Saturday, February 7, 2009

WSJ: Five Ways to Fix Up Your 401k Plans

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Steps 1 - 5: stop contributing.

Kidding... kidding. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting blurb on how to "catch up" so you only need to work til 72 years old instead of 84. :) The move from pensions (which are unaffordable to companies in a global competition versus peers who do not need to fund them) to 401ks (which require diligence, stable job participation, 30+ year time horizons and financial acumen; all things severely lacking in the U.S.) will prove to be a long term disaster... but since it won't all explode in a 3-4 year time frame like the mortgage mess, this will be an issue that will come to the fore front over the long run. When many baby boomers realize they are going to be working "til they drop". (not to mention the cost is punitive to most small businesses, which employ the majority of Americans)
  • In the midst of a market meltdown and economic crisis, many Americans' 401(k) retirement plans are looking a bit bedraggled. But some tender loving care from plan participants, employers and policy makers can help spruce up these accounts.
  • Market upheaval has underscored a litany of woes in 401(k) plans. Many people don't save enough, make poor investment choices, pay high fees that eat into returns, and raid their retirement accounts to pay credit-card bills or fight foreclosure. Meanwhile, hard-hit employers are suspending 401(k) matching contributions.
  • In the 12 months following the market's peak in October 2007, more than $1 trillion worth of stock value was shaved off 401(k) and other defined-contribution plan accounts, according to Boston College's Center for Retirement Research. Roughly 50 million people have 401(k)s, and these accounts now have about $2.5 trillion in assets, estimates the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington.
1. Save till it hurts …

Undersaving has always been a big issue in 401(k) plans, and the economic doldrums are only making matters worse. A recent survey commissioned by AARP, an advocacy group for older people, found that about 20% of workers age 45 or older had stopped contributing to a 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts in the past year.

2 … Even with no match.

Employers' matching contributions are a big incentive for many workers to contribute to 401(k) plans. But major employers like General Motors and FedEx are suspending these contributions, and cuts are on the way at other companies. One out of 10 employers already has reduced or plans to reduce the match, according to a December survey by consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, up from 6% just two months earlier.

If your employer has suspended the match, you should boost your own contributions to make up for it. Together, the employee and employer should contribute at least 10% to 15% of the worker's salary to build a healthy nest egg, retirement experts say.

The maximum amount most workers can contribute to a 401(k) this year is $16,500. Workers age 50 or older can contribute an additional $5,500.

3 Set it and forget it.

Sharp market swings can lead 401(k) savers to make some poor investment decisions, like fleeing stock funds simply because they've taken a dive. Investors who dump stocks at depressed levels lock in losses that could take a big bite out of their savings.

People who leave the asset-allocation decisions in the hands of a professional don't have to worry about making emotional investment decisions in rocky markets. One solution: So-called target-date funds hold a broadly diversified blend of stocks, bonds and other investments and gradually shift toward a more conservative mix as investors near retirement.

But be aware that these funds can still fall hard and fast. The average target-date fund dropped 32% last year, while the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell 38.5%. Even 2010 funds for investors about to hit retirement fell 25%.

4 Pay attention to fees.

Hefty fees can put a lot of cracks in your nest egg. Yet many employers haven't even tried to calculate the total costs of their plans. You should be able to see the total dollar amount you're paying in plan fees so you can compare the 401(k) and other savings vehicles such as an IRA, Ms. Benz says.

5 Get more workers saving.

Many companies don't offer 401(k)s, and many workers who do have the opportunity to invest often simply don't.

More and more employers are automatically enrolling workers. But many of these efforts focus only on new hires. They should also include existing employees. What's more, many workers don't have access to a 401(k). The costs and administrative burdens can be daunting for small businesses.

One solution might be for the government to make it easier for small employers to band together to offer workers 401(k)s, says Paul Stevens, president and CEO of the mutual-fund industry trade group the Investment Company Institute.


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