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Keeping an eye on your assets

David Brancaccio Jan 2, 2012

It’s 2012: Do you know where your pension is? By one estimate, U.S. companies are short more than half a trillion dollars needed to pay for retiree pensions. If that’s not bad enough, state and local governments may be in worse shape — $4 trillion short. Even the government’s insurance plan for private pensions, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, is short about $26 billion at last count.

Add to all of that a very weak year on the financial markets, and you have a pretty unsettling picture of retirement these days.

Olivia Mitchell is a professor and pension expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. She often finds herself telling her Baby Boomer peers that their retirement won’t be anything like their parents’. We’re going to have to work longer, save more, and consume less.

Mitchell’s research shows part of the problem is that many Americans simply lack financial literacy. They’re confused about basic issues like interest rates, inflation and the need to diversify assets. Her research has found that higher financial literacy correlates with higher wealth accumulation in life, so it’s an issue.

Mitchell does have some advice to offer. She says it’s critical to take a much broader view of your investment portfolio. Don’t just think about your pennies in the bank or your 401(k), keep larger assets such as your house in mind as well when thinking about yoru financial picture. Though she cautions to be sure to spread out enough that your house isn’t your only asset.

Mitchell says you should also factor in non-tangible assets such as your own human capital: the skills, knowledge and training that you have invested in yourself — and that you keep investing in yourself.

It’s only in taking in the big picture view that you can weather a flat year on the markets and be ready for what’s coming next.

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