MONEY IRAs

There’s Free Money for IRA Rollovers—Here’s How to Invest It

Should you take the money and run? Only if you choose the right low-cost funds.

Back in the day, you could walk into a bank to open a new account and walk out with a free toaster.

Today, you can get anywhere from $50 to $2,500 for rolling over a 401(k) into an Individual Retirement Account, or just by moving an IRA from another financial institution.

But since banks are not in the habit of giving away money, you need to ask: What is the catch?

IRA providers use cash incentives, which are cheaper than advertising or direct mail, to acquire new customers. The latest marketing twist comes from Fidelity Investments, which is offering an “IRA Match” program to new and existing customers who transfer a Roth, traditional or rollover IRA to the company. Rollovers from 401(k)s are not eligible.

Fidelity will match your contributions up to 10% for the first three years that the account is open, although you would have to roll over a whopping $500,000 or more to get that level of match.

For most people, the match will be much smaller. A rollover of $50,000, for example, would qualify for a 1.5% match in each of the next three years. That is worth $260 over three years if you max out your annual contributions at $5,500, or $290 if you are over age 50 and eligible to make additional $1,000 catch-up contributions.

Fidelity is pitching this as the way to encourage higher levels of retirement savings, the way many employers make matching contributions to workers’ 401(k) plans.

“When you look at what really works in the retirement space, you can see that the employer match is a major factor driving participation,” says Lauren Brouhard, Fidelity Investments’ senior vice president for retirement. “We wanted to take an element of what works in the workplace and bring it to the IRA.”

Similar deals abound. For example, Charles Schwab Corp frequently runs promotions offering up to $2,500 for opening a new account, including rollovers from 401(k)s. Ally Bank will pay a $100 bonus for rolling between $25,000 and $50,000, and more for larger rollovers. Just do a Web search for “IRA cash bonus” to see how pervasive the practice has become.

Should you take the money and run? Perhaps, but do not let the cash distract you from more fundamental considerations.

For starters, do not roll funds out of a workplace 401(k) plan into an IRA if it charges higher fees. You should also make sure that the new provider offers the type of retirement investments you are looking for.

If you are rolling over to a mutual fund or brokerage company, the cardinal rule is to make sure your new provider does not earn back the bonus by parking you in high-cost active mutual funds or managed portfolio services.

“It’s a free lunch, but not if you yield to the temptations,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA, a wealth management firm that offers low-cost IRA portfolio management. “You have to avoid falling prey to the sirens of active management.”

Instead, manage your portfolio yourself by creating a portfolio of inexpensive passive index funds or exchange traded funds, which are available through their providers’ brokerage services.

To illustrate, he suggested a portfolio of four Vanguard ETFs whose fees are each below 20 basis points: Total U.S. Stock Market, Total International stocks, Total Bond Market and Total International Bond.

You can view Tuchman’s sample portfolios here.

Read next: 5 Signs You Will Become a Millionaire

MONEY financial advisers

Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

businessman putting money into his suit jacket pocket
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

MONEY Social Security

Why a Better Job Market Can Mean a Social Security Bonus

Getting back to work for even a few years before you retire can make a big difference to your income.

More Americans over 55 are finally getting back to work after the long recession. The strong national employment report for January released last week confirmed that. The unemployment rate for those over 55 was just 4.1% in January, down from 4.5% a year ago and well below the national jobless rate. The 55-plus labor force participation rate inched up to 40% from 39.9%.

That is good news for patching up household balance sheets damaged by years of lost employment and savings, and also for boosting future Social Security benefits.

Social Security is a benefit you earn through work and payroll tax contributions. One widely known way to boost your monthly benefit amount is to work longer and delay your claiming date. But simply getting back into the job market can help.

Your Social Security benefit is calculated using a little-understood formula called the primary insurance amount (PIA). The PIA is determined by averaging together the 35 highest-earning years of your career. Those lifetime earnings are then wage-indexed to make them comparable with what workers are earning in the year you turn 60, using a formula called average indexed monthly earnings (AIME); finally, a progressivity formula is applied that returns greater amounts to lower-income workers (called “bend points”).

But what if you are getting close to retirement age and have less than 35 years of earnings due to joblessness during the recession?

The Social Security Administration still calculates your best 35 years. It just means that five of those years will be zeros, reducing the average wage used to calculate your PIA.

By going back to work in any capacity, you start to replace those zeros with years of earnings. That helps bring your average wage figure up a bit, even if you are earning less than in your last job, or working part time.

“Any earnings you have in a given year have the opportunity to go into your high 35,” notes Stephen C. Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary.

I ran the numbers for a an average worker (2014 income: $49,000) born in 1953, comparing PIA levels following 40 years of full employment with the benefit level assuming a layoff in 2009. The fully employed worker enters retirement at age 66 (the full retirement age) with an annual PIA of $20,148; the laid-off worker’s PIA is reduced by $924 (4.6%). Getting back into the labor force in 2014, and working through 2015, would restore $720 of that loss.

That might not sound like much, but it would total nearly $25,000 in lifetime Social Security benefits for a female worker who lives to age 88, assuming a 3% annual rate of inflation. And for higher income workers, the differences would be greater.

You also can continue “backfilling” your earnings if you work past 60, Goss notes. “You get credit all the way along the way. If you happen to work up to age 70 or even beyond, we recalculate your benefit if you have had more earnings.”

The timing of your filing also is critical. You’re eligible to file for a retirement benefit as early as age 62, but that would reduce your PIA 25 percent, a cut that would persist for the rest of your life. Waiting until after full retirement age allows you to earn delayed filing credits, which works out to 8% for each 12-month period you delay. Waiting one extra year beyond normal retirement age would get you 108% of your PIA; delaying a second year would get you 116%, and so on. You can earn those credits up until the year when you turn 70, and you also will receive any cost-of-living adjustment awarded during the intervening years when you finally file.

Getting back to work will be a tonic for many older Americans, but what they might not realize is that it is also a great path to filling their retirement gap with more robust Social Security checks.

MONEY Second Career

Why Elite Colleges Are Targeting Baby Boomers for New Career Programs

Stanford college
Linda A. Cicero—Stanford News

Harvard and Stanford have launched programs for high-level execs seeking to change careers. Other universities are looking to jump in.

Stanford University welcomed 25 unusual students onto its campus this month—all in their 50s and 60s.

They are the inaugural fellows of a new program, the Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), designed for people who want to follow more than one career path in their lifetimes and who want to go back to a college setting for more training. It is the forefront of a new movement for universities to look beyond typical 19-year-old undergraduates.

“People are finding that their initial careers might last 20 or 30 years, and then they need to prepare for new work that might last another couple decades,” says Dr.Philip Pizzo, the founder of the program and a pioneering oncologist who is a former dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine.

DCI is similar to a Harvard University’s Advanced Learning Initiative, launched in 2009. Both are one-year programs that focus on elite “C-suite” leaders looking to transform the second half of their careers, and both are expensive. DCI costs $60,000, not including housing; tuition and other costs of the Harvard program are similar.

Pizzo, who just turned 70, arguably is launching his own next act with the institute after a distinguished career in medicine that includes stints at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University.

He is hoping to start something of a movement. Pizzo says he will start talking with other university leaders later this year about what Stanford is learning at DCI and encourage others to embrace its principles.

“We’re an elite program, but not elitist,” he says.

Another group, the non-profit San Francisco-based group’s “EncoreU” initiative is pushing universities to focus on older students making career changes, and it will convene a group of college presidents this fall to talk about how to make it happen.

LIFE ON CAMPUS

Jere Brooks King is a typical mid-career education fellow. She enrolled in Stanford’s DCI program after a 35-year career in sales and marketing roles at high technology companies, punctuated by early retirement from Cisco in 2011 at age 55. She turned 59 just before DCI’s kick-off this month.

King, who has served on the boards of several non-profits and industry associations, is using the DCI fellowship to expand her knowledge of board governance. She hopes to apply that expertise working with entrepreneurial start-ups focused on technology and social innovation.

“It’s really exciting to explore the latest thinking on campus around the connection between technology and social innovation,” she says. “I’m getting the chance to hear from venture capitalists interested in social innovation, and see what students are doing with their own ventures.”

DCI fellows pick an area of academic focus from nine areas, ranging from arts and humanities to engineering, healthcare or social sciences. They also participate in weekly discussion seminars and intergenerational mentoring and leadership sessions.

What kind of reaction are the DCI fellows getting from Stanford undergraduates?

“We think we fit right in, and we’ve been welcomed warmly,” says King. “But I’m sure we stand out, because we all look like someone’s parent—or grandparent.”

Read next: How to Jump from a Second Career to a Dream Encore Job

MONEY retirement planning

Why Obama’s Proposals Just Might Help Middle Class Retirement Security

150122_RET_ObamaHelpRet
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.

Congress probably won't pass an auto IRA, and Social Security is being ignored. But the retirement crisis is finally getting attention.

Remember Mitt Romney’s huge IRA? During the 2012 campaign, we learned that the governor managed to amass $20 million to $100 million in an individual retirement account, much more than anyone could accumulate under the contribution limit rules without some unusual investments and appreciation.

Romney’s IRA found its way, indirectly, into a broader set of retirement policy reforms unveiled in President Obama’s State of the Union proposals on Tuesday.

The president proposed scaling back the tax deductibility of mega-IRAs to help pay for other changes designed to bolster middle class retirement security. I found plenty to like in the proposals, with one big exception: the failure to endorse a bold plan to expand Social Security.

Yes, that is just another idea with no chance in this Congress, but Democrats should give it a strong embrace, especially in the wake of the House’s adoption of rules this month that could set the stage for cuts in disability benefits.

The administration signaled its general opposition to the House plan, but has not spelled out its own.

Instead, Obama listed proposals, starting with “auto-IRAs,” whereby employers with more than 10 employees who have no retirement plans of their own would be required to automatically enroll their workers in an IRA. Workers could opt out, but automatic features in 401(k) plans already have shown this kind of behavioral nudge will be a winner. The president also proposed tax credits to offset the start-up costs for businesses.

The auto-IRA would be a more full version of the “myRA” accounts already launched by the administration. Both are structured like Roth IRAs, accepting post-tax contributions that accumulate toward tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Both accounts take aim at a critical problem—the lack of retirement savings among low-income households.

The president wants to offset the costs of auto-IRAs by capping contributions to 401(k)s and IRAs. The cap would be determined using a formula tied to current interest rates; currently, it would kick in when balances hit $3.4 million. If rates rose, the cap would be somewhat lower—for example, $2.7 million if rates rose to historical norms.

The argument here is that IRAs were never meant for such large accumulations; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into mega-IRAs after the 2012 election, and reported back to Congress that a small number of account holders had indeed amassed very large balances, “likely by investing in assets unavailable to most investors—initially valued very low and offering disproportionately high potential investment returns if successful.”

The report estimated that 37,000 Americans have IRAs with balances ranging from $3 million to $5 million; fewer than 10,000 had balances over $5 million.

Finally, the White House proposed opening employer retirement plans to more part-time workers. Currently, plan sponsors can exclude employees working fewer than 1,000 hours per year, no matter how long they have been with the company. The proposal would require sponsors to open their plans to workers who have been with them for at least 500 hours per year for three years.

These ideas might seem dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress. But the White House proposals add momentum to a growing populist movement around the country to focus on middle class retirement security.

As noted here last week, Illinois just became the first state to implement an innovative automatic retirement savings plan similar to the auto-IRA, and more than half the states are considering similar ideas.

These savings programs are sensible ideas, but their impact will not be huge. That is because the households they target lack the resources to sock away enough money to generate accumulations that can make a real difference at retirement.

Expanding Social Security offers a more sure, and efficient, path to bolstering retirement security of lower-income households. If Obama wants to go down in the history books as a strong supporter of the middle class, he has got to start making the case for Social Security expansion—and time is getting short.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Social Security

Why Defending Social Security Needs to Be Next on Obama’s To-Do List

House Republicans voted to block a financial fix to Social Security's disability trust fund, which runs out of money in 2016. That would result in a 20% benefits cut.

Since the midterm elections, President Obama has taken decisive action on immigration reform, climate change and relations with Cuba. Now, the new Republican-controlled Congress has handed him another opportunity to act boldly—by leaving a legacy as a strong defender of Social Security.

House Republicans signaled this week that they are gearing up for a major clash over the country’s most important retirement program. In a surprise move, they adopted a rule on the first day of the new session that effectively forbids the House from approving any financial fix to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program unless it is coupled with broader reforms. That would almost surely mean damaging benefit cuts for retirees struggling in the post-recession economy.

Republicans see an opening for benefit cuts in the SSDI trust fund. It is under severe financial pressure and on track to be exhausted at the end of 2016, when 11 million of the most vulnerable Americans would face benefit cuts on the order of 20%.

The rational solution is a reallocation of resources from Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI). Such reallocations have been done 11 times in the past, and funds have flowed in both directions. Shifting just one-tenth of 1% from OASI to SSDI would extend the disability fund’s life to 2033.

Instead, House leaders appear to be maneuvering to push through an SSDI fix during the lame duck session following the 2016 elections. Such an 11th-hour package would likely impose cuts to the retirement program, including higher retirement ages and reduced annual cost-of-living adjustments. Legislators wouldn’t have to explain a vote for benefit cuts to their constituents before the elections, and might avoid accountability if changes to Social Security get tacked on to an omnibus spending bill or other yearend legislation.

“I don’t know why this had to be done on Day One,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security at AARP. “It makes it much less likely that we’ll deal with the disability problem until the lame duck session—and that won’t provide a good result for American taxpayers.”

Critics say the disability program is rife with fraud, and out-of-work baby boomers too young for retirement benefits are freeloading by getting disability benefits. There’s no doubt that a program the size of SSDI is subject to some abuse, or that reform may be needed.

But SSDI’s real problems are less sensational. They include more baby boomers at an age when disability typically occurs and more women in the labor market eligible to receive benefits. Meanwhile, the increase in the full retirement age now under way, from 65 to 67, adds cost to SSDI, as disabled beneficiaries wait longer to shift into the retirement program.

This throwing down of the gauntlet should send a loud, clear signal to Democrats: It’s time to reclaim your legacy as the creators and defenders of Social Security. A small number of progressive Democrats have embraced proposals to expand benefits, funded by a gradual increase in payroll taxes and lifting the cap on covered earnings, but most Democrats have been spineless, mouthing platitudes about “keeping Social Security strong”—a pledge that could mean just about anything.

Expansion is not only doable financially—it has overwhelming public support. A poll released last fall by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that 72% of Americans think we should consider increasing benefits. Seventy-seven percent said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance expansion—a position embraced by 69% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 84% of Democrats.

Congressional Republicans are way out of step with Americans on this issue, and so is the White House. The administration has been all too willing to flirt with benefit cuts as it chased one illusory “grand bargain” after another.

But the unbound Obama now has an opportunity to stiffen and redefine his party’s resolve on Social Security. The president should propose expansion legislation. Democratic presidential and congressional candidates should run on Social Security expansion in 2016 and work to assure that reform isn’t tackled in an unaccountable lame duck vote.

In 2005 a young Democratic senator sized up Social Security politics during the debate over President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize the program:

“[People in power] use the word ‘reform’ when they mean ‘privatize,’ and they use ‘strengthen’ when they really mean ‘dismantle.’ They tell us there’s a crisis to get us all riled up so we’ll sit down and listen to their plan to privatize …

“Democrats are absolutely united in the need to strengthen Social Security and make it solvent for future generations. We know that, and we want that.”

That senator was Barack Obama of Illinois.

Read next: Why Illinois May Become a National Model for Retirement Saving

MONEY Pensions

What Retirees Need to Know about the New Federal Pension Rules

Only a small percentage of retirees are directly affected by the new rule. But future legislation may lead to more pension cutbacks.

The last-minute deal to allow retiree pension benefit cuts as part of the federal spending bill for 2015 passed by Congress last week has set off shock waves in the U.S. retirement system.

Buried in the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” legislation signed this week by President Barack Obama was a provision that aims to head off a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers. The pension reforms affect only retirees in struggling multiemployer pension plans, but any retiree living on a defined benefit pension could rightly wonder: Am I next?

“Even people who aren’t impacted directly by this would have to ask themselves: If they’re doing that, what’s to stop them from doing it to me?” says Jeff Snyder, vice president of Cammack Retirement Group, a consulting and investment advisory firm that works with retirement plans.

The answer: plenty. Private sector pensions are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which prevents cuts for retirees in most cases. The new legislation doesn’t affect private sector workers in single-employer plans. Workers and retirees in public sector pension plans also are not affected by the law.

Here are answers to some of the key questions workers and retirees should be asking in the legislation’s wake.

Q: Cutting benefits for people who already are retired seems unfair. Why was this done?

A: Proponents argue it was better to preserve some pension benefit for workers in the most troubled plans rather than letting plans collapse. The multiemployer plans are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC), the federally sponsored agency that insures private sector pensions. The multiemployer fund was on track to run out of money within 10 years—a date that could be hastened if healthy companies withdraw from their plans. If the multiemployer backup system had been allowed to collapse, pensioners would have been left with no benefit.

Opponents, including AARP and the Pension Rights Center, argued that cutting benefits for current retirees was draconian and established a bad precedent.

Q: Who will be affected by the new law? If I have a traditional pension, should I worry?

A: Only pensioners in multiemployer plans are at risk, and even there, the risk is limited to retirees in “red zone” plans—those that are severely underfunded. Of the 10 million participants in multiemployer plans, perhaps 1 million will see some cuts. The new law also prohibits any cuts for beneficiaries over age 80, or who receive a disability pension.

Q: What will be the size of the cuts?

A: That is up to plan trustees. However, the maximum cuts permitted under the law are dramatic. Many retirees in these troubled plans were well-paid union workers who receive substantial pension benefits. For a retiree with 25 years of service and a $25,000 annual benefit, the maximum annual cut permitted under the law is $13,200, according to a cutback calculator at the Pension Rights Center’s website.

The cuts must be approved by a majority of all the active and retired workers in a plan (not just a majority of those who vote).

Q: How do I determine if I’m at risk?

A: Plan sponsors are required to send out an annual funding notice indicating the funding status of your program. Plans in the red zone must send workers a “critical status alert.” If you’re in doubt, Snyder suggests, “just call your retirement plan administrator,” Snyder says. “Simply ask, if you have cause for concern. Is your plan underfunded?”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s website maintains a list of plans on the critical list.

Q: How quickly would the cuts be made?

A: If a plan’s trustees decide to make cuts, a notice would be sent to workers. Snyder says implementation would take at least six months, and might require “a year or more.”

Q: Am I safe if I am in a single employer pension plan?

A: When the PBGC takes over a private sector single employer plan, about 85% of beneficiaries receive the full amount of their promised benefit. The maximum benefit paid by PBGC this year is $59,320.

Q: Does this law make it more likely that we’ll see efforts to cut other retiree benefits?

A: That will depend on the political climate in Washington, and in statehouses across the country. In a previous column I argued that the midterm elections results boost the odds of attacks on public sector pensions, Social Security and Medicare.

Sadly, the Cromnibus deal should serve as a warning that full pension benefits aren’t a sure thing anymore. So having a Plan B makes sense. “If you have a defined benefit pension, great,” Snyder says. “But you should still be putting money away to make sure you have something to rely on in the future.”

Read next: This Is the Toughest Threat to Boomers’ Retirement Plans

MONEY Pensions

Congress’ No-Bailout Pension Plan Is No Solution for Retirees

The cuts to promised benefits for current retirees would roll back a landmark law protecting pensions—and opens the door to further cutbacks.

Wall Street banks, automakers and insurance giants got bailouts during the economic meltdown that started in 2008. But when it comes to the pensions of retired truck drivers, construction workers and mine workers, it seems that enough is enough.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill moving through Congress this week adopts “Solutions Not Bailouts,” a plan to shore up struggling multiemployer pension funds—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers in industries like construction, trucking, mining and food retailing.

A bailout, it is not. The centerpiece is a provision that would open the door to cutting current beneficiaries’ benefits, a retirement policy taboo and a potential disaster for retirees on fixed incomes.

Developed by the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP), a coalition of multiemployer pension plan sponsors and some major unions, the plan addresses a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans. Ten million workers are covered by these plans, with 1.5 million of them in roughly 200 plans that are in danger of failing over the next two decades. Two large plans are believed to be much closer to failure—the Teamsters’ Central States fund and the United Mine Workers of America fund.

The central premise is that Congress won’t—and shouldn’t—prop up the multiemployer system.

“The bottom line is, we’ve been told since the start of this process that there isn’t going to be a bailout—Congress is tired of bailouts,” says Randy DeFrehn, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP).

The problem is partly structural. Multiemployer pension plans were thought to be safer than single employer plans, owing to the pooling of risk. As a result, the level of Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insurance protection behind the multiemployer plans is lower. But many industries in the system have seen declining employment and have a growing proportion of retirees to workers paying into the pension funds. And many of the pension funds still have not fully recovered from the hits they took in the 2008-2009 market meltdown.

These problems pose a major threat to the PBGC. The agency reported recently that the deficit in its multiemployer program rose to $42.2 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from $8.3 billion the previous year. If big plans fail, the entire multiemployer system would be at risk of collapse.

The fix moving through Congress would revise the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to grant plan trustees broad powers to cut retired workers’ benefits if they can show that would prolong the life of the plan. That would mark a major change from current law, which calls for retirees to be paid full benefits unless plan assets are exhausted; then, the PBGC steps in to pay benefits, albeit at a much lower level. The bill also would increase PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year.

The legislation does prohibit benefit cuts for vested retirees over 80, and limited protections for retirees over 75—but that leaves plenty of younger retirees vulnerable to cuts. And although workers and retirees would get to vote on the changes, pension advocates worry that the interests of workers would overwhelm those of retirees. (Active workers rightly worry about the future of their plans, and many already are sacrificing through higher contributions and benefit cuts.)

The big problem here is that the plan fails to put retirees at the head of the line for protection. When changes of this type must be made, they should be phased in over a long period of time, giving workers time to adjust their plans before retirement. For example, the Social Security benefit cuts eneacted in 1983 were phased in over 20 years and didn’t start kicking in until 1990.

“It’s a cruel irony that in the year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary year of ERISA, Congress is trying to reverse its most significant protections,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center (PRC), an advocacy group that has been battling with NCCMP on some of the proposed changes to retired workers’ benefits.

Friedman’s organization, AARP and other advocates reject the idea that solvency problems 10 to 15 years away require such severe measures. They have pushed alternative approaches to the problem; one that is included in the deal, DeFrehn says, is an increase in PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year. Advocates also have called for other new revenue sources, such as low-interest loans to PBGC by the once-bailed-out big banks and investment firms.

There are no easy answers here. But cutting the benefits of today’s retirees should be the last solution we try—not the first.

Read next: 401(k)s Are Still a Problem, But They’re Getting Better

MONEY retirement planning

Flunking Retirement Readiness, and What to Do About It

red pencil writing "F" failing grade
Thomas J. Peterson—Alamy

Americans don't get the basics of retirement planning. Automating 401(k)s and expanding benefits for lower-income workers may be the best solution.

Imagine boarding a jet and heading for your seat, only to be told you’re needed in the cockpit to fly the plane.

Investing expert William Bernstein argued in a recent interview that what has happened in our workplace retirement system over the past 30 years is analogous. We’ve shifted from defined benefit pension plans managed by professional financial pilots to 401(k) plans controlled by passengers.

Once, employers made the contributions, investment pros handled the investments and the income part was simple: You retired, the checks started arriving and continued until you died. Now, you decide how much to invest, where to invest it and how to draw it down. In other words, you fuel the plane, you pilot the plane and you land it.

It’s no surprise that many of us, especially middle- and lower-income households, crash. The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, released in September, found that ownership of retirement plans has fallen sharply in recent years, and that low-income households have almost no savings.

But even wealthier households seem to be failing retirement flight school.

Eighty percent of Americans with nest eggs of at least $100,000 got an “F” on a test about managing retirement savings put together recently by the American College of Financial Services. The college, which trains financial planners, asked over 1,000 60- to 75-year-olds about topics like safe retirement withdrawal rates, investment and longevity risk.

Seven in 10 had never heard of the “4% rule,” which holds that you can safely withdraw that amount annually in retirement.

Very few understood the risk of investing in bonds. Only 39% knew that a bond’s value falls when interest rates rise—a key risk for bondholders in this ultra-low-rate environment.

“We thought the grades would have been better, because there’s been so much talk about these subjects in the media lately,” said David Littell, who directs a program focused on retirement income at the college. “We wanted to see if any of it is sinking in.”

Many 401(k) plans have added features in recent years that aim to put the plane back on autopilot: automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions and target date funds that adjust your level of risk as retirement approaches.

But none of that seems to be moving the needle much. A survey of 401(k) plan sponsors released last month by Towers Watson, the employee benefit consulting firm, found rising levels of worry about employee retirement readiness. Just 12% of respondents say workers know how much they need for retirement; 20% said their employees are comfortable making investment decisions.

The study calls for redoubled efforts to educate workers, but there’s little evidence that that works. “I hate to be anti-education, but I just don’t think it’s the way to go,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “You have to get people at just the right time when they want to pay attention—just sending education out there doesn’t produce any change at all.”

What’s more, calls for greater financial literacy efforts carry a subtle blame-the-victim message that I consider dead wrong. People shouldn’t have to learn concepts like safe withdrawal rates or the interaction of interest rates and bond prices to retire with security.

Just as important, many middle- and lower-income households don’t earn enough to accumulate meaningful savings. “We’ve had stagnant wage growth for a long time—a lot of people can’t save and cover their living expenses,” says Munnell, co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It” (Oxford University Press, December 2014).

Since the defined contribution system is here to stay, she says, we should focus on improving it. “We have to auto-enroll everyone, and auto-escalate their contributions. Otherwise, we’re doing more harm than good.”

Munnell acknowledges that a better 401(k) system mainly benefits upper-income households with the capacity to save. For everyone else, it’s important that no cuts be made to Social Security. And she says proposals to expand benefits at the lower end of the income distribution make sense.

“Given all the difficulty we’re having expanding coverage with employer-sponsored plans, that is the most efficient way to provide income to lower-paid workers.”

Read next: The Big Flaws in Your 401(k) and How to Fix Them

MONEY year-end moves

3 Smart Year-End Moves for Retirement Savers of All Ages

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To give your long-term financial security a boost, take one of these steps before December 31.

It’s year-end, and retirement savers of all ages need to check their to-do lists. Here are some suggestions for current retirees, near-retirees, and younger savers just getting started.

Already Retired: Take Your Distribution

Unfortunately, the “deferred” part of tax-deferred retirement accounts doesn’t last forever. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) must be taken from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) starting in the year you turn 70 1/2 and from 401(k)s at the same age, unless you’re still working for the employer that sponsors the plan.

Fidelity Investments reports that nearly 68% of the company’s IRA account holders who needed to take RMDs for tax year 2014 hadn’t done it as of late October.

It’s important to get this right: Failure to take the correct distribution results in an onerous 50% tax—plus interest—on any required withdrawals you fail to take.

RMDs must be calculated for each account you own by dividing the prior Dec. 31 balance with a life expectancy factor (found in IRS Publication 590). Your account provider may calculate RMDs for you, but the final responsibility is yours. FINRA, the financial services self-regulatory agency, offers a calculator, and the IRS has worksheets to help calculate RMDs.

Take care of RMDs ahead of the year-end rush, advises Joshua Kadish, partner in planning firm RPG Life Transition Specialists in Riverwoods, Ill. “We try to do it by Dec. 1 for all of our clients—if you push it beyond that, the financial institutions are all overwhelmed with year-end paperwork and they’re getting backed up.”

Near-Retired: Consider a Roth

Vanguard reports that 20% of its investors who take an RMD reinvest the funds in a taxable account—in other words, they didn’t need the money. If you fall into this category, consider converting some of your tax-deferred assets to a Roth IRA. No RMDs are required on Roth accounts, which can be beneficial in managing your tax liability in retirement.

You’ll owe income tax on converted funds in the year of conversion. That runs against conventional planning wisdom, which calls for deferring taxes as long as possible. But it’s a strategy that can make sense in certain situations, says Maria Bruno, senior investment analyst in Vanguard’s Investment Counseling & Research group.

“Many retirees find that their income may be lower in the early years of retirement—either because they haven’t filed yet for Social Security, or perhaps one spouse has retired and the other is still working. Doing a conversion that goes to the top of your current tax bracket is something worth considering.”

Bruno suggests a series of partial conversions over time that don’t bump you into a higher marginal bracket. Also, if you’re not retired, check to see if your workplace 401(k) plan offers a Roth option, and consider moving part of your annual contribution there.

Young Savers: Start Early, Bump It Up Annually

“Time is on my side,” sang the Rolling Stones, and it’s true for young savers. Getting an early start is the single best thing you can do for yourself, even if you can’t contribute much right now.

Let the magic of compound returns help you over the years. A study done by Vanguard a couple years ago found that an investor who starts at age 25 with a moderate investment allocation and contributes 6% of salary will finish with 34% more in her account than the same investor who starts at 35—and 64% more than an investor who starts at 45.

Try to increase the amount every year. A recent Charles Schwab survey found that 43% of plan participants haven’t increased their 401(k) contributions in the past two years. Kadish suggests a year-end tally of what you spent during the year and how much you saved. “It’s not what people like to do—but you have a full year under your belt, so it’s a good opportunity to look at where your money went. Could you get more efficient in some area, and save more?”

If you’re a mega-saver already, note that the limit on employee contributions for 401(k) accounts rises to $18,000 next year from $17,500; the catch-up contribution for people age 50 and over rises to $6,000 from $5,500. The IRA limit is unchanged at $5,500, and catch-up contributions stay at $1,000.

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