Are Retirement Savings Too Exposed to Market Risk?

Alicia H. Munnell Dan Muldoon

IB#8-16

Introduction

The stock market, as measured by the broad-based Wilshire 5000, declined by 42 percent between its peak in October 9, 2007 and October 9, 2008.  Over that one-year period, the value of equities in pension plans and household portfolios fell by $7.4 trillion.  Of that $7.4 trillion decline, $2.0 trillion occurred in 401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), $1.9 trillion in public and private defined benefit plans, and $3.6 trillion in household non-pension assets.

This brief documents where the declines occurred.  This information is interesting and important in its own right.  But the declines also highlight the fragility of our emerging pension arrangements.  Today the declines were divided equally between defined benefit and defined contribution plans, but in the future individuals will bear the full brunt of market turmoil as the shift to 401(k)s continues.  Much of the reform discussion regarding private sector employer-sponsored pensions has focused on extending coverage.  But the current financial tsunami also underlines the need to construct arrangements where the full market risk does not fall on pension participants.