Poverty in old age a future we must avert

Louisa Cheang says people must be persuaded to plan for retirement

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 4:55am

Retirement is supposed to be a carefree time of grandchildren, relaxation and perhaps a little self-indulgence, but new research shows that, for most of us, it is more likely to be a period of straitened circumstances and financial worry.

A new report by HSBC estimates that most people will spend 18 years in retirement, but says they have enough savings to fund only 10 of those years in comfort. It paints a grim picture of elderly retirees starting to run out of money just as their medical bills and care costs start to mount in earnest.

The report surveyed 15,000 people in 15 countries on their retirement plans. Over half the people surveyed - 56 per cent - admitted they were not adequately prepared, and were looking at a hard future.

And we are not talking about less time on the golf course. Almost two-thirds of Britons expected to struggle with food and fuel costs; four in 10 Canadians said their health could suffer; and 61 per cent of Americans said they would have to cut down on daily spending, according to the report.

The report also comes up with some unexpected, and in some cases unexpectedly worrying, statistics. On the bright side, despite the US' reputation as a nation of consumers, only a third of Americans said they did not save for retirement. On the other hand, despite Asians' reputation as keen savers, many were in fact not much more prepared for retirement than other people.

On average, based on the assumption that they need about three-quarters of their current income to sustain a comfortable standard of living, people expected their savings to meet just 56 per cent of their retirement needs. Since they expect retirement to last 18 years, their savings will run out after just 10 unless they radically downgrade their lifestyle. Of all the places surveyed, Malaysia posted the most optimistic figure, at just under 13 years. At the other end of the scale, Britons expect their savings to last just seven years.

Today, pensions - both public and private - are coming under the twin pressures of ageing populations and the impact of the global financial crisis, which slashed asset values and has resulted in historically low returns on invested capital.

Part of the retirement shortfall problem, particularly in the developed world, is that people tend to rely on the state, but governments are trying to cope with gaping pension shortfalls just as health care, transport and accommodation costs are rising. Even China is expected to have a 18.3 trillion yuan (HK$22.6 trillion) shortfall by this year, according to research by the Bank of China and Fudan University.

And the problem is going to get worse. By 2050, one in every five people on the planet will be a retiree.

The solution lies in changing people's behaviour: teaching them the necessity of regular saving; the value of professional advice - the HSBC survey indicates that those who have sought professional advice had twice the savings of those whose pension plans were self-administered; and the importance of planning for the unexpected.

It would be unwise to assume that we will never be visited by illness, unemployment, an accident or unforeseen education costs for our children. Financial planning for retirement is like physical planning for retirement. Saving, like exercise, should be regular, sustainable and disciplined.

But amid the gloom is at least some good news. At least one trend is moving in the right direction. More and more people in their 30s and 40s are planning for an active retirement, some out of necessity, but more out of choice.

Some kind of employment carrying on, possibly well past retirement age, is seen as part of a flexible retirement plan, a solution that not only keeps money flowing in, but also keeps retirees physically and mentally active, a key to remaining healthy.

Your retirement should not outlast your savings; it should be the other way around.

Louisa Cheang is HSBC's regional head of retail banking and wealth management, Asia-Pacific