Penn meeting focuses on how to get more people to save for retirement

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City Controller Alan Butkovitz said that fewer than half of the city’s elderly have enough money each year to meet the basic needs for retirement living.

Worried that the city's elderly face lives of poverty, 75 policy makers, politicians, and others gathered at the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday to talk about helping people more easily save for retirement while they are still working.

Philadelphia is one of three cities nationally trying to figure out how to set up city-wide plans to help employers create payroll-deduction programs.

"Way too many Americans have no way to save through work for their retirement," said Angela Antonelli, executive director of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz said an economic study indicated that households headed by seniors need $28,750 a year to meet basic needs, but fewer than half of Philadelphia's elderly have that. He said that 61 percent of small employers do not offer retirement plans, and that most of them say it's too expensive or time-consuming.

In the absence of federal action, states and cities are beginning to devise programs with the encouragement of the U.S. government. For them, it's a matter of marrying the best of intentions with the reality of what's possible - in politics, business, and the psyche of America's financially-strapped workers.

And that's where it gets complicated, a dozen retirement experts said during a panel discussion at the symposium, hosted by the City Controller's Office, Penn, and AARP.

For example, all the research indicates that workers accrue the most savings if there are retirement-savings programs at work, if workers are automatically enrolled in them, and if they let the money sit, not withdrawing it for emergencies.

"If you don't insist on keeping the money in, they will take it out," said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, chief executive of the Georgetown Center for Retirement Initiatives.

Any new plan could limit the ability to withdraw money, but that might also limit participation, because "people like to know they can take their money out," she said.

Also, liquidity typically leads to lower returns over time because investing in "patient capital," such as real estate, often yields better results.

So what's the right balance?

Perhaps, panelists said, it is to allow employees to set up two payroll-deduction savings plans: one untouchable plan for retirement; the other for emergencies or a child's college education.

All the plans are simple for the employer - just use the company's payroll system to deduct some retirement savings from the employees' wages. Then the government, through a third-party administrator, takes over investing the money and sending out reports and statements.

Whether employers should be required to participate is one question. It would increase workers' savings, but if executives object, they could derail the whole concept.

Butkovitz advocates a multi-employer plan that would be voluntary for the employers. Unlike the other common model, an IRA plan, employers could also contribute to the savings.

On the business side, it may be laudable for low-wage workers to set aside some money for retirement, but can financial-services firms make money on percent-base administration fees for accounts accruing less than several hundred dollars a year?

That's why the federal government launched myRA, handling the administration of a savings-bond, payroll-deduction, retirement-savings plan until the account grew to $15,000, explained panelist Mark Iwry, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Bennett Kleinberg, vice president of product development at Prudential Financial said companies like his want to work with these programs.

In New York City, which is also pursuing a program, 1.7 million workers, 57 percent of the city's workforce, do not have on-the-job retirement savings, said Philip Dukes, senior policy adviser and counsel in the mayor's Office of Pensions and Investments.

Under New York's plan, now awaiting changes in federal law, employers with 10 or fewer employees would not have to participate. Dukes said that he'd like all employers to participate, but that political realities make it an easier sell if the smallest companies are exempted.

One member of the audience, a Philadelphia lawyer who deals with pension issues, asked how employers with locations in various cities or states should deal with a potential multitude of plans.

Phyllis Borzi, who leads the Employee Benefits Security Administration for the U.S. Labor Department, said the department is untangling that issue as it works to draft new rules due out by year end.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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@JaneVonBergen