Understanding CPP’s decline in rates of return for retirees

It’s critical to consider the rather meagre rates of return offered to most current and future workers in any debate about CPP reform

By Jason Clemens
and Joel Emes
The Fraser Institute

VANCOUVER, B.C. May 12, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The proposed expansion of the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is expected to be front and centre at the meeting of the provincial finance ministers in June. Unfortunately, many of the arguments for expanding CPP are either debatable or flat out incorrect.

One source of ongoing confusion regarding CPP relates to the benefits provided by the program. Too many people equate returns earned by the CPP fund with the actual benefits received by Canadian retirees.

When CPP was overhauled in 1997, one of the reforms was the creation of the CPP Investment Board (CPPIB). The board is an independent organization tasked with investing the available funds from CPP.

CPPIB has performed well since 2000, when its mandate was broadened to allow for active investment. Over the last five years (2010-2015), for instance, its average rate of return (adjusted for inflation) was 11.4 per cent.

CPPThe strong performance of the investment board does not, however, directly influence the retirement benefit received by Canadian workers. CPP benefits are calculated based on the number of years worked, CPP contributions and the age the worker retires. Nowhere in this calculation are the returns from CPPIB included.

This is not to say that the board has no influence. The high yields from CPPIB lessen the need for further benefit reductions and/or contribution rate (i.e. tax rate) increases, as were implemented in the 1997 reforms.

A recent paper calculated the actual returns received by Canadian workers from CPP by analyzing contributions over their working lives and comparing them to the benefits received during retirement. The main conclusion is that the benefits received vary considerably depending on when the worker was born and thus retired.

For instance, a worker born in 1905 who retired at age 65 in 1970 (one of the first years Canadians received CPP benefits), would have enjoyed a rate of return (adjusted for inflation) of 39.1 per cent. A worker born in 1950 who retired in 2015, on the other hand, would have received a return of 3.6 per cent. And the rates decline further – those born after 1971 will receive a CPP benefit of 2.1 per cent.

The projected rates of return outlined above decline if certain assumptions are made less favourable. For instance, the calculations above assume that workers make no contributions to the CPP during the exemption period, which is roughly the eight years with the lowest earnings that are excluded from a person’s benefit calculation. If, however, we assume workers make contributions during these exempted years, which do not change their retirement benefits, then the rate of return for workers born in 1972 or later falls from 2.1 to 1.7 per cent.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the rates of return over time. The first is that the contributory period in the early years of CPP (10 years) was much less than the current period of contributions (39 years). And second, the contribution or tax rate applied during those working years has increased from 3.6 per cent when the program was started in 1966 to 9.9 per cent currently.

A different way to think about the returns received by Canadian workers from their CPP benefits, particularly those born after 1971, is that contributions are made to a fund that must generate a four per cent real rate of return to provide a 2.1 per cent real rate of return to workers.

While CPP in its current form is an important component of the overall retirement income system in Canada, it’s difficult to see how its proposed expansion can be justified on the basis of its rate of return to retirees. As we enter a pronounced period of debate on the costs and benefits of expanding CPP, it’s critical to consider the rather meagre rates of return offered to most current and future workers.

Jason Clemens and Joel Emes are economists with the Fraser Institute and co-authors of Rates of Return of the Canada Pension Plan, which is available at [popup url=”http://www.fraserinstitute.org” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]www.fraserinstitute.org[/popup].

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