Publication Date

12-1-2008

Abstract

To a worker contemplating retirement, there is perhaps no more important question than “How long will my money last?” Congress has a strong interest in the income security of older Americans because much of their income is either provided directly from public programs like Social Security, or in the case of pensions and retirement accounts, is subsidized through tax deductions and deferrals.

Many retirees must decide how to convert retirement account balances into income and how to preserve the accounts in the face of several kinds of risk.

* Longevity risk is the risk that the individual will exhaust his or her account before death and experience a substantial decline in income.
* Investment risk is the risk that the assets in which the individual has invested his or her retirement account will decline in value.
* Inflation risk is the risk that price increases will cause the individual’s retirement income to decline in purchasing power.
* Unexpected events such as divorce, the death of a spouse, the cost of medical care, or a need for long-term care services are also risks.

There are strategies for dealing with each of these risks, but no single strategy can deal effectively with all of them. For example, purchasing a life annuity insures against longevity risk and it shifts the investment risk to the insurer. However, purchasing an annuity depletes the purchaser’s available assets by the amount of the premium. These assets are no longer available to the retiree in the event of a catastrophic illness or other unexpected major expense. To date, the demand for annuities has been low. There are many reasons for the low demand for annuities, but one of the most important has been that many potential annuity purchasers do not value the longevity insurance provided by annuities at its market price.

Retirees who choose not to purchase life annuities must decide how much to withdraw from their retirement accounts each year. Because they face uncertainty with respect to both life expectancy and the rate of return on investment, this decision carries its own risks. If withdrawals are too large, retirees risk spending down their savings too quickly, possibly leaving them impoverished. If withdrawals are too small, they might spend too little and leave substantial assets unspent when they die.

An analysis conducted by CRS indicates that under specific conditions there is a 95% or greater probability that a man who retires at age 65 will not exhaust his retirement account before the earlier of death or age 95 if his initial withdrawal does not exceed 5% of the account balance and later withdrawals are the same in inflationadjusted dollars. Under the same conditions, there is a 95% or greater probability that a woman who retires at age 65 will not exhaust her retirement account before the earlier of death or age 95 if her initial withdrawal does not exceed 4.5% of the account balance and later withdrawals are the same in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Comments

Suggested Citation
Mulvey, J., & Purcell, P. (2008). Converting retirement savings into income: Annuities and periodic withdrawals [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/key_workplace/566/

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