Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is your retirement account suffering from Investment Paralysis

Boomers should take note of the seemingly robust economy around us as we head into the holiday season. The stock markets seem to be poised for what has been termed often as the "Santa Claus rally". Consumers, at least according to business surveys, are beginning to spend. And this is all occurring, while in the shadows, the economy or its numbers remain little changed. That and most of us are still suffering from investment paralysis.

Here we are, years after the fall of 2008, and the average middle class worker still has an account balance that is far from where it should be - if they plan on retiring. When most of us think is retirement age, we think in terms of what has been the generally accepted retirement age. This unfortunately is a failure on two fronts: yours and the plan sponsor.

Your responsibility is in the contribution.According to a Wells Fargo survey (pdf) conducted among 357 plans, middle class is defined as: "those aged 30 to 69 with $40,000 to $100,000 in household income or $25,000 to $100,000 in investable assets and those aged 25 to 29 with income or investable assets of $25,000 to $100,000." This group knows that they will need more than $300,000 to fund a basic retirement yet, on average those balances fall far short of that goal with $20,000. Is it any wonder that this group is increasingly buying into the notion that working longer is a fact of life in the post-downturn world?

Most of the middle class group contributes only about 7% of their pre-tax income to these plans. And if the survey is any indication, much of the fault lies in the employer's approach to these plans. The study suggests that employers are concerned about their legal liabilities in helping their employees even as they acknowledge the shared role in helping those workers.

These fiduciary concerns are widespread among plan sponsors who worry that should they provide advice, and that advice doesn't meet employee expectations, they will see the plan sued.

This has led these employers to look for plans that offer third party advice, shifting the liability to another player. What they fail to embrace is that using a TPA (third party administrator) doesn't lessen the liability. While 89% of the plan sponsors understand that there is a need for retirement help, only 71% (as of 2009) think that they should help those employees understand what the plan can do for them.

In order of importance, and in reality, employers do something else entirely and your defined contribution plan's ability to get you there is reflective of this lackluster effort. Only 35% of the DC sponsors surveyed think that education is important, 22% encourage greater participation and increased contributions, 9% think investment diversification is important while only 2% facilitate the planning process by pointing out what is need in retirement and helping their employees use the plan to achieve this.

Are more funds in the plan the answer? Some DC sponsors believe they are and are looking to increase their offerings. But often, plans with more than fifteen funds aren't necessarily giving the employee more choices that suit their needs. The new choices are often in the form of target date funds and other more conservative investment offerings. This is often done at the exclusion of more suitable offerings (such as aggressive mutual funds for younger workers). Once again, they fear retribution for suggesting anything akin to risk.

DC sponsors are worried about what the industry calls investment paralysis. Too many funds, studies have suggested, often have lower overall participation rates that those with 15 fund or fewer in their plans. Because there is a growing movement to offer auto-enrollment, choosing a fund for that new employee often requires the plan to carry a wide variety of target date funds to pinpoint a "potential" retirement year.

But understanding the need and acting on it, from both a participants point-of-view and that of the DC sponsor are often far from what they are actually doing. Plan sponsors need to understand more than just the investment array, plan design, distribution options, education and communication, and fees charged by the plan. It is their fiduciary responsibility, one that carries legal risks if mishandled, to measure their plan's impact. Only 15%, according to the survey do so.

The employer still offers matching contributions in many defined contribution plans. But how and what are a matter of debate. Many still offer matches that are tied to company stock, put restrictions on access to those matching funds, and use the auto-increase contribution system as a way to offset raises. Often, maintaining the 401(k) plans they might have, as many of the companies surveyed suggested, is done for the sole purpose of getting and retaining new employees. This, in light of less-than-robust private hiring, might come at a reduction of other benefit programs.

If you are still in a DC plan and your employer's match is not as adequate as it should be, this doesn't let you off the hook. You still need to save more, much more than you are presently doing. While it is true that 5% is the cut-off point where pre-tax contribution investments don't impact take-home pay, some sacrifice on the employee's end is needed. And this should be done,match or no match.

If your employer's 401(k) plan is not as robust as it should be or doesn't fit your age needs, open an IRA or Roth IRA on your own. Contributing to both plans (10% to your 401(k) and the maximum allowed to an IRA or Roth IRA) is your responsibility. While we still look to the company we work for for guidance, and even to the point where we believe they care about us and our retirement future, the facts are not bearing this fuzzy feeling out in the surveys I have read.

As Laurie Nordquist, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement Trust said: "If people aren't willing to pay for advice they are going to get a more vanilla approach to planning," adding, "But a simple plan is better than no plan."

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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