New UK annuity reforms – lessons from the United States

American experience strongly suggests that the coming UK pension freedoms sound better in theory than they will work in practice. After nearly a decade where the UK has been the gold standard for retirement savings policy, it is about to take a step that it may regret.

As annuity purchases are not required, very few Americans buy them, feeling that they are spending a great deal of money for a comparatively small monthly income. Even those in traditional DB pension plans usually take a lump sum if they are allowed to do so. As a result, many US retirees spend unwisely, trust the wrong financial advisor, or make other financial mistakes.

Many people greatly overestimate how long their savings will last. Most others assume (often wrongly) that they can manage their own money as well as anyone else or that they can live comfortably on Social Security alone. U.S. Social Security pays a benefit that depends on the retirees’ individual income history. The average annual amount is about $13,000 (GBP 8,700).

One survey found that in West Virginia, a state with a relatively low average income, 78% of those near retirement and 67% of those at retirement would likely outlive their financial assets. Workers with lower incomes are most at risk. A recent national study found that by the 20th year of retirement, more than 81% of Americans with incomes up to $27,000 would run short of money, as would 38% of those earning up to $42,000, and 19% of those with incomes up to $65,000.  Even 8% of those with the highest incomes could not meet their expenses.

Advice alone is not likely to help. US experience shows that literally every minute that passes after general advice is given reduces the chance that the consumer will act on it – even when they have decided to do so. And even a significant number of those who consult with a financial planner fail to act on that guidance.

What does show promise is income illustration. In a 2014 U.S. survey, 85% of plan participants found estimates of the income they could anticipate from their retirement savings useful, and 35% said that they would save more. Income illustrations change the framing of retirement saving from gross amounts saved to retirement income.  Annuity-like products become insurance against running out of money, something Americans are increasingly concerned about.

Two other potential developments may help. One is longevity insurance, an annuity that provides income only after a set age. Purchasing a policy defines how long one must make retirement savings last, and the retiree is protected against running out of money. Because longevity insurance is deferred, one can receive higher amounts of monthly income for a lower cost.  In 2014, $50,000 would buy $275 a month at age 65 or $1200 a month starting at age 80.

Another idea is an automatic enrollment trial annuity. As developed by several Brookings Institution colleagues and me, new retirees would automatically use part of their savings for a two year annuity unless the retiree refused it. The rest of their savings would be available as a lump sum. After the trial period, the annuity would become permanent if they did nothing or they could cancel it and take the rest of their money as a lump sum.

The many annuity horror stories from the UK show a definite need for change, but the coming reforms go too far. US experience suggests that too many UK retirees are likely to see their savings exhausted all too quickly. There are alternatives that could do a better job of protecting retirees.