Consider the source for almost all of the headlines and research conducted by the financial services companies. They could work with the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) on an annual retirement confidence survey—the longest-running annual retirement confidence survey in the U.S., with a 25-year history—for as little as $9,500, gaining access to all of the data from the 70-question survey.
Instead, financial services companies go out and spend "well over $100,000" to do their own comprehensive surveys year after year, or they opt for a cheaper, snapshot survey—say, five questions—with an organization like Gallup, said EBRI president Dallas Salisbury. Why?
"A single word speaks to it, and that is branding," Salisbury said. A financial services company with a big 401(k) business and/or family of mutual funds wants to be the one you turn to when you stand up and admit that you have a retirement problem. They prefer to call it "thought leadership," but that's just a mouthful to make branding seem intellectual.
There is also a reason why so many of the retirement headlines are so alarming.
"People are always looking for what to do with a headline to maximize the potential someone will publicize the survey. Bad news sells," Salisbury said. "If the name of the sponsor is mentioned, they've met the branding objective. It's more PR than the other side, which is the underlying attempt to create an outcome," he added.
That outcome being that you start saving, or save more, for retirement.
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"We all know most people aren't on track for retirement," said Morningstar's head of retirement research David Blanchett. "I think surveys that talk about poor savings in the U.S., or the fact that people haven't saved enough for retirement, are relatively worthless. Kind of like saying, 'The sky is blue'" (not much value there).
None of it would be possible without the partner in crime to the financial services companies—me, or more broadly, the entire financial media, and in particular, the online financial media, which does so well in terms of generating clicks based on the old, reliable "fear and greed" philosophy.