4 Ways to Fix the 401k Mess


Recently, InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves discussed the plight of older Americans regarding their retirement savings — or lack thereof. He cites an Aon Hewitt report showing that the average 60-year-old has $114,500 in his or her 401k, which provides approximately $4,600 per year over a 25-year period.

Almost no one in America can live on that, so those close to retirement are ratcheting up the risk in search of greater returns and a bigger retirement fund. Unfortunately, we know how this scenario all too often turns out — badly.

Therefore, I’d like to look at some ways individuals, with the assistance of the federal government, can improve their retirement picture before it’s too late.

Let’s start with the 401k itself. The IRS formally introduced the rules governing this retirement program in November 1981, and they’ve been in existence for more than 30 years. Many of the earliest participants have likely retired by now. The Investment Company Institute calls the 401k “… a powerful savings tool that can provide significant income in retirement.”

However, Aon Hewitt’s figures seem to dispute that. Furthermore, by allowing participants to be able to borrow from their plans, the situation has only compounded itself. Today, there are $37 billion in annual defaults on 401k loans. In Canada, you can borrow against your RRSP (the equivalent of a 401k) only if you’re a first-time home buyer or going to school. Any other use requires that you withdraw the funds and pay income tax on those funds.

It’s a powerful disincentive to get off the tax-deferral train. Nonetheless, people do it all the time.

That’s why so many financial professionals argue that your home is your best investment because the mortgage becomes a method of forced savings that the 401k can’t match. Current rules allow for couples filing jointly to deduct all of the interest on a mortgage used to buy or build a home up to $1 million in mortgage debt and on $100,000 in equity debt. In addition, if you live in and own a home for two out of five years prior to the sale, you can deduct up to $500,000 of the gain upon a sale. For many homeowners, especially after the housing crisis, they’ll never need more than the current limits in place.

In Canada, you can’t deduct any mortgage interest, although all of the capital gains from the sale of your principal residence are tax-free. In order to deduct mortgage interest, Canadians end up paying down their mortgages and then setting up a home equity line of credit (HELOC) and using it investment purposes (non-RRSP, TFSA accounts) to buy stocks, mutual funds and other investment vehicles with the interest being deductible. It’s a cumbersome way of achieving what already exists in the U.S.

The only change I’d suggest regarding homes is that the U.S. adopt a principal-residence rule similar to Canada’s. People living in places like New York and San Francisco would benefit greatly from this rule. You shouldn’t be punished for living in an expensive city.

For most people, their biggest asset is their home, and I doubt that will ever change. So, why place such an emphasis on tax-deductible savings? I realize that the 401k and IRA were created to help employees cope with the move to a self-funded retirement from a pension-funded one.

However, it clearly hasn’t worked. The average balance of all 50 million 401k plans in America is something like $60,000, despite the fact you can contribute up to $17,000 annually. As Karen Friedman of the Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C., puts it: “401k’s have failed millions of Americans.”

The Canadian experience isn’t much different. In 2012, an individual can contribute up to CAD$22,970, or 18% of earned income, whichever is less. In 2010, despite the maximum contribution being $22,000, the median contribution was $2,790, or slightly more than 10% of the max. Canadians are never going to change how much they contribute to RRSPs despite the best efforts of the financial planning industry. They just don’t have the money. And the same scenario plays out in the U.S.

There has to be a better way. Here are four possibilities:

Solution No. 1

The feds create a tax-deductible home-ownership savings plan with a maximum annual contribution of $5,000. Rather than contributing to a 401k and then borrowing those funds for a downpayment, you would be able to roll the funds tax-free (up to $50,000 — more depending on where you live) into the purchase of a home. That would get young people saving, although the program would be available to anyone.

Solution No. 2

Create the principal residence (only one per household) exemption with the same rules as currently exist but with no ceiling on tax-free gains. The exception would be if you used the first solution to fund your down-payment. In that case, assuming the full $50,000, you’d have $50,000 in taxable income. Considering you received a deduction on the front end and tax-deferred income while saving for the down-payment, it’s a relative bargain.

Solution No. 3

Currently, you can contribute up to $17,000 ($22,500 if you’re over 50) into your 401k and $5,000 ($6,000 if you’re over 50) to your IRA. Most people contribute to their 401k to benefit from the company match. Beyond that, the IRA allows you to do more. Therefore, many professionals advise that you contribute up to the match in your 401k, then fully contribute to the IRA. If money is left over, make additional 401k contributions.

That just seems incredibly cumbersome. In Canada, companies that match do so within a Group RRSP. The problem with this is when you move jobs, you can accumulate a number of these plans. As a result, many Canadians end up opening a self-directed RRSP to merge all these accounts. In any event, employees are faced with one main investment vehicle (RRSP) as opposed to two in the U.S. I’d figure out how to merge the 401k and IRA. Less is always better.

Solution No. 4

Once the two plans are merged, the government in conjunction with the financial services industry, should figure out incentives for employees to move funds from pre-tax contributions to post-tax contributions. Why? Because it’s obvious people aren’t going to be able to save enough for retirement, so at least the money they do save will be distributed to them later tax-free. Furthermore, should financial distress hit before then, as it has in the case of the $37 billion in 401k loan defaults, they’ll be able to get at their money instead of having to jump through hoops — even though it’s their own.

You can argue till the cows come home, but the Roth versions of the 401k and IRA are better for your long-term financial health.

Bottom Line

Corporations created this mess long ago when they decided profitability was more important than their employees’ retirement. Convincing the government that self-funding was the road to economic salvation, they created the current situation, which suggests we’ve all been duped. Those same corporations now want the government to declare a tax holiday when repatriating cash now held overseas.

Will we never learn? Sadly, I doubt it.

Will Ashworth has written about investments full-time since 2008. Publications where he’s appeared include InvestorPlace, The Motley Fool Canada, Investopedia, Kiplinger, and several others in both the U.S. and Canada. He particularly enjoys creating model portfolios that stand the test of time. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media, https://investorplace.com/2012/07/4-ways-to-fix-the-401k-mess/.

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