Writing about retirement inevitably turns you into the bearer of bad news. But last week brought a positive development: The downward trend in the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan reversed course in 2013. The number of workers participating is now at the highest level since 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI).
Which means, unfortunately, that from a wealth-building perspective, the timing of the nation’s workforce is actually pretty terrible.
The ERBI has only been tracking participation rates since 1987, a relatively short window, but still a bad pattern has clearly emerged: Workers are less likely to participate after the stock market drops, so they lose out when the market recovers.
The participation of wage and salary workers peaked in 2000 at 51.6%, right before a 3-year bear market that saw the compound annual growth rate (the CAGR, which includes dividends) of the S & P 500 declining 9.11% in 2000, 11.98% in 2001, and 22.27% in 2002. In 2003 however, the S & P rebounded up 28.72%, but retirement plan participation rates continued to decline, hitting a low of 45.5% in 2006 before finally beginning to rise.
Then the same thing happened again after the financial crisis. Participation rates had peaked at 47.7% in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the S & P 500 dropped a whopping 37.22%. Even though the market began to bounce back immediately in 2009, participation rates continued to decline down to 44.2% until that trend finally reversed in 2013 according to the EBRI data released last week. With each stock market shock, the participation rate fell but never fully reached its previous high, so that the 2013 rate of 45.8% is still lower than the 46.1% participation rate seen in 1987.
This bears repeating: The participation rate in an employment-based retirement plan in 2013 was lower than it was in 1987. I don’t think I need to tell you what has happened to the S&P 500 from 1987 to 2013.
Now of course one could argue that it’s harder to save for retirement if your salary has been frozen, or your bonus was cut, or especially if you were forced to take a lower-paying job, as many who were able to stay employed throughout the recession experienced. Employers have also been scaling back or eliminating entirely company matches, which further disincentives workers from participating. But waiting until you start making more money to save for retirement is a losing game, especially if you subscribe to the new theory put forth by Thomas Piketty in his much-discussed but I suspect less-widely read book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Piketty’s thesis is that the return on capital in the twenty-first century will be significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy and more specifically the growth of wages (4% to 5% for return, barely 1.5% for wage growth.) Furthermore, the return on capital has always been greater than economic (and wage) growth, except for an anomalous period during the second half of the twentieth century when there was an exceptionally high rate of growth worldwide. It is the inequality of capital ownership that drives wealth inequality, a phenomenon that cannot be reversed as long as the rate of return continues to exceed the rate of growth, or as Piketty helpfully provides, R>G. (Full disclosure: I only read the introduction and then used the index to find sections that most interested me.)
If you apply R>G to retirement planning, it follows that it’s more important to be in the market than to wait for a raise or to reach the next step on the career ladder to start participating in a plan. The usual caveats apply: First you must get rid of any high-interest debt and create a three-month cushion for emergencies. But once you’re in a plan, if the economy—and your income along with it—hits some major bumps, it’s even more important to continue to contribute lest you miss out on the upside. Just remember: R>G.
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