PALM BEACH, Fla. – The vilification of the retirement industry in recent times is partly the fault of those in the business itself.
That was one of the main points Cynthia Hayes, president of Cartersville, Ga.-based consulting firm Oculus Partners, made repeatedly Monday in opening the 2013 Society of Professional Asset-Managers and Record Keepers meeting.
“Everyone I know in this industry is passionate about helping people prepare for retirement. But somehow, that’s not coming through,” Hayes said.
“We have been vilified. They say we’re villains, that we have pulled a hoax over the American people. I happen to know a lot of you in the room and I know you’re good people. It just doesn’t feel good,” Hayes said.
As the economy has recovered, many Americans have seen their 401(k) balances return to pre-recession levels. But the 2008 market crash, the bursting of the housing bubble and the disappearance of defined benefit plans, largely replaced by defined contribution plans, have all fueled the national “retirement crisis.”
Widely recognized as an industry leader, Hayes opened her presentation by sharing several minutes of a “Frontline” segment and other recent news broadcast reports that have been especially critical of the 401(k).
“It was really disheartening to go through the coverage,” she said.
“It made me angry,” she continued, “because I think it’s a very biased view of the world. It’s the wrong view of the world.”
Those in the industry, she said, must resolve to get the real story out. “The question is, how are we going to get the truth in front of the American people?” she said.
“Sometimes we have been our own worst enemies,” Hayes said, later adding, “We have done things that have hurt us and we need to fix them.”
Among other issues, helping people better understand the fees associated with their accounts is critical, she said. “We have not done a great job of making sure people understand these fees. A lot has changed since the new disclosure rules but there remains a lot of confusion.”
The industry, she said, also needs to stop promoting the idea that a tidal wave of baby boomer retirees will somehow overwhelm the system. “The reality is that the boomer retirement will play out over the next 20 years, not one day,” she said.
Moreover, she said, people need to better understand that debt accumulation, spending habits, employment trends, the health of the stock market, health care and Social Security all have a huge influence on Americans’ readiness for retirement.
“All of these things will factor into whether or not the 401(k) is ultimately a failure or not,” she said.
“What really, really made me angry listening to those [TV news] clips,” she said, “is that if you were one of those people listening, you would have taken your money out of the market. I’m sure the media convinced them to take their money out. We were not advising people against doing that because it was in our best interests, but because it was simply true.”
“Our industry prospers when America prospers,” Hayes said. “I don’t know how any industry could be more aligned with what’s good for the country. It is not in our industry’s best interest when America fails.”
Retirement advisors and others in the industry, she said, have been the messengers of doom. “We have convinced everyone that we are at the precipice of disaster,” she said.
Looking ahead, she said, the industry will need to set the right expectations and measure results against those expectations.
“We need to get the message out to the world about what the public can expect from retirement,” she said. That includes the idea that people may have to work in retirement, “because every generation before them has had to.”
Finally, she said, industry leaders need to stop reacting to the arguments and start offering better solutions.
“The funny thing is, we already have companies, individuals and government working to prepare people for retirement. We just need to make some adjustments. I’m tired of being the villain. I’m sure you are, too.”