Will Your Uncle Sam Be Dictating Your Retirement Funds?

by Joe Plemon on February 8, 2010

Senior Citizen Roast
Creative Commons License photo credit: batsignal

Have you been tracking the buzz that our government is considering the takeover of our retirement funds?

There has been talk since last fall,  but, according to Money Morning, this talk is leading to action.  In late January, both the U.S. Treasury Department and the Department of Labor announced plans to stage a public-comment period before implementing regulations that would require U.S. savers to invest portions of their 401(k) savings plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) into annuities or other “steady” payment streams backed by U.S. government bonds.

Can they do this?

Our 401(k) and IRA investments belong to us.  We invest them as we wish and live with the results.  Can our government dictate how these investments are made?  Evidently so.  I know that I have quit saying, “they would never do that.”

Why would they do this?

With spiraling national debt at $14 trillion and a projected deficit of $1.35 trillion for this year alone, politicians are looking for money.   Japan and China can no longer be counted on as dependable buyers of U. S. government debt, and the U. S. Federal Reserve is supposed to stop buying Treasury bonds.  So, as our administration scrambles for debt buyers, their eyes stop on the $3.6 trillion sitting in U.S. retirement plans, including 401(k) plans.

How can they justify it?

After reading the story in Money Morning and My Fox, I will try to condense the rationale our administration is considering.

We may be hearing something like this:  “Our current system is commonly called a  defined contribution plan, meaning the eventual retirement benefit is based on how much was contributed and how well those investments performed.  This system is different from the traditional defined benefit plan in which the retirement benefit is defined by salary history and years of service.  Most government retirees, all Social Security beneficiaries and recipients of traditional pensions receive defined benefit plans.”

The rationale continues: “Because of the volatility of the market, as evidenced by the recent downturn in which nearly every 401(k) and IRA lost value, our future retirees would be well served by putting a portion of their portfolio into an annuity type investment that will guarantee payouts, much like the defined pension plans of old.  One such type of investment would be a Government Bond.  Everyone wins under this scenario: future retirees have greater security and government has buyers for its debt.”

What do I think?

My first reaction is one of incredulity.  The issue is not what is best for future retirees; it is who gets to make that decision.  I am a big boy and able to live with my decisions, even if they don’t work out the way I like.  For my government to dictate what is best for me leaves a stench of socialism, if not communism.

The secondary issue is whether this intervention will actually benefit future retirees.  I would answer that one with this question, “Would you loan money to someone who is deeply in debt, on a spending frenzy, and cannot get credit elsewhere?”  I wouldn’t either.  When the same government that manages Social Security wants to manage my future retirement payouts in the form of Government bonds, I get really queasy.   Why?  Either the money won’t be there to pay me, or inflation will have outpaced the return of the bonds, making any future payout worth very little.

What can we do?

I started this post by asking if you had been tracking this story.  With the announcement that public comment periods are being planned before implementing regulations, the story is becoming fact.  We need to be vigilant about tracking it and speaking up when opportunities arise.  We can expect our government to frame the argument with innocuous language that will sound like they are watching out for our best interests, but will hide the downside of these changes.

Jesus once told his disciples, Mat 10:16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

It seems to me that we need lots of wisdom,  salted heavily with innocence, as we live among wolves.



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