Sunday, June 7, 2009

Retiring on Time: The 401(k) Accumulation Problem

There have been numerous reports over the years that we have a problem with self-direct retirement plans such as the 401(k). These reports suggest that we are not taking full advantage of the process and worse, we underestimate how much of what we may have accumulated in these 401(k) plans will be available as a percentage of our retirement income. In other words, we simply have not used the plans the way they were intended and we haven't invested enough.

Everyone who has a 401(k) has heard this before: invest at least what your company matches. The company match is the best way a business can help their employee invest in the future. There is no obligation to do this, just as there was no obligation (unless contracted through a labor organization) to fund a pension. As pensions disappeared and 401(k)s stepped in to replace these defined benefit plans, companies began helping employees direct their savings by offering a matching contribution of up to, and sometimes more than 3%. That meant, in order to get the full company match (the free money the business was going to deposit into your account) you needed to put at least 3% of your pre-tax income away.

For most folks, 3% is not even missed. In fact, many people could contribute up to 5% without changing their take home pay. Because the contribution to the plan is done before taxes are taken out, the after-tax take home is almost identical to what it would be had you had 5% taken out before taxes.

So why are so many of these plans not only underfunded but under-invested? I believe that there are two reasons, neither of which has been fully addressed. One is the fact that company stock is, for the most part, what is offered by the matching contribution, not the funds in available for investment. Far too many companies saw their generosity as simply creating a larger shareholder base. These "shareholders could not sell the stock and because of that, were forced to hold what they may have wanted to sell or redirect into other more lucrative investments in the plan's portfolio of offerings. Eliminating this practice may have saved hundreds of millions of retirement dollars. Two is the lack of understanding about that pre-tax math benefit I just mentioned.

According to a recent report from Boston College, which opens with the caveat that what is being reported may no longer apply in light of the economic downturn, suggesting that it might be worse rather than better, they found "In theory, a typical worker who ends up at retirement with earnings of about $50,000 and who contributed 6 percent steadily with an employer match of 3 percent should have about $320,000." That $320,000 potential account balance was, for the sake of the study considered simulated. Why? Because the report continues with this fact: "actual holdings of $78,000 for those 55-64 are dramatically lower than those simulated for the hypothetical worker." (As low as $54,000 on average.)

Add a thirty percent loss due to the market downturn, the possibility that job loss or other financial hardship forced some folks to tap those accounts for day-to-day needs, and the chance that like so many folks I have spoken with recently, switched all of their holdings to a target-dated type of mutual fund (one that picks a retirement year and readjusts portfolio holdings from risky but only mildly so to conservative as they age and near the target date) and you have a real problem on the horizon.

Generosity Wains
With six million people out of work and more yet, disparaged, business realize that this benefit (along with insurance in many instances) is not worth maintaining. Losing this match is not the end-all for this type of plan. Although it does make it more difficult to grow without the free money.

Not impossible but somewhat harder. More companies than ever are suspending the matches until they see some sort of economic change. Some have reduced the dollar for dollar basis to half of that amount, contributing fifty cents for every dollar contributed. Some have explained that halting the company match is better than cutting the workforce by 3%.

While it is difficult to determine whether this employer generosity will ever resume to the pace it was on prior to 2008, some things have not changed. The employee who still had a job was not likely to change their contribution rate based on the news. And less than half of those eligible for these plans, used them. The good news: the last time we had a similar downturn (2001), the suspension of company matches was only temporary.

Match or no match, you must keep putting money into these accounts.

Match or no match, you should, if possible increase your contribution.

Match or no match
, you should not withdraw any of these funds no matter how bad things get.

Match or no match, the report concludes that: "The time may have come to consider returning 401(k) plans to their original position as a third tier on top of Social Security and employer-sponsored pensions."

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