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American retirement savings is largely a DIY affair thanks to the replacement of pensions with 401(k)s and similar investment vehicles. The problem, of course, is the onus it puts on workers not only of saving enough — a daunting task in and of itself — but knowing how to invest that money to get the best return. And far too often, we wind up paying fees even when managers do a bad job managing our money, but the system is so convoluted that we're none the wiser.
In his new book, Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now, Illinois Tech Chicago-Kent College of Law professor and mutual fund expert William Birdthistle digs into some serious flaws in the way Americans save for retirement today, which he called the "riskiest experiment in our financial history."
Birdthistle describes his book as an "exposé of the way we save now." In a video trailer promoting the book, Birdthistle — in rhyming verse, no less — makes the case that the deck is basically stacked against the average American because we're asked to make the kind of investment decisions that people get advanced degrees and six-figure salaries to do — all by ourselves.
"We get lots of math wrong, son," he intones, ticking off a litany of reasons we tend to be our own worst enemies when it comes to investing. It's tongue in cheek, but Birdthistle's point is serious: We're not very good at doing this ourselves, and the fund managers to whom we entrust the work don't always do the job. The worst part is that we wind up paying them either way, and most people don't understand how much they're paying in fees — or how badly that can erode their returns over the years.
Birdthistle suggests letting all retirement savers into the federal Thrift Savings Plan, the low-cost, defined-contribution retirement savings plan for federal government employees. In the meantime, consider his book a sort of "buyer beware" manual for your nest egg.