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Retirement confidence is up, but why?

Retirement crisis? What retirement crisis?

Savers in several countries "experienced a dramatic increase in their confidence that they would meet retirement goals," according to a new survey commissioned by State Street Global Advisors. Some 51 percent of U.S. investors participating in an employer–sponsored retirement plan said they were very or extremely confident they will meet their retirement goals, up from 21 percent in 2013. (Tweet This)

The survey was conducted just months after the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI, and Greenwald & Associates conducted a 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey, which found 22 percent of workers very confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement, up from 13 percent in 2013.

"The major change in the United States is the continuing improvement in the economy, with unemployment moving down and so forth," said Fredrik Axsater, head of global defined contribution for State Street Global Advisors.

But dig deeper and it becomes clear that even if confidence is rising, it may not be spreading more widely.

The increase in retirement confidence comes almost entirely from Americans who report having a retirement plan, either an IRA, a traditional pension plan, or some kind of defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k) plan, according to the EBRI and Greenwald & Associates survey. In 2013, 14 percent of that group was very confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement, and two years later, that share doubled.

In contrast, among the 32 percent of Americans who reported not having a plan, just 12 percent in 2015 were very confident about having enough for a comfortable retirement, which the report said was statistically unchanged from 2013. (Tweet This) IRA accounts are widely available, but only slightly over half of all American workers work for employers or unions sponsoring a retirement plan.

There is also the matter of how much Americans have actually saved. A 2015 study by the National Institute for Retirement Security, using data from the Federal Reserve's 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, found that across all American households, including those without retirement accounts, the median retirement account balance is $2,500, and for households near retirement, $14,500. Even including households' entire net worth in retirement readiness calculations, the study found that 66 percent of working families are below a conservative savings target for their age and income.

"The typical American household was further behind in retirement readiness in 2013 than in 2010 and 2007," the study said.

Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director, pointed to another reason why growing retirement confidence may not be all good news: The people who are feeling more confident may be making poor assumptions about the future.

"If you've got a plan," and thus are part of the group feeling more optimistic, "you're much more likely to have participated in the equity market's increase in 2014," he said. "Is it rational if you've had an increase in equities for a single year to think your retirement prospects have exponentially increased Obviously, I would say not, but people have a tendency to extrapolate."

The result of that thinking, VanDerhei said, can be false complacency.

"From a public policy standpoint, it's probably a better thing for confidence to go down, especially among individuals who really are not on track. If their confidence goes down, we've at least got a chance that they are going to change their behavior."

One way to promote more widespread retirement confidence is to improve access to retirement savings vehicles, said State Street's Axsater. He pointed to Britain as an example, since that country in 2012 established mandatory automatic enrollment in retirement plans.

"In the U.K., when you have greater access and people are participating in a plan, confidence goes up," he said.

A similar shift is possible in the United States, Axsater said, pointing to efforts by states to create state-based retirement plans for residents without access to workplace plans. Those plans, he said, could facilitate retirement saving for "millions of Americans, and that is something we are fully behind."