The tyranny of the 401(k) industrial complex

If you never watch PBS’ “Frontline,” you’re missing out on some of the best journalism on TV. I don’t agree with every viewpoint they advocate, but each episode is thought-provoking and well done.

Recently, “Frontline” focused on “The Retirement Gamble,” as they titled the piece. It can be summed up by this quote by Zvi Bodie, a professor of management at Boston University: “401(k) plans really place the burden on the individual participant to have an adequate retirement. And the vast majority of ordinary people don’t know how to do that.”

It’s true. As if you don’t have enough going on in your life, you have to become a part-time financial planner and investment manager. You need to figure out how much to save, how to invest your savings, and how to withdraw it in a way that makes it last forever or until you die, whichever comes first.

Of course, you can always get help from the financial-services industry — in particular, the mutual fund providers, since those are the type of investments in most workers’ retirement plans. However, many of these folks are padding their own retirement accounts at the expense of yours. Here’s how economist Teresa Ghilarducci explained it to “Frontline”: “The 401(k) is one of the only products that Americans buy that they don’t know the price of it. It’s also one of the products that Americans buy that they don’t even know its quality. It’s one of the products that Americans buy that they don’t know its danger. And it’s because the industry — the mutual fund industry — has been able to protect themselves against regulation that would expose the danger and price of their products.”

I’ll add another shortfall of the 401(k) industrial complex: You don’t have a choice. The 401(k) is chosen by your employer, who might be keeping costs low by passing the costs along to you. I’m on the 401(k) committee at The Motley Fool, and I can tell you that it does indeed cost an employer money and time to provide a retirement plan; it’s not as easy as opening an IRA with a discount broker. The plan has to meet all kinds of government-mandated tests to make sure that the plan doesn’t disproportionately benefit higher-income employers and owners. So companies that offer a retirement plan deserve some level of gratitude, especially if they match employee contributions. But that doesn’t mean these companies spend the time and money necessary to make it the best plan possible.

Then there are the funds themselves. The “Frontline” episode included an interview with one of my heroes, Vanguard founder John Bogle. His best quote: “Do you really want to invest in a system where you put up 100 percent of the capital … you take 100 percent of the risk, and you get 30 percent of the return?”

Where did the other 70 percent of return go? To the fund companies, due to high fees and low performance — in Bogle’s words, “The magic of compound returns is overwhelmed by the tyranny of compounding costs. It’s a mathematical fact. There’s no getting around it.”

My picking of bones

While I generally agree with “Frontline’s” call to arms regarding the malfeasance of the mutual fund industry, there are a couple of counter-points I would have liked to see them address. First off, the episode recommends index funds over actively managed funds, featuring more footage of John Bogle, one of the main figures in the birth of index funds. However, it would be interesting to ask him why Vanguard itself has had actively managed funds for decades. Perhaps even the most famous advocate for index investing sees some value in paying a fund manager to pick the investments. And, to Vanguard’s credit, the expenses on their actively managed funds are very low. I know because I own a few of them, including a few of their index funds.

The “Frontline” episode also had its nostalgia for the good, old days of defined-benefit pensions, when an employer would reward an employee after decades of service with a monthly check in retirement for life. Like many shows that bemoan the state of retirement in America, they clearly argue that those are better than 401(k)s. However, the truth is that these pensions have their own issues. First off, even at their peak, most Americans didn’t have a pension. At least with a 401(k), workers can save for retirement in a tax-advantaged account, something they didn’t have before these accounts became prevalent in the ’80s. Also, a traditional pension mainly benefited employees who worked for the same company for decades. If you left within, say, five years (as was the case when I was a teacher), you got nothing. The money in a 401(k), however, can be taken with you.

Plus, many pensions don’t have enough money to pay future benefits and are assuming (nay, praying) that unrealistically high investment returns will bail them out. Private pensions are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but that “safety net” itself is underfunded by more than $20 billion. Government pensions are backed by taxes, and they’re going to hit hard as more and more Boomers retire. So defined-benefit pensions are not the panacea as they’re often portrayed, often using film footage from the ’50s (as “Frontline” did).

Finally, the episode featured interviews with everyday Americans who have little in the way of retirement savings, portraying them as victims of the mutual fund companies. In many ways, they most definitely were. Yet, as these people sit in their kitchens and living rooms, explaining their predicaments to the camera, I can’t help but notice that they have nice furniture, large-screen TVs and cable. I admit that this is a bit callous of me, but I do have a little less sympathy for people with little in savings but plenty of luxuries. (Yes, cable TV is a luxury.)

Carpe 401(k)-em

The good news for you is that you’re taking control; you’re reading this blog and probably other sources of financial education. Hopefully you’re learning how to save for, and spend in, retirement, and how to evaluate mutual funds along the way. Planning your retirement is up to you; no one is doing it for you. Financial advisers have their place, as long as they’re fee-only and fiduciaries (i.e., legally obligated to put your interests first — a standard that doesn’t apply to the large majority of financial advisers). But however you manage your finances, ensure that it’s doing more for your retirement than someone else’s.

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