymore…

The paternalistic days of employers and government providing a guaranteed retirement income for life are coming to an end.

Social Security and defined benefit retirement plans are quickly becoming relics of the past as they’re replaced with individual savings accounts and defined contribution plans.

Retirement planning for the masses has proved to be a hot-potato too big to handle. The government and many employers mismanaged the responsibility, so now they want to pass the problem off to you. Their mistake is now your responsibility.

Are you ready? Do you know what to do? Do you understand the implications?

More than ever a huge premium has been placed on your developing the necessary skills and knowledge to invest and build wealth reliably and securely.

As one coaching client told me, “It’s time to get religion about this situation” and own responsibility for your retirement security.

Nobody else is going to do it for you. You’re solely responsible.

Pension News You're On Your Own for Retirement image

Why Retirement Planning Is Now Your Problem

Let’s begin with some facts to bring perspective to this issue before we explain how this turn of events occurred:

(Editors note: Some studies and data in this article may be dated, but none of the principles are. All trends cited are current and fully in force.)

  • Traditional defined benefit pension plans, which provide a fixed income for life based on ending salary and years of service, peaked in 1985 with 112,000 plans covering roughly 40% of American workers.
  • According to the US Department of Labor, as of 2015, the number of defined benefit pension plans was 45,672, versus 648,252 for defined contribution plans.
  • In the brief 4 year period from 2001 to 2004, nearly 20% of the Fortune 1000 froze or closed down their defined benefit retirement plans. That trend continues today.

“This is a watershed event. There has been a steady decline in traditional pensions for two decades, but the trend is really accelerating, and it’s going to accelerate even more.”– Jack Van der Hei

  • The reason corporations are cutting pension and health benefits is to reduces costs, reduce risks, and control underfunded liabilities. The total amount that pension plans are underfunded has steadily risen since 2000 to exceed $450 billion in 2005 (that number is far worse today).
  • At the same time, pension underfunded liabilities have escalated, the governmental agency that guarantees pension benefits has grown a deficit in excess of $76.4 billion as more corporations turn to government bailouts as a solution for their pension funding problems (again, a worsening problem).
  • While on the subject of government, the Social Security system is unfunded and based on flawed actuarial assumptions. As the baby boomer generation grays and people live longer, it’s already reducing benefits by increasing the minimum age requirement. You should reasonably expect additional benefit reductions and means testing as the system fights off financial insolvency.
  • Over the same time period that defined benefit retirement plans and Social Security have been declining, defined contribution and individual retirement plans have been booming. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the total number of participants in defined contribution plans was 64 million in 2005, and according to the Department of Labor, it has since grown to 88 million in 2013. The buck has been passed…
  • According to Ibbotson, defined contribution retirement plans and IRAs had grown to make up nearly half of the $14.5 trillion in total retirement assets by 2005. Considering these plans hardly existed a generation earlier, that represents a colossal shift that’s only accelerating.

Those are the facts, and they paint a clear picture: the days when corporations and government took care of your retirement planning are ending. They want out of the retirement planning business, so they’re passing the buck to you.

Related: Why you need a wealth plan, not a financial plan.

They’re doing this by getting rid of defined benefit plans and replacing them with defined contribution plans. The trend is clear: you’re now responsible for your retirement security.

Let’s see what that means to you…All the trends point to being on your own for retirement security. Are you prepared?Click To Tweet

Defined Benefit Retirement Plans Vs. Defined Contribution Plans – Why You Should Care…

It’s important to understand that changing from defined benefit to defined contribution plans is more than just words or semantics: it’s a fundamental shift in how retirement planning is done.

It’s a totally different ballgame. You must fully understand these differences so that you can profit from this changing environment.

The most obvious difference is evidenced by their names: defined benefit plans specify the monthly payment you’ll receive (the benefit). Defined contribution plans specify the amount of contribution you must make to your retirement account.

One is based on a fixed benefit, and the other is based on a fixed contribution.

But what does that mean and what do you do with it? Below are some explanations of the implications:

  • Defined benefit plans “guarantee” a certain monthly benefit for the rest of your life based on final average pay and years of service. Defined contribution plans have no guarantee; the amount you can withdraw each month during retirement may be higher or lower than a defined benefit plan depending on how much you saved, how much your assets earned, how long you expect to live, and how much risk you can live with.
  • Defined benefit plans protect participants from market risk by shifting that risk to the employer. The stock market crashing or interest rates going to the moon is the employer’s problem – not the employee’s – because the employee gets the same benefit regardless. Defined contribution plans place all the market risk squarely on the shoulders of the plan participant: you. If the market tanks and takes your account with it, then you lose. Nobody is going to pick up the pieces for you.
  • Defined benefit plans offer some protection from inflation until retirement day by calculating benefits based on final average pay. What happens to inflation after you retire is your problem because your benefit’s fixed unless your plan includes cost of living adjustments. Defined contribution plans offer no protection from inflation which can significantly erode the purchasing power of the account assets. The only way you can protect yourself is to invest competently so that your assets grow fast enough to offset the effects of inflation.
  • Defined benefit plans require no personal contribution from the plan participant, nor do they require any investment skill or financial experience. Your employer takes care of everything, and you’re a passive participant. With defined contribution plans, you’re responsible for making contributions (with some employer matching) and you’re responsible for all financial and investment decisions. You’re an active participant, and you’ll succeed or fail based on your actions.
  • If investment mistakes or funding shortfalls occur in a defined benefit plan, it’s your employer’s problem to solve; they’re responsible. If investment mistakes or funding shortfalls occur in a defined contribution retirement plan, it’s your problem to solve; you’re responsible.
  • Defined benefit plans penalize workers who change jobs regularly by requiring vesting. Defined contribution plans are completely portable and can travel with an employee from job to job. There are no vesting requirements.
  • Defined benefit plans are little more than a promise that can be broken under certain circumstances, and often is. No personal ownership of a specific asset or account occurs in a defined benefit plan because the plan assets remain the property of the company. Defined contribution plans are owned directly by the employee and placed in the employee’s name. You own it.
  • Because defined contribution retirement plans are your property, they can be passed on to your heirs. Defined benefit plans die when you and your spouse cease to exist. They aren’t your property – they’re just promises from your employer.

The key driver underlying this change is shifting ownership and responsibility.

The old plans were just promises and weren’t owned by you. They were the property and responsibility of your employer.

You were a passive participant so you didn’t have to know anything or do anything. As long as you were covered by the plan, everything was taken care of.

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”– Sir Winston Churchill

With a defined contribution plan, everything is up to you. You’re the owner of the plan and you’re responsible. You must participate and decide how much to contribute, where to invest, and how much to withdraw every month after you retire. Nobody is going to do it for you.

All the market risks, inflation risks, actuarial risks, and management risks have been transferred onto your shoulders. You’re solely responsible and your retirement security hinges on your ability to make the right decisions.With defined contribution plans, you must be an active participant. Your decisions directly effect your retirement securityClick To Tweet

In other words, the responsibility for retirement planning has been shifted from the company to the employee. This change was sold to the masses under the typical American bravado of independence, freedom, and self-actualization.

In reality, it was a deliberate effort on the part of corporations to transfer the risk and expense for funding retirement off their balance sheet and onto the back of the employee.

Let’s look deeper into what drove this change and how you can profit from it.See My Related Book…AmazonKoboB&NiBooks

What Caused Pension Reform?

There are two primary reasons corporate America has jettisoned the defined benefit retirement plan in favor of defined contribution plans: to lower risk and increase profit.

Funding retirement has become increasingly expensive because people are living longer. The average lifespan in 1950 was 69. Today, at least one partner in a couple retiring has even odds of living to over 90.

With rapid advances in biotechnology, the true life expectancy for people retiring today is anybody’s guess because it’s an expanding, moving target growing at an average of 110 days per year for the last century.

“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”– Martin Luther King Jr.

Longer lifespans place a tremendous burden on retirement planning. The cost of funding retirement for someone expected to die at 69 is nothing compared to funding retirement for someone expected to live 30 or more years in retirement. (Get the complete story on how much money you need to retire here.)

It means adding a zero to the savings required by raising it from six figures to seven figures. The ratio of years worked to years in retirement went from 12:1 just a few generations ago to less than 2:1 today. That means every year worked has a higher and higher savings burden placed on it to fund retirement.

The result of ever-expanding life spans is ever-expanding unfunded liabilities on the corporation’s balance sheet from their pension plans. More assets are required to fund longer lifetimes and increasing health care costs. Funding company pension plans got too expensive.

It doesn’t take a genius accountant to figure out that’s a bad thing, and that’s why corporations are getting rid of the responsibility. They want to control costs.Corporations are getting rid of pension plans because they want to control costsClick To Tweet

According to the Department of Labor, companies paid 89% of retirement contributions in 1974 and by 2000, workers were paying 51% and companies were paying only 49%. This represents a 40% cost shifting from boss to worker.

In addition to this cost shifting, additional savings result because fewer total dollars are contributed with direct contribution plans. The overall effect according to Brooks Hamilton in a 2006 PBS interview is companies have effectively reduced retirement contributions from 6-8% of payroll down to 1-2%.

The change to defined contribution plans is saving companies big money. That’s why they’re doing it.

The other main factor causing the change is all the risk associated with managing a pension plan. Despite extensive education and training, many retirement plan officials chose investments that radically under-performed expectations, exacerbating unfunded liabilities.

In other words, they screwed up.

With defined benefit pension plans, the responsibility to make up that shortfall rests squarely on the company’s and government’s shoulders, and they don’t like it one bit. That’s why they teamed up to give the problem back to you.

And if that risk wasn’t enough, there’s always the risk of an unsavory character attracted to the large pool of retirement assets under the corporate umbrella.

Corporate raiders buy companies and strip the money from the retirement plan (remember, it’s the property of the company – not the employees), leaving the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and employees holding the bag.

“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”– Ambrose Beirce

Lawyers use legal shenanigans to bankrupt companies, thus erasing pension and health benefit obligations – again, leaving retirees out in the cold.

When a large pile of money is at stake, there’s no shortage of clever and unethical wayspeople devise to effectively steal those assets from the people who earned them and are relying on them for retirement. Breaking promises to retirees is an ugly, but profitable, business.

In short, American companies have learned a valuable lesson: funding and investing a massive pool of assets to pay retirement benefits to employees who are living longer is both expensive and risky.

It’s little more than a massive liability they no longer want. Like the kids game “hot potato”, they don’t want the retirement planning hot potato anymore, so they’re passing it to you.

Unfortunately, most employees don’t understand or appreciate the value of the pension and health benefits they’re losing. This allows companies to lower risk and pocket huge cost savings with little backlash from employees.

The actuarial and cost shifting issues are too complicated, and the negative implications are too far off in the future for most employees to protest about.

With the door wide open, corporations are passing the “hot potato” to you. They’re freezing and closing down defined benefit pension plans and replacing them with defined contribution plans like 401(k)s.

They shift the liability for retirement planning from their shoulders to yours.

This trend is amply proven out by the statistics cited earlier. It’s already reality and gaining momentum as you read these words.Defined benefit plans are liabilities no company wants to deal with. This shifts the cost of retirement onto youClick To Tweet

Social Security Income Isn’t Secure, Either

You may want to believe Uncle Sam will rescue your retirement income needs from all those unfair corporations by offering government guaranteed Social Security benefits, but you would be deluding yourself with fantasy.

Social Security is similar to a defined benefit plan, so it suffers from the same problems as corporate America’s version. However, it’s worse in other ways because it’s unfunded with no real assets and based on flawed actuarial assumptions.

“We’ve gotten to the point where everybody’s got a right and nobody’s got a responsibility.”– Newton Minow

The only reason Social Security exists at all is because of the taxing authority of the United States government to force current workers to pay retired workers their benefits. However, there’s a dwindling percentage of the population working and paying into the system, and a growing percentage of the population in retirement drawing benefits from the system.

The years worked to years retired equation has changed over the last few generations from 12:1 to 2:1, so you have fewer and fewer workers paying for more and more retirees. It’s a bad situation that’s getting worse.

Related: Why you need a wealth plan, not an investment plan.

As it stands, most studies show that someone living an average lifespan can expect a return on their Social Security investment ranging between 1-3% a year. That’s pathetic. Treasury bills, money market funds, and passbook savings accounts would have paid you better.

Worse yet, if you die before you can collect benefits, you get nothing. Nor do you have an account value that you can pass to your heirs, because there are no assets and you own nothing – it’s just another promise to pay.

That promise continues to get weaker and weaker because as the baby boomers retire and live longer, the proportion of working Americans paying into the system versus those drawing on the system will force a reduction in benefits.

That means the pathetic return on “investment” for Social Security is only going to get worse.Social Security is in trouble. It has no real assets and is based on flawed actuarial assumptionsClick To Tweet

The politically expedient solution to date has been to restrict benefits by raising the age limit for qualification. This measure effectively lowers the total lifetime benefit; however, many more remedies will be needed to stop the red ink.

It’s reasonable for you to assume additional qualification restrictions and means testing as the baby boomer generation grays and retires. Reducing actual pay rates or raising tax rates have both proven politically difficult to implement.

With that said, don’t expect the Social Security system to vanish as many doomsayers claim. It’s more likely to wither away and become less relevant to your retirement planning. If you were born before 1960, it’s reasonable to factor some diminished form of expected Social Security benefits into your retirement income planning with confidence.

Those born after 1960 should be more cautious because the government will be in a very difficult position by the time you want to collect a benefit check.

Again, the end result is you’re solely responsible for planning your retirement income needs. Nobody else is going to take care of it for you.

The Only Pension Plan That Remains Secure

The world of pension reform isn’t gloomy for all segments of the economy. If you’re a public employee working in state or local government, then you can plan for your golden years with a higher degree of confidence. At least for now.

The relative security of public employee pension plans is a confusing fact to consider at first glance given a study by Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco estimating the unfunded liabilities for public employee pension plans at an astronomical $700 billion.

This is all the more amazing when you realize this unfunded liability exceeds their entire annual revenue stream. A separate study by Wilshire Associates found 54 out of 64 state pension funds were under-funded to the tune of $175 billion.

In short, public sector pension plan assets are every bit as mismanaged and underfunded as in the private sector. They’re faced with the exact same problems the private sector faces, but there’s a key difference.

The public sector has the commitment, taxing authority, and legal support to pay the bill. The private sector doesn’t.

What do I mean by this? When judges and legislators make rulings in cases regarding promised pension and health benefits for public employees, it should come as no surprise they tend to rule in favor of the plan participants. After all, they’re one of them.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”– James Madison

History has shown they don’t tend to rule against their own self-interests on these matters. However, that hasn’t been the case for legislation affecting private pension plans.

So while public pensions face many of the same problems that the private sector faces, they have one ace in the hole. Those who determine the future of the plan are part of the plan, and that makes all the difference (so far).