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How Low Returns Affect Retirement Withdrawal Strategies

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In a “new normal” of lower returns, workers change their behavior to adjust — and one study says that the more highly educated they are, the more drastic the changes will be.

Faced with the expectation of lower returns in global capital markets, workers work more, stick it out at the job longer and save less money in tax-advantaged accounts. They also postpone claiming benefits from Social Security, relying on funds from retirement accounts sooner. But lesser-educated workers make fewer changes than those who are more highly educated.

So says a new paper presented by the National Bureau of Economic Research. How much workers change their behavior, however, depends on how tuned in they are to interest rate changes — and that’s where education comes in.

The study’s first finding is that workers claim Social Security later — an average of 1.5 years later — and work an average of more than three hours more per week, in an atmosphere of low returns.

They also build up considerably less wealth in their retirement plans. The report points out that “the gain from saving in pretax plans is lower in a low-return environment, depressing the tax advantage of saving in 401(k) plans.”

Interestingly, wealth inequality is reduced in low-return environments, since in high-return environments, the college educated save 30% to 40% more than they do in a low-return environment.

And workers also start withdrawing assets from 401(k) plans sooner. Results are similar for both men and women, with the education gap in changed behavior much larger than the gender gap.

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