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Mining for Retirement Income?
Keep an Eye on the Canary.

With new highs in the stock market dominating the financial news, it’s tempting to look away from the very real and ongoing government mismanagement that will likely impede a successful retirement for most Americans.
In a recent blog, “Broke in Retirement: This Could be a Stark Reality,” Managing Editor of the Oxford Club Rachel Gearhart identifies a real canary in the coal mine. In the last weeks of 2016, she points out, the California Public Employees Retirement System “quietly lowered its expected rate of return to 7%,” with other state pension funds likely to follow suit. The gap between pension obligations and funding, she reminds us, was 1.3 trillion dollars last year, but “even if all states cut their expected rates of return to 7% right now—forcing states to contribute more cash to the coffer—we’d still have a 1.2 trillion dollar gap.”
Don’t be fooled—this is not just a state pensioners’ problem. Every taxpayer will be tapped to help shore up this gap using money that might otherwise have gone into their own 401(k) or into the similarly strapped federal Social Security program.
Frustrated by similarly dire outlooks in their national pension system, some decades ago the Canadian government took action, removing the bureaucracy from retirement income. They appointed an investment board—their equivalent of our social security administration— that would operate under a “investment-only mandate...unencumbered by political agendas and insulated from political interference in investment decision making." Gearhart admits there are “a lot of ‘ifs’” Canada is relying on to achieve its goals, but clearly, Canada’s answer to providing retirement security was to not continue digging for gold in a government mine.
In the heady days of a market surge, we may even have false hope that our own personal investment success will make up for the grim reality of underfunded pensions and federal entitlement programs. But federal and state governments have shown themselves patently unable or unwilling to act as worthy custodians off American’s retirement savings. As Gearhart puts it, “Counting on the government for your liberty is never a good idea. Investors must prepare for the worst and save for their retirement privately.
“Privately,” should not mean going it alone. With average annual investment return for individuals managing their own retirement savings ranging from a bleak -2% to 5%, clearly most of us could use some guidance. But the first corrective step would seem to stop hoping for state and federal governments to do the right thing for us and take control of our retirement savings using any means at our disposal.
Case in point: While California’s downgrading of its expectations might be Gearhart’s canary in the coal mine, perhaps the changing behavior of new Illinois state employees reflects a more clear message. According to the most recent study by the Illinois Policy Institute, more than ever before, those eligible for the state's retirement plan are choosing the Self-Managed Option over the traditional pension, signaling an increasing awareness of the necessity to take control of their retirement future.

Kevin L. Coppola, President, Compass Investors, LLC

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