About one minute into any conversation with an academic or policy-type who studies the issue of retirement security these days you hear some version of this lament:
“It’s not that the 401(k) has failed, it’s that the 401(k) was never meant to be the primary retirement fund for Americans. It is being asked to do something it was never intended to do.”
Great. Now they tell us.
The problem, as the retirement pros see it, is that the 401(k) was supposed to be a supplemental retirement plan that would complement existing programs such as old-fashioned pensions. But in the nearly 30 years since the 401(k) was introduced it has increasingly become the go-to main retirement account. Traditional defined benefit pension plans are already on the endangered list, and many of those that remain are dangerously under-funded. As for Social Security…well, we all know that’s a balance sheet nightmare.
In that anemic company, the 401(k) looks downright robust. But as my colleague Penny Wang recently outlined in an illuminating tour through the 401(k) morass, it is rife with serious structural flaws.
It’s a topic that’s getting some face time in Washington. Tomorrow, February 24, the House Education & Labor Committee will hold a hearing on the Shortcomings of our Nation’s Retirement System. Then on Wednesday, the Senate Special Committee on Aging is holding its own confab on "Boomer Bust? Securing Retirement in a Volatile Economy.” The inclusion of the question mark seems at best questionable right about now; Fidelity recently reported that the average 401(k) account among plans it administers lost 27% in 2008.
An impressive lineup of retirement experts will be testifying at the hearings, discussing the flaws that have been around for nearly three decades but are now laid bare in this severe bare market. Among the points that will be hit: We don’t invest enough in our own retirement plans. Corporate America does a less than ideal job encouraging us to invest more; suspending the company match, setting automatic enrollment rates too low, and not divulging plan fees are just a few examples. And that no matter how intelligent or well-intentioned we are, it is a struggle against our human nature to make ideal investment decisions for a goal that is 20, 30, 40 years off in the future.
Now that retirement saving reform is getting debate time in Washington, what would be on your retirement plan renovation punch list? If you were summoned to testify on Capitol Hill, what would you lay out as the best and most helpful ways to improve your 401(k)/retirement savings? The forum is open…
-- Carla Fried