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(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, June 10 (Reuters) - Where do affluent retirees get their income? Portfolios invested in stocks and bonds, you might think - but you'd be wrong. Turns out many are living mainly on Social Security and good old pensions.
That's the surprising finding of new research from a surprising source: Vanguard, a leading provider of retirement saving products like individual retirement accounts and 401(k)s. Vanguard studied the income sources and wealth holdings of more than 2,600 older households (age 60-79) with at least $100,000 in retirement savings. The respondents' median income was $69,500, with median financial assets of $395,000. (The value of housing was excluded.)
The researchers were looking for answers to a mysterious question about the behavior of wealthier retirement account owners: Why do few of them draw down their savings? They found that nearly half the aggregate wealth of these households comes from the two mothers of all guaranteed income programs, Social Security (28 percent) and traditional defined-benefit pensions (20 percent).
The median annual income for these households is $22,000 from Social Security, with an additional $20,000 from pensions. Tax-deferred retirement accounts came in third among those who have them, at $13,000 (11 percent).
"Only a small number of the people who have 401(k)s and IRAs are really relying on them as a regular source of income," said Steve Utkus, director of the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research. "There's a lot more income from pensions than we expected," he adds.
That last finding may seem surprising, given all the publicity about shrinkage of defined-benefit pensions. Although most state and local government workers still have pensions, only a third of private-sector workers hold a traditional pension, down from 88 percent in 1975, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security. And NIRS data points to a continued slide in the years ahead.
"Will this look different 10 years from now - will we have less pension income and more from retirement savings accounts? I think so," Utkus says.
Another interesting finding: Twenty-nine percent of affluent retirees get some income from work, with a median income of $24,600. And the rate of labor force participation was even higher - 40 percent - among households more reliant on retirement accounts.
"That's only going to jump dramatically over the next few years," Utkus says. "All the surveys show there's a real demand for work as a structure to life. People say they can use the money, or they want to work to get social interaction."
The findings are all the more striking because the big buzz in the retirement industry these days is about how to generate income from nest eggs. That includes creation of income-oriented portfolios, systematic drawdown plans and annuity products that act as do-it-yourself pensions.
Yet few retirement account holders actually are tapping them for income. The Investment Company Institute reports that just 3.5 percent of all participants in 401(k) plans took withdrawals in 2013. That figure includes current workers as well as retirees; the numbers are higher when IRAs are included, since those accounts include many rollovers from workplace plans by retired workers. With that wider lens, 20 percent of younger retired households (age 60-69) take withdrawals, according to a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Security Administration's Retirement Research Consortium.
The income annuity market has been especially slow to take off. One option is an immediate annuity, where you make a single payment at the point of retirement or later to an insurance company and start getting a monthly check; the other is a deferred annuity, which lets you pay premiums over time entitling them to future regular income in retirement.
Deferred annuity sales doubled in 2013, to about $2 billion, according to LIMRA, the insurance industry research and consulting group. But that's still a drop in the bucket of the broader retirement products market. And the Vanguard survey found that just 5 percent of investors surveyed held annuity contracts.
"The theme of translating retirement balances into income streams is emerging very slowly," Utkus says.
The Vanguard study also underscores the importance of smart Social Security claiming decisions, especially delayed filing. "There's been a sea change over the past year," Utkus says, with more people recognizing that delayed filing is one of the best ways to boost guaranteed income in retirement. Vanguard is "actively discussing" adding Social Security advice to the services it offers investors, he says.