In Detroit retirees face steep pension cuts, which raises big questions about the financial security of workers elsewhere.
Ian Dagnall—Alamy
By Dan Kadlec
November 13, 2014

Guaranteed lifetime income has become the obsession of retirees, policymakers and the financial industry. Yet as the public pension debacle in bankrupt Detroit shows, we may never find a solution that completely eliminates the risk of your money running out.

The judge in Detroit’s closely watched proceedings said the recent deal the city cut with its retirees bordered on “miraculous,” as reported in The New York Times. That may be. But the deal still left the city’s 32,000 current and future retirees with diminished benefits and no certainty that they won’t be asked to give up more down the road. Their fate is largely in the hands of the markets—as is the case for millions of workers saving in 401(k) plans, and even many of those still covered by a private pension.

The problem is that there is only so much money we are willing to throw at the retirement savings crisis, an issue that has been exacerbated by an economy that until recently was growing far below potential. Every leg of the retirement stool is underfunded, including private pensions, though they are in the best shape. Many public pensions are in deep trouble. Social Security is on course for a funding shortfall. Personal savings are abysmal.

When government revenue or corporate profits or personal income are too low to allow for setting aside enough money for the future, we can only hope that the markets bail us out. In Detroit’s case, pension managers are counting on average annual returns of 6.75% for the next 10 years. That might happen, and it’s a lower expected rate of return than many public pensions are counting on. But given that stocks have already had a nice run, and that the bond portion of any portfolio will almost certainly come up far short of that mark, it’s probably an optimistic target. That means the city will likely have to raise taxes or cut pension benefits at some later date.

Private pensions face similar math, which is why many companies have frozen their plans or dropped them. Still, those that remain are generally on more solid footing. Profits have been strong and regulators hold companies to a higher funding standard. But by some estimates such stalwarts as IBM, Caterpillar and Dow Chemical will need to pay extra attention to their pension funding in coming years. The equation became more difficult recently, now that the Society of Actuaries has updated its mortality tables, which added a couple years to the life expectancy of both men and women at age 65.

Individuals in self-directed savings plans, such as 401(k)s, face their own funding problems. Workers may not have done the retirement income math but, like many pension managers, they haven’t been putting away the money they’ll need, while hoping for strong market returns to make it all work out. If they stay invested, and stocks keep chugging higher, they may be fine. Otherwise they will have to save more going forward or plan on spending less later—the do-it-yourself equivalent of raising taxes or having their benefits cut.

The good news for individuals is that you can act now on your own—you don’t have to stand by while a committee of actuaries and accountants blows smoke around the issue and kicks the problem further down the road. Steps you can take immediately include saving at least 10% of everything you make. Aim for 15% if your kids are gone and the mortgage is paid. Make sure you get the full company match in your 401(k) and automatically escalate contributions each year.

Young workers, especially, need to act now. Those just starting out are far less likely to have a private pension and more likely to suffer from future Social Security cuts. Many seem to have got the message. Millennials expect employment income and personal savings to account for 58% of their retirement income, Bank of America Merrill Lynch found. That compares to just 35% for boomers.

But even with greater savings, guaranteed lifetime income can remain elusive. As life expectancies have stretched, and interest rates have remained low for nearly a generation, fixed-income annuities have become relatively expensive. Even the so-called safe withdrawal rate of 4% per year now strikes some experts as too high for peace of mind. The push is on to make 401(k) savings more easily convertible into lifetime income. That would help because the big insurers that stand behind the promise of lifetime income are a lot more reliable than a city like Detroit.

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