Most fast food workers do not earn enough to retire with
much of a pension. Then there is David Novak, executive chairman of YUM Brands,
the conglomerate that runs Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC outlets. Novak’s total
retirement holdings, including deferred compensation, are worth $234 million -
more than any other Fortune 500 chief executive.
Novak tops the list of Fortune 500 CEOs with the largest
retirement nest eggs, according to a study from two progressive think tanks -
the Center for Effective Government and the Institute for Policy Studies. Their
data comes from Security & Exchange Commission filings for the 500 largest
public companies. The figures are stunning and cast a harsh and troubling light
on soaring retirement inequality. The report offers yet another indication that
runaway income inequality is producing grossly unfair retirement outcomes.
The top CEO retirement accounts are worth a combined $4.9
billion - equal to the total retirement account savings of the 41 percent of
all American households with the lowest retirement wealth, according to the
study. Among all Fortune 500 CEOs, the typical value is $17.7 million. That
includes the present value of defined benefit pensions, 401(k) account balances
and other deferred compensation.
THE REST OF US
The CEO numbers are a stark contrast to the rest of us. In
2013, pre-retirement households (age 55-64) with annual income below $39,000
had median total retirement savings of $13,000 in 401(k) and IRA accounts,
according to the Center for Retirement Research. Middle-class households
(income from $61,000 to $100,000) had median savings of $100,000. Only in the
highest-income band ($138,000 or more) were accumulations significant, at a
median of $452,000.
Changes in our retirement benefit structure play a big role
in account balances - especially the sharp decline in the share of
private-sector workers receiving traditional defined benefit pensions. In the past
decade, 54 Fortune 500 companies changed their defined benefit pension plans,
according to the Pension Rights Center - either reducing benefits, freezing
plans or closing them to new hires, or terminating them altogether.
The growing mountain of evidence on retirement inequality is
adding to momentum to change national retirement policies in favor of middle
and lower-income households. The starting point should be an expansion of
Social Security to boost benefits for middle- and lower-income workers, an idea
embraced by people like Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Nothing else would have a broader, bigger impact.
Beyond that, we need to make access to workplace retirement
saving universal. The Obama administration’s recent move to clear the path for
states to create their own universal auto-IRA plans is a good start. The
financial services industry opposes these programs on ideological grounds -
mainly because they are seen as government mandates.
Even so, opposition is loosening a bit. That was clear in a
remarkable speech this month by Tony James, president of Blackstone - one of
the world’s largest private equity firms. James issued a call for a universal,
mandatory system of saving for all workers who do not currently have access to
a workplace plan.
Specifically, he endorsed the Guaranteed Retirement Account
(GRA), which is the brainchild of Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the
New School for Social Research in New York City. The GRA calls for mandatory
worker and employer contributions to a low-cost, professionally managed
Blackstone is not run by fire-breathing liberals. Its
founders are deficit-hawk-in-chief Peter Peterson and Stephen Schwarzman, who
several years ago infamously compared an Obama plan to raise taxes on carried
interest taxes to the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland.
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