Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Okay Retirement is Not So Okay

Boomers are particularly vulnerable to suggesting that things are okay. In this post we will look at the okay retirement plan and suggest that your 401(k) may be trying to accommodate you with okay choices.

To see the word okay (the form I prefer over the simpler OK or the punctilious O.K.), without intonation or judgement doesn't do the word justice. Hearing it adds meaning and nuance. You need to experience it roll off of someone's lips lazily, dropped in an aggressive acquiescence or simply thrown out there for fun . It is a word, or phrase that simply is.

This is the prevailing feeling you get from hearing someone say 'I'm okay' when asked about their retirement plan, or their day at work, or their time spent in school. It becomes an answer ladled over falsehoods. Why is that? Okay is value-neutral. In fact, for it to have any real meaning, it must be spoken. What happens when okay is, well, okay?

For the last year, we have seen the markets kind of recover (I would not suggest watching the regular gyrations of the stock market these days for anyone but those strong of stomach) as they continued to deal with news from around the globe.

True, the markets are notably higher than several years ago but the structure seems rickety, unstable. This applies to more than just equities; bonds are troublesome too. Commodities have weighed in with gold becoming bubble-like in the wake of low inflation, the opposite of what usually happens. And yet, if asked about your retirement plan, you would probably answer: "It's okay."

What is happening in your 401(k) has offered the a look at what okay is when it comes to investing. Some of this is your fault. Some of it the fault of those whose definition of fiduciary responsibility has shifted. Perhpas there is no better evidence than that offered by Prudential Retirement. They have introduced okay investing to its 3.7 million customers using 401(k)s the manage. By doing so, they extend the risk avoidance to a new level: an FDIC insured bank account in your 401(k).

There are basically three things wrong with this, two are obvious, the other is speculation based on years of experience ferreting out the moves most financial institutions make.

The first has to do with risk, or better yet, lack of it. The average investor is still recoiling from the meltdown now over two years old. In all my years, I have never seen a lingering fear last so long or an industry do what it can to enable it. By this time in usual times, what happened to your investments would have been long forgotten.

A bull market somewhere would have been outed and it would start anew. This is a different era. Lingering unemployment, continued global financial strife, housing, and all the rest have made forgetfulness more difficult.

But this pendulum swing to conservative is a bit surprising.Risk is inherent in the investment world. Without it, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, you have savings, vanilla and plain and safe.

You can get to retirement with savings. But you will have a greater opportunity to get there with more money if you invest. Trying to get folks to change this vernacular, from retirement savings to retirement investing has been a Sisyphean task. We want to think of it as savings so most personal finance and retirement writers and pundits continue to use the phrase. 401(k) plans have become the new bastion for low to no risk, offering target date funds and index funds as the go to investment for all of their participants.

I have many reservations about target date funds (from promoting set-it-and-forget-it investing, the inability of these funds to beat the market, a good target date index, and the fact that so many of these funds are simply a halfway house for orphan funds) and index funds (yes they are cheap but they are also too tax efficient for a 401(k)). Making them the default investment for new hires or advising older workers to use them and you have a recipe for an underfunded retirement - in part, because the vast majority of people who use them don't fund them with enough money to make up the low risk sacrifice they are making.

I mentioned that you could get to retirement with savings. It's possible but not within the purview of the average worker. You would need to save using a wide variety of stable vehicles like money market funds and CDs, all of which are offering so little in the way of interest that it hardly beats inflation. Bonds may seem like they offer a safe haven and in some instances they do. But that safety is accompanied by risk and one of those risks is beating inflation. Did I mention that you would probably never stop working in order to make the "savings-only" plan work?

What about annuities? This is where I am speculating. Prudential Retirement is an arm of Prudential Insurance which sells annuities. Although the vice president of Prudential Retirement Carlos Mello makes it known that his company doesn't give investment advice, the seed will have been sown with the new product.

Billed as a place to ponder your next investment move or even an account whereby those close to retirement can have access to cash when they do, putting a savings account in a 401(k) will be used as a sales tool for annuities. Insurers know that most people look back on the performance of their 401(k) in the short-term (about six months) and base their decision on whether to buy annuities at retirement or not. A market that has done well turn newly minted retirees away from the product. While with a down market in the months leading up to retirement, the purchase of an annuity is much higher.

Now imagine someone close to retirement stockpiling cash in one of these FDIC insured offerings. They are already (or will be at least) accustomed to little or no return. The upsell to annuitize that cash upon retirement, and the pitch is rather charming, may be too hard to avoid. To hear retirement planners talk, you would think they are reinventing the pension. Which in some respects they are. Without the employer's contribution.

If you were employ a three thronged approach, which is an okay way to go, you might use savings for emergencies, building up a six month reserve - a year would be even better. But do so knowing that you will need to fully fund your 401(k) in the process - not just a comfortable 10%. And you will need to hedge both of those bets with a Roth IRA held outside your 401(k) - this is where your index funds belong.

While etymologists tell us that the O and A long vowel sounds, separated by the hardness of the K is nearly universal and used in almost every language, it shouldn't be used to describe the state of your retirement plan.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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