Feel Lucky?

By Nevin Adams • June 25, 2018 • 0 Comments
One of my favorite cinematic quotes is from that Clint Eastwood classic, “Dirty Harry.”

It comes at the very beginning of the movie — there’s a bank robbery in process, and Clint Eastwood (in the personage of Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan) is trying to wolf down a hot dog when the commotion starts up. Harry, clearly irritated, gets up and heads out, and proceeds to shoot it out with the robbers, and then strolls over to the one who is still breathing, who has a shotgun within reach. Harry proceeds to point out the attributes of his .44 Magnum as he wonders aloud if he still has any bullets left, as the wounded robber contemplates his chances of getting to his shotgun before Harry pulls the trigger. At that point, Harry reminds him: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

When reading the various surveys of workers who seem confident about their retirement prospects, or don’t — when most haven’t even tried to figure out how much they will need — I can almost hear Harry Callahan in the background. They might not feel lucky, but they’re acting as though they will be.

Last week the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) published an Issue Brief highlighting some of the outcomes that EBRI’s Retirement Security Projection Model (RSPM) has projected in recent years. The RSPM was developed to help state governments figure out if their residents would run short of money in retirement — based on a concern that to the extent they did, the social safety net might have to be patched.

Now such models1 must, of necessity, rely on certain assumptions, but unlike a number of other models out there, EBRI’s has a significant advantage — being able to draw on actual, anonymized administrative data of tens of millions of 401(k) participants for the retirement savings component, whereas others lean on self-reported samplings. Moreover, rather than rely on the extrapolation of measures like replacement rates, EBRI’s RSPM considers a household to “run short of money” or experience a retirement savings “shortfall” if it doesn’t have enough money to cover actual projected expenses in retirement — including an aspect that most models completely ignore: uncovered long-term care expenses from nursing homes and home health care.

Despite what I would consider to be pretty stringent assumptions on expenses, the RSPM projects that more than half — 57.4% — of all U.S. households (not just those covered by employer-sponsored retirement plans) will not run short of money in retirement. Oh, and that’s assuming that they come up with 100% of those expenses.

But what if you wanted to assume that, confronted with those expenses in retirement, individuals cut back on their spending — say to just 90% of the projected expenses? Well, even if you leave in place the full assumptions about nursing home and home health care costs, under that scenario the percentage of households projected to have sufficient retirement resources increases to more than two-thirds (68.1%). What if you assume that retirees only spend 80% of the cohort average for deterministic expenses? At that point, 82.1% would have enough financial resources. If you are willing to ignore the potential impact of long-term care costs, three-quarters (75.5%) of households will have sufficient financial resources in retirement to meet 100% of projected expenses.

That doesn’t mean that access to a retirement plan doesn’t matter. The report notes that among Gen Xers, those who have 20 or more years of future eligibility (including years in which employees are eligible but choose not to participate) are simulated to have a 72% probability of not running short of money in retirement. Those in that same group with no future years of eligibility are simulated to have only a 48% probability of not running short of money in retirement.

In fact, as you might expect, eligibility for a workplace retirement plan is one of the most — if not the most — important aspects that affect retirement success.

Now, as promising as those results seem, one shouldn’t draw too much comfort. Those who come up short will do so by varying amounts, and some by quite large amounts. Indeed, when you add up all those shortfalls, it amounts to $4.13 trillion in 2014 dollars.

And yet, applying what strike me as remarkably conservative retirement expense assumptions, and drawing from real-world actual administrative savings data, it seems that a good number of us can — assuming we keep doing what we are doing — anticipate a financially successful retirement.

Which brings us back to “Dirty Harry”: “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?”

If you are eligible for a retirement plan at work, the answer would seem to be — yes!


1.Two of the most commonly cited projection models are the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). Both rely heavily on self-reported numbers from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), and while both track the progress of American retirement readiness by examining how individuals in the SCF did over time, they fail to acknowledge that doing so compares the balances and readiness of two completely different groups of individuals at different points in time. The NIRS analysis builds on that shaky foundation by incorporating some assumptions about defined benefit assets and extrapolating target retirement savings needs based on a set of age-based income multipliers — income multipliers, it should be noted, that have no apparent connection with actual income, or with actual spending needs in retirement. But then, the math is easier.

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