Sunday, May 04, 2008

Their Own Devices

There’s been a lot of talk about tax policy of late.

It’s an election year, after all—and while most of the rhetoric revolves around targeting only “the wealthiest Americans,” it’s hard to shake a sense that the impact will be less than precisely targeted.

There’s talk of raising the tax rate on capital gains and dividends, for example—as though only the rich invest in stocks and mutual funds. A prominent presidential candidate talks openly about the fairness of increasing the amount of income subject to FICA withholding, and while it certainly sounds “fair,” that could represent a pretty big tax increase for some decidedly unwealthy families (worse, unless the benefit calculations are adjusted—and it would certainly be most unfair to do so—the move won’t even help the Social Security deficit; we’ll just pay out more in benefits to the people from whom we have now taken more FICA).

Another prominent presidential candidate wants to sever the tie between employment and health insurance, and if he is successful, many in the working middle class who currently enjoy that workplace coverage could find some or all of that benefit taxed—and probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a salary boost to compensate for the loss (even more could simply find themselves with the “opportunity” to shop for insurance on their own). Others have resurrected the notion of imposing a “windfall profits” tax on Big Oil—as though we don’t all know who will actually wind up paying for it (note to politicians: It’s been tried before…it didn’t work).

Complicate Ed

Unfortunately, our economic lives are going to get more complicated in the coming months. We’re not technically in a recession, but regardless of such technicalities, many feel—and are hunkering down—as though we are. Ultimately, of course, perception is reality in such matters—and none of the current U.S. presidential candidates has any real interest in convincing us otherwise.

What that means, of course, is that between now and the election, we’re going to have a lot to fret about. Concerns about the rising cost of—well, just about everything—and anxiety about how the markets (and our 401(k) accounts) respond to that uncertainty will almost certainly continue to be the order of the day. In the months ahead, it’s likely to be harder than ever to keep participants focused on, and committed to, their retirement savings. Frankly, even the well-intentioned coverage and focus on 401(k) plan fees (and not all of it qualifies as “well-intentioned”) serves to undermine participant confidence in these programs.

As a solution, the Democratic candidates are touting payroll deduction plans for retirement savings (Senator Clinton’s are voluntary, Senator Obama would make them opt-out for participants) with government matches of up to $1,000. These solutions, of course, relegate the employer to nothing more than a payroll agent in the transaction (Senator McCain has yet to address the issue).

Doubtless, the ease of payroll deduction will spur some takers (certainly Obama’s opt-out version), but one can’t help but wonder how well-served workers, left to their own devices, will be in the retail IRA market, certainly compared with the structure, guidance, and institutional pricing afforded most employer-sponsored plans. It is a shame, perhaps a tragedy, IMHO, that the candidates have yet to consider the opportunity to provide real incentives for employers to “suit up” as a fiduciary for these programs.

But if there is a tragedy greater than the fact that only about three in four eligible actually participate in a workplace retirement savings plan, IMHO, it is that roughly half of working Americans don’t even have the opportunity.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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