Many Retirement Savers Missed 2013 Gains

A new analysis from Putnam Investments, reviewing years of income replacement projection data, finds many retirement savers missed out on recent market surges due to low equity allocations.

The analysis is described in a new white paper, “Lifetime Income Scores IV: Our latest assessment of retirement preparedness.” Key takeaways from the paper and underlying survey touch on a number of prevalent themes widely discussed in the retirement investing marketplace. For instance, Putnam finds that workers who consistently defer 10% or more of annual income to a workplace savings plan stand a significantly better chance of hitting satisfactory income replacement ratios than those contributing less than 10%. Similarly, workers who seek advice from a financial professional are generally much better prepared than their peers for life and spending in retirement.

And for employers, the best ways to get workers to enroll in plans and contribute more, Putnam says, is to make the choice for them through automatic enrollment and deferral escalation features.

Beyond the impact of higher deferral rates, smart plan design and reliable advice, Putnam finds that for most Americans, achieving retirement preparedness is fundamentally a behavioral issue. In other words, although receiving a raise or experiencing strong market returns will help some employees save more for retirement, those are not the only remedies to retirement savings shortfalls. Even lower-income households that make a habit of saving can get on track to being financially prepared for retirement.

For the second year in a row, the Lifetime Income Scores survey shows, when factoring in projected Social Security payments, U.S. workers are on pace to replace a median 61% of their monthly income in retirement. Putnam says the 61% replacement rate itself is somewhat encouraging, but the flat results were a surprise considering the record-setting pace of stock market gains experienced during 2013.

Putnam says one explanation for this counterintuitive result has to do with asset allocation. Among workers who contribute to a 401(k) plan and have a balance greater than $1,000, Putnam finds the allocation to underperforming assets like bonds and cash (46%) during 2013 strongly outweighed the typical allocation to equities (39%). And with a sizable average allocation to employer stock (16%), retirement portfolios may also have been tethered to a single corporate entity’s performance, rather than the wider market.

So when factoring in the relatively anemic 2013 returns for many cash and bond investments, Putnam says it’s less surprising that last year’s stellar equity returns—which were enough to improve the funded status of more aggressively invested pension funds by 20% or more in many cases—did not result in an equivalent surge in individual defined contribution (DC) plan portfolios. The conservative tilt in many workers’ retirement portfolios, combined with the often-risky bet on employer stock, kept a lid on workers’ income replacement ratio growth.

But while the average replacement ratio remained level, Putnam says some population segments did experience signs of improvement during 2013. Income replacement scores improved among those workers who called themselves “very confident” about retirement, for example, reaching 89%. Younger workers between ages 18 and 34 saw their projected income replacement ratios tick up to 77%.

Other subsets that saw at least minor improvements in median income replacement projections include workers with more than $1 million in investable assets, those who work with a paid financial adviser, and DC participants deferring more than 15% of annual income into their plan. The existence of home equity, business ownership and inheritance earnings also had a notable positive impact on individual workers’ income replacement ratios, Putnam says.

Notably, survey respondents who reported owning some form of real estate had a median income replacement ratio of 76%, a full 15 percentage points higher than the median of the total sample. Those workers who say they will receive an inheritance from a family member or other beneficiary fared the best of all in this year’s analysis, showing a median 84% expected income replacement ratio once the expected inheritance gains are factored in.

Beyond the actual income replacement ratios, Putnam’s data shows confidence in retirement preparation and investment considerations rose during 2013, particularly the measure of those who say they are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in various aspects of retirement (see “Actionable Information Motivates Higher Retirement Savings”). Interestingly, the data shows future health care cost worries are increasing alongside overall retirement confidence, suggesting there may be a lack of understanding that health expenses can be a major factor in total retirement costs. Thus, while confidence with respect to retirement is up, average workers may be missing key elements of the retirement preparedness equation, Putnam says.

A full copy of the white paper is available here.