Friday, June 05, 2009

Policy Prescriptions for Retirement

There's an excellent article in today's Globe called Saving for Retirement Baffles the Boomers, by Doug Peters and Arthur Donner. Unfortunately, the article's subtitle, "Take a breath, think longevity, public policy and type of plan," is somewhat misleading. The advice in the article is: change public policy so that we have larger public pensions. Here's part of what they have to say:

The large pension plan knows how long we'll live because it deals in large numbers of people and uses averages for life expectancy. Thus, large defined-benefit plans can estimate fairly precisely the amount of savings one needs for the lifespan of the average pensioner in their plan. The large defined-benefit plan can also take a long-term view of interest rates and market returns, a perspective not often available to the individual investor. This again increases the economic efficiency of such plans as the CPP.

Three obvious public policy conclusions flow from this analysis:

Substantially increase the size of the CPP so it provides for a much larger proportion of income replacement on the retirement of Canadians. Many studies have recommended this idea. An increase in CPP contributions and coverage could be done over several years in a way that ensures the CPP remains fully funded.

Develop a system whereby companies and their employees can buy additional defined-benefit pension coverage from the CPP. These supplementary pensions would need to be fully funded and would be fully portable (as they are held in the CPP). An add-on plan to the CPP would provide companies and individuals with the economic efficiencies and the substantial cost savings that only a large plan can generate.

Develop a strategy to get companies that have lost the incentive to provide defined-benefit plans back into the business of offering them. This will not be easy. Companies have moved away from such plans because of complex pension laws designed to protect workers, and their experience that such plans are costly and difficult to manage. In addition, employees are wary of such plans when they see large companies fail to fully fund their plans or go bankrupt with their pension plans underfunded.

A policy of both increasing the CPP and allowing companies and individuals to buy supplementary pensions from the CPP is one acceptable policy move. Another is a much closer monitoring of pension plans by regulators. A positive move in this direction would be the establishment of the proposed national pension guarantee system.

Another feature of such a system would be to require underfunded pension plans to pay higher premiums for coverage. In other words, any company that requests relief from its required funding - that is, additional time to make up a pension deficiency - should pay an additional premium for such forbearance.

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