Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The 401(k) Returns... Almost

Your 401(k) is still in trouble. As the stock market rallies (although some think that September and October, historically bad months for the stock market will correct this), as the economy recovers (although consensus agrees for the most part that the recovery is not so much a bounce as a leveling off) and as unemployment remains the lagging indicator (along with housing), the effort at funding your future through your 401(k) languishes. Why? The employer is seeing that incentive to invest, the 401(k) match as not worth reinstating to pre-2008 levels.

For those of you who may not be aware, the 401(k) replaced the pension decades ago as companies divested themselves as guardians of your future. Pensions were the repayment for loyalty, human capital and profits. The 401(k) on the other hand was directed by the employee. Business used the incentive of the company match, a dollar for dollar investment up to a certain percentage as a way to encourage loyalty, human capital and profits.

Then the economy turned sour. And in the process of cost cutting, many companies eliminated or greatly reduced their company match. The question is: will matching of employee contributions ever return?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is: they will no longer resemble the employer contributions we have all become used to receiving.

Businesses face two problems when they decide to cut their 401(k) match. Neither is very appetizing and may even cost the company more than they bargained for.

For most plans, reinstating their 401(k) will not happen until 2011. Because of what is known as a safe harbor rule, reinstating the company match needs to be in the books by November of the previous year. To take effect in 2010, companies will need to feel as though the economy is on stable footing. This is not yet clear and may not be clear by the fall.

If the economy recovers at a faster pace than anticipated and jobs begin to return before 2011, the competition to get and in many cases retain good employees by offering these incentives will be missed. This could be a costly mistake for businesses looking to get and keep quality workers.

If the economy merely levels off, these employers will have time to see if some new techniques, currently being offered by Starbucks, might be the way of the future. Starbucks is breaking the mold for 401(k) plans by changing the incentive to profit based contributions. In other words, the company does better and in return, you get something for your retirement besides what you invested.

Will it work? Will other businesses follow? Possibly yes to both. The current corporate thinking is leaning towards less incentives believing that their plans were too generous in the first place. If your company has struggled through these tough economic times, particularly if you are associated with the automotive industry, those incentives, many experts agree, will never return.

A great number of other industries are planning to ease back into the incentive by offering substantially less in matching contributions and promising to raise those levels once they are assured the economy has recovered.

Some may simply be waiting to see of the Starbucks model works.

Does this mean the end of the 401(k)? No. Instead, you will have to earn more, put away more and invest with slightly more risk than you would like to assume. This means keeping your money out of staid index funds and target-dated funds in favor of investments that could do better. For some, this will be re-entering a high-risk investment model that did not pay off previously, evidenced by the cutting many nest eggs by a third or more when the market soured.

The next year will prove to be among the most interesting of the recovery.

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