MONEY

What Your Boss Isn’t Telling You about Your 401(k)

If you were to go by the headlines, you might think happy days are here again for 401(k) investors. Employer matching contributions are coming back. Account balances have recovered (mostly). And workers are continuing to save. So, you can look forward to a smoother ride from here to a dream retirement, right?

If only. Truth is, even with a newly restored match and stronger stock market, 401(k) retirement plans still won’t enable most workers to build the retirement nest egg they need. And if you don’t believe that, chances are your boss probably does.


Consider these recent findings from a survey by benefits consultant Hewitt Associates: Only 54% of employers are highly confident or somewhat confident that their employees will retire with “sufficient retirement assets.” That’s down from 66% in 2009. And only 18% are highly confident that their workers will “make their retirement income last for the rest of their lifetime.”

Why are company execs having so many doubts about their own 401(k) plans? In a survey last year by benefits consultant Mercer, employers cited some of the biggest obstacles to retirement security: the failure of workers to participate in their plan, participants not saving enough, and the markets being too volatile to support adequate savings.

For workers, as well as retirement policy experts, these employer concerns should be raising a lot of red flags. After all, unlike many academic and think tank critics of the 401(k), employers have an inside view on how well their employees are preparing for retirement. And if the boss lacks confidence in the 401(k), there’s little reason for employees to have faith in these plans.

So are worried employers rushing to fix the faltering 401(k) system? Um, no. The weak economy is one reason. But the bigger issue is that despite their fiduciary duty as 401(k) plan sponsors, many employers don’t view their workers’ retirement security as their responsibility.

As the Mercer survey found, some 25% of employers, say that their workers bear the bulk of the responsibility for their own retirement saving. Not so coincidentally, nearly 50% of companies that halted their matches last year fell into this group.

Only 7% of companies see retirement security as mainly their responsibility, with the remaining 68% saying the duty is shared between workers and employer.

Washington may eventually try to apply some fixes for the 401(k). The Labor Department, for one, is expected to issue new rules for improved 401(k) fee disclosure. And the SEC is considering reforms for target-date fund marketing.

But even if those reforms are enacted, the big challenge remains: when it comes to building a retirement nest egg, you’re basically on your own. So if you’ve got a 401(k), max it out. And save outside your plan too.

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