40 Years Of 401(k)

Last year, 401(k) employee retirement savings plans hit a venerable milestone — the 40th anniversary of their creation.  401(k) plans were born during the Carter presidency, with the passage of the Revenue Act of 1978, which established Section 401 of the Internal Revenue Code.

stk27434sigThe language of the statute is the dense, definition-filled content that tax lawyers love, but the concept of the 401(k) is simple:  workers can salt pre-tax money away in protected funds and invest it, thereby enjoying some tax savings and having a vehicle to save for retirement.  Many employers offer 401(k) plans as a part of their benefit package and facilitate the program through payroll deductions.  According to the Investment Company Institute, in 2016 there were almost 555,000 401(k) plans in the U.S. and more than 55 million Americans were active participants.  The ICI also reports that, as of the end of the third quarter of 2018, 401(k) plans held $5.6 trillion in assets — up from $2.2 trillion in 2008 — and represented 19 percent of the total amount of U.S. retirement assets.

Some people raise questions about the 401(k) option, arguing that its availability has helped to produce the virtual disappearance of employer-funded pension plans, in which the employer totally funded the plan and, in many instance, provided the employee with a guaranteed retirement benefit.  I think that’s wishful thinking.  Even at the time the 1978 legislation was passed, many American companies were looking to cut costs, and guaranteed pension plans were disappearing into the mists of history.  Most of us have never worked for an employer that offered a true pension plan.  To be sure, 401(k) plans are based primarily on employee contributions, not employer largesse — although in many cases employers offer some kind of match to employee contributions.

Unless you’re an investment advisor who pines for the long-lost days of funded pension plans, though, you’re probably grateful that Congress was far-sighted enough to create the 401(k) option 40 years ago.  And it’s not hard to argue that 401(k) plans are, in some respects, superior to pension plans.  The 401(k) option gets the worker directly involved in her own retirement planning; employees have to elect to participate in the plan, after all, determine how their contributions will be invested, and then have their contribution withheld from their paychecks.  The 401(k) mechanism makes that as painless, relatively speaking, as withholding for federal and state taxes and Social Security contributions — because it comes out automatically, most people don’t notice it.  And then, after a few years, workers realize that they’ve actually made progress in starting to save for retirement, and for many people that realization opens the door to additional efforts to save, invest, and get ready for the retirement years.  The 401(k) option has made many Americans take personal responsibility for their own financial affairs, rather than relying on a company pension plan to do the trick.

And you can argue that 401(k)s have had a broader benefit, too.  So much automatic saving has to be invested somewhere — principally in the U.S. stock market.  In 1978 the Dow was well below 1,000; now it stands above 25,000.  No one would argue that 401(k) plans have been solely responsible for that run up, but there is no doubt that they have contributed to buy-side pressure that has helped to move the stock market averages upward, which has the incidental benefit of helping all of those 401(k) participants who’ve put their retirement savings into the market in the first place.

Happy anniversary, 401(k)!  Beneath that Tax Code jargon lurks an idea that has been helpful to millions of Americans.  I’d say we need to give credit where credit is due:  the 401(k) is one time when Congress did the job right.

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Dow And Up And Dow Again

I don’t know what’s harder to read about right now:  political news, or the stock market.

dreamstime_xl_29871962-customSince I don’t want to lose any readers, we shan’t be talking about political news.  But checking out what’s been going on in the stock market recently is equally stomach-churning.  October has been one of the worst months in the stock market in a very long time, generating talk that we’re in the midst of a dreaded “correction.”  Even after springing back up by more than 400 points yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is still down almost 6 percent this month, making it the worst month since August 2015.  The news for the S&P 500 has been even worse:  in October its down almost 8 percent, its worst month since May 2010.

And for those of us who aren’t working on Wall Street, the movements of the markets seem random and inexplicable.  Stock are down, then up, then down again — sometimes, all on the same day.  On Monday, the Dow surged upward, then plummeted, and ended up covering more than 900 points in its abrupt mood swing.  You read the reports on the markets that try to make sense of the movements — on Monday, for example, the stated culprit for the downturn was concerns about new trade actions with China, and on other bad days it’s those nefarious “profit takers” — and you really wonder if anybody knows why the markets move as they do.  And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, either:  after all, the markets are the sum of the actions of millions of individual investors, mutual funds, trading bots, institutional investors, portfolio traders, brokerage firms, foreign investors, and countless other actors.  It would be an unusual day, indeed, when all of the disparate participants in the market are motivated by the same news to take the same actions on the same day.

So, what’s a small investor to do?  I think the key is to not overreact, and to realize that investing in the market is supposed to be a long-term thing.  The little guy is never going to have the information the big players do and can’t plausibly time the market or anticipate the abrupt movements.  If you’re in the market long-term, don’t get distracted by the sickening plunges or the big climbs, because you’re really focused on what’s happening over the course of years.  And if you can’t take a long-term view, maybe you shouldn’t be in the markets at all.

Ignoring that stock market app on your phone helps, too.

The Dow Hits 20,000

Yesterday the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a new high, passing the 20,000 level.  The NASDAQ index and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index also are at all-time highs.

gomez3It’s an interesting milestone, and one that is very pleasing to the millions of Americans who have money invested in stocks or mutual funds.  Investment in the stock market — especially through managed mutual funds — is one way the average American can put money away for retirement and (we hope) earn a decent return on our savings.  Over its history the Dow has been pretty dependable in that regard, overcoming periodic drops and crashes and showing significant long-term increases both in absolute terms and on an inflation-adjusted basis.  That’s why, if you’re taking a long-term view, financial planners will tell you that the stock market is the best place to put your money.

These days, of course, there aren’t many alternatives for the average folks.  The interest rates on CDs are a pittance, and the returns offered by municipal bonds and corporate bonds that used to be the bedrock of retirement planning aren’t very attractive, either.  Investing in stocks in “emerging markets” seems pretty risky, too.  Those are all forces that help to explain why the stock market has been on a prolonged bull market run that has seen the Dow triple in value since it hit its low point in the dark days of March 2009.

Unfortunately, some Americans who might have shared in the Dow’s run-up got out of the market right as it hit its low point.  Gallup has determined that, in 2016, only 52 percent of Americans adults have investments in the stock market, down from the all-time high of 65 percent in 2007.  Obviously, many of those people bolted when the market crashed in 2008 and 2009 and they’ve never come back — perhaps because they are too afraid of another crash, or perhaps because they were so hurt economically by the Great Recession that they simply aren’t in a position to invest.  Those who rode out the sub-prime storm, kept their heads, and kept their investments benefited.  It’s a classic example of why anyone who invests in the stock market can’t try to time the market and has to take a long-term view that follows a long-term plan.

20,000 is an artificial milestone, of course, and we’ll no doubt see downturns in the future — but the stock market remains an important way for the average people to build their retirements and plan for the future.  For those who are in the market, 20,000 is a welcome number indeed.