A retirement solution that focuses on outcomes and is customised for each participant cannot be met by existing defined-benefit or defined-contribution designs, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist, Robert Merton, who advocates a “next-generation DC solution”.

Merton, who is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management’s distinguished professor of finance and resident scientist at Dimensional Fund Advisors, says the criteria for a good retirement solution are not met by traditional defined benefit (DB) or defined-contribution (DC) plans.

He says plans are unsustainable because accounting standards and actuarial principles underestimate their cost, while DC plans are not designed to provide core retirement benefits.

Specifically, existing DC plans are not integrated with other retirement assets, require members to make complex financial decisions and focus on the wrong goal – wealth instead of income.

“Income and wealth goals are not the same. If you look at a real annuity in dollar terms it looks very volatile, but the income is guaranteed. If you measure a real annuity in annuity or income terms, then it’s a plotted flat line. It’s the difference between communicating in income and wealth, or dollar, terms. All we’re doing is changing the units. It’s the same as reporting to a client in their currency. This is just a different currency, the annuity units, and you customise for each individual because each has their own risk profile. Under the hood, the whole thing is a laser focus on the goal.”

Merton says a next generation solution should offer robust, scalable low-cost investment strategies, focus on income, not portfolio value or return, and manage the risk of not achieving this.

“The risk to be managed is the risk that the ultimate income goal will not be realised,” he says.

 

Resources squandered

Merton, whose Nobel Prize in 1997 recognised a new method to determine the value of derivatives, says financial innovation and engineering is required to solve the global problem of funding retirement and produce this next generation of retirement solutions.

This will require giving up the idea of DC funds aiming for a return of ‘something more’ above a certain target.

“All the resources that are dedicated to that will take away from reaching the goal. You can exchange that for a better chance of success,” he says. “This is not window dressing; it’s very different to the standard way things are done. A dynamic-portfolio strategy cuts out the excess upside possibilities to improve the chances of achieving the desired income target.”

This next-generation DC solution needs to integrate all sources of retirement saving into a tailored dynamic-portfolio strategy based on age, salary, gender, plan accumulation and other retirement-dedicated assets.

It also need to be effective for the member who is not engaged, while providing meaningful information and choices for those who do engage, and allow trustees to control their costs and eliminate balance-sheet risk.

2 comments on “Merton: the individual plan man”
  1. Avatar Dr Shantha P Yahanpath

    Great article. This is one of the areas I emphasise in my postgraduate Financial Planning lectures. Especially, when it comes to retirement, the requirements and expectations are “individual”. One client may want a “gardening focussed” retirement and another may want an active “overseas holidays focussed” retirement. Therefore, their finacial wealth requirements would also be different. More at http://www.totalwealthplan.com.

  2. Avatar Dr Shantha P Yahanpath

    Great article. This is one of the areas I emphasise in my postgraduate Financial Planning lectures. Especially, when it comes to retirement, the requirements and expectations are “individual”. One client may want a “gardening focussed” retirement and another may want an active “overseas holidays focussed” retirement. Therefore, their finacial wealth requirements would also be different. More at http://www.totalwealthplan.com.

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