Groundhog Day in the Financial Industry: Why the Retirement Crisis Is Now Permanent
On a regular basis, some of the largest investment firms in the industry conduct surveys about the state of retirement, individual investor attitudes and their preference about what they would like from their financial advisor or investment firm. These surveys are often statistically rigorous and authoritative, so they can help contribute to the prestige, thought leadership and intellectual stature of the investment or financial firm. But, in many ways, some of the firms conducting these surveys are hypocrites.
Here is the problem: These surveys are not designed to help solve the problems they address. The surveys are descriptive, data driven and insightful, but in the end, they are pretty useless. The reason is that the firm that sponsored the survey in the first place frequently takes political positions counter to the results of the survey.
This is best illustrated in the numerous surveys on retirement issues sponsored by major investment firms, such as Met Life, AXA, T. Rowe Price, CIGNA, MetLife, Capital Group, Prudential, Principal, American Century, Wells Fargo and Mass Mutual.
Here is how this situation breaks down.
The results of a retirement report from the John Hancock annual Financial Stress Survey, found that “slightly more than three-quarters of survey respondents cited lack of retirement savings as a leading factor affecting their stress. Nearly half report they worry about it ‘a great deal,’ and only 40% expect to retire ‘about when planned.’”
Great Surveys, But Nothing Changes
This is great information and if the survey results were compared over the years, they would probably show that financial stress is a permanent feature of the American workforce, especially because real wages have not grown over the past 30 years.
The problem is that Hancock, as an example, is also a major lobbyist on issues related to retirement. My bet is that their lobbying money is not being used to address the specific problems found in their survey, such as bolstering the Social Security system or promoting accelerated wage growth. For instance, in 2002 (the latest year available), John Hancock Financial services employed five law firms as lobbyists and spent a total of $920,000, according to Open Secrets and the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of this $1.5 million spent in 2002, Hancock sought information or influence on the issues of taxes, insurance, finance, agriculture, bankruptcy, labor/antitrust, according to the issues categories available from the Center for Responsive Politics. Of Hancock’s nine issue topics listed, retirement issues ranked fifth.
So there seems to be a disconnect between the firm’s concern for reducing the retirement stress of the American workforce, as indicated in its survey, and what the company does in its efforts to influence policy and legislation in Washington. Of course, Hancock is just an example of this disconnect.
But, if you multiply this by 75 or 100 times to capture the largest investment, insurance and banking firms in the nation, we can see that significant dollars are spent on lobbying. For example, the Financial Services Roundtable, (part of the Bank Policy Institute), one of many major industry lobbying groups, spent $5.04 million lobbying in 2017. Despite the lobbying money spent, the same financial retirement issues that appeared over past decades have not been addressed by the same firms that conduct these surveys to find a solution.
Instead, the financial services industry loves describing the retirement insecurity problem, but does little to solve it. They conduct great surveys, but nothing changes.
A basic tenet in corporate management is alignment between departments to push ahead to achieve the corporation’s mission. All departments are mandated to work towards this end. But, when marketing departments in financial corporations take positions to address client concerns and then work against them, it is a clear disconnect. Or, maybe not.
The corporation exists to generate maximize revenues and profits, so it can continue. The lobbying makes sure that happens. If that effort works against customers’ interests than the status quo is preserved.
That’s why it is Groundhog Day at many financial services firms.
It also is why the perennially-described retirement crisis is now a permanent feature of American life.
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