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Doug Peters and Arthur Donner

Saving for retirement baffles the boomers Add to ...

When the stock market was soaring and the economy was stronger, one hardly heard of any worries about private pensions. Many baby boomers were confidently facing retirement since they were thought to be healthier, better educated and wealthier than their parents' generation. But now, with the collapse of the stock market as well as the economy, the boomers' easy coast into retirement has changed.

Not surprisingly, a number of prominent organizations, including the C.D. Howe Institute, have recently concluded that Canadians are not saving enough for their retirement. This basic conclusion is correct and seems even more relevant today because the economy is in recession and Canadians are losing their jobs.

Simple economic theory, such as the life-cycle savings hypothesis (that individuals should put aside savings in their productive working years to maintain their standard of living in retirement), is useful in framing the policy choice for individuals, but it is not very practical with respect to telling them what they should do when everything goes wrong.

But how much should a Canadian actually save for retirement? The answer is: Who knows? We have no idea how long we'll live. Should we save enough to last until 75 or 95? If we save for a 95-year lifetime, the amount needed is obviously much greater.

One could save enough to buy an annuity at the time of retirement, an annuity that would provide an adequate income for life. But how much should we put aside to buy this annuity?

The amount of income an annuity will provide at retirement depends on the interest rates at the time the annuity is purchased and the income stream begins. Will one save enough to buy an annuity assuming the current level of interest rates? Canadian government bonds now yield from 2 per cent to just over 3 per cent. Or should one presume at the time of retirement that interest rates will be at the level they were in the early 1980s, when Canadian bonds yielded more than 16 per cent? If one assumes the high rate of interest, then the amount of saving needed for retirement would be a fraction of the amount needed with today's much lower rates.

All of these reasons demonstrate the inability of any person to know how much to save for retirement. So what's the public policy response? Do we need more registered retirement savings plan room? Do we need more defined-contribution pension plans? (A defined plan is one in which both the individual and employer contribute a set amount, with the individual investing those funds in some form until retirement.)

The problem with RRSPs and defined-contribution pension plans is that the amount needed for a set retirement income is always unknown. The additional problem is that the whole investment risk is carried by the individual saver. If the investment is successful, more funds are available at retirement; if it isn't, there's less to count on.

For the baffled individual trying to plan for retirement income, private defined-benefit pension plans are very attractive, assuming the company that sponsors the plan remains solvent and the plan is adequately funded. (A defined-benefit plan is one that provides a set pension amount at the time of retirement usually based on both years of service and level of income. The costs to the individual and employer are based on those factors as well.)

There is also enormous cost savings and economic efficiency in very large defined-benefit pension plans such as the Canada Pension Plan when they are adequately funded.

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.

Doug Peters is former chief economist of the Toronto-Dominion Bank. Arthur Donner is a Toronto-based economic consultant.

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