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America’s Failed 401(k) Experiment

3:07 pm in Uncategorized by Lee Saunders

While the unfunded pension liabilities in many public retirement funds have received an inordinate amount of attention, the larger retirement deficit of most Americans is not generating the level of concern that it deserves. Individuals who have been left on their own to save for retirement in 401(k) accounts face challenges that are not being met. As a result of the financial crash that led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the retirement savings of most baby boomers — which were already inadequate — were reduced to levels that may create genuine impoverishment as the boomers retire and enter their 70s.

Because 401(k) accounts are rarely professionally managed, individuals are often exposed to excessive risk. When the market goes bad, individual investors are hit the hardest. Many Americans with 401(k) accounts lost one-third to one-half of their "nest-egg" when the equity markets collapsed in 2008 and 2009. Because most boomers are now well over 50 years of age, they have little time to accumulate adequate retirement savings.

Rather than focusing on the real problems facing most future retirees, much of the media has been focusing instead on problems facing public retirement funds. While the funding levels of some of these plans will present real challenges in the future, the problems can be resolved over a period of 30 years under generally accepted accounting rules. What’s more, the combined deficit in our major state and local government retirement systems represents less than 2 percent of total state and local government spending over the coming 30-year period. When we consider that many state and local government budgets have been cut by 10 percent to 40 percent over the past three fiscal years, it’s not too difficult to see how governments can rebuild their pension funds once the economy recovers and tax revenues return to more normal levels.

Most government pension funds have 70 to 75 percent of the assets necessary to provide promised benefits. On the other hand, the median 401(k) balance for workers who have had consistent access to such an account was just $43,700 at the end of 2008. But, most employers do not offer such access, and many workers do not have the ability to consistently save. So, the median account balance of all 401(k) accounts is less than $13,000, barely a fraction of what is needed for a secure retirement. In aggregate, the gap between what Americans have saved and what they will need in retirement has been calculated at $6.6 trillion.

The contrast is clear: While public pensions have decades to cover their relatively small deficit, many individuals must accumulate sufficient savings in little more than a decade. Given our current financial straights, this may be impossible.

The public policy implications of these facts are real – and severe. The longer we delay addressing this issue, the more intractable the problem will become. Ironically, at the very time our retirement savings crisis is demanding attention, some politicians think a reduction in Social Security benefits is essential. Republican Leader John Boehner, for example, supports an extension of the retirement age to 70. This may sound like a good solution to our problems for him, but it simply makes retirement less secure for most Americans.

So, what can be done? First, we need to recognize that our current retirement programs, based on individual accounts such as 401(k) plans, are a failed experiment. Enacted during the late 1970s and early 1980s, we now have the experience of a generation to clearly demonstrate that individual investors do not have the skills, time or interest to properly mange their retirement investment portfolios. Indeed, a study by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that professionally managed pensions can deliver the same level of retirement benefits at half the cost of a 401(k)-style plan. This means we must investigate policy options that combine the portability features of 401(k) plans with the professional investment management, long terms asset growth strategies, shared risk and guaranteed income streams that make traditional pension plans so efficient.

Second, we need to stop inflicting unnecessary damage to our fragile retirement systems. Attacks on Social Security and traditional public and private sector pension plans only make our problems worse. We need to provide our pension systems with sufficient time to recover from the aftershocks of the implosion of our economy. No one is seeking a "bailout." Rather, we simply need to allow pension plans to function as intended, with a reliance on long-term growth strategies to weather the ups and downs of an increasingly volatile investment environment.

At the end of the day, our traditional pension systems will remain strong and will continue to be the cornerstone of retirement security for those Americans fortunate enough to participate in such programs. For these and other Americans, Social Security will almost always be the bedrock of a secure retirement. But, for the tens of millions who must rely on Social Security alone, more must be done to help them save in order to live out their elder years in dignity. The sooner we have a serious conversation about this issue, the better.

New Jersey’s Pension Fraud Hurts Investors, Taxpayers and Retirees

7:28 am in Uncategorized by Lee Saunders

[Ed. note: New Seminal community member Lee A. Saunders is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 1.6 million workers. He was elected at the union’s 39th International Convention in July 2010. Please extend him a warm welcome.]

Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission did something it has never done before. It charged the state of New Jersey with fraudulently misleading investors about the health of the state’s pension plan. From 2001 to 2007, the SEC charged, the state gave out false information about the state’s retirement funds. They cooked the books. Now investors, taxpayers and retirees are left to clean up the mess.

Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said: “The State of New Jersey didn’t give its municipal investors a fair shake, withholding and misrepresenting pertinent information about its financial situation.”

It is not just investors who are not getting a fair shake. Taxpayers and retirees are being abused as well. While the state failed to adequately invest in their retirement funds and misled investors, New Jersey’s public employees faithfully made their payments into the funds. Public employees in the Garden State contribute 5.5 percent of their compensation to their retirement fund, and earn an average annual benefit of $20,349.

Now the state’s policy of underfunding the retirement security of state employees has been exposed. As The Wall Street Journal noted this week: “The problems go back nearly 15 years, to when the then-relatively healthy state decided to borrow $2.8 billion and stick it in its pension funds in lieu of making contributions from tax revenues.”

The state compounded the problem by using accounting gimmicks, giving investors the false impression that everything was fine. And governors from both parties failed to make required payments into the funds. Earlier this year, for example, Governor Chris Christie failed to make the state’s required $3.1 billion payment.

No one should be surprised that New Jersey’s fraud against investors, retirees and taxpayers began with tax giveaways for the rich. Lost revenue from income tax cuts enacted from 1994 through 1996 – under GOP Governor Christine Todd Whitman – totaled $14 billion, and sales tax cuts totaled $10 billion. That’s more than enough to fill the hole in the state’s pension funds.

We have every right to be angry with irresponsible public officials in New Jersey. If anything, they got off the hook easy, with the SEC failing to name names or fine the officials who conducted the fraud. Sadly, other states have been just as irresponsible. Many have lost revenue by passing unwise tax cuts, then underfunded their pension plans and used accounting gimmicks to hide their inadequate investments. Investors, taxpayers and retirees all benefit when there is accountability and transparency in pension funds.