Monday, December 13, 2004

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans have been dumping money into mutual-fund retirement portfolios for more than two decades, thanks to government privatization of the pension system, but that hasn’t turned the country into a nation of serious retirement planners.

Analysts say few of the 3.5 million workers who regularly contribute 10 percent of their paychecks to stock and bond funds have any idea whether their savings will be enough to provide a decent living after they stop working.

Despite receiving quarterly statements saying how much money they have saved, “most Chileans don’t know what their pensions will be,” said Joseph Ramos, an economist at the University of Chile.

The six private pension-fund companies from which Chileans can choose to manage their money offer retirement calculators on the Internet or at customer-service centers to help savers determine whether they are on track. But most people don’t bother to do the math.

Chileans can contribute up to an additional 10 percent of their pay into their funds to ensure that they will have enough money when they get old. But they rarely do or know whether they should.

Most don’t start paying attention until they pass age 50, Mr. Ramos said. But saving more money earlier in life allows people to take advantage of compounded interest, meaning they will have more money later, based on a longer period of investing.

The architect of the pension system, former Labor and Social Security Secretary Jose Pinera, attributes part of the problem to the “Latin culture leaving things for the last moment in every aspect of life.”

The government, fund companies and union leaders should “do more to create a culture of responsibility in societies that have had a weak one for 500 years,” he said.

About 7 million of Chile’s 15 million citizens contribute to their own pension funds. The self-employed aren’t required to do so. But only about 3.5 million of the contributors do so regularly, according to the country’s Association of Pension Fund Administrators.

The government body that regulates the funds says 40 percent to 50 percent of contributing Chileans aren’t saving enough to fund the minimum pension of $136 per month, meaning they likely will rely on the government to make up the difference.

But the pension fund association says 72 percent of regular contributors can expect $471 per month, assuming 5 percent average annual returns, and $544 monthly with 10 percent annual returns. Chile’s minimum wage is $207 a month.

Mr. Ramos said a simple change could help Chileans realize that it is important for them to do some retirement planning — especially because they are funding their own pensions.

He advocates adding information in the quarterly statements to let clients know what sort of income they should expect at retirement based on the historic returns of their retirement mutual funds.

In the United States, the government-run Social Security program sends participants annual statements, letting them know how much they should expect each month after retirement.

The Chilean “statements should say what you will get if you continue to contribute at this rate,” Mr. Ramos said. “Six million pesos, or $10,345, saved sounds like a lot to a Chilean, but it’s really not when that money needs to last for a long time.”

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