The Oxford Handbook of Pensions and Retirement Income
Edited by Gordon Clark, Alicia
Munnell and Michael Orszag, with the assistance of Kate Williams.
936 pages hardback
Price: £85 (€124)
Oxford University Press
This is a welcome new handbook and it is easy to predict that it will become a much-used reference by those interested in this field. The editors set themselves high goals (p4): The Oxford Handbook of Pensions and Retirement Income offers a comprehensive overview of the major intellectual frameworks and principles, analytical methods and techniques, and policy-related tools regarding nation-state pension and retirement income institutions." Have they succeeded?
This enterprise is unparalleled, its dimensions are impressive. The text of the 42 contributions alone covers than 850 pages while the 35-page index in the back includes over 2,000 entries. The handbook's global aim has credibility, given that there are more than 50 authors from over a dozen countries, although over half of them are concentrated in US and UK institutions. Most contributors are academics or experts working with public institutions while there are surprisingly few voices from pension funds, the financial industry, and the private sector in general.
The editors take a pronounced multi-disciplinary (social sciences) approach to ageing and retirement. The research presented goes well beyond pensions economics and finance in a narrow sense, and covers history, sociology, politics, statistics, law, management, philosophy, psychology and other fields, obviously not all in equal depth. The subjects range as far as healthcare, inequality, housing wealth and ethical financial decision-making.
The handbook is structured into five parts, each of 6-10 chapters and 120-200 pages. The arramnegment and titles of the 2-4 sub-parts are not straightforward in all cases.
Part I is labelled "retirement in context" and covers history, social and demographic development, and economic theory.
Part II (public retirement plans), part III (employer-sponsored retirement plans) and part IV (individual and household retirement provision) follow the common three-pillar vision of pensions.
Part V carries the title "looking ahead" but also contains a conglomerate of articles on emerging economies and other special topics.
This is not the space to discuss the content of individual contributions, but here are some general observations:
This handbook is a major accomplishment, in particular for its breath and variety of scientific and ideological approaches. It seems almost inevitable that this comes at the expense of coherence.
Few papers have a "work-in-progress" character but most are "classic" handbook-style contributions. On balance, the perspective is slightly tilted towards the macro view versus the micro perspective of households or companies.
Although the standard envisaged is academic, most contributions are accessible to non-experts. Technical terms are normally well explained. The emphasis is, in general, more in words than data.
At various points, the presentation of graphs, tables and formulas is uneven; unfortunately, some of them are also unclear, erroneous or out of date.
It is still quite difficult for people to communicate about pension matters across countries and disciplines. This is, of course, less a question of translation than a reflection of the massive differences in pensions history, culture and law. The handbook confirms the progress that has been made in recent years, not the least thanks to the efforts of the OECD and the World Bank in developing a consistent international pensions terminology and categorisation.
Despite all the changes in recent years, particularly within the EU, pensions are in practice still very much a national affair. It is refreshing that the editors take a less parochial approach and encourage a bird's eye view with trans-national comparisons. The downside of this is a certain loss of clarity in respect of the working of individual pension systems.
That said, the lessons learned from this handbook are innumerable. The history of retirement provision is a history of exclusions, and low coverage continues to haunt most nations despite political lip service.
Handbooks are normally not read from front to back, but don't put this one too high on the shelf.
Georg Inderst is an independent consultant based in London