Myth 1 according to Mr. Hurst is "Canada's pension system is insufficient for the delivery of adequate pension income." He then cites the Mercer Melbourne 2010 Global Pension Index as a source to assert that Canada is well positioned compared to the rest of the world with a number two rank on the pension adequacy sub-index. Fortunately, the Mercer study is available on the web here, so your faithful blogger, ever the nit-picking detail guy, happily dove into the Mercer documents to do a reality check.
- Mercer doesn't say that Canada's system is sufficient, it merely says that Canada's system is better than most of the other insufficient systems around the world. No country attains an A grade from Mercer as a "first-class and robust" pension system on an overall level and though Mercer does not actually assign grades on its three sub-indices, Canada's 75 score on the Adequacy sub-index would put into the B grade of "a sound structure with many good features ... but has some areas for improvement"
- Canada's score fell from 2009 to 2010 in Total and across every sub-index (p.19). Is that cause for complacency and doing nothing?
- Mercer's Adequacy entails a miserly low level of income. The Adequacy sub-index doesn't just use the CPP, it uses ten questions to arrive at a rating. Canada does comparatively well because of its score on the two heaviest weight questions (attachment 1, p.64). Question 1 assesses the ability to provide a pension to the aged poor. Thus, in Canada OAS/GIS enables people to receive 32% of the average single person's wage (0.32 x $40,600 = $13,000), which is, according to the OECD, where Mercer got its data on this question, enough to keep someone above the poverty line set at 30%. Whooppee, happy days, huh? It is ironic that Hurst should cite Mercer whose conclusion on Adequacy relies on OAS and GIS when his myth 3 says that those two programs are at risk because they are funded from general tax revenue. Would an increase in tangible funding to CPP through higher rates not then make sense? Q2 deals with a target income replacement rate. Mercer says the net (considering taxes and deductions) replacement rate of lifetime average earnings for a median income single earner should be in the range 70-100% and Canada is reasonably close at 63.6%. Lest these numbers seem to be a high target, Mercer reminds us that the lifetimes earnings model from OECD (found in Pensions at a Glance 2009 - gotta love the sly humour in that name for a 283 page document) on which the scores are based assume no real (though it does keep abreast of inflation) pay increase throughout a working career and should thus be targeted much higher than a replacement rate based on final salary. A median Canadian worker thus would get 0.636 x 40,600 = $25,820 to live on. Would that support an active fulfilling retirement or one that entails working to supplement income? Mercer themselves comment that "A net replacement rate below 70% of lifetime earnings suggests a significant reliance on voluntary savings" (p.24).
As I have blogged before here and here, the CPP seems to offer a better solution to meet retirees' needs. Probably, changing the CPP by both raising the contribution rate and increasing the earnings limit on which CPP is deducted will both help. So what if "Expanding CPP benefits is a very complex undertaking that would likely have widespread repercussions for Canada's pension system overall"? Perhaps one of those repercussions might be a reduction in Hurst's pension consulting business as no-longer-so-necessary private pension savings declined. But is that a reason not to make changes?
His conclusion that Canada merely needs to deploy targeted solutions (harkening back to the notion that there is only a pension problem for a limited few, which I doubt, as expressed in this blog post) and leave aside CPP-enhancement, while somehow boosting employer-sponsored workplace pensions or individual retirement savings, ignores the failures and deficiencies of such options.
CPP enhancement certainly doesn't solve all pension problems. It only pays off gradually over many years as people work and earn a higher pension. Present-day retirees without sufficient savings won't get anything - we'll just have to keep working or buying lottery tickets and/or reduce our standard of living down towards that OAS/GIS level.
I'd like to see arguments more convincing and practical regarding CPP than what looks too much like self-interest or guilt by association from the fact that major labour unions are backing such proposals. Though the labour movement too often itself proposes stupid things merely for ideological reasons, we shouldn't make the same mistake should we?