Barbados, even as a small island developing state, has achieved considerable growth in its economy and standard of living of its citizens since independence in 1966. One of the mechanisms that has been implemented over the years by both the State and the private sector has been the introduction of pension plans which seeks to provide regular income to employees during their retirement, thus reducing the potential burden to the State of providing welfare benefits to its citizens in the “golden years.” Pensions are an important part of a retirement plan and it is important to understand and get the most from them.
Social Security was introduced formally in Barbados in 1967, with pensions being but one component. Participation in the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) is compulsory by law. The maximum insurable earnings under NIS on which pension benefits are calculated has risen over time to the current limit of $4,090.00 per month. Recent reforms to the scheme will increase the normal retirement age from age 65 to 67 by January 2018. The maximum pension under NIS is 60 per cent of average insurable earnings in the last five years of retirement. The scheme operates under a partially funded pay-as-you-go basis, where current contributors pay for the existing benefits of pensioners.
On the other hand, it is estimated that employer sponsored pension plans cover only 40 per cent of members of the Barbados workforce. That means that there is a staggering 60 per cent of the workforce that is relying almost entirely on the NIS to provide it with a sustainable retirement income. It is my contention that Barbadians should not rely exclusively on NIS or on the current level of benefits being promised by the NIS for the following reasons:
- The current level of benefits is limited as stated above. This becomes ever more glaring for those workers who earn in excess of the maximum insurable earnings when they retire. For example, a person retiring on a salary of $6,000.00 per month will receive a pension from NIS of approximately 37 per cent of retiring salary; while one retiring on a $12,000.00 per month salary will receive a pension from NIS of approximately 16 per cent.
- The demographics of the Barbados society are showing similar patterns to those exhibited by developed countries – the “old age crisis” phenomenon. Decreasing fertility rates means that the ratio of NIS contributors aged 16-64 to pensioners aged 65 and over is expected to decrease from 5.4 in 2005 to 1.7 in 2068. Also compounding the problem is the increased longevity expected of pensioners who have reached the age of 65. These factors, combined with lower than average investment returns, means that future benefits may have to be reduced.
The above issues are also having a harmful impact on the pensions from private employer sponsored pension plans. The “good old days” of having indexed pensions from Defined Benefit plans where the employer has the responsibility of ensuring that there are sufficient assets in the pension fund to pay guaranteed pensions are fast disappearing and are being replaced by Defined Contribution plans. In these schemes, fixed contributions by both employee and employer are invested and the pension, good bad or indifferent, is based on whatever the individual’s fund can purchase. Basically, the members in these schemes are now bearing all the investment and longevity risks previously handled by employers through Defined Benefit plans.
Another risk faced by retirees is inflation, which can be crippling on a pensioner on a fixed income for life. The decreased purchasing power can severely reduce his/her standard of living. In Barbados, during the period 2000 to 2012, inflation has caused a 47 per cent reduction in the purchasing power of your money. This factor, coupled with low single digit returns, presents a daunting expectation for members who are about to retire.
Retirement can also bring medical issues where treatment has become increasingly more expensive due to advances in medical technology. Without a sufficient pension and/or additional savings, pensioners can face severe financial hardships in meeting these costs.
So, with all these financial and medical uncertainties swirling around, how do you build a secure financial nest egg which allows you to live comfortably in retirement and possibly allow you to leave a financial legacy to your loved ones? I am afraid that there is no magical formula other than to:
- Realise that NIS will not provide you with any guaranteed pension that is sufficient to cover your expenses during your retirement.
- Accept that you have the responsibility to make the necessary provisions to secure an adequate pension, through participation in any employer sponsored pension plans and savings in other instruments like Registered Retirement Savings Plans. Remember, you have the added benefit in that these contributions are tax deductible up to certain limits.
- Start as early as you can with regular payments, increasing these over time. The more you invest today, the more you have available for distribution at retirement.
- Diversify your investments to reduce the amount of risk.
- Remember to factor in inflation during your calculations as to how much you need to save and earn to guarantee your stated retirement goal.
And above all, remember, “Hope is not a strategy.”