Reinventing the 401(k) plan

RAccording to the Bureau of Labor Statistics around 29 percent of people with access to a 401(k) plan choose to not contribute to their plan.  In addition, The Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) reports that in 2015 around $92 billion was removed from 401(k) plans prior to retirement.   The combination of people refusing to contribute to their 401(k) plans and people taking premature contributions will result in many people with inadequate retirement income. The rules governing 401(k) plans need to be changed so that fewer people choose to forego making contributions and distributions prior to retirement are limited to a certain extent.

Current rules governing contributions to 401(k) plans provide significant financial advantages to workers who contribute.   The contributions are not subject to federal or state income tax in the year they are made.  Returns on investments are not taxed until retirement.   Many firms match or partially match employee contributions.   Many financial advisors believe that workers who fail to contribute, especially those at firms that provide an employee match, are irrational.  

There are several rational reasons why some workers forego contributions to 401(k) plans. Recently reported statistics indicate that around 40 percent of households do not have enough savings to cover a $400 bill.  A person without a basic emergency fund could be late on her mortgage or rent, unable to pay for a doctor or emergency room or fix a car.  A decision to place funds in a 401(k) plan that leads to late payments on bills will lead to late fees, a bad credit rating, higher borrowing costs and other adverse financial outcomes.   

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might result in a person selecting a 20-year student loan over a 10-year student loan.  Consider a married couple with $60,000 of combined student debt at a 5 percent interest rate.   Lifetime student debt payments are $19,000 lower if student debt is repaid in 10 years rather than 20 years.   Many student borrowers could only afford the shorter-term student loan by reducing 401(k) contributions.

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might force a person to take out a 30-year mortgage over a 15-year mortgage.   A person taking out a $400,000 30-year mortgage at 3.9 percent would have an outstanding balance of $257.000 after 15 years.   The 15-year mortgage would have been totally repaid, and in addition the borrower would have obtained a lower interest rate.  Again, many student borrowers can only afford the shorter-term mortgage by reducing 401(k) contributions.

In some states a person with assets in a 401(k) plan are not eligible for food stamps or Medicaid for nursing home expenses.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for food stamps.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for Medicaid nursing home expenses.   The underlying assumption behind such laws is the worker who comes upon bad times must deplete her retirement account prior to receiving any financial assistance from the government.

Many people retire early often because of the loss of a job or for health reasons.   People who retire early and have all of their funds in a 401(k) plan will be worse off than people who have saved both inside and outside their retirement plans both because early distributions from a 401(k) plan are subject to a 10 percent penalty and because distributions from conventional 401(k) plans are fully taxed.

Many older workers must choose between paying off their mortgage prior to retirement or increasing the amount of funds they place in their 401(k) plan.   Financial planners tend to favor additional accumulation in 401(k) plans over more rapid paydown of mortgage debt.  This choice often fails to work out well because people with a mortgage in retirement must, all else equal, make a larger distribution than people without mortgage obligations and the entire distribution from the conventional 401(k) plan is fully taxed.   The higher 401(k) distributions due to the need to make mortgage payments is especially difficult for retirees when a market downturn occurs at the beginning of retirement.

A household that is 401(k) rich and cash poor faces substantial financial risks.  Some households with 401(k) wealth but other financial needs raid their 401(k) plan and pay a 10 percent penalty in addition to tax on their early distribution leading to inadequate funds in retirement.  These problems could be reduced by changing the rules governing distributions from a 401(k) plan.  

Three rules should be modified.  First, workers should be allowed to withdraw 30 percent of funds contributed to a 401(k) plan without financial penalty.   Second, the worker should be prohibited from withdrawing any other funds from the 401(k) plan (the other 70 percent of contributions and all returns if any) until after age 59 ½.   Third, loans from 401(k) plans would be prohibited.

This combination of rule changes incentivizes workers to make additional contributions to their 401(k) plan while assuring that they do not raid their account prior to retirement.  

The provision for penalty-free withdrawal creates an emergency fund inside a 401(k) plan.  The provision for penalty-free withdrawal will allow a worker with student debt or mortgage debt to pursue a more aggressive repayment strategy while simultaneously saving for retirement.

Under current law, workers are allowed to distribute their entire 401(k) account prior to retirement.  This outcome could be forced upon a worker who loses his job in order to obtain Medicaid or food-stamp benefits.   The new rule by prohibiting most distributions prior to retirement will leave all workers with most funds in their 401(k) funds at retirement.

A final advantage of the rule change is that it allows more workers to reduce their tax obligations in retirement.   Under current tax rules, contributions to 401(k) plans result in tax savings in working years and higher tax obligations in retirement.   Some taxpayers use Roth accounts to minimize future tax obligations.  The new rules create a simpler way for workers to minimize their tax obligation in retirement. They can simply transfer 30 percent of their funds outside of their 401(k) account and purchase either stock, which is taxed at long term capital gains rates or an inflation linked Treasury bond, which is taxed at preferential rates.

The current 401(k) rules are not working for a lot of people, especially people with limited liquidity and large debts in relation to their income.   The proposals presented here provides incentives for people who can’t contribute to start savings and also helps current savers reduce their tax obligations in retirement.  

David Bernstein is an economist living in Colorado.   He is the author of a policy primer on student debt, health care, and retirement income titled “Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World.”

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