Monday, September 28, 2009

Rebuilding Your Wealth: What's Wrong with the 401(k)?

Your 401(k) is in trouble. While the concept of a self-directed retirement plan is, at least in theory a good idea, it was never meant to be all there is. So many components go into a the proper operation of such plans, it is hard to get a bead on which move is right and which might spell disaster.

So let's briefly examine some of the do's and don'ts of 401(k) investing:

Do: Participate. No matter how little your employer offers in the way of incentives, called matching contributions or even if they offer none at all, you need to be in the plan. Plan on a minimum contribution of 5%.

Don't: Believe that it isn't any good. There are a great many of these employer sponsored plans that are essentially worthless. They charge fees that are too high, offer too few good funds from which to chose, and lack good any real fiduciary responsibility (something the employer is required to do).

Do: Buy funds. There will, in almost every plan on the planet, be mutual funds to choose from in your 401(k). Mutual funds are essentially investors who feel as thogh the effort of pooling money spreads diversity and risk over a greater number of stocks than they would have been able to purchase individually. A fund manager is the person(s) you hire to make investment decisions for this group. The fund will charge fees for this.

Don't: Buy company stock. A lot of 401(k) plans are designed to force you to buy the company's stock. Some will do this by limiting any match to this purchase and prohibit you to sell those shares. This is still not a good reason to buy this stock or any other. When you put too much money into one stock (same goes for buying too specific of a fund in large quantities) you run the risk of jeopardizing your portfolio's overall performance. This is where many 401(k) plans got into trouble.

Do: Diversify. For many people, diversification is simply purchasing an index fund (a fund that tracks a particular sector be it the total market of the Standard and Poors 500 list of the top market capitalized companies. (Capitalization refers to the number of shares outstanding multiplied by the share price.)

Don't: Index funds/Target-dated Funds/ETFs. Index funds are very tax efficient and charge very low fees to manage. This is due to their passive nature. Once the index is bought, until the index is changed, there is no more trading. As money comes in from investors, it is simply used to purchase more stocks of the companies in the index. (Use index funds outside of your 401(k) and pay the taxes on them while the rates are still historically low). Target dated funds are a relatively new product and just about every 401(k) has something like this. They may call it a life style fund. These funds pick a date in the future when you would like to retire and the fund manager gradually alters the fund's focus from aggressive (although many are not too aggressive) to a conservative format as the fund gets closer to the target date (of your retirement). ETFs are not a good idea for 401(k) plans because they charge the employee each time they purchase more and in a 401(k), this happens every time you get paid.

Do: Pay attention. If you have built a portfolio that is diversified (some growth, some value, some international or emerging markets and further spread these funds to include large, mid and small cap areas) you will need to open your statement or check it online each month. Look for changes in fees, changes in the 10 largest holding and any statements that the fund manager might make.

Don't: Overreact. When markets rise, don't try to adjust your underlying funds to follow. When markets swoon, stay where you are. In a rising market, because of dollar cost averaging, you will buy less as the price goes up. In a falling market, you will buy more as the share price is discounted.

Think first. Your 401(k) is your future, directed by you. Never withdraw money from this fund either by loan or by any other means. This single action will take years to fix. If you leave a company, roll your 401(k) into an IRA.

Don't: Panic. Things will get bad but they never stay that way. Your 401(k) is not a cash account and should not be eyeballed to save you from financial bumps in the road - even those bumps seem like they will last for a long time.

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