In April, LIMRA, a think-tank for the financial industry, completed a survey intended to focus on the savings and investment preferences of those living and working in the United States. After receiving responses from 2,697 Americans, a representative sample of the country, LIMRA was able to determine that 49 percent of the country is not saving for retirement. Additionally, more than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34, at 56 percent, are not saving for retirement.
Saving for retirement — and receiving the associated tax benefits through typical investment types like 401(k) plans and IRAs — requires a public trust in the financial industry. On one side, financial planners, investment salespeople and brokers, columnists, and bloggers are encouraging the use of financial products that, through both apparent and hidden fees, enriches the industry, while on the other side, investment firms are the beneficiaries of massive taxpayer bailouts and frequently in the news for using taxpayer money for paying their executives bonuses that defy the laws of gravity.
It may be true that the reason many Americans do not save for retirement is ignorance. There are typical excuses for not saving for retirement, such as the lack of good, seemingly trustworthy information about the options that are available, the lack of knowledge about the benefits of investing in 401(k) plans and IRAs, or the belief that during tight personal economic times, not a cent is available to save for the future. After the recession, however, many people just see the financial industry as unworthy of trust. Organizations like LIMRA, working for the industry and promoting financial products, are unlikely to bring this attitude to the public attention.
The industry is more interested in shaming people unwilling to get on the boats rather than analyzing the leadership capabilities and trustworthiness of the boats’ captains.
I’m saving for retirement with 401(k) plans and IRAs. When possible, I choose plans that have low fees, but the choice is not always up to me. Employees may be able to choose from a selection of investments inside their 401(k) plan, employees can’t choose their company’s 401(k) administrator and broker without a coordinated effort among a large portion of employees. That would be nearly impossible in a large company. Unions are intended to solve some of these issues, but it can often reach the point where being a member of a large union is much like working for a large employer. The power of any individual is limited.
The 401(k) is ingenious for the financial industry, particularly now that it’s automatic. In a perfect world, every single employee is enrolled in a 401(k) plan on their first day on their first job. The investments may not perform well over time, but that’s not particularly relevant for the financial industry. As long as every American is investing a portion of their paycheck every week, two weeks, month, or other period, 401(k) administrators and brokers will continue to thrive. The employee probably benefits when retirement approaches, but that is by no means guaranteed. All you need to do is look at the portion of Americans who planned to retire in recent years but saw their nest eggs trampled on during the recession.
Investors bear the responsibility for changing their risk profile as they near their planned retirement, but there is a mixed message. The financial industry says you need to stay invested in stocks (highly volatile, highly risky) as you approach retirement because most people need their funds to last several decades throughout retirement while at the same time warning people to risk only what they can afford to lose. When people receive conflicting information, making decisions becomes more difficult. And when the conflicting information is coming from the same source — that is, the financial industry — the default reaction is the lack of trust.
Does the financial industry wants to do American citizens a favor by providing options for saving for retirement? No. The financial industry wants its companies to not only stay in business but to profit as much as possible. And to that end, it sells products — investment opportunities — designed to enrich the companies and their shareholders. There’s nothing wrong with this, because consumers will only buy products they need or desire enough. Companies will sell towards that need. And when only half of Americans have discovered retirement savings vehicles like 401(k) plans and IRAs, the industry will resign itself to doing a better job in explaining to the country why their products are needs, not wants.
Saving for retirement is important. For most people, stocks are the only investment type that can grow wealth quickly enough to provide the dream retirement so impressed upon Americans through media. It’s risky, as recent would-be retirees have seen. Thanks to the cognitive dissonance resulting in the understanding that the promotion of retirement is a result of the financial industry trying to increase profits on a large scale rather than corporate concern for the well-being of a nation and the knowledge that Americans must do something drastic to save money in order to fulfill the dream of quitting work, some Americans choose to invest while others would sooner give away their firstborn rather than drink the financial industry’s Kool-Aid.
LIMRA may be right — that most people who do not invest for retirement with 401(k) plans and IRAs have not done so because the industry’s message hasn’t successfully penetrated their consciousness. That may be due in part to a lack of education, but for others, it’s a lack of faith and trust in the industry.
Published or updated May 14, 2012.