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Teacher Pensions vs. 401(k) Plans

April 6, 2012

As a person who has an IRA, the possibility of Social Security (if the wizards in Washington stop talking about cutting it and start funding it), and now a vested interest in a defined benefit plan (the California State Teachers Retirement System) I wanted to talk a little bit about 401(k) plans versus good, old-fashioned defined benefit plans.  Personally, I am a big believer in the disappearing defined benefit plan, it is actually a true pension plan.

There was a time, 40-50 years ago when most of the pension plans in this country were defined benefit plans.  Defined benefit means exactly what it sounds like it would mean: After a prescribed period of time, the benefit you received was defined by both the amount you put in (in some cases) and the amount the company you worked for put in.  That is a rather simplistic explanation of a DB plan, but you get the idea.  There are all sorts of investment assumptions and actuarial tables that are tied into the calculations but they are beyond the scope of this discussion.

I am surmising that at this point most of my readers’ eyes are glossing over with boredom, but stick with me for a moment.  I actually love this kind of stuff.  I am positing here that having a 401(k) plan as opposed to a DB plan is now, and has been for the past 3 or 4 decades, a very bad idea for people heading, inexorably, towards retirement.  The reason I say this is simple: People, in general, are not good investors, and even if they were, their investment options inside of their 401(k)’s are limited.

401(k) plans began to be widely adopted in the 1980’s, if you remember who was President at that time (Reagan) it should start making some sense to you as to why there was a shift away from corporate liability of paying for a retirees pension, and onto the back of the worker to do it themselves.  Along these lines I found this article in the Washington Post which explains what I am talking about with regard to retirees not being ready to retire in part, because of their underfunded 401(k) plans.  It is disturbing, and with millions upon millions of baby boomers set to retire…well, you can guess what the ramifications will be.  One thing for certain that will happen is that many older Americans will stay in the work force because they HAVE to.  This will serve as an impediment to younger workers as there won’t be as many positions open to them.  I will have more comments below, here is a link to the article I am posting.

This is the face of many who are nearing retirement age.

The 401(k): Americans ‘just not prepared’ to manage their own retirement funds

By , Published: April 4

When lawmakers added a subsection to the tax code called the 401(k) more than three decades ago, they could not have imagined that this string of three numbers and a letter would become a fixture in the financial lexicon.

Nor could they imagine the stress it would unleash.

I don’t fully agree with that statement.  I think that some lawmakers were fully aware of the potential havoc that 401(k)’s could cause.

poll by Gallup last year showed that for two-thirds of Americans, not having enough money for retirement topped seven other financial worries, including medical bills, mortgage payments and their children’s college tuitions.

Worrying about having enough money for retirement is not a new phenomenon. But the rise of the 401(k), dating to the early 1980s, has steadily shifted more financial responsibility onto the shoulders of many Americans who are — let’s face it — clueless.

Sadly, this is true.  Most Americans are clueless when it comes to managing their financial affairs.  They are ripe targets for any get-rich-quick swindler who happens down their block.  And they are certainly no match for Wall Street’s boy-wonder algorithmic geniuses who utilize high-frequency trading platforms to front-run the average Joe’s financial transactions.

The number of people who are unprepared is growing. In 1983, researchers now at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College calculated that 31 percent of working-age households were “at risk” of not being able to maintain their standard of living after they retired. By 2009, it was 51 percent.

“I don’t know how you feel, but managing your own money is just horrible,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the center. “We just don’t know how to do it.”

Consider the hurdles between every American with a 401(k) and a decent retirement: First, wade through your HR department’s paperwork to enroll in a plan at your company. Second, save enough. (Imagine what you think is enough. Then save more.) Next, manage your investments intelligently through stock market highs and lows, tending to your portfolio every year to make sure you have the right balance of stocks and bonds, and avoid withdrawing any money early. And not least, when you retire, ration your money at just the right rate: not so little that you live uncomfortably but not so much that you run out.

The result has been a system that works well for people who know how to use it. For many others, it’s better than nothing, but it still may not be enough.

“Does the system work or not? It’s really a ‘compared to what’ question,” said Eric Toder of the Urban Institute. “One side emphasizes the glass is half-full and the other emphasizes the glass is half-empty. The real question is, how do we make the system work better for the people for whom it’s not working while not destroying the benefits?”

As company pension plans peter out, Munnell estimates that it will be another decade before people rely almost entirely on their 401(k)s.

That means 10 more years before a system — once imagined to be only supplementary to Social Security and pension plans — is fully tested. That’s 10 years in which bigger waves of workers sign up for a savings vehicle that they expect will see them through old age.

Did you guys catch that?  401(k) plans were once imagined to be only SUPPLEMENTARY to pensions and Social Security, now they are dominant.  Someone pulled a fast one on the public in this country while we were too busy watching sitcoms or something.

For the past several years, there’s been a movement to fix the 401(k), or at least make it work better for average people — that is to say, almost all of us — who are bound to make some mistakes along the way.

Reformers want the 401(k) of the future to look very different. But even the program’s biggest critics concede that the system that was unwittingly launched in 1978 is here to stay.

Retirement plans, defined

Broadly speaking, companies help workers plan for retirement in two ways.

Defined benefits, often called pension plans, guarantee workers a certain amount annually when they retire based on earnings in their final years and how long they’ve worked at the company. The employer must set aside the money, invest the funds and pay employees, regardless of what happens in the market.

Doesn’t this sound better than throwing your retirement to market whims?  The reason teacher pensions are attacked is because the general public realizes they have been completely screwed out of a decent pension, and they see that teachers still have a decent pension, and this dichotomy, fueled by right-wing talkers, breeds discontent.

In a defined-contribution plan, which includes 401(k)s, the employer diverts money from the employee’s paycheck — while perhaps chipping in some to an account owned by the employee, effectively creating a savings account. There are restrictions on when the money can be drawn. The employee owns the account, though, and can move the money from employer to employer.

The 401(k) was created by the Revenue Act of 1978, which also reduced individual income tax rates and the corporate tax rate and created flexible spending accounts.

But years before the law, companies had defined-contribution plans that were precursors to the 401(k). Firms — banks in particular — created accounts in which employees could put their bonuses rather than collect the money in cash. The accounts allowed employees to defer the taxes they would owe immediately with a cash payout.

The IRS was wary of this setup, but Congress gave it the rubber stamp. In the 1978 law, Congress added 401(k)s to the tax code, formally allowing employees to put a portion of their salary in these tax-deferred accounts. Three years later, the government issued official regulations, and companies including Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo were among the first to adopt the new 401(k).

The number of companies offering the plan exploded in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1990, about $384 billion worth of assets had been saved in 401(k) plans. By 1996, the number surpassed $1 trillion. The mutual fund industry flourished with all the new business.

In other words, 401(k) plans were a huge gift to Wall Street.

In the meantime, companies rolled back their pension plans.

‘If you want to drive a car . . .’

Let’s say a worker making $50,000 contributes 6 percent of her annual salary with a 3 percent employer match. By the time that person retires, she should have about $320,000 saved up, according to calculations by Munnell. But reality rarely plays out that way. People forget to enroll, or they don’t save enough, or they wind up withdrawing money to cover a financial emergency. The result: Individuals nearing retirement have closer to $78,000 saved, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. (And that number is rosy; the last regular survey was done in 2007, just before the financial crisis.)

“The old-style 401(k) before automatic enrollment came along was basically telling people, ‘If you want to drive a car, you have to be able to repair it and maintain it yourself,’ ” said William Gale, director of the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution. “If the 401(k) is supposed to be the primary retirement vehicle for the average American worker, then it needs to be consistent with the information and financial ability of the average American worker, who is just not prepared to manage funds like that over the course of a lifetime.”

Whatever the 401(k)’s flaws, freedom has been a selling point as people work at multiple companies in their careers and need to move their retirement savings with them.

“I think there’s a reason people do tend to like these things,” said Peter Brady, senior economist at the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund industry group. “They much better match up to people’s work histories . . . and I think they like having control over their investments.”

Excuse me for not trusting the words of Mr. Peter Brady as he is from a mutual industry group.  Is this guy looking out for you, or for his group (rhetorical question)?

Some of the fixes proposed involve diminishing the do-it-yourself nature of the 401(k), or at least nudging people toward better decisions.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 paved the way for companies to offer automatic enrollment in 401(k) programs. Many firms have also added automatic annual increases in how much employees contribute. Half of the companies surveyed by the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America in 2010 offered automatic enrollment. Of those, about 40 percent also offered automatic increases.

Many companies automatically enroll their workers to contribute roughly 3 percent — more than they might save if they didn’t enroll at all but probably not enough to build a secure nest egg.

This year, the Treasury Department offered new rules that would make it easier for employers to offer annuity options to workers who are retiring. This way people are not left having to manage a lump sum but can instead count on a steady stream of payments.

In a way, these changes try to bring the best features of pension plans — their steadiness and predictability — to the 401(k).

“It’s kind of like we ran all the way to the cliff to D.C. [defined contribution] and then looked over the cliff and decided to make them more like D.B. [defined benefits],” Gale said.

Gale predicts that in the future there will be “hybrid” systems in which employers are still leaving much of the retirement saving to workers but plans are less overwhelming to manage.

At the core of any reform, Munnell said, there has to be massive education of employees on how to plan for retirement. Many people think that saving 6 percent with a 3 percent match, for example, is enough. Not so, according to the Center for Retirement Research.

As a baseline, the group estimates that a household earning at least $50,000 needs roughly 80 percent of its earnings to maintain its pre-retirement lifestyle.

To pull that off, a person who is 25 and earns $43,000 needs to be saving 15 percent a year in order to retire at 65, assuming a 4 percent rate of return on his investments. Wait until 35 to start saving, and the necessary savings rate creeps up to 24 percent.

The solution for many people, Munnell said, will be to work longer. If that 25-year-old doesn’t retire until 70, he would only have to save 7 percent a year.

“Our whole retirement system’s too small,” Munnell said. “When you put together Social Security and these 401(k) plans, it’s just not going to provide enough for retirement income. . . . The question is, can you fix it by fixing the 401(k)s?”

Fixing them is a start, but rolling them back would be better.


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  1. MichiganMoon permalink

    Some good points.

    Companies are switching to 401Ks to save money. Often companies were putting in an amount equivalent to 20% of the employee’s pay in to the pension program. So the company when switching to a 401K plan that matches 5% — kind of just gave you a huge pay cut without you realizing it.

    401Ks do offer some advantages that Pensions do not though…your company and the pension could disappear, even government pensions are underfunded and might not be able to fully deliver on its promise, 401Ks offer a chance of exponential growth, 401Ks offer a chance to leave a sizable inheritance, 401Ks can give you the satisfaction of knowing what to expect in retirement and be in your own name for safety, you can take out large chunks of money at a time to buy a car or house to avoid interest payments, roth 401Ks are now available to avoid taxes in retirement, among other things.

    • Yes, you are right, 401Ks do offer the POTENTIAL of those benefits you sited, but…they are not performing like they should be and many individuals do NOT max out contributions. A pension (traditionally) was designed to offer a modicum of security during one’s retirement without having to worry about the ups and downs of the underlying investments it is tied to in the stock market or other areas. I think that many baby-boomers, who are at, or nearing retirement are woefully underfunded in their 401Ks and it will cause them to keep working long past when they might have retired.

  2. It’s actually a cool and useful piece of info. I am happy that you shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

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