State of the Union speeches are generally pretty heavy on talk and light on practical action, and President Barack Obama’s 2014 was no exception. There was the usual backslapping and finger-pointing we’ve all grown to expect over the years from any sitting president. But there was one proposal made by Obama that got Wall Street’s attention: a new retirement savings vehicle for low- and middle-income Americans dubbed “myRA.”
From Obama’s State of the Union speech:
“Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401ks. That’s why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: myRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg.”
President Obama went on to say that savers would have “no risk” of losing what they put in, which will make the plan palatable for Americans who lack the stomach for equity investment.
The plans for myRA are still somewhat nebulous, but here are three key points you should take away:
#1: myRA is essentially a Roth IRA invested in long-term bonds
According to the White House’s fact sheet, the myRA accounts will be offered within a Roth IRA vehicle, though unlike current Roth IRAs, this product will be offered via employers, and employees will be given the ability to have a portion of their checks automatically deducted and deposited. Currently, Roth IRAs are offered by banks, brokerage houses and other financial institutions.
The assets on offer will be “like savings bonds,” backed by the U.S. government. There is no indication at this time whether equities or other riskier assets will be allowed, though given the explicit government guarantees, it’s unlikely.
#2: myRA appears to be largely riskless for employers
Offering a 401k plan is expensive, cumbersome and carries certain fiduciary risks for employers — this is why most small businesses don’t offer them. Only 68% of American workers have access to a retirement plan, and only 54% actually participate.
The Obama administration has been accused of being hostile to business and of being insensitive to regulatory burden. From what is available so far, it does not appear that myRA will be a burden for employers.
#3: myRA is not exactly “riskless.”
If the account is essentially a bond ladder within a Roth IRA, then it is safe to say that there is no principal risk. But remember, as with all bond investments, there is the risk of lost purchasing power due to inflation. It remains to be seen what kinds of yields are offered, but it is hard to imagine the federal government paying more to American savers than it does to its existing bondholders.
At time of writing, the 10-year Treasury yields 3.62%. The current rate of inflation is 1.2%, though the Fed would like to see it closer to 2%. Subtracting the Fed’s policy objective inflation rate from the current yield gets you a real, inflation-adjusted yield of 1.62%. And over the course of a lifetime, inflation might prove to be a lot higher than that.
It certainly has during the past 100 years; the average inflation rate has been about 3.2%.
A cynic might say that the U.S. government is trying to fleece its citizens into financing its chronic budget deficits. Hey, what can I say, there is probably some truth to that sentiment … but I believe that President Obama is sincere in wanting to help Americans save for their golden years.
Any savings, even at a low rate of return, are better than no savings at all. And given the long-term funding needs of Social Security, every little bit helps.
Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Check out his new premium service, Macro Trend Investor, which includes a free copy of his e-book, The New Megatrend Investor: The Ultimate Buy-and-Hold Strategy That Will Make You Rich.