Human Capital & Careers

Falling Short

Workers are sleepwalking towards an impoverished old age.
Economist StaffJune 13, 2008

More and more people are speculating on their retirement income, even though they may not know it. According to Watson Wyatt, an actuarial consultancy, the amount of money that is saved in defined-contribution (or money-purchase) schemes worldwide will overtake the amount of money in defined-benefit (or final-salary) schemes by 2014.

For a lot of people, this is going to be a problem. In a defined-contribution (DC) scheme, the eventual pension depends on the investment performance of the fund that the employee has paid into—and he takes the risk of poor investment performance. By contrast, defined-benefit (DB) schemes promise employees a retirement income based on their pay and length of service. The employer takes the risk.

But an even bigger problem is that the level of contributions from both employers and employees into DC schemes is lower than it is into DB schemes. Whatever the arguments about the merits of the new wave of schemes, if you put less money in, you will get less money out. To make the shortfall worse, the costs of running DC schemes are, on average, higher. And finally, DC pensions call for a degree of decision-making that their members are often ill-equipped to undertake. As a recent paper* published by Britain’s Pensions Institute points out: for “financial products extending over long periods of time, many consumers are clearly not well-informed or well-educated. The retirement-savings decision needs accurate forecasts of lifetime earnings, asset returns, interest rates, tax rates, inflation and longevity; yet very few people have the skills to produce such forecasts.”

The result may be that many employees face retirement with an income well short of their expectations. An employee who pays into a DC scheme for 40 years may get only half the retirement income he could have expected under a final-salary system. When pension experts were polled by Watson Wyatt their biggest concern was that DC schemes will yield inadequate pensions for DC members. As the Pensions Institute paper says: “When the plan member eventually discovers how low his pension really is, it is by then too late to do anything about it.”

If pension incomes are too small, employers will face the problem that their older, and usually more expensive, workers are unwilling or unable to retire; firing them may not be an option in places such as Britain, that have laws against age discrimination. Even when employees do retire with a decent pot of money, many countries, including America, Germany and Australia, do not require the pensioner to convert those savings into an annuity. That creates the risk that the pensioner will outlive his savings, prompting him to fall back on the mercy of the state. Indeed, the evidence suggests that employees are not good at estimating how long they are likely to live.

Whatever the flaws of DC schemes, the world—or at least the private sector—is not about to return to DB plans. Companies introduced DB plans after the second world war as a benefit for employees—sometimes as a way of heading off demands for higher wages.

Initially, the costs of this promise were manageable, largely because companies could decide whether to raise the pension of someone in retirement. Steadily, however, the promise of a DB pension became more expensive. For example, British schemes were forced to protect employees against the ravages of inflation. Longer lives also added to the burden.

The bull market of 1982-2000 disguised this, as investment returns outpaced the rise in pension liabilities for a long while. But the cost eventually came to seem intolerable, because of a combination of the bear market of 2000-03, falling interest rates, and a change to accounting standards, which asked firms to report the annual change in their pensions burden.

DC schemes have been around for 30 years or so, and were at first widely used by the self-employed and small businesses. Such schemes promise nothing. Although employers usually contribute to them, they do not have to top up the fund if its returns are disappointing.

DB or not DB

Enthusiasts for DC pensions argued that the investment risk was at least partly offset, since a DC member avoided the “credit risk”—that the company would go bust before fully funding its pension plan. However, in Britain and America credit risk is less of a factor these days, since insurance schemes now protect employees from the bankruptcy of the sponsoring company. And changes to DB rules have reduced the penalties on early leavers (albeit at the price of making the schemes more costly to run, and thus more likely to be closed).

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that companies should not be offering DB schemes. Since the schemes require companies to take bets on the financial markets, it turns firms into quasi-hedge funds and distracts them from their core business. The DC approach allows businesses to stick to their knitting.

In addition, DC pensions arguably suit a modern economy better. Final-salary pensions tended to penalise early leavers and reward “time servers” who spend all their careers at a single firm. Instead, workers should be encouraged to be mobile, taking their pension rights with them every time they move. A study by Richard Hinz of America’s Department of Labour found that, because of employment patterns, DB plans were actually more risky for employees than DC ones are.

But the Hinz study had one crucial assumption; that contributions to the two types of schemes are at the same level. They are not. Employers have taken advantage of the switch from DB to DC to cut the level of their payments drastically. That is hardly surprising: the cost of meeting the DB promise was what prompted employers to switch to DC schemes in the first place. Figures from Britain show that the average level of employers’ payments into DB schemes, as of October 2007, was 14.2% of payrolls; in DC schemes, by contrast, the average was just 5.8%.

Employees are not making up the difference. They are pumping just 3% of their salaries into British DC schemes, taking the total to 8.8%, against the equivalent for DB schemes of 19.1%. In America total DC contributions at the last estimate were slightly higher than in Britain, but were still only 9.8%.

Lower contributions almost inevitably mean lower pensions. Watson Wyatt estimates that the median 25-year-old contributing at the British DC rate would earn a pension of about 30% of his final salary. And that assumes an optimistic rate for annual costs of 0.3%, whereas many DC schemes have expense ratios of more than 1%. In DB schemes, contributing for 40 years would entitle the employee to 66% of final salary.

The loss to DC scheme members is partly offset by their own lower contributions—in other words, higher net pay—of around 2% a year. But DC members also have investment risk; for about 5% of them, the pension would be worth just 15% of their final salary.

You could argue that the comparison between DB and DC contributions is unfair, because DB payments have recently been inflated by the need for firms to spend money cutting the deficits that had built up in their pension funds. But the factors that caused those deficits—sluggish asset markets, lower bond yields and higher longevity—also face DC scheme members. If DB contributions are rising to cover the greater cost of meeting DB liabilities, then DC contributions should rise too.

But workers facing a loss from the switch to DC schemes have failed to pay in more, perhaps because they do not appreciate what a good deal pensions are. Andrew Warwick-Thompson, of Hewitt Associates, a benefits consultancy, says that focus groups of employees have shown that pensions rank a long way down the list of benefits they value. Flexible working or the chance of extra holidays are deemed much more important.

Another reason for employees’ apathy may be the lack of spare cash, particularly if they are not paid much. There is also deferred gratification to overcome; until employees reach their 40s, retirement seems an awfully long way away. Spending cash straight away looks a lot more fun.

This is a shame, in pension terms, because of the miracle of compound interest. Invest $3,000 a year at age 55 (earning an annual return of 7%) and by age 65, you will have a pension fund of only $41,449. Start at age 45 and your fund will reach nearly $123,000, almost three times as much. But start at 25 and your pension fund will be worth almost $600,000.

In addition, fewer employees seem willing to take part in DC schemes. A survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in 2006 found that participation rates in the country were just 61%, compared with 90% for final-salary schemes. Given that employers still contribute to the vast majority of schemes (even if less generously than they did to DB schemes), workers are turning down free money. At 6% of pay, for instance, a British employer’s contributions would add up to £300,000 over 40 years (assuming an average salary of £25,000 and an investment return of 7%). That is a decent-sized win on the lottery.

Slippers and cocoa

Is there a way around this shortfall? Take employees’ reluctance to join a scheme. One answer is auto-enrolment. Studies find that inertia is a powerful force; employees would rather not fill in forms. If they have to apply to join a pension scheme, they may not bother. Auto-enrolment turns this inertia to the advantage of saving by asking employees to fill in a form if they want to opt out. This is the basis of the Australian pension system and will be introduced in Britain in 2012, as part of the new National Pensions Savings Scheme (NPSS). Britain’s National Association of Pension Funds reckons auto-enrolment boosts scheme membership by 20-50%.

But not everyone admires the idea. Ros Altmann, an academic, argues that in places, such as Britain, where state benefits are means-tested, low-paid employees may find extra retirement saving is offset by a fall in their benefits when they retire. In addition, it is probably better for them to save in other ways rather than lock away their money in a pension that cannot be touched until their old age. They may suffer illness or unemployment, in which case they may want to be able to get their hands on the money. In theory, low-wage workers could be advised to opt out of the NPSS. But the scheme is understandably trying to keep its costs low so as to reduce the drag on members’ returns. Such an approach will not make it possible to offer employees individual advice.

And low-paid employees may not be the only people who feel that pensions are not for them. When graduates leave university, they are often burdened with student debt. Their priority is to pay it back. After that, they will probably want to save a deposit so they can buy a house. Either way, cash is a lot more useful to them than pension contributions are.

Rational or not, the lack of interest shown by employees hardly creates an incentive for employers to make pension schemes more attractive. “The HR director has to make a business case to the finance directors as to why they need a pension scheme,” says Mr Warwick-Thompson, “and the HR director has to show that the company is getting bang for its buck.”

The paradox of choice

Consumer choice, seemingly one of the advantages of DC schemes, is really another weakness. This emerged in its starkest form at Enron, an energy company where employees had chosen to invest more than half of their pensions’ assets in the company’s own shares. A DB plan, taking professional advice, would never have been exposed like that. Nor do employees appear to have learnt the lesson. A survey of 65 big American DC schemes, by Pensions & Investments magazine earlier this year, found that 26% of their assets were in the parent company’s shares.

Academic studies suggest that employees are heavily influenced by recent market conditions. Figures show that American workers who began DC plans in 2000, at the height of the bull market, allocated 72% of their portfolio to the stockmarket; those who joined in 2003, after the long bear market, allocated just 48%. Once these decisions are made, inertia sets in; less than 10% of plan members in schemes run by Vanguard, a fund management group, change their asset allocation every year.

Studies also show that employees can be overwhelmed by the responsibility of making the investment selection. Rather than choose between a lot of funds, they decide not to choose at all. According to Barrie & Hibbert, a consultancy, the average take-up rate of schemes with just two investment options was 75%; for schemes with 40 options, the rate drops to 65%

Just as important, more choice also means higher costs, and higher costs mean lower returns. Studies have shown that the average American DC scheme underperforms a DB scheme by around a percentage point a year. Calculations by Ennis Knupp and Associates, a Chicago-based consultancy, suggest that this alone can cut DC pensions by almost a fifth.

Some of these costs are caused by the administrative hassle of dealing with individual scheme members, who may have different contribution rates and asset allocations, rather than with a single DB fund. But it also reflects the ability of DC members to opt for higher-charging mutual funds. According to Ennis Knupp, DC members are far less likely to use low-cost index-tracking funds than DB plans are; that alone may result in higher costs of more than half a percentage point a year. According to Watson Wyatt, the average cost of running a pension fund has increased by 50% over the past five years.

One answer to the cost problem is to set up co-operative schemes that amalgamate the savings of workers in one industry, or even across industries. This is the basis of the Australian system, seen as an exemplar by commentators such as Keith Ambachtsheer of the Rotman International Centre for Pension Management in Toronto; TIAA-CREF, a pension fund for American academics, is also run on a co-op basis.

Company schemes can keep costs down by focusing on the default fund, the option that employees end up with (since they have difficulty making their own choice). Default funds can also be used to give employees a sensible asset allocation. In both the British and American markets, default funds tend to use a “lifestyle” or “target date” approach. This changes the asset allocation with the member’s age. When members are young, they can take more risks, so there is a bigger exposure to equities; as they near retirement, they are shifted into government bonds, to protect their pension pot.

But Watson Wyatt argues that this approach is not sophisticated enough. Shifting employees entirely into bonds at age 65, when they may have 20 years to live, is not sensible. People have different attitudes to risk and will have savings outside the pension fund; their portfolios could be tailored to their needs. Instead of a single default fund, there could be several, with investors having various mixes, depending on the employee’s situation. Employees may be willing to take more risk at a young age, adding further contributions to the plan later if performance falls short of expectations. These more sophisticated plans may use alternative asset classes like hedge funds and private equity to control risk—although whether the benefits such managers bring outweigh their higher fees remains to be seen.

Better by design

The structure of these default funds is all-important because of the way employees make decisions. An academic study offered three groups of employees a choice of two funds. One group was offered an equity and bond fund, a second group an equity and balanced fund, and the final group a bond fund and a balanced fund. The most common option was a 50/50 split between the two funds—but that led to the second group having an equity weighting in their portfolio of 73% and the third group a weighting of just 35%

The trouble is that neither employers nor employees really know what DC plans are aiming to do. Over two-thirds of European plans surveyed by Mercer, a consultancy, had no formal objectives or goals.

In their Pensions Institute paper, David Blake, Andrew Cairns and Keith Dowd point out that DC plans are poorly designed. Instead of asking how much employees want to get out of the plan, the focus is on how much they are willing to contribute. “A well-designed plan will look very much like a defined-benefit plan, offering a promised retirement pension, but without the guarantees implicit in the DB promise,” they argue. One way of achieving this would be for the default fund to target a pension level that is a proportion of final salary.

When it comes to pensions, the buck has been passed from employers to employees. But too few workers realise how much they need to contribute to guarantee a decent retirement or feel confident enough about how to invest their funds. This will not lead to the headlines about bankrupt pension funds that marked the decline of the DB scheme. But it will be bad for many workers all the same.