Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Retirement Planning: A Good Retirement Plan (401k) Gone bad

Despite all of the faults with your 401(K) plan, from poor or limited choices, forced matches with company stocks, high management fees to name just a fee, your plan may not be getting any better soon. Is waiting around for improvements worth it?

The Company Match
The incentive called the company match may have been tossed to the wayside in this current economic cycle. And for good reason. Many business were forced to take drastic measures to stay afloat as consumers spent less, credit got tighter (for both their customers and capital expenditures) and labor costs seemed to rise (although in truth, they didn't actually go up as much as sales went down).

The 401(K), created for allow for additional savings for wealthier individuals looking to add to their retirement accounts in the presence of a fully funded pension plan, has been misused by many of the folks who are enrolled. As a self-directed plan (defined contribution plan), the responsibility of the employer to provide you some reward for years of service and your precious human capital diminished (the plan need only present you with choices), offer some advice (albeit generic), and direct non-participant employees to a default investment (as per the poorly written Pension Protection Act of 2006 - a misnomer if there ever was one).

The company match, a contribution by your employer that offered you free cash for every dollar you contributed on your own, up to a certain percentage (most commonly 3%) has been halted or scaled back by many employers. Some have switched their matching rules to include only stock with rules that make moving the plan more difficult.

Even if your company no longer matches, continue to participate in the plan. The pre-tax incentive is enough to make the plan worthy of your money. How much is often the questions I hear the most. And the answer is relatively simple: a 5% contribution to your plan will probably net you the same after tax income that you would have received had you made no contribution at all.

What's in the Plan
Companies have been forced to scale back or change plan administrators. In some cases, this is warranted. Many plans had too many options and far too frequently, contained products that were ill-suited for the average investor (although in many instances, the average 401(k) investor confused what they were doing as savings and because of that confusion, made them less-than-average participants in the plan).

Determining the worthiness of the underlying investments is even more difficult. Some companies offer a lot of funds; some only a few. Some offer a wide variety of mutual funds across a wide spectrum of possible investments; some offer only a group of index funds focused on specific types of investing (large-cap through small-cap, growth through value through balanced, and target-dated funds).

One of the most fundamental aspects of a well-constructed plan is not eliminating too much risk. Because the plan is built on a 'pay the taxes later' concept, there should always be a certain level of risk involved. I have long been an advocate of keeping investment mainstays such as the S&P500 index funds on the outside of your retirement plan. Doing so will force you to pay the taxes on the fund now, rather than later and because capital gains taxes are still historically low and the fund is very tax-efficient, paying the tax now will give you all of the money in the fund whenever you need it.

Fees are a Consideration
Always compare a fund against its peer group rather than against some index for more than just performance. Most fund managers want you to look at an index that, in most instances, does not reflect what they are trying to do. Take for example the S&P500. This index is not necessarily considered a growth sector. Although there are companies in the index that are growing, the largest in that group are dividend paying (often) behemoths that might be better categorized as value plays.

But fees that are too high, as compared to their peers, act as an additional drag on your investment. The best way to get these funds out of the plan is to complain. If the plan is charging fees that are excessive, employers might be paying too much as well and employees might under-participate in the plan because of it.

Self-directed is not the same as set-and-go. In fact, the more control you have over your investment decisions, the more difficult it becomes. Take a moment to review our examination of why investors do what they do and how you can benefit from a new approach to your plan.

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