By James Kwak
Now that I’m a law professor, people expect me to write law review articles. There are some problems with the genre—not least its absurd citation formatting system and all the fetishism surrounding it—but it’s not a bad way to make arguments about how and why the law should change in ways that might actually help people.
That was my goal in my first law review article, “Improving Retirement Options for Employees, which recently came out in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law. The general problem is one I’ve touched on several times: many Americans are woefully underprepared for retirement, in part because of a deeply flawed “system” of employment-based retirement plans that shifts risk onto individuals and brings out the worse of everyone’s behavioral irrationalities. The specific problem I address in the article is the fact that most defined-contribution retirement plans (of which the 401(k) is the most prominent example) are stocked with expensive, actively managed mutual funds that, depending on your viewpoint, either (a) logically cannot beat the market on an expected, risk-adjusted basis or (b) overwhelmingly fail to beat the market on a risk-adjusted basis.
By James Kwak
I’m starting teaching at the UConn law school this fall, so I got a folder of information in the mail about my retirement plan. UConn professors have a choice between a defined benefit plan (SERS, in which I would be a Tier III member) and a defined contribution plan called the Alternate Retirement Program, or ARP. (There’s also a Hybrid Plan that seems to be the defined benefit plan plus a cash-out option at retirement.)
I chose the Alternate Retirement Program for reasons that are complicated (I used a spreadsheet) and that I may get into another time. The main benefit of defined benefit plans is that they do a pretty good job of protecting you from investment risk and inflation risk, since the state bears most of it. The main downside is that if you will work either for a short time or a very long time at your employer, they have a lower expected value, even given conservative return assumptions. The other downside is counterparty risk.
Anyway, the ARP is a pretty good plan. The administrative costs are a flat 10 basis points. It includes a reasonable number of index funds (although there are also actively-managed funds—more on that later). And the plan had the sense to ask for institutional share classes with low fees. For example, the S&P 500 index fund is the Vanguard Institutional Index Fund – Institutional Plus Shares, which has an expense ratio of 2 basis points. Adding the 10 bp of administrative fees, that’s still only 12 bp.* (Contrast this with Wal-Mart, for example, which, despite being the largest private-sector employer in the country, stuck its employees with retail fees in its 401(k) plan.)
But despite that, the plan then goes and encourages people to put money into expensive, actively-managed funds. I got a brochure subtitled “A Guide to Helping You Choose an Investment Portfolio” that was almost certainly written by ING, the plan administrator. It has the usual stuff about the importance of asset allocation and your tolerance for risk, and then provides “model portfolios” for various investor types.
By James Kwak
Usually the New York Times gives reasonably good financial advice—or, at least it avoids giving really bad advice. Today, however, Paul Sullivan’s column borders on the latter. The question is whether to take a pension payout as a lump sum or as an annuity (a guaranteed, fixed amount per year until you die).
Sullivan’s column isn’t all bad. He talks about the importance of being able to manage your money and the need to be comfortable with risk if you take the lump sum. He also points out the annuity (in this case, based on what GM workers are being offered) isn’t indexed to inflation, which is an important consideration. And he doesn’t come down on one side or the other, although he says he would take the lump sum because, he says, “I would rather control the money myself.”
By James Kwak
From a Times article on pension fund investing:
Mr. Dear cautioned that there were big differences in how various alternative investments performed during the financial crisis.
He said that Calpers’s investments in real estate had been “a disaster” and that its hedge fund investments had not met their benchmarks and were under review. But he said that its private equity holdings had easily beaten public stock returns over the last decade.
“Over the longer term, that kind of outperformance represents real skill, not luck, and it’s worth paying for,” he said.
Holy confirmation bias, Batman! When one asset class beats the stock market that’s skill. But when your other asset classes do badly—that’s random variation? If high returns on private equity are evidence that you should continue investing in private equity, then low returns in hedge funds and real estate are evidence that you should pull your money out of them.
By James Kwak
Ted K. points out (and comments on) Stephanie Fitch’s article in Forbes on Wal-Mart’s 401(k) plan. The crux of the matter is that Wal-Mart seems to have done a lousy job creating a good 401(k) plan for its employees. Until recently, it had ten funds, only two of which were index funds; the other, actively managed funds all had high expense ratios (the ones Fitch quotes are above 1 percent).* More shockingly, the expense ratios paid by plan participants were the same as the expense ratios paid by individual investors in those mutual funds. It didn’t even pool its employees’ money together to get institutional investor rates. The irony, of course, is that Wal-Mart is the world’s best, most powerful negotiator when it comes to getting low prices for the stuff it sells, yet it exercised no negotiating power in getting low prices for its employees — even though it had $10 billion in assets to swing like a club.
The following guest post was contributed by Andrew Biggs. He has studied the issue of retirement savings for a couple of orders of magnitude longer than I, so I wanted to give him the opportunity to outline his perspective on the topic. He regularly blogs on his own blog and, along with about four dozen other people, over here.
After our exchange regarding Tuesday’s blog on The Retirement Problem in the Washington Post (which started over at AEI’s Enterprise blog and continued here), James generously offered to let me guest-post my thoughts on Americans’ level of preparation for retirement. Overall I’m not so pessimistic, although there are surely problems that must be addressed. But most of the detailed research out there points to problems, but not a crisis.
Both James’s analysis and my own response were built on relatively simple projections using stylized workers who pay into Social Security and participate in 401(k) plans. These illustrations are useful for fleshing out basic issues – plus, in this case, finding how the SSA’s online benefit calculator may have skewed some of the results.
But the best research on retirement preparedness is more involved than this. Most analysis of current retirees uses survey data, such as from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) and the Current Population Survey (CPS). Each survey has strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, broader models of the population are built using this survey data. These models allow for simulations of how policy changes affect current retirees, as well as projecting the population into the future. Such comprehensive models include the Social Security Administration/Urban Institute MINT (Modeling Income in the Near Term) model, the Congressional Budget Office’s CBOLT (CBO Long Term) and the Policy Simulation Group’s PSG suite of models, used by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Labor for Social Security and private pension projections. While these models, like any others, rely on assumptions regarding a large number of factors, they are also the most closely scrutinized to ensure these assumptions are consistent with current trends.