As wealth begins to get transferred from baby boomers to the millennial generation—the largest single generation in history and within five years fully half of our nation’s workforce—many social contracts that were enjoyed by the parents and grandparents will not be relied upon, or available, for their children. Two financial bubbles have burst: American cities have gone bankrupt, and the notion of guaranteed pensions has come to seem like a relic from a more innocent time in the world where society paid back its firefighters, teachers, and hard-working middle class for keeping us safe, educating our children, and ensuring the engine of our economy keeps running. So pronounced is this breakdown between our country, our corporations, and our workers that entire political campaigns are won and lost over middle class workers and the pensions they receive in retirement.
Corporations don’t want any part of guaranteed pensions. It’s too expensive, their shareholders don’t like it, and it crimps profits. Neither do governments—politicians are laser focused on the next election cycle and would rather divert taxpayer dollars toward shiny new concepts that will get them re-elected over boring old public pension funds. Today, only 1 in 5 workers in corporate America still has access to a guaranteed pension. Half of American workers have no access to any workplace retirement plan whatsoever. That’s right: in the future, we are going to own all of this risk. We’d better learn to make good decisions for ourselves.
Unfortunately, the 401(k) system is as hard to understand, opaque, and predatory as ever. Two thirds of Americans do not know that they pay fees on their 401K plans, and 90% of people could not accurately tell you what these fees are. Why? Because they never actually write a check to anyone—the fees are automatically deducted from their accounts. I challenge you to go log in to your employer’s 401(k) plan now, and figure out within 5 minutes, or 5 hours, or 5 days the total amount of fees you pay per year. You won’t find it. And it is a huge amount of money. Lifetime fees for the average American household are greater than $150,000 and can erode a third of total savings. Broadly speaking, total mutual fund fees could be the least-known and least-understood $600 billion that come out of Americans pockets every year.
We need to make this far simpler for people. It should be law that you can only give people advice on their 401(k) or IRA, or futures for that matter, if you owe them a legal fiduciary duty to only act in their best interest. Fees should be disclosed in terms that people can understand. Nobody understands what “basis points” or “expense ratios” are. This is purposeful. How about: “this will cost you $5 per year?” That shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Finally, hundreds of investment choices are often used as an illusion to give unsuspecting people the sense that they, too, can beat the market if they just choose right. By now, we know that beating the market is impossible and we should steer people toward the things we can control—diversification, low costs, and good savings behavior over long periods of time, and through many market cycles. Watching CNBC is a waste of time. Index funds are the way to go (although some 401(k) plans still don’t offer them).
The Obama administration and Department of Labor have been trying for years to institute protections for investors against high fees and high-risk products. But the lobbying against these protections has been vicious—billions of dollars of profits do not just go quietly into the night.
So how about a simple and effective do-it-yourself solution in the meantime? The next time someone is offering you serious advice about your retirement or the stock market, print this out and ask them to sign this statement:
If your advisor will not sign this statement—for your own good—run as fast as you can in the other direction and find one of the many advisors that will. It could save you tens of thousands of dollars and years in retirement.
In a world where we are left to fend for ourselves in retirement, the stakes are too high not to at least make sure that someone is legally obligated to tell you the right thing to do. Your 65-year-old self will thank you for it some day.
Greg Smith is president of blooom, an online service that evaluates, simplifies, and manages 401(k) accounts for individuals, and the best-selling author of Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story.