American retirees could fall drastically short of paying for essential needs unless urgent action is taken to increase savings, Putnam President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Reynolds said at the company’s retirement income summit on Tuesday.

Reynolds called on significant public policy reform and private sector innovation to encourage higher savings, less leverage and less debt among retirees. He also said that asset managers and insurance providers should form new alliances to develop innovative retirement solutions. He would like to see absolute return products be a part of all retirement portfolios.

“This is an American challenge,” Reynolds said. “We’re all it in together—the wealthy, middle class and lower income.”

Speaking during a panel discussion, Dallas Salisbury, president and CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, said Americans are saving much less than they should be saving regardless of how they are investing. He notes that annuity choices had been “aggressively” placed in defined benefit plans since the 1970s, but once workers started exiting DB plans they turned toward single-sum solutions instead.

“Even if we modify the DC plans and make these annuities available at a good cost, there’s still the tremendous challenge in having people make the right decision,” Salisbury said.

Jeffrey Knight, managing director and head of global asset allocation for Putnam Investments went even further, saying it was “remarkably depressing how participants have handled their asset allocation.” Knight said retirement solutions need to make saving easier, without abandoning the goal of earning returns during retirement since people are living longer. More importantly, they should protect against a potentially devastating loss. But Knight questioned whether investors are prepared to make the smart retirement income decisions.

“In the right circumstances can they make the right decision?” he asked. “It’s easy to be skeptical given their history.”

Shlomo Benartzi, professor and co-chair of the Interdisciplinary Group in Behavioral Decision Making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, said Americans are plagued by “myopic performance chasing” and will base their decision on whether to take an annuity or a lump sum payout on how the stock market has performed the last six months before they retire. If it’s been a bear market, they will annuitize. If it’s a bull market, they will take the lump sum.

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