Saturday, March 19, 2016

The ‘Plot’ Thickens

In recent weeks, I have been distressed to see a pair of reports by what are sometimes affectionately referred to as 401(k) “haters” — but that’s not what I find most troubling.

One, by the Economic Policy Institute, is innocuously titled, “The State of American Retirement,” but it might be more honestly subtitled, “How 401(k)s have failed most American workers.” The other is a formalized (and slightly updated) version of Teresa Ghilarducci’s Guaranteed Retirement Account (GRA) proposal titled, “A Comprehensive Plan to Confront the Retirement Crisis.” Both reports tread familiar, and misguided, ground.

Misguided and misleading as these kinds of reports are, they’re not new or even original. I’d almost be inclined to simply ignore them. That is, until I see headlines like, “The Plan That Could Render Your 401(k) Obsolete,” or “These Depressing Charts Show the Different Ways 401(k)s Fall Short,” reported with a straight face by the personal finance press. The latter, which just appeared in The Washington Post, leads off with the assertion, “We already know that the 401(k) has not been a great solution for improving Americans’ retirement security.” Oh, do we?

Here’s some data that (somehow) is overlooked by these reports: According to the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), in 2013, 82% of 401(k) participants (for whom this information was available) made less than $100,000 per year, and 51% of 401(k) participants made less than $50,000. Even more importantly, moderate income workers participate when they have the option: More than 70% of workers earning between $30,000 and $50,000 save in their 401(k). Oh, and the notion that “less than half of American workers have access to a retirement plan”? Well, the fact is that 8 out of 10 full-time workers are eligible for some kind of workplace retirement plan, the most common of which is a 401(k)-style plan. The 50% statistic cited repeatedly by academics and the media includes seasonal and part-time workers — granted, they have a retirement to worry about, but their issues in the here and now are economic, not a fault of ERISA or the 401(k), which have long had specific coverage thresholds.

It is, as a colleague of mine said recently, blaming the well for the drought.

The failure laid at the feet of 401(k)s — if a failure it is — is that people who don’t work, or who don’t work for employers who offer a retirement plan at work, are in worse shape than those who do. Now, I’m not saying that the 401(k) design works for everyone, and it most assuredly won’t work for those who don’t have access to its benefits. That said, 401(k)s are working for far more people and in far more varied circumstances than the fear-mongering headlines give them credit for. It’s one thing, after all, to acquiesce to what has become a journalistic “creed” — that “if it bleeds, it leads” – and something else again to wield the knife.

It’s past time to call out these reports — and the reporting on them — for what they really are: part of a long-standing and deliberately intentioned “plot” to kill the 401(k) — first by undermining its value, discounting and demeaning the modest tax deferrals that encourage American savers to put aside their natural preferences for spending, then discrediting as “rich” those who do take advantage of the option and make thoughtful preparations for retirement, and then, as advisors well know, disparaging those who work with retirement savers to make good long-term decisions.

It’s been said that, “A lie unchallenged becomes the truth.” If those of us who know better don’t start speaking up — and speaking out — you can bet that the drumbeat of coverage about the failure of the 401(k) will one day become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For some, that day has already arrived.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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